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Bad Philosophy And The Problem of Faith

14 May 2012, 12:01
I wonder, at times with frustration, why it is that the most frequently asked question, with regards to religion, is about whether or not god exists. Although I will argue against this intuition, I will admit that there is prima facie importance to the question. ‘If god exists, then (perhaps) religious belief can be justified’, or to the opposite effect, ‘If goes does not exist, then religious belief cannot be justified’. But I find that the only intellectually respectable position to these questions is skepticism (or agnosticism). It is not, I think, that arguments for and against are equally valid, but it is, to my mind, that both kinds of arguments remain inconclusive.

Not only do I consider most of the common arguments to be inconclusive, but I also consider them – largely speaking – to be unconvincing. Reading about other people’s opinions on this matter is transformed into a mundane tour of bad reasoning: this, though, should not warrant my concern. What does, however, is that I feel that such arguments distract from what really matters. They cause people to shy away from the important questions, and satisfy themselves with undue certainty derived from the trinkets of pedestrian philosophy.

Suppose that (taking my inspiration from the first-cause argument, the fine-tuning argument, the argument from design, and the argument from morality) it is conceded that the following must be true: There is an entity/substance which created the universe, and calibrated it so finely that we may assume it is creatively intelligent. This intelligent creator designed the universe, and planet earth, for some purpose – and took special care to create and design life on earth, particularly with humanity in mind. It is self evident, further, that good and evil exists, and such good and evil (as platonic forms, I presume) could not exist if the aforementioned designer did not exist. This intelligent designer must be, we can infer, supernatural, eternal, incredibly powerful and wise, and he must be incredibly benevolent to have created everything with humanity in mind. It is this first cause, all good, all powerful, all knowing, supernatural, eternal entity/substance which we will call ‘god’.

This god, which I will call ‘the god of philosophy’, however, is not (at least, logically speaking, necessarily also) the ‘god of religion’. Most people care about, for one reason or another, the ‘god of religion’, and most people think that this god authored, or inspired someone to author, one of our books. But since there is no logical connection between the god of philosophy and the god of religion, there is, in no real sense, a point in debating about whether or not the god of philosophy exists.

Most people do not merely want there to be some purpose to existence, for this is strictly speaking a mere matter of ontology, but people actually wish to know what that purpose is. It is not enough that there are some good and evil things, but people wish to know what those things actually are – i.e. people want to know how exactly to behave, not that there is, ontologically speaking, a right way to behave. People do not only hope that god is ‘good’, but they hope that ‘goodness’ means that god (at least occasionally) answers prayers and cares about the world. It is not enough to know that there is some supernatural and eternal realm of existence; people want it to be the case that they (generally as souls or spirits) will – after death – go to this realm, and live there, forever. These things, which really matter to people, are precisely those things which the god of philosophy cannot give you.

The god of philosophy is consistent (if the right faith-based assumptions are made) with any religion, and indeed any brand of theism (monotheism or polytheism), and for this reason alone, even if these arguments are taken to work, do not advance the case for any particular religion one bit. Now, I should not assume that every religious person espousing such arguments believes that they are doing a service to their god particularly – but some do. To those people I can only say that you are mistaken, and one should not need a degree in philosophy to understand why.

There is, I can report, an interesting conversation to be had with regards to the philosophy of religion (which has developed such arguments), and we might decide to debate each other (probably never reaching a conclusion) about these things. But this conversation should not distract us from what matters. I am frustrated because I see that it tends to.

I am frustrated because invoking these arguments represents a failure to grapple with the real reasons why religion is under attack. Religion, or more generally faith-based thinking, receives criticism because such modes of belief often have dire consequences for society. We have to realize that some people believe particular things about the world that result in harm. And many such beliefs are the result of faith and an obsession with ancient (and poorly written) fiction. It is that we allow faith-based thinking to be exempt from criticism that these beliefs (which admittedly often take forms that are not explicitly ‘religious’) flourish – and by their flourishing their potential for destruction is increased. It is precisely this kind of nonsense that well meaning people, whatever else they believe, must repudiate. This, however, is something that the religious cannot muster. So it is not unfairly that I mention, that those who are (even if merely moderately) religious, and who defend religion, are, also, the enemy of a freer and safer world.

The religious fail in this simple task because of two things. Firstly, they, personally, require faith to believe in their religion, and because they regard their religion as good, they cannot also see faith as something negative. Secondly, the religious fail to empathize with people of different beliefs and values. The religious fail to realize that the obviousness with which they regard the maxim ‘love god and thy neighbor’ is exactly of the same quality as how others may regard the maxim ‘kill the unbeliever for it is god’s will’.

But, if it is granted that the religious require faith in order to believe in their religion, then the following is clearly the case. Even if the arguments for the god of philosophy are valid (which I doubt they are); real religion (the religion that matters to people, which give them guidelines or rules for behavior, and a ‘purpose’ for life, the religion which animates people to behave in particular ways) is not typically derived from it. Real religion is derived from faith, and it is for this reason that those who are ‘really religious’ (who have the ‘true’ religion) cannot accept that faith is the problem.

Since they cannot, or will not, accept that faith is the problem they will be tempted, in quite fantastic ways, to steer the argument elsewhere (I am thinking, particularly, about an article titled “The Guinea Worm – Atheist Propaganda” – one has not seen the wonders of the mind until they have witnessed the mental gymnastics it must have taken to believe that there was an acceptable argument in that article). But the problem, so I think, can be formulated in two ways – one strong and one weak. If it is accepted that we ought to make judgments about what we can and do know, and that it is not advised that we make judgments about what we cannot or do not know, then the problem of faith is either that: faith is an unreliable way to gain knowledge (weak), or that faith is an illegitimate way to gain knowledge (strong). This is as clear a problem as one might find, but it is so often ignored.

Although I maintain that faith does not bring us to knowledge, I won’t deny that faith can drive belief – and from the vast diversity of religion I would add, belief in nearly anything. Faith gives people certainty in things that no human can truly be certain about, and it is a logical extension of such certainty that actions are committed as a result. Often, such certainty will bring misery to the world; and where such misery is otherwise preventable, it should be prevented.

Now, whether or not the god of philosophy exists, what I have written above is still valid. And although I am not the final arbiter on ‘which questions matter’, I think that I have presented some salient issues. I have dealt, previously, with the harm that religion does, and also with why it is an illegitimate response to invoke one’s own conception of ‘true religion’. I have, thus far, also dealt with why it essentially shouldn’t matter (perhaps, except for esoteric academic interests) whether or not the god of philosophy exists. Our chief concern should be about faith and the consequences of beliefs.

Further, I will concede that not everything that arises from faith causes harm. There are some good things about religion; for example, the personal comfort and sense of community, the feeling of purpose and the sense of spiritual growth that may result from it. It serves, in some sense, as a moral guide too. It should not be thought that these things nullify the harm that it does – however, I find it fruitless to do the balance sheet calculations of ‘good and bad consequences’.

We should rather, I think, ask whether or not we need to valorize faith – the ability to believe propositions for no reason – in order to achieve what is good in religion, and I am convinced that we do not. We need not accept anything on insufficient evidence to experience what is of value in this world. Nor must we defer to ancient texts in order to learn how to behave towards one another. Faith and the deference to scripture have often had the opposite result – this is not something to be ignored or obfuscated by bad philosophy.

I often have to bite my tongue when I read that people think that it, “doesn’t matter what you believe”, and that people should, “believe whatever they want”. Such advice, were it taken literally, would result in ruin. But, I have to admit, that if the religious only believed in the god of philosophy, then that truly would be an example of an innocuous belief. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Unfortunately, faith-based thinking has led our world, in many cases, to disaster. We must deal with this problem if we are to make things better. The god of philosophy can do little more in this task than to immobilize our minds by drawing attention away from what is actually important.
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