Elizabeth Silver went to the Atheist Convention and left thinking about the issues she has with the idea of faith. She has decided that in religious usage it conflates two notions: belief and loyalty. But, she argues, belief is better served by a different partnership:
One evening during the Global Atheist Convention, I watched an atheist interview a remarkably intelligent and nuanced Christian (I didn’t catch his name, alas; for these purposes I’ll call him Mr Christian) for a short web video. I asked a couple of questions myself. One of the topics hit, I think, the crux of why religion appears so nutty to atheists.
Mr. Christian said that God would never clearly demonstrate his existence, because if He were to do so, He would compromise people’s moral autonomy to choose their beliefs.
Let’s leave aside the fact that Jesus ostensibly performed plenty of miracles, which were presented in the gospels as conclusive proofs of God’s existence.
The issue here is, simply, the virtue of faith. Many religious people see belief in God as a virtue in and of itself, even (or especially) when that faith is not supported by clear evidence. Requiring proof somehow cheapens the virtue, and expecting God to provide evidence is cheapest of all (cf. Doubting Thomas). By contrast, atheists do not attach any kind of moral virtue to belief; they may believe things that are not adequately supported by evidence (e.g. the complete absence of divine purpose, etc.), but this doesn’t make them better people, and ideally they’d prefer to have evidence for all their beliefs. As an atheist, I do not hold belief to be a virtue; it just seems nutty to me. So I’m interested in why religious people see belief as a virtue.
Why is faith a virtue?
I’m familiar with this moral stance; my mother held it while I was growing up. Mum (a Catholic, at that time) sometimes disparaged my father (an atheist) because “your Dad doesn’t believe in anything he can’t see.” This is clearly false (although it was not clear to me at the time); Dad, and I, and everyone else believe in lots of things we can’t see, like electrons. The point was, though, that proof somehow cheapened belief, and that belief itself was good. There’s a variation on this pattern in children’s stories, where children are often required to believe in magic in order to be good children (and for the magic to work).
This is the attitude Mum held, and to a certain extent instilled in me. Although I was an agnostic throughout high school, I still wanted to believe. I wanted God to be real. I also wanted unicorns to be real, but I suppose that was an unavoidable side effect.
I no longer hold that belief is a good in and of itself, nor that proof cheapens belief. In my first year of university, I developed such a love of truth that I now see only one way in which a belief can be good or bad: it is good if it is true, and bad if it is false. (There are added nuances about relevance and usefulness, but I think they’re side issues. Religious belief may be useful – it may make some people happier – but that won’t explain why belief is seen as a virtue.) I will not confer any additional moral evaluation of a person’s beliefs. In fact, when I say a belief is “good”, I do not mean morally good, or that the person holding it is morally good.
Whether the believer is good (or wise) for believing something to be true depends entirely on how the believer arrived at her beliefs. The belief itself is good because it is true, and truth is good. I take this as an axiom.
I have a strong intuition about why religion holds faith to be a virtue, but I have nothing but linguistic evidence for it, so I’ll just discuss it here, and I’d like to hear your opinions in the comments.
My intuition is this: there are two senses of the word faith. One means belief (i.e. what you think you know), and the other means loyalty. I think religion conflates (i.e. combines, collapses into a single construct) these two very different concepts. From now on I’ll use the words “belief” and “loyalty” when I want to draw those senses apart, and omit the word “faith” unless I want to refer to the conflation that occurs in religion. Please note that I’m not trying to talk about different kinds of faith, or divide them into two different kinds; there are infinitely many kinds of faith that people feel, and it would be sheer hubris for an atheist to try to categorise them. I’m just talking about two different senses of the word.
Loyalty may be a real virtue; it certainly helps to build trust between people, and trust can produce wonderful social benefits. However, none of us would wish to place our loyalty unwisely, by following false (or wicked) friends (or gods). For the moment I’ll assume that if given wisely, loyalty can be a powerful resource for good. Even if I don’t assume that, I can assume the weaker point that human societies value loyalty highly and instinctively. This goes back to tribalism and is easily demonstrated by in-group/out-group effects.
It appears to me that whenever faith is seen as a virtue in and of itself, which is cheapened by proof, it’s because we’re talking about loyalty. To be truly loyal, you should maintain your allegiance regardless of the evidence for or against your liege (though evidence against may invalidate the “if given wisely” clause, rendering the loyalty useless). It’s easy to act loyal to someone who pays you, like a boss; harder to be loyal to someone who treats you like you don’t exist. So loyalty is (perhaps) a virtue, and it is definitely stronger when you have less reason to apply it.
The trouble is belief is good when it’s true, and it has the best chance of being true when we have evidence to support it. I would not demonstrate virtue by believing the sky to be pink (or anything else that flies in the face of evidence, or is simply unsupported, like the existence of Russell’s teapot). So the apparent contradiction of “faith without evidence, or in the face of evidence, is the highest virtue” is really just a confusion of belief with loyalty. Once you disentangle these two concepts, you can realise that it is ridiculous to condemn people for their disloyalty to false, contradictory, or unsupported ideas. We may value loyalty to people or organisations, but there’s no reason to give our loyalty to beliefs; we believe them if they’re true and if they’re not, we don’t. There is no reason to devalue the pursuit of evidence.
Belief as loyalty, and loyalty to belief
However, when you have a personal relationship with God, your very belief in Him defines a person for you to be loyal to. Disbelief is suddenly a betrayal. Furthermore, even outside the context of religion, we often use beliefs as markers for membership in a particular group and/or loyalty to a particular leader. Examples: Catholics are fellows with one another and they are loyal to the Pope. By contrast, I wouldn’t feel much fellowship with a George-Bush-supporting-climate-change-denialist. The use of beliefs as membership cards allows the word “faith” to conflate loyalty with belief. It allows “faith in the face of evidence” to be a virtue, because what it really means is, “they’re on our side”.
This is why it is so important for atheists to create social bonds of fellowship between groups of different beliefs, to take the emphasis off loyalty (because in such a scenario, we’d all get along anyway) and put it back onto knowledge and belief. That is the only way to make “faith in the face of evidence” appear as ridiculous as I think it is.
Elizabeth Silver is a graduate of the University of Melbourne, a research assistant at Latrobe University’s Statistical Cognition Laboratory, and a tutor in bioethics at Monash University, who’s about to start her PhD in philosophy of science at either the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University.