Long Read Opinion

Who needs faith?

Written by Tristan Jacquel

Editor: as with all our articles, the views presented here are the views of the writer and are not necessarily the views of our editors or of George Heriot’s School.

I have faith that you are already familiar with the concept of faith: it is so prevalent in society, as it has been for millennia, that most of us become familiar with its ideas at an exceedingly young age. I would posit that we are at least somewhat familiar with the idea of faith before we even enter formal education – while we may not at this point have a proper understanding of it, we are aware of faith and its repercussions.

What exactly is faith?

It can come in many forms and it would be remiss of me to attempt to cover all of them in a mere article, so I have chosen to discuss the following:

faith [ feyth ]

1. belief that is not based on proof:

2. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion:

Dictionary.com

To consider these two definitions, I believe it best to begin with the first and see how it applies to the second. However, there is yet more we need to clarify before diving into this: what is belief?

belief [ bih-leef ]

1. confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof:

Dictionary.com

While any discussion involving ‘meta’ concepts will require an acceptance of a certain definition or characterisation of said concepts, this one is particularly important given that there is very little consensus regarding faith. Given this, I shall from now on be referring to the preceding (and other similar) definitions.

With these two relevant terms at least somewhat clarified, we should now consider our initial question: who needs faith?

I would argue the initial interpretation of faith is not necessary in the slightest. The obvious retort to this would be to bring up examples of fairies and unicorns: mythical creatures that we cannot be positively certain of their nonexistence. This however is only true if one were to grossly limit their interpretation of ‘proof’ while, normally used in reference to an absolute truth, such as in mathematics, ‘proof’ can also refer to a reasonable demonstration of a fact.

Take gravity as an example, a simple proof involves dropping something. But this is not a positively definite demonstration. There could be other governing laws causing objects to fall. However, it is a reasonable conclusion based on this observation and others (such as those of black holes, solar systems, planets etc.) that gravity therefore exists as a universal force.

If we were to take a similar approach to unicorns and fairies, we would find that there is no supporting evidence for their existence. Here is where we introduce another concept of proof: claims require evidence to be accepted, not to be dismissed. That is, if I said I had ESP, I would have to demonstrate my abilities to an extent that reasonably proves that I do, evidence to refute my claim is only required if there is already supporting evidence for said claim. It would be ridiculous for me to say “I know your thoughts and unless you can prove otherwise that means I do.”

These examples illustrate this point clearly, our belief systems can be subject to evidence and proof whilst remaining firm in their stance. They are founded in evidence and therefore are not really based in faith.

Even the phrase “take it on faith” and our responses to it are based on evidence, I would not “take it on faith” that a shady ‘bank/investor’ could afford me 200% interest per anum. I would research the bank and their results and their history etc. This would bring me to a decision to perhaps not throw money into a pit. Equally, when I “take it on faith” that my friend will get me home safely after a night out, this is evidence-based too: I realise that my friend’s behaviour indicates they trust me and are themselves trustworthy and responsible.

Faith is not required here.

But perhaps the second facet of faith is more compelling. To consider religious faith, we should begin by asking why ‘faith’? As in, why use the word ‘faith’ when referring to religion: better yet, why is there a consistent use of uncertain terminology. ‘Belief’, ‘faith’, ‘trust’ are all ideas revolving around an uncertainty which we decide to treat in a certain manner, often without any particular evidential basis.

So this sets up religious faith to be in a rather poor position: it is essentially faith with the normal absence of evidence, but is of the highest possible consequence, as it informs all our actions in day-to-day life. I would say that this essentially nullifies the truth claims made under the guise of religious faith, so we are essentially left with one question: does the social utility of faith outweigh its high potential to mislead? We will therefore be weighing up whether religion has a social utility which justifies its likelihood of being false.

In simpler terms, is religion and religious faith a force for good?

To answer this, we need to consider two main questions:

  1. Does religion make people behave better?
  2. Is religion a net benefit to our wellbeing?

The first question is a simple no: several studies have shown no link between religiosity and moral behaviour. Furthermore, religious people describe themselves as being far more moral in spite of this, if anything, a compelling argument could be made for the inverse of this.

Religious extremism and persecution has persisted throughout history and religion has long been used to justify bigotry and prejudices. The genocide of the Canaanites, the crusades and the actions of extremist groups such as Al Quaeda and ISIS are all clear examples of religious harms done to society. Whilst these actions are mostly condemned by the majority of their respective religions, the fact remains that religion and its scriptures are often used in the justification of them.

Radicalisation is made so much easier when the extent of our inquiry is “have faith”. When faith becomes a justification for how you should live your life, the jump from that to how others should live their lives is far less significant.

To consider the second question we now have to consider all aspects of religion and weigh them up against the potential harms. However, I don’t believe it necessary to go into a detailed analysis of religion because the harms of religion are so clearly in excess of the benefits:

  • Religion is constantly in conflict with progress: their gods are supposed to be unchanging and perfect, after all.
  • Religions preach tolerance, but are used to justify bigotry, hatred and violence: they are used to further indoctrinate people into extremist views.
  • Religion comforts us and brings us together, but it similarly divides us more intensely than anything else.

For every positive aspect of religion, there is a corresponding negative aspect. Even if each positive-negative comparison falls on the side of religion being a positive influence, we still come up against the issue of truth: faith is not a reliable pathway to truth. Given this, why waste our time with faith, when we can employ evidence to prove our beliefs?

Never mind issues within things in which we “have faith”: faith destroys our critical thinking skills. It completely devalues the scientific method of employing evidence to reach conclusions.

And yet society as a whole seems to value this faith construct: with calling people “men and women of faith” being considered an unequivocal compliment.

In the era of science we still value the explicit rejection of scientific principles. Not only this, but it also goes against basic epistemological principles, which have existed for millennia: principles which philosophers have long corroborated upon. Primarily, both science and epistemology agree that evidence leads to truth, not faith.

If we wish to truly progress as a species, without risk of falling back into our old warring and irrational ways, then we must abandon faith.

So, who needs faith?

I don’t, nor do you, nor does anyone.

About the author

Tristan Jacquel

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