Tom Shipka (2015)
Religious people often refer to faith as a precious gift from God which they cherish. (1) But what exactly is this gift called faith? And is it really precious? According to Webster’s dictionary, faith is “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” (2) By contrast, knowledge is belief in something for which there is proof. Thus, if you believe in the parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the resurrection, and heaven and hell, you have faith, and if you believe that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, that smoking cigarettes is harmful to a person, that regular exercise is helpful to a person, that there are over seven billion humans today on the planet earth, and that you should stop when a traffic signal is red, you have knowledge. Faith is the foundation of religion while reason and science are the foundation of knowledge.
Having said this, let’s acknowledge, however, that faith does play a role in science. A scientist often embraces a belief without proof tentatively as a hypothesis, sometimes based on a mere hunch, to test whether it is supported by evidence. If the hypothesis turns out to be confirmed by the evidence, he or she then publishes the results of the research to peers so that they can evaluate the validity of the test and duplicate its findings. This type of provisional “faith” is markedly different from that exhibited in religion where believers typically embrace a belief as a certainty with no intent (or even possibility) to test it as scientists do.
While faith is held in high regard by tens of millions of Americans, the fact is that once we endorse faith, once we authorize people to believe without proof, we open a Pandora’s Box, (3) for faith takes people down many different paths, including harmful and destructive ones. Consider a few representative examples from Christianity and Islam in today’s world (4):
*Some Christians, following a passage in the Epistle of James (5:14), rely exclusively on prayer and never on doctors, to heal the sick. This results in the avoidable death of hundreds, if not thousands, in the U.S. every year, especially children;
*Some Christians, believing that God directs them to stop abortions at any cost, murder employees and patients at women’s clinics; (5)
*Some Muslims, following passages in the Qur’an (Sura 4:76 and Sura 8:12) and the Hadith (Muslim 1:20), the teachings and deeds of the prophet Muhammed, seek to murder non-Muslims - infidels - even at the cost of their own lives, resulting in violent attacks around the world; (6) and
*In many majority-Muslim nations, Sharia, a legal system based on the Qur’an and the Haddith, provides that the rape of a woman can be proven only by admission of the rapist or the testimony of four male witnesses. (7) The victim’s testimony is inadmissible. Further, Sharia also provides that a man determined to be a rapist need only pay his victim a fee and, remarkably, that a woman whose claim of rape is not corroborated by the rapist or four witnesses is subject to punishment as a fornicator or adulterer. (8)
As bad as these expressions of faith are, the situation could be worse. This is because the faithful often cherry-pick scriptures and religious teachings. For instance, if Christians followed the Bible to the letter,
*They would own slaves (Leviticus 25:44-46, Ephesians 6:5); (9)
*They would murder homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), unruly children (Exodus 21:15, Exodus 21:17), non-virgin brides (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), and adulterers (Deuteronomy 22:22-24); (10) and
*They would condemn divorce (Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:18) and tattoos (Leviticus 19:28). (11)
So, what is the lesson here? It’s the same lesson taught in the 19th century by W.K. Clifford, a British mathematician. (12) Recognizing that our beliefs translate into actions which can cause harm to ourselves and others, Clifford insisted that we acquire proof – what he called “sufficient evidence” – before we embrace and act upon a belief. For Clifford, this requires the path of reason and science, not the path of faith. In essence, Clifford warns that the path of faith is a dead end – literally and figuratively.
I have little hope that a majority of humans near or far will heed Clifford’s warning any time soon. Those who believe that they speak and act on the commands of Christianity’s God or Islam’s Allah or some other god, or their messenger, will obey those commands at any cost. The proof that reason demands is irrelevant to them.
1.Many Christians whom I know tell me that their faith prompts them to support their church, pay their debts, obey the law, respect others, engage in prayer and forgiveness, give to charity, retain hope in the face of illness and setbacks, and do volunteer work in the community. Further, many believers insist that faith in divine justice in the hereafter is essential to a moral life on earth and that faith in God’s power and love can cure addiction, crime, and violence. On the issue of whether religion is indispensable to moral behavior in a society, see Phil Zuckerman, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, New York University Press, 2008. This study of Denmark and Sweden, where most people are atheist or agnostic, shows that violent crime is very low and overall societal health is very high compared to religious nations such as the United States.
2.Webster’s Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 418.
3.According to an ancient Greek myth, the gods bestowed gifts upon the beautiful Pandora in a box but instructed her never to open it. When her curiosity won out, however, she opened the box only to discover to her shock that she unleashed illnesses and hardships galore upon the human race.
4.The focus here is contemporary faith-based beliefs. Poignant examples are available from the past, including the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, persecution of Jews by Christians in Europe, human sacrifice in South America, etc.
5.Other examples from Christianity include these. Some Christians, following Proverbs 22:15, beat their children, and in many Christian families, following Ephesians 5:22-24, wives are subservient to their husbands;
6.The Qur’an says: “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them” (Sura 8:12) and “The true believers fight for the cause of God, but the infidels fight for the devil. Fight then against the friends of Satan.” (Sura 4:76) Also, the Hadith says: “The Messenger of Allah said: I have been commanded to fight against people so long as they do not declare that there is no God but Allah.” (Muslim 1:30)
7.Needless to say, if they witnessed the rape, they were complicit in it.
8.Other examples from Islam include the following: In many majority-Muslim nations, Sharia forbids criticism of Islam, and calls for jail, torture, or death for those deemed apostates or heretics; Saudi Arabia, a wealthy Muslim nation, promotes Wahhabism, an extreme form of Islam, and sponsors madrassas around the world, “schools,” which often exclude girls and where the curriculum consists mainly of memorizing the Qur’an and studying Islam; and violence periodically breaks out in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia Muslims who consider one another heretics.
9.The Qur’an also permits the owning of slaves. See Sura 5:89 and Sura 23:1.
10.Thus, the Christian county official in Kentucky who refused to sign marriage permits for same-sex couples in 2015 violated Biblical commands by doing too little.
11.Examples of faith-based nonsense in other countries include these: In at least three nations in Africa – Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea – the spread of Ebola is fueled by family members and friends washing and dressing the body of the deceased and mourners at the funeral touching it to make sure that the dead don’t return to haunt the living; in India, where believers take their own religion as superior to others, violence regularly breaks out among Hindus, Christians, and Muslims; and following Hindu tradition, some women whose husbands die choose to immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre even if they have young children.
12.See W.K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” Contemporary Review, 1877.