Saturday, April 04, 2009

Faith, Reason, and Justifications for Harm

In a moral context, I have nothing good to say about faith.

When it comes to making the claim, "You deserve to suffer harm," the person to be harmed has a right to ask what reason exists to do that harm.

The answer, "I have no reason to harm you, but I have faith that you deserve to suffer nonetheless," simply is not good enough. When a person to be harmed asks what the reasons are, those reasons need to be real and demonstratable.

I see a great deal of similarity between somebody who will fly an airplane into a sky scraper in the name of God (driven by his faith), and a person who will vote against stem cell research or to ban homosexual marriage (driven by his faith). Both do harm to others. Both do it because they claim that God told them so. Both are driven by faith and are beyond the reach of reason.

The latter - the person who supports a ban on stem cell research or homosexual marriage - is even the more deadly of the two. The costs of a prohibition on stem-cell research, in terms of lives lost and monetary costs, easily exceeds the costs of 9/11.

To make matters worse, while these people do not consider it wrong to support legislation harmful to others - that, in some instances, gets people killed - they insist that it is wrong to question their faith. Getting people killed - that's okay. Questioning the faith that gets people killed - that's prohibited.

I bring this up because a member of the studio audience brought up the issue of faith.

Many theists claim that faith in god or a supernatural force is the same as having faith that say, the earth revolves around the sun, or that there are other galaxies out there trillions of miles away. My thoughts are that I do have a sort of faith in other people. Scientists, doctors and other people who HAVE the means by which to find out this information. I have to say that having faith in another person is much different than having faith in something supernatural.

Convicting a person of a crime on the basis of scientific evidence (to use one example), as opposed to convicting him on the basis of an evidence-free "faith" that he is guilty, is not the same thing.

I have no faith in science. Science earns my respect through its ability to predict the future. It earns my respect because it can tell me that a particular medical procedure will decrease the odds that a cancer will be fatal, because it can tell me when a hurricane will hit, because it can tell me how to build a sky scraper that can withstand an earthquake, because it can tell me what to do to prevent the spread of disease.

And when the scientist makes these claims, she can back them up. The percentage of patients who die of that type of cancer actually goes down, the hurricane goes where predicted, the sky scraper remains standing during the earthquake, and small pox and polio disappear (or nearly so) from the face of the earth.

Religion requires faith precisely because it cannot produce these types of results.

Religious people tell us that prayer in school provides protection against terrorist attacks, and that laws against abortion will prevent a city from being hit by a hurricane. However, they have never been able to provide any demonstrable evidence that this is the case. If they could, then variables such as "number of abortion clinics in an area" would turn out as a significant variable in scientific equations predicting the course of hurricanes, in addition to ocean surface temperature, the location of various high and low pressure systems around the hurricane, and the spin of the earth.

Some instances that the defenders of faith attempt to count in their favor is simply a rational application of principles of probability.

I have no faith in my doctors. I do know that if I visit a doctor on getting the signs of some sort of malady that the probability that the malady will be fatal goes down. There is a reason why it goes down - because doctors, in general, have the best information on how to discover a particular malady and on what courses of action have (in scientific studies) demonstrated the best success rates against those maladies.

When I choose an option with a 10% chance of dying over one with a 50% chance of dying, I am not acting on faith. I am playing the odds.

A person's natural right to liberty gives them a right to act on faith - without any knowledge but with "certainty" in the results - if they so wish. Up to the point where their actions are harmful to others. Those who demand harm to others on the basis of faith clearly violate this principle. Those who also insist that it is insulting and wrong to question their faith-based claims that others may be harmed take this evil to an extreme.

20 comments:

Baconsbud said...

I am glad I have this on my reader. I haven't ever really thought about this point of view. I have to agree a lot of religious people do support actions which kill way more then any terrorist attacks have ever caused. I can see why they don't see it this way, since they can't see them in a very short time. If they had to really look at the numbers that some law they supported that harmed others doubt they would feel the same.

Tor Hershman said...

Moi's latest

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_m6qC6FCiY0

Anonymous said...

"I see a great deal of similarity between somebody who will fly an airplane into a sky scraper in the name of God (driven by his faith), and a person who will vote against stem cell research or to ban homosexual marriage (driven by his faith). Both do harm to others. Both do it because they claim that God told them so. Both are driven by faith and are beyond the reach of reason."

Of course, this whole post presupposes that people who oppose homosexual marriage or the use of human embryos in stem cell research neither have, nor offer, any reasons besides faith for their positions. Which is patently false.

Baconsbud said...

Anonymous I have to disagree that most that say they are against these thing have a reason besides religion. I can't say I have seen anything in the media that claims anything other then religion for why they are against these. If you know media sites that show other reasons for why people oppose these let me know.

Anonymous said...

Baconsbud,

If you aren't aware of reasons why people take these positions aside from faith, you need to get out more. For example:

Same-sex marriage:
http://www.marriagedebate.com/ssm.php

Embryonic stem-cell research:
http://stemcellresearch.org/

Granted, you could object to these sites on the grounds that they are biased, inaccurate, or otherwise wrong in some way. Maybe so, maybe no. I do not post them to demonstrate that these opinions are correct - just to show that faith is far from the only motivator.

The websites might have sound evidence, they might have flawed evidence, but there's no denying that it is evidence - not faith.

Eneasz said...

Anon - you need to learn to distinguish betweeen actual reasons, and bullshit excuses.

Opposition to stem-cell research and same-sex marriage have only two actual reasons: bigotry and faith. Everything else is a bullshit excuse to try to hide this fact, because even the most bigotted and faith-crazed people are aware of the fact that these are not considered good enough reasons to harm people by our society.

And before you protest, I call these things "bullshit excuses" not simply because the are wrong-headed or make a few mistakes. I call them that because even a cursory probing of the excuses by anyone with at least a 6th-grade education will cause all these excuses to implode. Catastrophically so. That fact that the excuses are so transparently flimsy and baseless reveals that they are nothing but a thin veil thrown up to distract people from the real motivations: bigotry and faith.

Coogan said...

Of course, this whole post presupposes that people who oppose homosexual marriage or the use of human embryos in stem cell research neither have, nor offer, any reasons besides faith for their positions. Which is patently false.

I was hoping to hear some of Anon's non-faith-based reasons. Alas, not. Apparently just a sockpuppet for someone else's opinion.

Anonymous said...

Eneasz, the only bullshit or hate I see around here is what you type.

Coogan, your complaint that I'm a sock puppet or something is completely unfounded. Again, I don't care where you fall on these issues. Just realize that in the real world support and opposition to them is more complex than the fairy tales you get on this site, and yes, among atheists and Christians, among Republicans and Democrats, you handful of commenters are among the only ones I know of who would say the only reasons for these positions are faith and bigotry.

What do you have to say about all this, Mr. Fyfe?

Anonymous said...

Eneasz, in an attempt to glean something of actual worth out of your last comment, suppose you enlighten us on what would constitute an actual reason for any of these positions?

Baconsbud said...

Anon all i saw and I will say I didn't see much is rewording things to make false claims that they aren't based on religion. I wasn't saying there weren't reasons beyond religion for being against either of these things. I said most not all. I do understand some scienitist are opposed to stem cell research for their own reason. I said the stuff I have seen has all been based on religion for oppsing these. I don't really care if you think I don't get out enough and since neither of these topics hold much interest for me,I don't waste much time on them. If that means I don't get out enough then I could say the same thing about most anyone then. I doubt you are involved heavily in all the different topics in the world.
I see you as the one with no life, since you are so worried about same sex marriages. Have you ever really thought about how little a same sex couple being married will really affect life. I find it funny so many believe it will cause the fall of different sex marriages. Is marriage that weak that it can't handle the same sex marriages. It is also funny how traditional this or that is thought to be so important. I doubt most that are claiming this or that is traditional, have never actually studied the history of that tradition. If I had a life I would provide links for some of these so called traditions.

Eneasz said...

Anon - I'll keep this brief.

I went to the anti-gay site you linked and checked out their brochures. 3 of the 4 gave religious reasons for their anti-gay stance (labeled: Jewish, Christian, and Catholic (incidentally, the Catholics may be surprised to discover they aren't christians)). The fourth one was labeled "Secular", so it's the only one I bothered to open. Their arguements:

1) The law will teach children that that a same-sex couple is not inferior to a mixed-sex couple.
Reply - Their argument is basically "the law will no longer support bigorty!".

2) Marriage is about ensuring children have 1 father and 1 mother. And to avoid the burden of a single-mom trying to raise kids alone.
Reply - No it isn't. If this was the case, sterile couples would not be allowed to marry. Those too old to have children wouldn't be able to marry. Once children are born, it would be illegal to divorce until they have reached the age of majority. All the observable facts about reality contradict this claim. What marriage is REALLY for is to bind together two adults who love each other.
To help alleviate the burden of single-motherhood (which is regretable but does happen) we have alimony/child support, and a plethora of social services including free schooling that is paid by society at large.

BTW - this is, as I said earlier, so obvious that even a 6th-grader can figure it out in a few minutes. That people cling to this joke of an argument betrays their desire to harm gays regardless of the lack of evidence.

3) Polygamy might be legalized some day!
Reply - As long as you're talking about consenting adults... so what?

4) Churches will be persecuted if we legalize gay marriage!
Reply - Not in any legal sense. We have a seperation of church and state in this country. At most they will be made to look like bigotted hate-mongers. Nobody complains when people condemn race-restricted churches, or holocaust-denying bishops, because everyone knows that this condemnation is justly deserved for the bigotry these people show. So basically this is an arguement of "Our right to be bigotted free from critisism will go away!"

5) Public schools will teach children that that a same-sex couple is not inferior to a mixed-sex couple.
Reply - see #1.

As for what would constitute an actual reason - how about some evidence that unless this minority is oppressed, bad things will happen to the rest of us? We take away some of the rights of criminals for a period of time, because letting them free would hurt the rest of us. We restrict some of the liberties of politicians, to reduce the likelyhood of corruption which would hurt the rest of us. We don't allow toxic waste to be dumped land that the producers of the waste owns, violating his property rights, because it would hurt the rest of us.

There is no such reason to oppose gay marriage. Or stem-cell research.

Anonymous said...

Eneasz, anybody familiar with political brochures knows they're virtually always heavily-abridged, diet versions of the arguments they're conveying, and therefore hardly the best indicator of any given position's intellectual weight (even so, a cursory glance at the brochure you're talking about reveals its arguments are a little more sophisticated than what you're describing, but I digress). Which is why I linked to a page full of more detailed, comprehensive arguments, like policy briefs, legal & political journal articles, Senate testimony, etc.

Again, I don't care what your position on gay marriage or embryo-destructive research is. That's not the point. The point (which these links prove) is that there exist reasons other than faith that lead people to take positions that differ from yours on these issues.

To deny this simple proposition is intellectually foolish and morally unacceptable.

Your comments show that you suffer from a widespread disease that infects many people these days: the belief, "My countryman differs with me on issue x, therefore he must be evil. He cannot possibly be acting in good faith."

I do not deny that some on the Right can show signs of this, but it is a disease that predominantly afflicts the Left. It betrays weak thinking, gross lack of perspective, and even a form of bigotry.

Eneasz said...

Anon -

Yes, I abridged the reasons given in the already-abridged brochure. That is because I have been down this road dozens of times already, and I know where it always ends up. I don't have hours to re-tread old ground, so I cut to the chase.

You say:
The point (which these links prove) is that there exist reasons other than faith that lead people to take positions that differ from yours on these issues.

That is a lie. Faith and/or bigotry are the only true reasons that exist that lead people to take these positions, and the rest is merely a flimsy covering.

OK, let me amend that. It is conceivable that there are some people so completely ignorant of real-world facts that they can be misled by the lies of others who would profit from oppressing a minority. I can't say how many people fall into this catagory. I hope it is not very many.

By way of example: using your definition of the term, there are "reasons other than faith" that lead people to believe the earth is flat. There are "reasons other than faith" that lead people to believe evolution is a grand conspiracy of scientists. There are "reasons other than faith" that lead people to believe that Jews are sub-humans that should be exterminated.

Your claim is flawed, because these "reasons other than faith" have nothing to do with reality. They are lies, bigotry, and ignorance. Such "reasons" are not reasons at all - they are bullshit excuses used to cover the fact that the true motivations for believing such things are reprehensible.

To be counted as a valid reason for believing something, there must be truth and evidence backing that reason. If you were to tell me you think quantum decoherence is more plausible than many-worlds, we could compare evidence and probabilities. If you were to tell me you think "god makes things fall" is more plausible than the theory of gravity, I would call you a fool and walk away. Which catagory do you think the gay-marriage debate falls into? Hint: what actual evidence do you have?

faithlessgod said...

Eneasz

Some good comments just a very minor quibble and this does not alter one iota the substance of your argument (and is really off topic) but decoherence made many-worlds more plausible.

Anonymous said...

That is a lie. Faith and/or bigotry are the only true reasons that exist that lead people to take these positions, and the rest is merely a flimsy covering.

OK, let me amend that. It is conceivable that there are some people so completely ignorant of real-world facts that they can be misled by the lies of others who would profit from oppressing a minority. I can't say how many people fall into this catagory. I hope it is not very many.

Anonymous said...

The above quote just proves my point about your weak thinking, arrogance, and painfully limited frame of reference.

Eneasz said...

Anon - if you have real arguments and actual evidence, I'm willing to listen. I haven't seen anything that passes the test of reasonable evidence yet, though.

Joshua McGee said...

When I choose an option with a 10% chance of dying over one with a 50% chance of dying, I am not acting on faith. I am playing the odds.Well, yes -- but so is someone taking Pascal's Wager.

Now, Pascal's Wager is an extremely flimsy argument when examined closely (Might a deity not consider someone's belief, grounded only on the probability of salvation, to be more offensive than non-belief, for instance?) But I have never seen an argument that effectively and completely renders Pascal's Wager always and for everyone unwise -- such an argument would require an absolute proof of the 0-probability of (that) deity's existence.

But, again, it's even more complicated than that:

10% chance of dying over one with a 50% chance of dying, I am not acting on faithNo, not faith, per se. But you are admitting other criteria into your argument than those you listed, unless you are a very different person from me. Make it a 10% chance of dying in agony vs. a 50% chance of dying painlessly. Adjust the numbers (take them to 99% chance of dying in ten years in euphoria versus a 1% chance of living for twenty years in unbearable pain) if you need to. I think this changes the calculus.

What's pernicious about this is that what has materially changed the decision is not the odds, but your comfort. And it is precisely the "comfort" argument that many religionists offer, not as proof, but as motive. For many people (I am not one) the thought of eternal life removes unbearable suffering from one's life. But if we are quick to discount this motive, we need to examine our own.

faithlessgod said...

Joshua McGee said:"What's pernicious about this is that what has materially changed the decision is not the odds, but your comfort. And it is precisely the "comfort" argument that many religionists offer, not as proof, but as motive. For many people (I am not one) the thought of eternal life removes unbearable suffering from one's life. But if we are quick to discount this motive, we need to examine our own."[My emphasis]

So what you are saying is that those "many" christian theists are basically hedonistic egoists contrary to whatever proclamations they make about peace and charity for others? Yes that makes sense to me ;-)

If religion stopped making appeals to hedonistic egoism this could resolve some of the problems certain religious moralities imposes on our society?

Joshua McGee said...

So what you are saying is that those "many" christian theists are basically hedonistic egoists contrary to whatever proclamations they make about peace and charity for others? Yes that makes sense to me ;-)I don't know you enough to know if you are joking, but yes, that's what I meant. "Hedonistic egoist" might be going a bit far, but as an atheist who also suffers from bipolar disorder, I've had people seriously contend that my life would be much "happier" (there's your hedonism) if I believed in God -- whether or not it's true!

Now, getting pleasure from watching one's son learn to ride a bike does not necessarily make one a bad father -- and getting pleasure from religion does not necessarily make one uncharitable. But we would be remiss to not note the pleasure in either realm.

If religion stopped making appeals to hedonistic egoism this could resolve some of the problems certain religious moralities imposes on our society?I've got two numbers for you: "nine" and "eleven".