Monday, March 26, 2012

Faith Is a Vice

I have been looking over the comments that people have brought back with them from the Reason Rally. I wanted to know what was done, and what will be accomplished as a result. It was said to have been a "first step". A first step to where? And what is the second step?

As I have read these comments, I repeatedly heard a message (or the implications of a message) that – at least from the point of view of an ethicist – has struck me as particularly interesting and important.

It is the idea that faith is not a virtue.

In his speech at the rally, Nate Phelps referenced Christopher Hitchens’ answer to the question of what he would change if he could change one thing in the world. Hitchens would rid the world of the idea that faith is a virtue.

He would be right to do so.

A person of faith is an irresponsible person – a person who abdicates his responsibilities as a thinking human being to know and understand the world in which he lives, particularly on matters that concern the welfare and aspirations of others. A person who cares not to cause harm rakes precautions to prevent it. Those who do jot take precautions do not care.

The End of Faith – the apt title of Sam Harris’ first book – was the message that started this New Atheist movement. His book was an argument against the view that faith is a virtue. He did not mention atheism. He mentioned the idea that if you are going to do things that garm other oeopke, you have an obligation to do better than to assert that you had faith that you were doing the right thing.

Faith is irresponsible and reckless. It gets people killed and maimed. It is the reason many people act in ways that significantly subtract from the quality of life for others, and it is a constant obstruction to many advances - particularly in medicine - that could do a great deal of good.

Faith is a vice.

This has been one of the most persistent messages in this blog.

A long-time reader might not recognize this fact. In making my own criticism, I have not used the term "faith". I was trained in the study of moral philosophy – and "Faith" is not a term in that field. Instead, I spoke about "intellectual recklessness". "Recklessness" is a concept moral philosophers cover. It means that an agent did not try to cause harm, but did not try very hard to prevent it either.

I have repeatedly used an analogy where I have compared a person who has failed to secure their beliefs to a farmer who fails to secure a large and heavy load on his truck before heading to town. Rounding some corner, that unsecured load breaks loose, crashes into an oncoming car, killing some occupants and maiming others.

That farmer is morally responsible for the harms done.

It does not matter that the farmer did not intend to do any harm. We may assume that the farmer did not set out on the drive with any intention of killing or maiming family members in an oncoming car. The farmer still deserves to be morally condemned. He did not exercise the care that a morally responsible person would have exercised to prevent those harms. A good person would have recognized the dangers of an unsecured load and sought to make sure it was secure. A good person woukd have recognized the dangers of an unsecured belief and sought to make it secure.

The drunk driver is another person who does not care enough to orevent harm. He has faith that he can ake it home without killing anybody. He needs no evidence. He can dismiss all if the evidence showing that drunk drivers are dangerous drivers. In fact, he can just throw that evidence away. True faith can do that - and true faith is a virtue, or so we are told.

Chances are, like the global-warming denier only on a much smaller scale, the drunk driver convinced himself that no harm would come from his actions. He convinced himself he could get safely home and that nobody would be hurt. He has faith. His moral crime is that he should have known better - particularly given the huge amount of evidence against that claim.

The person who has faith is like the drunk driver. He is drunk on faith, and he is a threat to others. Faith that a prayer may cure a young child puts the child at risk of dying from an easily treatable disease. Faith that apostates must be killed is a direct threat. Faith that the end times are near and one does not have to make long-term plans will destroy lives in the long term. Faith maims, kills, and destroys lives.

The person who boasts about his faith should be looked at the same way we look at the person who brags that he constantly drives while drunk and hasn't killed anybody . . . yet. They display the same qualities, and deserve the same moral status.

When we hear a story of a drunk driver maiming or killing others (or themselves), we blame the driver. He can tell us stories of other drunk drivers who made it home safely. They do not matter. R esponsible people do not take the risk. They do not put others at risk.

Not all religion is intellectually reckless – though the vast majority of it is. Many religious people believe that science and logic are the tools by which we come to a better understanding of a universe that God created. Their conclusions on all things that matter are well founded and responsible. Their assumption that a god sits behind it s poorly supported but creates no threat.

Similarly, atheism is not proof of immunity to intellectual recklessness. A great many atheists are just as intellectually reckless as the worst theists – grabbing and holding on to favorite conclusions without the least bit of evidence.

Finally, we must admit that none of us can hold a perfectly well secured set of beliefs. We can only secure our beliefs by their reference to other beliefs, which themselves are only secured to still other beliefs.

None of us has the time or other resources to hold every one of our beliefs up to the light of reason for careful examination. All of us take shortcuts – we have to. We could never move otherwise.

Faced with this type of scarcity of resources, the responsible person would use the resources available to first examine the most important belief – the beliefs with the greatest implications concerning the lives, well-being, and aspirations of others. Beliefs that carry no real-world implications (including the belief that a god exists or does not exist – taken as an isolated fact) does not rank high on this list.

These are facts about our human existence. We are not going to change them by wishing things were different.

However, none of these caveats argues against the thesis that faith is a vice – that faith is morally irresponsible and that god people condemn the faithful for recklessness. Not all drivers who drink drive whike drunk. Not all who do not drink are safe drivers. Drunk driving is still worthy of condemnation. Grounding public policy on faith deserves codemnation as well.

The one main difference between members of the secular and atheist community in contrast to the faith-based community on this issue is that, even where atheists make unreasonable claims and engage in intellectual recklessness, they do not defend recklessness. Among those who shun faith, the charge of unreasonableness has a sting to it – as it should; a sting that the faithful waves away just as they wave away the costs of their intellectual recklessness on themselves and others. Reason- based thinkers at least have a grounding in the value of intellectual responsibility that faith-based thinkers do not have.

Faith . . . also known as "intellectual recklessness" . . . on matters that concern the life, well-being, and aspirations of others – is a vice. It is something no responible person would take part in.


Anonymous said...

Thank you & well put.
This is something which needs to be recognized by the public. We are still still responsible for our actions and teachings, and 'faith' is not a justification for risk to others whether in private or the public space!

Pngwn said...

I'm not so sure this is true of all religions.

Buddhism (some sects), for example, seems to pride themselves on the way that they go according to science. The 14th Dali Lama has stated that "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change."

I can't see how they are being unreasonable there? I mean, sure, they make unfounded assumptions, but those assumptions aren't hurting anyone.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


It is not true of all religions - or of all sects within a religion.

I said that in the post - some religious people put great stock in the rational discovery of real-world facts.

On the other hand, many who claim to put stock in science and reason shows us the real world still hold that scripture provides the answer book, and any science that yields the wrong answer simply has to be redone until we get it right.

Anonymous said...


What a great read. I only recently discovered your writing, but am thoroughly impressed. I just searched Amazon to see if you had any books out there and was surprised that you don't (other than A Perspective on the Pledge). I hope you're considering putting some of the writing here into a book. I for one would certainly buy it.


anton kozlik said...

With proper credit to you as the source, I have dispatched four copies of this post to intimates who feel that I have not extended compassion to them for their acts of "faith" that had terrible results for them and others. Calling these events 'accidents' when they were easily preventable was deplorable, but they persist to this day with their claims . . . and their hatred for my persistence in not accepting that their maladies were god's or fate's doing.

Grung_e_Gene said...

I also like Faith is a vise...

Great work keep going on your quest!!!

James M. Jensen II said...

"Faith" is a term I like to avoid when discussing or even thinking about religion, because it tends to mean whatever it needs to mean for the speaker to make their point.

Outside of the context of religion, we tend to use the term in fairly innocuous ways. "I did it in good faith." "I have faith in you." "You've always been faithful to me." Generally the meaning is either "trust" or "loyalty," and those are hardly vices when given to the right objects.

It's inside the context of religion that things get murky. Then you have to deal with frequent attempts to equivocate between the ordinary, blameless senses of the word and the intellectually reckless senses. Consider the case of the Catholic Church, which condemns both fideism and doctrinal deviance, whatever the grounds.