Monday, July 7, 2008

On "Faith"

“Faith” is a very slippery concept and the meaning changes with the context in which it is used. In our culture we are inculcated from a young age to regard “faith” as a virtue. But is it always a virtue? One of ways in which the word “faith” is used is a relatively trivial one, commonly used in the context of encouraging another person, as when a parent encourages their nervous son or daughter before a musical recital or big exam by saying something like: “You’ll do fine, I have faith in you.” Another, more profound way in which the word is used is when someone says something like: “I have faith in the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, and in the Enlightenment values of reason and free inquiry on which the leading Founding Fathers drew.” A third way in which “faith” is used is in defending ones certainty of the truth of a proposition when there are no other good reasons to conclude that it is, in fact, true. Too frequently, one reads of a child that dies because their religiously devout parents refuse needed medical treatment, choosing instead to place their “faith” (and their child’s life) in God’s hands. I consider such certainty or “faith” a moral abomination. Many Christians assert the literal truth of the story of the creation of Adam and Eve as outlined (twice, in fact) in the book of Genesis, even though there is not a scrap of compelling evidence external to the Biblical tradition that it is true––it is accepted on “faith,” not because of good evidence.

Religious believers frequently claim that atheism is a “faith.” This may have been true in centuries past, when humanity’s primitive understanding of the workings of the universe seemed to leave the Deity with plenty to do. As time passed, as we learned more about the way the universe works, God’s job description has become shorter and shorter. For several centuries, stories have been told about a mysterious ape-like creature roaming about the Pacific Northwest and of a giant water creature in Scotland’s Loch Ness. Despite decades of searching with the latest technological tools, no substantiated evidence that either creature exists has turned up. Short of paving over the entire Pacific Northwest or draining Loch Ness we cannot be absolutely certain that they do not exist, but does it really require “faith” to at least suspect that Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster might not exist after all? Not hardly.

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