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The Glorification of Ignorance

It seems to me that religious faith amounts to the glorification of ignorance. The sort of faith I'm talking about is summed up in the Bible (Hebrews, chapter 11, verse 1). In the New International Version, it reads: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see".

Religious faith is the Christian explanation for their claim to know certain things about the universe which reason and evidence alone don't justify. They generally admit that these things can't be established through reason alone, and so they invoke faith to carry them over the gap between what they can honestly claim to know through reason and evidence, and what they wish to believe is true nonetheless.

Of course, some Christians may argue that some of the beliefs they've arrived at through religious faith can nevertheless be justified using reason and examining the evidence. But I'm not here to talk about reason-based defenses of these claims; I'm here to discuss the nature of faith-based belief. To the extent that a belief arrived at through faith can be justified through reason, faith in that belief was unnecessary in the first place.

Let's look at that quote again: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see". It's important to notice that evidence and reasoning aren't mentioned anywhere in this Biblical definition of faith. In fact, evidence is excluded by the reference to "what we do not see". Evidence is, by definition, what we do see. Reasoning isn't specifically prohibited, but by excluding the possibility of evidence on which to apply the power of reason, reasoning is certainly crippled.

This is what I mean by equating religious faith with ignorance. It deals with drawing conclusions about things when there's really little or no way of knowing.

So religious faith is used to justify belief in things that lack sufficient evidence to be justified by reason. Reasoning can't justify these things because reasoning involves the examination of arguments based on evidence. If the evidence is insufficient, reason dictates that belief is unwarranted—no matter how much people may want to believe. Religious faith, on the other hand, can be used to justify belief in anything. Thus we encounter attacks on the very idea of reason, by those who have found religious faith to be the only support for their cherished beliefs.

A fine example of this religious faith-based view of the value of reasoning comes from Martin Luther. He said, "Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ...know nothing but the word of God."

When we listen to stories of conversion to Christianity, we don't hear about people using reasoning to arrive at religious faith—at least, none where that reasoning holds up under scrutiny.

Much more common are stories such as one I found in the July 20, 1998 issue of Newsweek, in the cover story "Science Finds God." They told of astronomer Alan Sandage, who "was nagged by mysteries whose answers were not to be found in the glittering panoply of supernovas. Among them, why is there something rather than nothing? Sandage began to despair of answering such questions through reason alone, and so, at the age of 50, he willed himself to accept God."

Now think about that. When rational thought and honest scientific inquiry hadn't yielded the answers he wanted, he took his ignorance (the gap between what he could honestly claim to know and what he personally wanted to believe), and labelled it "God".

It's quite understandable that at the age of 50 the man might have been feeling a little pressured by his impending mortality, and desperate to overcome his fear of the unknown. But I'm not here to talk about whether such a move is understandable or not—I'm here to talk about what is actually going on when somebody takes that step. Do they really learn anything about the nature of the universe, as Christians would have it? Or are they merely comforting themselves with a psychological band-aid? Of course, there are all kinds of situations in which one might find oneself forced to act on little or no information. If you're lost in a cave without a light, you may as well get moving and take your chances if the only alternative is sitting there and starving to death. But to conclude that whatever way you choose to go is the way out, merely because you chose to go that way, is unjustified. A guess is still just a guess, even if you have no choice but to make one. Guessing is not the same as knowing.

The best argument I've heard from Christians about why it's okay to have faith in things that aren't justified by reason goes something like this: "No knowledge is 100% conclusive, but we still need to be able to make decisions about things. The act of reaching a decision on less than 100% conclusive evidence is an act of faith, and we all have to do this all the time, so what's the big deal?"

The big deal is this. Every time we decide to make a decision on less than 100% conclusive evidence, we risk being wrong. It may be unavoidable, but it's still risky. The less conclusive the evidence is, the bigger the risk. So this argument only supports "faith" when it's based on very strong (if not 100% conclusive) evidence. It does not justify belief in things which lack sufficient evidence to be justified through reason.

Furthermore, because of the inherent risk of error, even the weak sort of "faith" this argument justifies ought to be viewed as a distasteful necessity—not something glorious and wonderful that we should embrace joyfully. We should use it with caution, and always seek to minimize the need for it.

But Christians exercise an extreme sort of faith, far beyond anything practical or necessary—and they think this is a wonderful thing. Again, from the Bible (Matthew chapter 17, verse 20 this time): "And Jesus said unto them, ... If he have faith as agrain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you." Even if Jesus was only being metaphorical, this is an extraordinarily strong statement. Jesus is saying that if you are sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see, you gain (at least metaphorically) the equivalent of omnipotence: NOTHING will be impossible for you. Wow.

That's is what I mean when I say that religious faith is the glorification of ignorance. Now, there are undoubtedly things that are true despite our lack of sufficient evidence to establish their truth through reason. The question is whether or not religious faith is a reliable means of acquiring accurate information about those things.

The answer is no. We can only determine the accuracy of a claim through evidence and reason. So, when evidence in support of a claim is lacking, the claim cannot be said to be reliable.

Christains seem to realize this, and continually attempt to support their religious faith by invoking reason. The problem with this is that having started out by adopting religious faith, and then applying reason afterward, their reasoning is tainted by the bias of their religious faith. Remember that biblical definition of faith. How can you be objective about things you're already certain of?

It's honest to admit that one does not know what one does not know. In their deeply emotional conviction that many things which they cannot prove to be true are true nonetheless, Christians fail this test of honesty and treat their ignorance as if it were a virtue.

Atheist Community of Austin

The Atheist Community of Austin is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state. The ACA serves the local Austin community through outreach programs, providing informational resources and various volunteer activities. In addition, the ACA serves the community-at-large through free online portals including informational wikis, regular audio/video podcasts and interactive blogs.

We define atheism as the lack of belief in gods. This definition also encompasses what most people call agnosticism.

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