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What is your faith number?

Don Baker
Posted: March 29, 2007

Theists are quick to tell you that faith is a virtue. By this reasoning, atheists are second class citizens because they lack faith in God and therefore lack moral values. To believers it almost doesn't matter what your religious beliefs are, as long as you have faith. In his book, Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett called this idea "belief in belief." There is definitely disagreement between theists and atheists as to whether faith is a good thing.

Since religious faith is essentially a trust in a god, why not quantify that trust so that we can better understand the impact of faith on the world? Toward that end, I propose a metric called a person's faith number. The metric attempts to quantify the level of trust in a god as weighed against the competing interests of one's fellow man. So what is your faith number? Your faith number is your answer to the following simple question: How many people would you kill to please your god? Most theists will balk at this question, saying that their god or their religion explicitly prohibits killing. The question is not about the principles of a person's religion but instead about the love and loyalty one has for his/her god. The question assumes that you are convinced somehow that you need to kill solely order to please your god. Because your god wants the killing done by you in particular, it is presumed to be somehow theologically justified. So, how much killing would you do in such a situation?

Let's look at some examples of faith numbers in practice. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all worship the god of Abraham, and as such, they are called the Abrahamic religions. Abraham is considered to be a great patriarch and is celebrated in all Abrahamic religions for his loyalty to God. His loyalty was tested and proven in Genesis Chapter 2 when God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering, which of course, involves killing his own beloved son Isaac. While Abraham doesn't ultimately kill the child, he does pass his test of faith in God's eyes because he demonstrated to God that he would kill his son for the love of his god. Abraham's faith number was at least 1. In his honor, we can even name the proposed unit of faith an abraham.

Andrea Yates was a Texas mother who infamously drowned her five children in the family bathtub in 2001. While she was certifiably insane, her logic was theologically impeccable. Her children were reaching the age of reason when their sins would begin to potentially interfere with their easily going to heaven. An early death for them, on the other hand, would guarantee their place with God. This is clearly a desirable outcome from the perspective of Yates' belief in God. What's more, she killed her kids with the theological realization that she would probably be consigned to Hell by that same God for her actions. In effect, she killed herself, "spiritually," though the faith number metric only concerns physical death. Andrea Yates' faith number is therefore 5 abrahams.

The attack on the Manhattan World Trade Center in 2001 was carried out by Mohammad Atta and a small number of colleagues. It is well known that they were motivated by their religious beliefs. In particular, America and Israel were considered abominations to Allah and therefore cleansing the Earth of such people would be pleasing to Him. As an added bonus for the group, they would die as martyrs for Islam and gain the rewards of heaven, including 72 black eyed, regenerating virgins for their otherworldly sexual pleasures. Atta's faith number is around 2800 abrahams.

The Jews have their faith, too. Killing for God is a common theme in the Old Testament and the Israelites were the favored victors. Some modern day Jews believe that God gave them Jerusalem and surrounding lands and they have no qualms about killing people who get in the way of their Promised Land reward, which incidentally was given to Abraham's descendants for his loyalty to God.

Hitler and the Nazi regime killed millions of people, most of them Jews. Hitler described his motivations as religious. "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work." What a stunning victory for faith that the anti-Semitism of Protestant founder Martin Luther found shelter in such an influential and powerful Catholic, in effect amplifying Hitler's faith number. How ironic that some apologists try to claim he was an atheist.

Of course, faith numbers need not be large or even whole numbers. It's possible for a large number of faithful to kill a relatively small number of people because of their religious beliefs. Consider how America's evangelicals have sabotaged the US foreign policy involving AIDS relief in Africa for religious reasons (though much of the faith seems to have come from James Dobson and Franklin Graham). Stem cell research has the potential to prolong life for millions of people. Instead, many of those potentially helped will die early due to prohibitions championed by religious groups. Still other religious groups are anxious to pull strings in the Middle East to cause events that they believe will bring on the so called End Times. Part of the popularity of the apocalyptic mania in the US can be attributed to the Christian snuff porn fiction series Left Behind masterminded by Tim LaHaye, who has made a nice profit from the series. You can be sure that what End Times enthusiasts want includes lots of death, but will they be successful? In the cases of sabotaging US foreign policy, stem cell research, and attempting to cause the end-times, most of the faithful in the US are registering at least a milli-abraham on the faith number scale through their tithes, campaign contributions, votes, and other efforts. It's not hard to find other such examples. They are clear examples, though, where people with "too little faith" can still make a big impact on the world.

The faith number scale gives us a handy scale to measure the virtuous faith of the believer and to understand the impact of religious belief on the world. Admittedly, the faith number metric is crude. It misses nuances like whether killing your own kin is more of an act of faith than killing someone you hate. It doesn't catch the killing that a person allows to go on without comment or reaction. It doesn't really deal with the aggregate behaviors of believers, who seem to act sometimes with one mind.

What's your faith number? We feel that anything above zero is too high.


Atheist Eve is drawn by ACA member Tracie Harris. The idea for this strip on faith numbers was from the author.

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