Friedrich Nietzsche, the great German philosopher, had it right when he said “Faith is not wanting to know what truth is”.
What is faith anyway? We can think of faith as a belief system. Believing a particular proposition means that we believe that it represents some true state of the world. “Indian food is spicy.”, “Entropy of a closed system tend to increase over time.”, and “Jesus was born of a virgin.” are beliefs. Some are based on facts, some on logic, while religious belief is considered to be beyond facts and logic. The concession that we’ve made to the religious belief – the idea that belief can be sanctified by something other than evidence – separates it from all other beliefs. Religious faith is rendered as entirely self-justifying.
This, in spite of its extravagant claims and paucity of its evidence.
Let me clarify that I don’t have any particular issue with faith when I think of it as a solace to people, as a hope that there’s a reward for good deeds, as a doctrine that assigns a higher meaning to life. Science, or our understanding of the world, will never surpass religion in how it provides emotional comfort and spiritual experience. But (1) the necessity of faith doesn’t mean a validity of faith, and (2) the terrible price that we’re paying for that emotional and spiritual needs seems to outweigh the benefits (think religious fundamentalism).
To digress a bit, I have my disagreements with Christopher Hitchens (see my earlier post here) but I find it hard not to agree with, and not to smile at the audacity of the his quote: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
The ‘People of Faith’ can be broadly categorized into two groups: moderates and fundamentalists/extremists. The moderates are loyal to their own religious doctrine but they are tolerant of other faiths and respectful of diversity. The extremists are also loyal to their faith, but they are willing to die/kill for their faith and can take extreme measures to put an end to the ‘non-believers’.
While few would disagree with the fact that religious extremism is one of the biggest issues that we are facing today, not a lot of people realizes the problem that religious moderates poses to our world. Below is an excerpt from a thought-provoking article by Sam Harris (whose book The End of Faith I recommend if this topic interests you):
Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian claims of each. As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of judgement, he can not possibly “respect” the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by the very ideas and awaits their adherence even now. Muslims and Jews generally take the same arrogant view of their own enterprise and have spent millennia passionately reiterating the errors of other faiths. It should go without saying that these rival belief systems are all equally uncontaminated by evidence.
While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything critical to be said about the religious literalism. We can not say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we can not even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scriptures is generally unrivaled. […]
Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question – i.e. that we know there’s a God, and that we know what he wants from us – religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of wilderness.
Read the whole article (here), it’s quite impressive, well-argued and almost pugilistic assault on religious moderation and on religion itself.