This is an essay I wrote for my Philosophy of Religion class which explores my thoughts on religious faith. If you guys like it let me know and I'll post more of my school work for your viewing pleasure.
The Delusion of Faith
In The Virtue of Faith, Robert Adams argues that faith is a virtue even when that faith is based on no hard evidence. Although there is a chance that this faith may be correct and justified, the fact of that matter is that, without the use of practical evidence, the individual is merely guessing based on intuition. Although there is an argument for relying on one’s intuition at times, Adams argues that faith in God and faith in our loved ones (especially when they are innocent but accused guilty) is inherently virtuous. Indeed, past events and emotions are all apart of the evidence. Intuitions and gut feelings are a powerful tool humans use to recall and add significance to emotionally charges episodes of our lives, the ones that really impacted our livelihood. This view, that faith is automatically virtuous, is countered by Allen Woods who employs Clifford’s Principle in evaluating Adams’ claim. Overall, Woods demonstrates how blind faith can be just as “sinful,” if not more so than having less than absolute faith in God and those close to us. Without the use of practical evidence, the individual has no way of validating their beliefs, no matter how intuitive those beliefs may seem.
Early on, Adams admits that he is flawed in that he can’t justify all of his beliefs, but he is nonetheless confident in his moralities, despite the set of circumstances. For example, he states, “I cannot prove that it is unreasonable to regard infanticide as a morally permissible method of population control; but I still think it a sin to hold that belief” (Adams, 6) in an attempt to get the reader to acknowledge that some things, such as the killing of babies, is immoral in all aspects. While this is a gruesome act to visualize and intuitively sickening, there exists in the modern world, circumstances in which baby killing may be necessary for the survival of the humans already alive on this planet. China, for example, has made the decision of limiting the number of children per family in an attempt to reduce population and save the future generations from resource depletion and starvation. In this case, the restriction on children has led to the killing of babies in one form or another, yet this act could very well save the future of China, more so than if they did nothing. Though the act may seem extreme, only time will tell if this restriction on number of children is either sinful or prudential. Intuitively, it may always seem better to sacrifice the life of an adult over a newborn baby, with all its innocence, but what if the adult is the father of five children who all depend on him, including the new born? Then the choice seems intuitively flipped, and sacrificing the father would be senseless. All this shows is that situational factors must be taking into account, as circumstantial evidence, and no generalizations or beliefs should receive absolute faith.
Language is a specific area of cognition which is discussed by Adams in regards to the importance of having baseless faith in a system. During our childhood development, we are very impressionable. We take what we are told and belief it to be true. It is only around later childhood that we begin to make our own beliefs and correct the ones that were previously established in our minds. In terms of communication, a foundation for language is needed, and this changes very little throughout life. Yes, the meaning of some words will change or be modified, and you may learn other languages all together, but for the most part this foundation remains consistent and unchanged. Overtime, our brains have evolved to learn language in a very specific part of the brain specialized for this type of learning and information. Adams discusses how learning words of language as a baby requires faith in something without reasoning or knowing that it is true;
“Children acquire a large body of beliefs about the meanings of words long before they have either the intellectual capacity or adequate evidence to justify those beliefs.… Communication among human beings depends on a sort of natural empathy which enables us, with remarkable reliability, to guess each other's meaning from very fragmentary evidence,” (Adams, 7).
Here, Adams makes a linguistic argument for faith, but this type of “faith” is specialized and only applies to learning fundamental skills such as language which are cultural and not rooted in cold reasoning. The meanings of words and elements of language must become standardized in the individuals of a society in order for them to effectively communicate and relate to one another. This is done at a very young age, in fact, starting before birth in prenatal, but as we age we lose this ability to learn new languages. Psychological studies have shown that it is nearly impossible for an individual to learn a language at all if not introduced to any language before the age of fourteen. So if the ability to learn language is rooted in our childhood, perhaps our ability to have faith in that which we have no evidence is also rooted in our childhood. Indeed, the minds of children are full of false fairytales: the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and of course Santa Claus. While these beliefs are not validated when we get older, the language behind them is; the words and syntax used to convey these fairytales is still as true and functional to us as adults. We simply understand that these concepts were made up for us to keep us in line, just as religion does for adults. We continue to use and adapt our language to be a more accurate working dictionary, while the fairy tale concepts are left behind with their lack of both evidence and plausibility.
Adams seems to view Woods as asking people to ignore all their emotions and just look at cold hard facts. But Woods counters this notion saying, “If viewing the evidence ‘in a cool and detached way’ means cutting yourself from this kind of evidence, then Clifford’s Principle clearly does not tell you to view the evidence in a ‘cool and detached’ way.” (Woods, 22) The idea is not to cut oneself off from emotions when evaluating a belief, but simply to value the facts over unsubstantiated beliefs. If you fully trust someone because they have always been there for you and never let you down, then these emotions are valid. But if the person has not been so dependable, or even malicious and manipulative, then such
positive emotions would not appear as accurate, and to have faith in that person over the facts would be irrational.
Adams further discusses the value of faith and trust in our personal relationships. “Sometimes we trust another person on very little evidence indeed; and that is also of great value for human life,” (Adams, 7) but this notion is more of a double edged sword. Indeed, trust in our friends who have proven themselves time and time again is healthy and beneficial, but faith in someone that we love uncontrollably and in spite of sufficient evidence against his or her good nature, that is where we humans get into trouble and are misled by our passions and irrational emotions. Especially in our personal relationships, it is important to take a step back and reassure ourselves that this person is actually good for us and not just playing with our heart for his/her own benefit in the short term. This concept of level-headedness suggests that, yes, our emotions are a necessary part of our psychology and daily lives, but that it must be kept in check by our ability to reason what is best for us and others. It is of great value that so many Americans have faith in the democratic system, but that does not make us blind to the corruption that exists within every level of the government. It is this awareness that makes the system stronger, more responsible, and self-reliant, as opposed to a totalitarian dictatorship, where people simply trust in the ruler, even though he most certainly does not have their best interests in mind.
Similarly, Adams says that people should believe in God regardless of evidence; “We have to trust His power and goodness in general, without having a blueprint of what He is going to do in detail. This is very disturbing because it entails a loss of our control of our own lives” (Adams, 12). This concept maybe worked for biblical societies where people were clueless about the natural forces at work, and therefore powerless in trying to control them. Nowadays, with television, internet, and social networking, people are enlightened, and as evident in the Arab Spring of 2011, more than capable of taking control of their situation and improving it. Yet Adams suggest that this loss of control is something we should all accept, because God exists and God is great, even though there is no hard evidence that either of those beliefs are true.
Allen Woods has a different view of the world which is embodied in his interpretation of Clifford’s Principle. Woods values a healthy skepticism over an absolute faith that is blind, and arguably more negligent than pure. Adams may view the faith that Woods imbues as less virtuous and more “questioning” than simply trusting. “The point of Clifford’s Principle, however, is simply we should form our beliefs in accordance with the evidence – neither believing what it does not support nor omitting to believe what it does support” (Woods, 16). There are some things that we will make beliefs about despite our best reasoning, for instance, beliefs about race and ethnicity and how they affect behavior. We all subconsciously form generalizations about character and personality based on how we identify people. But to hold these beliefs so strongly that we consistently act on them instead of giving that individual the benefit of the doubt, then that is racist or discriminatory, but above all immoral. One of the main concepts in the study of psychology is about variability within our ethnicity and between these groups. Interestingly, we differ more within a race or ethnicity than between such groupings; our fundamental differences are thus cultural, and not physiological or psychological. Why we find the need to pit one group against another is beyond me. So, because we are more similar than different across ethnic groups, it would be inaccurate to assume certain generalizations are always right. Yet we humans discriminate constantly because of ignorance and egocentrism, both pitfalls of religious fundamentalists.
As if walking into his own trap, Adams proposes an idea that offers another argument against the morality of unrestrained faith in a higher power. Faith without evidence “seems to free us to be ourselves in a different way -perhaps because do not see ourselves as responsible for the outcome in the same way as if we were clinging to a more controlling role,” (Adams, 14). When people do not feel responsible, however, is when they commit the most heinous acts of cruelty. People in the military learn to take orders from the chain of command, regardless of what the order is. If a platoon is told to wipe out a village, they do so with little sense of fault or responsibility. But if the village happens to be their own, or they are told to kill their own family, well then the soldiers would be far less likely to feel so cold and detached about the mission. And if they did carry out the orders, and became aware of what they had done, they would probably feel far more responsible than they if they were not related to the deceased. This shows the significance of emotional information and how people are willing to do awful things when they are able to remain detached, abandon responsibility, and lay the blame on someone else.
Overall, Adams is in favor of a blind faith that seems hinder our scientific progress in modern society. Woods suggests through Clifford’s Principle, however, that a more pure and justified form of faith can be attained by logically evaluating the evidence presented to us by our senses and emotionally charged memories. People are flawed, even the ones we are closes to and love the most, so viewing them as perfect and trusting them full-heartedly in any situation is ignoring the fact that we are only human. Each person has a history, and though people can change, we cannot ignore their past, whether good or bad. The main point is that faith and trust must still be founded on something substantial, such as hard evidence, or deep emotions that convey something about hard evidence.
(Also, I liked this article by Todd Pettigrew, Do religious universities serve the public good?)