Faith is a Moral Failing

Let’s be brutally honest. To describe FAITH as a “failure of reason” is a half-truth at best.

There are those who assert that their religious convictions are grounded in reason and evidence alone. But I’ve never actually met such a rare creature myself. Even the most cunning Jesuitical sophistry seeking to rationally justify religion does not entirely leave out faith as a component. And not faith in the sense of “hope” or “confidence” or any other wishy-washy alternate definition. By “faith” in this context, I mean (and honest believers also mean) believing something because one chooses to believe it, without regard to the absence of evidence/reasons to believe. (Sometimes, faith even entails believing something without regard to the presence of counter-evidence/reasons to believe otherwise. But the absence of positive evidence is quite problematic enough, so let’s leave the presence of counter-evidence aside.)

Faith is not a mere failure of reason: Faith is the willful abdication of reason. Faith isn’t a mistake along the same lines as a logical error such as affirming the consequent. It is not simply an oversight of evidence that ought to be under consideration. Faith is the declaration that reason may be all well and good in other areas, but reason ends here where the believer says it does! No argument can conceivably be given for not adhering to the standards of reason on any given subject, because argument itself must adhere to rational standards. Otherwise, it isn’t argument – it’s shouting, empty noise, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.

Let me more-or-less directly quote various things I’ve actually heard people say along these lines:

“This isn’t about reason. You have to feel it.”

“Believing isn’t about reason or argument. You can’t argue about God because God is beyond all arguments.”

These need not be statements from rabid fundamentalists, but from the sweetest, kindest-natured and live-and-let-live believers you can imagine. But the statements still embody a willful abdication of reason. From where I sit, the only possible response to any such statements is to point out clearly that the speaker has left the fold of reasoned argument entirely – something like the following: “Oh yeah! And what are the reasons why I have to feel it? Can you possibly give me an argument for why I should believe this claim in the absence of any argument for it?” Or, “Explain what you could possibly even mean by saying God is ‘beyond all arguments.’ Whatever it means, are you declaring that to be a fair move in our discussion? Because my desire for you to give me money isn’t about reason or argument. It’s beyond all arguments. So give me your money! If you don’t buy that move when I make it, why should I accept it when you make it?”

These aren’t rhetorical questions. Okay, the tone is snarky. But what tool is left but mockery when someone has abdicated reason entirely? Clearly, further exercises of reason are not much of an option. That ship has sailed as soon as someone adopts any belief or claim as a matter of faith.

The reason this is so important isn’t simply that people who embrace faith will have ill-formed beliefs. Reason is not normative solely in the minimal sense that there are strictures within which it must operate or it is no longer reason. There is an ethical component to reason as well, because one’s beliefs are intimately connected to one’s actions. Some of one’s beliefs are themselves normative – beliefs about what is good and right, about whose life is valuable and why and in what manner (see abortion and euthanasia debates). And factual beliefs are also important, since how we understand the world in which we are acting shapes our actions every bit as much as our values and ends.

If one gives up reason in the formation of some of one’s beliefs, one gives up the only access to truth we have. Humans don’t have any perceptual capacity to immediately discern truth, the way we immediately discern color and shape (if the lighting is good and our eyesight is in good order). The closest we can get is to justify our beliefs. Faith is not justification, it is the suspension of all standards for justification. Faith declares that some beliefs – these important ones right at the center of my world-view that shape how I see many other things – need not be justified at all.

If one’s beliefs cannot be justified, and if one’s actions are shaped and motivated by one’s beliefs, then one’s actions cannot be justified. Oh, the actions of the faithful might accidentally be consistent with justifiable actions – but that would be pure luck, really, and could just as well have turned out otherwise.

Those who live by faith are not intellectually inferior. One could even say that it takes a certain brilliance, or at least extraordinary mental flexibility, to engage in the mental gymnastics required to apply reason in most areas of life and then suspend it entirely on other areas. So this isn’t really about intellect. And to say that faith is a failure of reason or abdication of reason is just to name it, not to explain what’s wrong with it. I think something stronger can be said.

Faith is a moral failing. The abdication of reason is the abdication of justification. When people stop even trying to rationally justify their actions in the world – when they decide to act from faith instead – then they might just do anything at all and call it right and good.

George M. Felis is a bipedal primate with ill-adapted feet and an over-
developed neocortex. He is also a Ph.D. student in philosophy at The University
of Georgia and a philosophy instructor at Georgia Perimeter College. Religion
and himself are two of the many things he doesn’t take all that seriously.

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