Matters of Faith

Nigerian Pentecostal preacher Helen Ukpabio claims that Satan possesses children, who thereby become witches with evil magical powers. While this claim may be appalling superstitious nonsense on the face of it, traditional African beliefs about spirits and witchcraft and curses mean that far too many Nigerians take such nonsense seriously, with predictably horrible consequences: Some parents have abandoned their “accursed” and “possessed” children. Others have spent money better used to feed themselves and their other children to pay preachers like Ukpabio outrageous fees to perform exorcisms. On occasion, holy-rolling believers – sometimes, appallingly, including the child’s parents – have taken the task of exorcism on themselves, torch-wielding mob style: Exorcism rites have included splashing or bathing children in acid, burning them at the stake, and burying them alive. Such is the sorry state in which Nigeria finds itself – not in some deep dark past, but today, a decade into the 21st century. Fortunately, more enlightened Nigerians oppose Ukpabio and her ilk, and thanks to their efforts a law that forbids accusing children of witchcraft (adults are still vulnerable to such accusations, note) has been enacted in the home state of her church.

In response, Helen Ukpabio is suing the state, and those who campaigned for the bill, for encroaching on her freedom of religion.

That sentence deserved its own paragraph, just to savor the sheer audacity of it. Whether Ukpabio is an amoral con artist with astonishing chutzpah or a spectacularly delusional true believer or something in between is quite beside the point, at least with respect to her claimed right to practice her religion as she sees fit. In the prevailing social context of Nigeria today, Ukpabio’s accusations of witchcraft are clear incitements to violence: That is, such accusations are are likely to cause violence, and in the past demonstrably have caused violence, and so are defensible on neither freedom of religion nor freedom of speech grounds. One person’s rights do not and cannot extend to limiting the rights of others – and they certainly cannot be extended so far as inciting one’s excitable, superstitious fellow citizens to abandon, torture, and murder children. That is, one hopes, an obvious truth that all sensible people can agree on.

However, if I were to point out the equally obvious truth that the actions of Ukpabio and her followers are directly attributable to their relying on faith as a way of determining their beliefs about the world (or at least the followers, even if Ukpabio herself is a completely unbelieving con artist), many otherwise sensible people – people who not only agree with the above contention that religious rights have proper limits, but who are every bit as appalled by Ukpabio’s actions as I am – not only wouldn’t agree with me, they would begin to sputter and fume like a kettle come to boil. They would immediately start manufacturing excuses for faith and emphasizing how wonderful and inspiring faith can be and insisting that there are all sorts of important distinctions between “moderate” or “liberal” religious persons and “extremists” like Ukpabio and that her faith doesn’t represent the “true nature” of religion and on and on. The truth I have pointed out becomes no less obvious in the face of such protestations, which hulks there unmoving, the proverbial elephant in the room of religion: It is impossible to understand or explain the words and deeds of Ukpabio and her followers without acknowledging that important beliefs right at the center of their collective world-view, beliefs which shape their morally reprehensible actions, are determined without any significant input from reason or evidence (or even passing acquaintance with anything that looks like reason and evidence), and in fact are directly contrary to reason and evidence – that is, they are faith beliefs.

And if I really want to see the sputterers’ metaphorical kettle boil over – and I do – I can continue on to the following generalization, based on the above-noted observation and a few equally evident facts: Because faith beliefs are not based on reason and evidence, and because faith as a way of establishing beliefs need not and often does not accept any limitations or feedback from reason and evidence which might alter those beliefs, faith by its very nature can always be used to determine morally and epistemically indefensible beliefs like those of Ukpabio and her followers. Moreover, faith historically has been and currently is being used to ground many morally and epistemically indefensible beliefs – many, many more than the beliefs which inspired this essay: the Nigerian Pentecostals’ belief in the factual existence of child-possessing demons, and their belief that it is morally permissible (and possibly even obligatory) to torture those demons out of the children. Faith, due to properties that are intrinsic to it being what it is (which I will expand on below), has always inspired and supported harmful beliefs, and will always do so. Faith is a vice, not a virtue.

Defenders of faith, naturally, contend that faith is not as I have characterized it: The Karen Armstrongs and Tenzin Gyatsos of the world perpetually assert that “real” faith does not lead to such morally indefensible beliefs. (They frequently fail to emphasize epistemically indefensible beliefs when leaping to the defense of faith, for obvious reasons.) By declaring that “the true essence of faith is compassion” or some variation thereupon, they must necessarily mean that people like Ukpabio and her followers, whose faith leads them to immoral actions – using the definition at hand, actions that demonstrably lack compassion, or actions directly contrary to the actions compassion ought to motivate – are in some sense “doing faith wrong.” But such defenders of faith offer no convincing arguments that faith can be “done wrong” in this or any sense, that faith has any norms or standards which intrinsically belong to it that ought to prevent such actions: At best, they cite multiple examples of faith motivating compassionate actions and simply ignore all examples of faith motivating the opposite of compassion – or worse, declare that the latter are inconsistent with the “true essence” of faith/religion without offering any plausible argument why that is so or how they know what this purported “true essence” is. Such cherry-picking, question-begging non-arguments would offer no support whatsoever for their view of faith even if examples of morally reprehensible faith beliefs were relatively rare – and such beliefs are manifestly not few and far between.

Not only do the Armstrongs and Gyatsos of the world consistently fail to make a convincing positive case that faith has an intrinsic tendency to encourage or instill beliefs that support/endorse/lead to compassion or other generally good consequences, their view of faith conveniently ignores or defines out of existence the unavoidable connection between faith and beliefs like those of Ukpabio and her followers. Moreover, the particular nature of their failed efforts are enlightening: After all, any and all of the good things that faith’s defenders (unconvincingly) attempt to associate with or attach to faith beliefs are perfectly possible for those of us who lack faith. For example, despite the many misrepresentations and outright slurs heaped on atheists by defenders of faith, I don’t think most of them would argue that non-believers categorically, universally, or by their very nature lack compassion. Nor do non-believers generally or necessarily lack qualities such as gratitude, or a sense of awe and wonder, or any of the other wonderful properties which I’ve read various people extolling as virtues of faith, or falsely decrying as absent in non-believers. So if the defenders of faith make no good case that faith generates or generally supports beliefs with good consequences, and also fail to acknowledge or account for faith underpinning beliefs with bad consequences, and if beliefs with all the good consequences (or bad consequences) of faith can be arrived at without faith in any case, how exactly is faith related to beliefs and their consequences?

People generally accept that they ought to believe only claims that are justified (i.e. determined by or grounded in reason and evidence), or at least beliefs that are plausibly justifiable – except where religious claims are concerned, where they frequently eschew justification.* But even in the religious sphere, many people assume that their beliefs are or can be justified, and moreover that they ought to be justifiable: Otherwise, why would religious believers, religious texts, and religious leaders put so much time and energy into arguing that their claims are indeed supported by evidence and reason? I refer here not only to apologetics and theology, but also claims of purported miracles and proselytization and all other attempts to persuade non-believers. While I am quite convinced that their justifications either use inadequate standards of evidence and reason or simply fail to meet adequate standards, that’s beside the point: The very existence of such attempted justifications demonstrate that those producing and consuming these persuasive efforts generally grant the need to justify beliefs – except when they don’t.

Contrary to their own customary operating assumption regarding all other beliefs, some religious believers do give up on (or never get into) the business of attempting to justify their religious convictions and simply admit that their beliefs are determined by faith without justification; sometimes they even forthrightly declare that reason is absolutely the enemy of faith, and vice versa (q.v. Martin Luther). But even when they do so, they don’t abandon the customary operating assumption that justification is required for their beliefs outside the scope of religion. I would further argue that no human being could successfully operate in the world if a great proportion of their beliefs about the world were wholly unjustified, so not only is the need for justification a general operating assumption and an integral part of how people conceive of beliefs, it’s a practical necessity – but justifying that position would lead me far afield from the argument at hand.

The key idea here is that people generally accept that beliefs are by definition something that one ought to be able to justify – as opposed to, say, desires and tastes and preferences, which people can simply have without necessarily thinking they ought to be justified or justifiable – except that many people carve out a sub-set of beliefs and ignore this otherwise universally acknowledged standard with respect to those beliefs. Empirically, then, faith consists in carving out of some sub-set of beliefs and suspending, rejecting, or ignoring the expectation of justification for those beliefs, even though that expectation is built into the believers’ own everyday conception of the character of beliefs.

Not just any beliefs get this special treatment: People may not actually be able to justify their political convictions, for example, but they still tend to think that their political convictions are justified, and that political beliefs are the sorts of things that one ought in principle be able to justify – and they continue to think so no matter how difficult justifying any given political belief turns out to be when they are pressed to do so. Matters of faith, however, are different: What unifies beliefs about a purported immaterial and unknowable afterlife; beliefs about the existence, nature, behavior, and moral opinions of imperceptible supernatural entities; and beliefs about the legitimacy and authority of some texts or persons or institutions to speak on behalf of those undetectable entities? They are all beliefs so outré that not only is it impossible in principle to provide any plausible, publicly available evidence for them, it is equally impossible to provide evidence against them.** However, there is no logical necessity that faith-motivated beliefs must be so radically different from ordinary beliefs: Rather, that consequence follows from how centrally important and universally accepted the assumption that beliefs require justification is in the first place. Such a basic principle cannot easily be denied, and its denial would be difficult (but not impossible) to maintain for pedestrian beliefs amenable to easy disproof by readily available counter-evidence. Thus, faith is not best characterized in terms of its content. Indeed, faith cannot be characterized by any standards or limitations or constraints on belief: The defining characteristic of faith is its rejection of the usual constraints that everyone, even the faithful themselves most of the time, accepts as intrinsic to the nature of beliefs – the presumption that beliefs ought to be justified, or at least justifiable.

Even believers who claim that reason and faith always necessarily lead to the same beliefs – which is itself an indefensible faith-based claim, because Aquinas’ “truth cannot conflict with truth” doctrine presumes without evidence that (his particular) faith beliefs are true – start from the basic conception of beliefs as something that ought to be justifiable: Furthermore, the idea that faith and reason each separately lead to beliefs, even if they are purported to be the same beliefs, logically implies that faith is not the same thing as justification. That is, such believers agree that faith as such does not justify beliefs.

If faith does not justify beliefs, what exactly does faith do? Ask anyone why they hold some particular belief, and they will give some account of what motivates them to believe it. I use the terminology of “motivations” for belief deliberately, because people don’t always give “reasons” to believe in the justificatory sense I’ve been using the word in this essay, as in the phrase “reason and evidence.” Sometimes, people cite motivations anyone would recognize as legitimate (or at least potentially legitimate) justifications for adopting or maintaining a belief, like publicly available and verifiable empirical evidence, or the consensus opinion of recognized experts in a relevant field. Sometimes people offer shakier motivations for adopting beliefs which one might reasonably doubt constitute genuine justifications, such as isolated subjective experiences unverifiable by any outside observer, or citation of an authority figure whom there is no particular reason to think is reliable. Sometimes people offer transparently non-justifying motivations for adopting a particular (usually religious) belief, such as “I know God in my heart.” But for any given belief one might ask them about, people can almost always cite at least part of what motivated them to adopt the belief in the first place, or what motivates them to maintain the belief now: And if for some reason someone were unable to say why they believe X when asked, one would expect them to subsequently wonder why they believe X, and whether they should continue to do so – unless, of course, X is a religious belief.

If faith consists in suspending, rejecting, or ignoring the otherwise universally acknowledged standard that beliefs ought to be justifiable for some sub-set of beliefs, what is accomplished by this abandonment of justification? Faith motivates people to adopt and maintain beliefs that are not or cannot in principle be justified. Faith not only permits people to adopt and maintain indefensible beliefs, but endorses and encourages it by insisting that some set of beliefs – almost always beliefs about imperceptible, immaterial, supernatural entities and forces – simply need not be supported or defended by evidence and reason, in direct contradiction to the otherwise-universal presumption that beliefs ought to be justified, or at least justifiable. Moreover, since faith consists in no more than this suspension of the ordinary assumption that beliefs should be justifiable, endorsing and encouraging the adoption of unjustifiable beliefs would seem to be faith’s primary purpose: Faith might encourage some people to sometimes adopt justifiable beliefs, but that could hardly be the goal of setting aside the presumption that beliefs ought to be justified!

Once one abandons justification and accepts any belief purely as an article of faith – that is, once one gives up even attempting to constrain some of one’s beliefs within bounds defined by evidence and reason – literally anything goes. Why would and how could one even attempt to justify any limitation or constraint on a belief grounded in faith when the defining characteristic of faith is rejection of the presumption that beliefs ought to be justifiable? Since faith in itself lacks any constraints or norms which might circumscribe the content of the beliefs it endorses, any constraints on faith beliefs which prevent the adoption of indefensible beliefs or encourage the adoption of defensible must be external to faith.

I will grant that the defenders of faith are right to distinguish religious liberals and moderates from religious fundamentalists and extremists, but they give entirely the wrong basis for such distinctions. It is simply not the case that faith is inherently a positive feature of human life and some people “twist” it to serve pernicious social or political agendas. Rather, faith is pernicious by its very nature: Because faith consists in rejecting ordinary standards of justification for some beliefs, and because the whole purpose of adopting such beliefs as a matter of faith would seem to be freeing the believer from those standards of justification, faith not only permits but encourages people to embrace morally and epistemically indefensible beliefs, i.e. beliefs which are not and cannot be justified. People of faith avoid morally and epistemically indefensible beliefs only to the extent that their faith beliefs are circumscribed within the bounds of reason and evidence, strictures that are external to faith by definition.

Moreover, since the nature of faith is to abandon or ignore the standards by which beliefs are justified, faith can motivate someone to adopt a justifiable belief only by accident, not by nature: That is, faith can never motivate someone to adopt a belief because of the reasons and evidence which support that belief, or because of any other feature of the belief itself that would constitute a genuine justification for adopting it (as opposed to a motivation for adopting it, like wanting to believe that it’s true, or a pseudo-justification for believing it based on intuition or feeling). The extent to which a believer is motivated to adopt of a belief by virtue of its justification is exactly the extent to which the adoption of the belief is not and cannot be motivated by faith. Thus, if it does turn out that any given belief motivated by faith happens to be supported (or plausibly supportable) by reason and evidence, faith cannot be given any credit for the fact that the belief happens to be justifiable. Since faith not only permits but encourages people to adopt morally and epistemically indefensible beliefs, and since faith deserves no positive credit for motivating any defensible beliefs it happens to encourage in spite of its natural trend towards the indefensible, the consequences of faith as faith can only be pernicious, never positive.

Note, however, the limits of this claim: Faith is intrinsically pernicious, but that does not mean that faith cannot accidentally or extrinsically motivate non-pernicious beliefs, or even beliefs that have genuinely and universally positive consequences. Consider, for example, a hypothetical random woman whose faith motivates her to adopt both defensible and indefensible beliefs: This woman might even be Helen Ukpabio, who probably has at least one morally defensible Christian belief – a belief in the basic goodness of feeding the hungry, perhaps – amongst the manifestly many morally and epistemically indefensible doctrines she embraces.

Because faith consists in rejecting or ignoring the standards by which beliefs might be defended and indefensible beliefs might be avoided or abandoned, it must be a merely contingent, coincidental fact that our hypothetical believer’s faith just happens to motivate her to adopt defensible beliefs. To any extent that her adoption of those beliefs was motivated by their defensibility, it could not have been motivated by her faith, because faith consists in rejecting or ignoring the standards by which beliefs might be defended. In stark contrast, it is not a merely a contingent fact that our hypothetical believer’s faith just happens to motivate her to adopt indefensible beliefs: Rather, it is precisely because she is motivated by justification-abandoning faith that she has adopted indefensible, unjustifiable beliefs. This does not mean, however, that we can automatically attribute all of her indefensible beliefs to faith: I’ve stipulated that faith motivates our hypothetical believer to adopt some indefensible beliefs, but she might also have adopted other, non-faith-based indefensible beliefs via some other unspecified motivation which has caused her to elide or misconstrue or ignore standards of reason and evidence; or perhaps she has simply failed to correctly apply sound standards of reason and evidence, or has a poor grasp of those standards to begin with (even though she presumes, like everyone else in the world, that most of her beliefs are not only potentially justifiable, but actually justified). I have nowhere said nor assumed that all indefensible beliefs are motivated by faith, nor that no defensible beliefs can be motivated by faith.

This hypothetical example illustrates that, although faith permits and encourages people to adopt morally and epistemically indefensible claims, and indeed it seems that the only conceivable purpose of suspending standards of justification is permitting and encouraging people to adopt otherwise indefensible claims, faith does not necessarily or always lead to indefensible beliefs: However, faith deserves the blame for any indefensible claims it motivates believers to adopt, and deserves no credit for any defensible claims it happens to motivate believers to adopt. Consequently, even if some of the faithful do manage to avoid morally and epistemically indefensible beliefs for the most part (and some do), that does not obviate the perniciousness of faith as such: Faith is still pernicious for the reasons given above even if some believers do deliberately try to limit their faith beliefs within the bounds of justification, or if some believers are motivated to adopt justifiable claims by factors other than faith (not necessarily because they are justified) which they mistakenly attribute to faith***).

It is also worth noting that, given my analysis above, faith as such is not primarily characterized by dogmatism. Defenders of faith frequently make much hay out of dogmatism, claiming that there’s a fundamental difference between the dogmatic “blind faith” of those other religious believers – the “bad” faith of extremists and fundamentalists like Helen Ukpabio – and the presumptively “good” variety of faith embraced by moderate or liberal religious believers. But what’s primarily wrong with faith isn’t the strength with which a person clings to their faith beliefs, it’s that those beliefs are embraced by rejecting or ignoring the standards of evidence by which we can (and often do) exclude or abandon completely indefensible beliefs. Yes, the rigidity and emotional defensiveness characteristic of dogmatism may be a fairly predictable consequence of faith, because such psychological mechanisms can help preserve faith beliefs against the natural inclination to view them as inherently unconvincing and implausible in light of their unjustifiable character. One might also make the case that extremist/fundamentalist religion and dogmatism are positively correlated, because those faith beliefs which are more transparently indefensible violate the presumption of justification in a more obvious way, thus more strongly depend on the psychological mechanisms of dogmatism for their preservation. By parallel reasoning, one might even make a plausible case that moderate religion is inversely correlated with dogmatism. But none of that saves faith from the criticisms I have made here: Faith is pernicious by its very nature because it encourages people to adopt and maintain indefensible beliefs. While dogmatism can exacerbate this problem by making indefensible beliefs more entrenched, it is also quite possible (although not as common) for people to hold justified or potentially justifiable beliefs in a dogmatic fashion. Thus, dogmatism is somewhat tangential to faith and the problematic nature thereof.

Having said all that, I will readily grant that not all religious people are as utterly toxic in beliefs and character as Helen Ukpabio. Moreover, I will even grant that ex-nun Karen Armstrong (whom I have admittedly picked on from time to time), is probably a fairly pleasant and generally virtuous person, however irritating I may find the postmodernism-infused flibbertygibbet she writes. Similarly, Tenzin Gyatso seems like a very intelligent, generally rational, and genuinely compassionate person on the whole, despite embracing some appallingly narrow-minded sexual mores. But good people can and sometimes do have horrible ideas. And while the character of the beliefs motivated by faith can vary dramatically from one believer to the next, faith is intrinsically pernicious and therefore leads to bad consequences more often than good: Faith by its very nature rejects justification, the only means we have to separate truth from illusion in matters of fact and morality, and in doing so it licenses and promotes the adoption of wildly unjustified and unjustifiable beliefs – beliefs which inform how people understand and act in the world, all too often with horrific consequences. Decent people like Karen Armstrong and the Dalai Lama may not incite violence against defenseless children, but by defending and promoting the false assertion that faith is a virtue rather than a vice, they aid and abet the Helen Ukpabios of the world. And the orphan-abusing nuns, pedophile-priest-shielding cardinals, suicide-bombing terrorists, “dishonored” daughter-murdering fathers, gay-hating preachers, and all the other true believers in the world whose perverse, indefensible beliefs and actions are first and foremost – and no matter how strenuously religion’s defenders attempt to deny it – matters of faith.

*And no, it doesn’t matter one bit that humans frequently fail to ground even their non-religious beliefs in reason and evidence. Failing to satisfy epistemic standards for adopting or adhering to beliefs is quite different from willfully rejecting or ignoring such standards when adopting or adhering to beliefs. Being mistaken is one thing: Abandoning the standards by which mistakes are (sometimes, ideally) avoided is another. (back)

**Not that anyone is obligated to provide evidence against such beliefs: Existence claims generally ought to bear the burden of proof, especially claims that imperceptible, immaterial, and/or supernatural entities exist. (back)

***Such false attributions are especially common with regard to moral beliefs: Many religious believers will attribute their each and every moral belief to their religion, and will even argue that there can be no morality without religion. Moreover, they will maintain such assertions no matter how clearly they themselves demonstrate otherwise when they are asked why they pick out this moral principle from their holy text and ignore that one, or why they pick and choose for themselves which moral pronouncements from their religious tradition’s authority figures to embrace and which to ignore. The level of cognitive dissonance on display in this regard can be truly astonishing. (back)

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