Is faith really a virtue?

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, frequently defines faith as “Belief without evidence”, which is one of the definitions according to Merriam-Webster (“firm belief in something for which there is no proof”). This is also how the Bible defines faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Later versions re-translated “evidence” to “conviction”; apparently the idea of evidence that cannot be seen seems sketchy even to the devout.)

“Faith is a virtue,” the saying says—but should it be considered as such?

Let’s look at that first part of Hebrews 11:1: The substance of things hoped for. We’re not talking about truth; we’re talking about what we want to be true. Wishful thinking, in other words.

When people ask the tough questions about religion (Where did God come from? How do I know my religion, among so many out there, is right? If there’s a loving God, why do tragic things happen to good and/or innocent people?), one common answer (and a sure-fire thought-stopper) is “We just have to have faith.” When a conversation with my believing friends gets to the bits that religion can’t explain, the ones that just don’t make sense, they’ll say, “Well, that’s where faith comes in.”

In other words, when the facts stop going your way, just ignore them and believe what you want—or, more commonly, believe something that won’t make you uncomfortable.

The appeal of faith

I see the appeal in believing that which you desire to be true. Really, I do. I can’t quite manage the leap to being an antitheist, though I think antitheism makes sense. Antitheists don’t merely disbelieve in God; they think the existence of a theistic God is a tremendously bad idea. Christopher Hitchens was an antitheist, and he often spoke about why he was vehemently opposed to the whole business of theism, faith and religion.

Hitchens called thiesm

“a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life, before you’re born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you’re dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true?”

(He also pointed out that, as awful as North Korea is, “at least you can f–king die and leave North Korea!”)

Now, despite the fact that I largely agree with what Mr. Hitchens says above, I do understand the appeal of theism. I feel it myself. I would like it if there was some form of celestial justice, whereby a Hitler and a Ghandi would have very different post-death experiences. I would love to be reunited with my loved ones after death, and to have the prospect of spending eternity with the people I love and respect most. (Though, if the Christians are right about hell, both that it exists and that anyone who doesn’t buy the Jesus story, no matter how good their lives were, will go there, then I will.)

And while I agree with Hitchens that a parent’s last and most loving duty is to die—it’s the ultimate way to tell our children they can make it without us—it think it probably would be nice if there was some celestial parent keeping an eye on things and making sure us humans don’t mess up too badly. (The state of or world is pretty good evidence there is no such overseer.)

Those things would give me comfort. But should I believe them just because I want them to be true?

Which is better, a happy wish or an unhappy truth?

Imagine you have a close friend who is madly in love with his or her spouse, and you have irrefutable proof that the spouse is having an affair. So you tell your friend—and your friend refuses to believe you. “My spouse would never do that!” Your friend explains away the behavior and accepts the excuses the spouse gives—working late, business trips, whatever.

It’s easy to understand why your friend’s immediate reaction would be to ignore the evidence and deny the affair. Who wants to accept such a painful truth?

But which is better for your friend—to live with a painless lie or accept a painful truth? I think most of us would agree that the best thing in this unfortunate situation is to accept the truth and move one’s life forward accordingly.

For me, it’s the same for belief in God. Yes, belief in God might give me some comfort. But I made a promise to myself: I want to live with the truth.

This isn’t always easy, and I have believing friends who ask me about it. “Isn’t it sad to think that when your life is over, it’s just over?” Why, of course it is. I think life is fantastic, and even if I live to be 120, I don’t think I’ll have enough time to enjoy it all. And I feel the same way about life after death. I’d love to be reunited with my father, my grandparents, and all the people I loved in my life who death has taken away.

Living with the truth vs. living with lies

But I can’t force myself to believe something just because I would like it to be true. That would mean lying to myself, and while self-deception certainly comes easy, I think it’s best to avoid it. I have too much respect for myself. I’d rather live with the truth. I deserve to live with the truth.

And, for better or for worse, the truth as I see it—the truth to which evidence and my experience points—is that there is no supernatural aspect to life. That means no gods, no one watching, no divine intervention, and when we’re dead, to slightly-out-of-context-quote Ani DiFranco, we are just dead.

Of course, the godless world-view also some very happy consequences. It means my mind and my life are my own. No one is listening to my thoughts. No one is judging my every notion. (Even if you do believe in a god, wouldn’t you want this to be true?)

The non-existence of God means I am judged not by an unseen divine being but by the people around me, and that judgement is based on what I do and say, not what I think. I owe my existence to no one, and the greatest force for good is that which my fellow beings and I can muster.

I am well and truly free!

So can you see why I am frustrated by the notion that religious faith—belief in the substance of things hoped for, evidence (or conviction) of things not seen—is seen as a virtue. To me, that’s nothing more than lying to yourself rather than facing what could be a painful truth.

How far can faith take us?

I have no doubt that faith gives people comfort. I’m sure it’s easier to face the death of a loved one when you have hopes of being reunited some day. (Though if people really believe that, wouldn’t you expect there to be a lot less crying at funerals?)

The danger of faith is that it can take us well beyond the limits of what most of us would consider human decency.

Faith is also what gives us the ability to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our fellow citizens of the world. (Pray for them, God will help.) It’s what lets us talk ourselves into a culture war against gay marriage when we can’t really put our finger on exactly what’s wrong with it. It’s what lets us convince ourselves that we can fly a plane into a building, extinguishing the lives of thousands of our fellow human beings, and be rewarded with a life in paradise.

Ask yourself: Is it better to live with a lie or to accept a painful truth?

Ask yourself: Is faith really a virtue?

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