Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Faith is not a virtue - II

Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt. - Clarence Darrow

From my early teens, I was skeptical of considering some people who wear the right uniform as the repositories of all knowledge about Life, the Universe and Everything. Galileo, a devout Christian, said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” I remember listening to a podcast where the speaker said 'progress depends on learning how to reject authority of priests and rulers' or words to that effect. I agree.

Priests will extol the virtues of faith and they will decry the lack of faith in people as a major shortcoming. This is not surprising. Their power and pelf depend on it. They would like as many people as possible to lead an unconsidered life. (This result was not a surprise.) They would have loved the punchline of an ad I came across some time back -'Thinking is such a waste of time!' (I don't know the product - I wasn't paying attention and only looked at the TV when I heard the punchline.)

Whoever first got the idea of putting faith on a pedestal should be regarded with awe. Having people conditioned not to think is a great way to avoid scrutiny. When I see clips of huge crowds at religious functions listening intently to the pious rambling of some guy in a funny dress, I can't help thinking about Einstein's words: "He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice." I didn't think along these lines before my stroke but now that I have had the time to read and reflect, I increasingly feel that religious faith is a problem and not a virtue.

There are way too many poor people in the world and it is not surprising that they unquestioningly accept what their priests tell them. People who are struggling to get two square meals a day or who are trapped in deadly conflict zones cannot reasonably be expected to ponder over the implications of faith. The simplistic explanations of religion that I find so unsatisfying seem to give them some kind of comfort in their daily struggles. What is puzzling is that many people who are much more privileged and very smart tend to think in the same way. The amount of cognitive dissonance that they can live with is staggering.

In this talk by Dan Dennett about some reasons why many people profess a 'belief' in god, one of the reasons he gives is a fear of a 'catastrophic collapse of consensus'. Perhaps this is the reason why some vitriolic comments about 'New Atheist' books have been by people who are themselves not believers. This fear is exemplified by some comments quoted in The Blank Slate (I saw a post last month about the book):
In a scene from Inherit the Wind, the play about the Scopes Monkey Trial, the prosecutor and defense attorney (based on William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow) are relaxing together after a day in court. The prosecutor says of the Tennessee locals:

They're simple people, Henry; poor people. They work hard and they need to believe in something, something beautiful. Why do you want to take it away from them? It's all they have.

That is not far from the attitude of the neocons. Kristol has written:

If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded - or even if it suspects - that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.

He spells out the moral corollary:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work.

As the science writer Ronald Bailey observes, "Ironically today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is 'the opium of the people'; they add a heartfelt, 'Thank God!'"
Another reason that Dennett gives is the love and respect we have for a lot of religious people. I have not been religious since my early teens so it should be easy for me to criticize religion but it isn't because of this constraint. Most of the people I know are religious to varying extents and I get along well with them. It doesn't feel good to criticize the cherished beliefs of those close to you even if you find them (the ideas not the people) weird. You tend to nod politely and swallow your words.


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  2. Should have read this post too before putting my comments on Part I....BTW,Got an opportunity to listen to Nick Vujicic who came to Doha..Was thinking of you....he is a devout Christian!!!Well..that defines FAITH...

  3. Leela,
    See this post.

    We seem to have gone in exactly the opposite directions.

  4. Hmmm........"I didn't think along these lines before my stroke but now that I have had the time to read and reflect, I increasingly feel that religious faith is a problem and not a virtue."
    My comments were based entirely on the above quoted sentence....What i wanted to say is that religious faith does drive people and so as non-believers,you and I cannot say that it is a problem.I found a lot of similarity in yours and Nick's way of thinking....but he is driven by his faith in God and in your case,it's your pragmatic thinking.....