Friday, June 8, 2007

Sue Blackmore on Why Faith Is Irrational


After publishing several comments by persons of faith, the Guardian's group blog has published an atheistic defense by Sue Blackmore, whose bio is as follows: "a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol. She has a degree in psychology and physiology from Oxford University (1973) and a PhD in parapsychology from the University of Surrey (1980). Her research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation. She practises Zen and campaigns for drug legalisation."

Is it just a coincidence, or is biology the one scientific discipline most likely to attract atheists? In any event, here is what she has to say:


I'm not referring to the ordinary kind of faith by which we have faith in another person's honesty, or that taking an aspirin will reduce our headache. I am talking about religious faith, as Tony Blair was too. In this context faith means believing without reason. Indeed, this is precisely how it is defined, for example as "Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence" or in Merriam Webster as "firm belief in something for which there is no proof". Does this make faith inconsistent with reason? I would say yes. Reason demands that you look for evidence and believe accordingly - which is exactly what we do when we trust a friend because they've been reliable in the past, or doubt a rumour until we've checked on the facts.

Faith is corrosive to the human mind. If someone genuinely believes that it is right to believe things without reason or evidence then they are open to every kind of dogma, whim, coercion, or dangerous infectious idea that's around. If someone is convinced that it is acceptable to base their beliefs on what is written in an ancient book, or what some teacher tells them they must believe, then they will have no true freedom of thought; they will be trapped by their faith into inconsistency and untruths because they are unable to throw out false ideas when evidence against them comes along.

. . .


I want to be clear about some things I am not saying. First I am not saying that everything has to be rational. There is much about human life that has little or nothing to do with rationality; there's love and affection, art and poetry, happiness, beauty and intuition. But none of these things has to be taken on faith. University courses include much that is not rational, not just in arts courses but even in science, where one has hunches or enjoys beautiful ideas, but again there is no room for holding onto religious faith - wherever the ideas come from they must ultimately be thrown out if they are shown to be wrong.

Second, I am not saying that no students should have religious beliefs. This is (and must be, in a free society) a matter for them, in the privacy of their own minds. There will always be some students who believe things on faith and others who don't, but the job of a university course is to make people think and to give them the tools for doing so. Faith is not one of those tools. Indeed, by and large, a university education reduces religious belief, as indeed it should.


. . .

Of course people of faith want us to respect their beliefs. For they have no other way of defending them than to appeal to respect, to promise rewards for believers, or threaten punishments for unbelievers. So anyone who cares about the truth should resist these meme tricks. Religious faith is something that we should struggle to throw off when we have better ways of learning the truth about the universe we live in; something we should overcome rather than something we should respect.

I, for one, do not want to live in a world where religious faith is respected. I do not want more "faith-based initiatives". I do not want more faith schools, and our great universities should continue to teach people to think for themselves, to respect the truth, and to take nothing on faith.


Read it all.


To me, this points out the wisdom of Robert Miller's point that we should not agree that religious faith and reason are two separate worlds. They are not. Is not reason one of the three sources of authority within the Anglican tradition? And speaking for myself, I certainly use reason in evaluating the claims of my faith.


It is certainly the case that there is no scientific "proof" that God existed, or that Jesus was indeed resurrected from the dead, but this does not mean that a religious belief in these claims is irrational. Assuredly, there is a leap of faith, but that leap is informed by reason. A belief in the resurrection, for example, is supported by the testimony of Paul and the four Gospels. And as Francis Collins has argued the fact that the universe had a beginning, that it obeys orderly laws that can be expressed precisely with mathematics, and the existence of a remarkable series of "coincidences" in the value of foundational scientific values that allow the laws of nature to support life can also lend strong support for a rational belief in God. A belief that God caused the universe to come into being and set its laws and physical parameters precisely right to allow the creation of stars, planets, heavy elements and life itself does not contradict science.

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