Sunday, January 30, 2011

Faith is not a virtue - I

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
- Emily Dickinson

'Faith is good' is a meme (see this TED talk on memes) that I have heard since childhood. An article in The Huffington Post says:
Faith, as Gary Whittenberger wrote in Skeptic magazine, has multiple common uses.
"Faith" may refer to a religion or worldview, as in "My faith is Islam." It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in "I have faith in my physician." Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence.

It is this latter use of faith that is incompatible with science.
I also have problems with the third meaning of faith. Believers, whether deliberately or unwittingly, will blur the lines between these various meanings in order to justify their strange tales.

Following my stroke, there was an avalanche of 'cures' suggested to me - powders, pastes, oils, threads, mantras, etc. There being no shortage of gods and godmen in India, there was no dearth of these ideas. Many of these suggestions were given by concerned womenfolk who were in thrall of various godmen and believed implicitly in all their tales. I tried to keep an impassive expression because, as everyone knows, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. (Any resemblance to any real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.) Moreover, they were nice people who were telling me the most potent things they knew and I didn't want to 'say' or do anything that might hurt their feelings.

I will be told - 'Even your son believes it, why can't you?' Seriously, I should think like a four year old? At that age one would think that the earth is flat. (Perhaps that is the wrong example. You don't need to be four years old to think that the earth is flat.) Though not personally religious, I thought at the time that religion must be shown respect. So I generally kept quiet and listened with a dumb smile. I must have looked like Bertie Wooster listening to Aunt Agatha (the one who chewed broken glass pieces and had babies for breakfast).

I will be told that for these things to happen, I must have faith. Over time, I began to think that 'faith' is a five-letter word for 'anything goes'. It was the opposite of doubt. 'Faith has no reason' seems to be the ultimate get-out-of-jail statement ever thought of. As the former preacher turned atheist Dan Barker said, "Faith is a cop-out. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can't be taken on its own merits". A Hitchslap is in order - "What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof." I have never said it till now. It does not have the same punch if dictated letter by letter.

I used to get very irritated when Sujit used to be told that tying some thread would make him do well in exams. When he was much younger, he thought that this was a good idea: he need not study at all and if he ties some thread, he will get all the answers during an exam. We had to convince him that it was not so simple. There is a get-out-of-jail statement for this situation also - 'Do your best and god will do the rest'.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola said: “We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides” Such a sentiment is alright for a romantic song but I don't know how a person can hold such a position as his guiding principle in life. It boggles the mind how two such contradictory worldviews can exist in one head. Faith has consequences.

But there are situations when faith can lead to good actions as Robert Sapolsky says towards the end of this speech. (Listen to the whole speech because it is entertaining but the relevant portion is towards the end.)

Aside - In The Song of the Dodo, there is an example of a belief that I don't have a problem with:
In the clarity of a Monday morning, I take another glance at the diamond- shaped highway sign with its TASMANIAN TIGER, NEXT? KM alert. Just beside that one is a smaller sign, which I didn't notice on Saturday night. EVERYONE NEEDS SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN, it says, Closer inspection shows me a foam-topped mug, and the fine print: "I believe I'II have another beer."


  1. What I have a problem with, is people with faith claiming moral superiority over those who don't readily subscribe to those ideas. You are free to believe what you want, but don't give yourself the right to tell me how to behave, think, act, etc....

    Incidentally, one can also think of other ideologies that are like religion - communism, secularism of the Indian variety, Gandhian thinking, etc. - leading to the same attitude of intellectual, moral and spiritual superiority.

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  3. Hey Suresh...Faith is what keeps many people motivated to go through life's hurdles..Faith is just a strong belief in something...For some ,it is their God,for others,it is some baseless idea,thought, it anything.I respect people's faith as it makes them live..My faith is a strong belief in MYSELF..Am sure you have some kind of faith or belief which is pushing you through life...Our children believe all that we tell them...That is FAITH.Si in effect,having faith in something IS surely a virtue...what say??