Faith as a virtue

As an atheist, when I hear platitudes like “You gotta have faith,” I think, “No, you really don’t.” Not only is (religious) faith not necessary for a good life, I believe it’s detrimental. How could it be a virtue to go around believing things just because you want them to be true, when there’s no evidence that they actually are? It’s not virtuous to be a gullible sap.

But when I go on about how believing things without evidence causes people to waste their time, money, and energy on a fiction, rendering them unable to take actions that would actually benefit them here in reality, some religious folks tell me their “faith” is not belief regardless of/despite the facts, but rather something more like “trust” or “optimism.” And it’s true — that is a sense in which the word “faith” can also be used, as in, “Jerry, I have faith that you’ll get those quarterly reports on my desk by Friday at noon.”

The thing is, I don’t think that really helps their case at all. Even that kind of faith is, itself, not necessarily beneficial or virtuous. What if Jerry was routinely late with all his work, routinely left early despite having missed deadlines, and was generally a disorganized slob around the office? It would be unreasonable and unwise to continue to “have faith” in Jerry’s work. Trusting in or being optimistic about things when you have no evidence to do so, or when you have evidence to the contrary, is, frankly, stupid. (What would you think of a manager who “had faith” in all her employees regardless of their actual performance records? Oblivious? Naive? Irresponsible?) The right thing to do would be to assess a person’s reliability or a situation’s chance of going well based on prior knowledge — of that person’s character and abilities, of similar situations you’ve encountered in the past, and so on. In other words: consider the evidence.

This attempted dodge really just gets us right back to where we started. Do you have any reason to expect that your god has a perfect plan for humanity, and for your life specifically? Do you have any reason to suppose that your god’s intentions are benevolent? Do you have any reason to believe that your god exists at all? If your answer to any of these questions is, “I have faith,” you’re probably being oblivious, naive, and irresponsible.

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  1. Ubi Dubium

     /  August 9, 2011 at 9:05 am

    From my liberal protestant upbringing, I remember a strong undercurrent of “faith is good, belief is important” underlying most of their messages. Even if other sects didn’t have the dogma quite right, they weren’t so bad because at least they “believed in something”. In hindsight, this is one of the most insidious things about religion. As people are deconverting and realizing their dogma is false, they don’t even realize how they’ve been conditioned to “believe in belief”, and they go off looking for some other set of canned answers to beleive in. I think that’s why I see so many ex-christians dabbling in new-age woo, or paganism, or what have you. It takes longer to shake off the dogma of “you have to have faith in something” because it’s hard even to realize that it is actually a dogma.

  2. There is a parallel problem with the word ‘believe’.
    To most religious people this means ‘I have faith that…’.
    Which is dead wrong as the dictionary states that the 1st definition is ‘knowing something from evidence’ and the 2nd is related to having faith.
    Because of this when I’m asked if I have faith, I say NO. The usual next question is ‘so you do not believe in anything’ to which the answer is also NO, because of the implied meaning they give the words.
    Faith and believing are not positive attributes.

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