Faith is not a virtue

By John L Perkins

Faith is one of the seven "heavenly virtues", according to Christian doctrine and folklore. However this is perhaps the most fundamental flaw in the religious conception of ethics. Faith is not a virtue, at least in the sense that it requires the abandonment of reason and the disregard of evidence. Religious faith is in fact a moral failing.

The problem of "moral creationism" was first identified by Plato. If morality is defined as a whim of the gods, then it is arbitrary. If not, then it is determined by objective criteria, not by supernatural beings or superstitions. This is not, of course, the only contradiction that must be maintained to sustain religious belief. Numerous other contradictions, within and between religions, as well as contradictions with known facts, must be studiously avoided or denied.

However the contention that religions provide valuable moral guidance is commonly expressed, including by some atheists. Presumably this is based on the assumption that the concept of supernatural rewards and punishments provides moral incentives. Religions do inspire charitable work. However the more religious countries also tend to be more crime- prone. So there is little evidence for the community benefits of faith. Religions, of course, cannot accept that blind faith itself is actually a sin, because that would undermine their existence.

The idea that faith, any faith, can provide community benefits was a theme of the so-called "Parliament" of World Religions, held in Melbourne in December 2009. Another theme, that religions provide a path to peace, sat rather incongruously with the fact that religions are responsible for a range of major conflicts around the world.

A rabbi attending the convention even claimed that religion, not secularism, must provide the path to peace in the Middle East. Yet the prime cause of strife in the region is the notion that one type of belief provides entitlement to other peopleís land. The solution to this, and other problems caused by religion, is not more religion, but less.

Judging from discussions with attendees outside the venue of the PWR convention, a good many of them were "moderate believers", rather than fundamentalist types. Many humanists believe that engaging with attendees at multi-faith forums is a good opportunity to exchange views and seek common ground.

With this in mind, several freethought groups gave a joint presentation to the convention to represent our views. In my case, the intention was to give reassurance, but at the same time be thought-provoking. The text of my brief talk, on the subject of secularism and religion, was as follows:

Many religious people have reservations about secularism and the promotion of non-religious views of religion, society and morality. But they have nothing to fear. Secularists wholeheartedly endorse the concept of religious freedom. The Parliament of World Religionsí theme is bringing religions together in peace. Secularism provides the ideal philosophy to achieve this.

Secularism had its origins in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended decades of religious warfare in Europe. State sovereignty in matters of religion was then established, together with the private right to practise the religion of individual choice. They agreed to live and let live.

Still today, most countries in Europe have an established state religion. What we now commonly regard as secularism, "the separation of church and state", derives from the constitution of the United States, as amended in 1791.

In 2005, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, defined "comprehensive secularism", with three components. These are: the separation of religion from the institutions of state; state impartiality between religions; and protection of human rights from intrusion from religious beliefs and practices.

In this regard, in Australia, we are not secular, because while the state may be somewhat impartial between religions, we massively endorse religions to the tune of tens of billions of dollars per annum in subsidies to faith schools and tax concessions to religious enterprises.

How can a non-religious moral philosophy provide both a guide to personal ethics and a basis for social and economic policy? It is the view of many in the religious fraternity that religious beliefs are necessary for morality. However, I think this is clearly not the case, and indeed, the reverse is the case, for religious beliefs can often seriously impair moral decision-making.

A non-religious basis for morality can easily be stated, based on the universal principles of compassion, honesty, freedom and justice. In any moral dilemma, we should try our best to implement these principles. Such principles are not absolute rules. But, as Immanuel Kant suggested, a principle should be ignored only if circumstances justify that another principle has higher priority.

Such a principle-based system is commonly used in biomedical ethics, where the principle of compassion that is used is non-maleficence: do no harm. The universal application of a principle-based system of ethics can be seen with the addition of a further principle: the principle of utility, as first articulated by Jeremy Bentham in 1789. The "the greatest good for the greatest number" still forms the basis of most economic and social policy today.

Why do I suggest that adherence to religious belief may impair moral judgement? The first reason is in relation to the principle of honesty. This requires a diligent search for the truth using all available evidence and reason. Religious advocates systematically avoid this quest. Where, in this parliament, has there been any discussion as to which belief system is justified by evidence which is true, if any?

The second great moral failing of religion is in relation to freedom: the ability of the individual to make free choices, free from coercion. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the right to "freedom of thought, conscience and religion", and for the right to freedom from coercion in matters of religion. A child is a person. Children also have this right. In what religion is a child encouraged to exercise freedom of choice regarding religion, free from any coercion?

As John Lennon once wrote:

Imagine thereís no heaven, itís easy if you try,
No hell below us, above us only sky.
Imagine thereís no countries, it isnít hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion, too.
That is the path to a better world.  
Suffice it to say that following our talks, many in the audience found our views challenging, but others found the exchange interesting, and perhaps refreshing. The panel, I think, found it gratifying that our right to freedom of expression had been duly exercised. As an atheist standing outside the convention, I found that many of the more sceptical attendees agreed that the contrived pretence that there was no conflict between the truth claims of the various religions was somewhat surreal.

In seeking to engage with believers and with the wider community, how much should humanists play down their atheism? Should we regard atheism as being merely incidental to humanism? In my view, we should always be polite and diplomatic, and we should criticise beliefs rather than believers, but we should not shy away from asserting that religions are not only untrue, but also unnecessary and undesirable.

Given the great humanitarian cost, in terms of human rights and social welfare, that some religions, particularly Islam, inflict on their believers, it is counterproductive to collude with believers who deny these problems exist. Believers are often deluded by wishful thinking about the benign nature of their religions. Failure to contradict the dubious assertions of religions may be taken as acceptance of their validity.

The use of the word "delusion" in relation to religious belief can be confronting to believers, but provided it is clear that the intention is to help, not to insult, then the judicious use of the word should not be avoided. Wilful blindness to contradictions is characteristic of religious belief. Believers themselves characteristically explain the motivation for their belief as arising from the fulfilment of some kind of emotional need, rather than evaluation of any truth criteria. Psychological delusion is thus not only an appropriate description of the phenomenon of religion, but also the key to properly understanding it.

It is also necessary, I think, to defend atheism from accusations from religious advocates and others, that atheists are "intolerant", "indignant", "angry", "arrogant", "militant", and other such descriptions. These accusations arise because believers find the mere idea of atheism threatening, and so they exhibit these emotional responses. Merely expressing a preference for reason and evidence cannot be arrogant or deserving of any other such term of abuse. It is also most unfair to malign atheists in this way, when generally they are motivated by a deep humanitarian concern about the damage in the world that is caused by all forms of religious delusion.

While it is not necessary to be condescending to religions, it is important to recognise that having moral values based on reason and rationality is in fact superior to having values that are merely based on ancient dogma and superstition. Faith is not a virtue. As ever, our values and morals should be derived from universal principles such as compassion, freedom, honesty and justice.

Dr John L Perkins is an economist and is a founding member and president of the Secular Party of Australia.
This article was published in Australian Humanist, No.97, Autumn 2010.

(C) Copyright 2010 John L Perkins