Faith is a funny thing. When your hobby is discussing the deeper themes of life, it’s something that you tend to run into a lot. There’s always been something disquieting about faith; a feeling of wrongness when the person rebuts criticism of their opinion or belief with the simple phrase “I have faith in it”. It’s certainly a successful, if frustrating, way of stymieing a philosopher. What can you say to that? No you don’t? You shouldn’t? Generally speaking the conversation ends with an awkward “let’s agree to disagree” and quick change of subject. But what is faith? Is it really such a powerful philosophical assertion or can it be countered?
Generally speaking, the test for an opinion is as follows: Can you prove your claim with evidence or logic to the point where no criticism can be found of it (for the moment)? If yes, then well done. You have a logical basis for this specific belief.
If no, then the only way you can defend your belief in this particular claim is through faith. Faith is basically defined as belief in something that cannot be proven. This is usually the end of most disagreements; after all, if you don’t have to prove something then all the evidence to the contrary is irrelevant. As I said, this sudden change of rule can really throw your debating partner off their stride.
But there’s a problem here. If you use faith to defend a belief then you must accept that others can do the same. Furthermore, the protection faith offers you against criticism must be extended to others or else it cannot apply to you; when faith itself is belief that can’t be proven then how can one form of faith be more or less valid than another? That requires judgement, and judgement requires proof.
A Muslim believes and follows the word of the Koran, despite the fact that the only assurance they have that this is legitimately the word of Allah comes from the Koran itself. They do this because they have faith – there is no other objective evidence supporting this.
How then could they criticise Christians who follow the word of the Bible? The teachings of the two books often conflict, but Christians have faith in the Bible so they need no evidence. Given the Muslim only has faith to support their own views, how could they criticise the Christian’s belief? How can they resolve these conflicts when faith cannot be debated? How can both belief systems be true when they conflict?
But there is a bigger problem here. Muslims and Christians, and the majority of religions across the world tend to have very similar themes – love each other, worship god(s), play nicely, etc. The potential for conflict is (or should be) limited. But what if you have faith in something else?
If faith does not require proof, then there are no limits to what a person can have faith in. So if we accept faith as an acceptable basis for belief, how can we judge that belief to be right or wrong, good or bad?
What of the greedy, who believe that they deserve the money they make, regardless of the methods they use? What of the bully, who believes that only physical strength deserves respect? What of the racist, who believe entire groups of people to be inferior simply due to genetics? And what about the psychopath, who has faith in the voices in their head?
Faith leaves you in a very ugly position. Suddenly any and every belief is legitimate, provided only that the person has faith in it. What do you say to the psychopath? You’re causing suffering? He’ll simply reply that he believes it to be justified. That the evidence is against him? He has faith, so evidence is irrelevant. That his action contradict your own beliefs? He disagrees with your beliefs the same as you do his.
Faith is a philosophical dead end. Evidence is irrelevant and logic does not apply. What options does this leave you when a person has faith in something dangerous to you? What do you do when someone believes they have a right to rob you? What do you do once they believe you deserve less rights, based entirely on your race or gender? You cannot reason with them – faith negates that option. And if we respect that faith, how can we appeal to the government, police or other authority? For authority to rule that faith is unjustified in one case is to undermine the legitimacy of faith entirely.
Conflicting faiths are the unstoppable force meeting the unmovable object. There cannot be compromise. There cannot be debate. And there cannot be resolution. To do any of these is to betray that faith.
Just as with the old paradox, there is only one possible result;
Humanity is not omniscient. There is more information in the universe than we can comprehend, let alone expect to understand, and as such it is impossible to be absolutely certain about anything. It may absolutely be true that there is a god. The Scientologists may even be right for all we know. All we can do is act on the basis of the best information we have at a given moment and this leaves plenty of room for belief. But this belief must always be tempered by respect for the vast uncertainty that is the reality of human understanding, and faith does not leave room for this.
So consider your beliefs. If you tested them, would you find them reasonable? That there is evidence to support them? If so, you have no need for faith. But if not, ask yourself the question – what might someone else faithfully believe should be done to me?