So now, having spent some time giving all the usual arguments, you’ve reached the stage of debate where your religious friend tells you you have to have faith. You’d understand, they insist, if you believed – and that, as far as they’re concerned, is that.
We’ve all encountered this. Used by theists as a roadblock to reason, all the assertion of blind faith does is demonstrate their ideas are unfounded: having failed to make ground with their best arguments, second best arguments and last resorts, they like at times to lean on special pleading, asserting that their positions are sacred simply because they’re unfounded. This isn’t a straw man argument, let’s be clear – there are plenty of bright religious people whose ideas, while still not convincing, are reasonable and considered. Yet the appeal to faithfulness is an infuriatingly common trick, bringing arguments swiftly to an end and alienating people on both sides. The trouble is, writing these people off as faithheads we just can’t reason with only serves to validate their cop-out.
Anyone fond of debate will agree that the ‘it’s my faith’ position holds no weight; all that it really displays is blind certainty and a phobic aversion to changes of mind. But someone willing to use such tactics probably won’t agree; rather, they’ll simply withdraw from discussion, bemoaning in hindsight how atheists, having turned their backs on faith, are simply unable to comprehend it. Yet aren’t we equally at fault if our only response is apathy? ‘Some people’, the adage goes, ‘you’ll never convince’; but if we let the argument end once faith’s been declared, we’re playing on our opponents’ home ground.
Those of us without religion, after all, have almost universally held faiths of our own at some stage in the past. If not through reading the books or articles of atheist philosophers, we’ve grown away from whatever religious backgrounds we held simply by living in secular environments, where faith isn’t encouraged and ideas have to be supported. The more we’ve leaned towards evidence, logic and common sense, the more our faithfulness has left us. We ought to understand, then, that it is possible to be argued out of it.
The fact is, faith isn’t self-substantiating. We know this, because when asked to have faith by people we argue with, we find the idea ridiculous. There are some, indeed, whose brains they say will simply not permit them to think anything without due evidence or logic. In such (admittedly enviable) cases, the adoption of any faith position is unthinkable simply as a concept. So while we faith itself might not be easily unravelled with the application of reason, it certainly can disintegrate with a change of attitude: before we could give up our own unevidenced beliefs, we had first to recognise that they weren’t worth having – and there are so many reasons to do so.
If nothing else, it’s undeniable that what we believe informs the way we act. As soon as we grant ourselves the luxury of not needing to verify our ideas, we take the risk of acting on basic fallacies – and as long as the way we act affects other people, this alone ought surely to be avoided. Apart from that though, why not remind whoever hides behind faith that its achievements historically have amounted to so little? We needn’t even be as controversial as to say religion causes harm – on the contrary, we need only ask for an undisputed human achievement based on unevidenced assumption to be named. The faithful will have to rule out, in answering that challenge, at least the entire fields of medicine, academia, politics, economics, exploration, engineering, astronomy, agriculture and philosophy. If that’s not enough, then we still have the trump card of asking why only religious beliefs be justified only with faith, and not the way people vote, spend their money or raise their children.
We might not be able to get past the faith of believers with logic and reason, but we can persuade them to give it up. Once you no longer consider it valuable or useful, having faith becomes instantly impossible: the people who think unfounded beliefs are okay are the only people able to hold them at all. And as soon as faith is taken out of the picture, then either the religious friends we argue with are convinced, or they step up the level of their arguments. Whichever it is, the benefits are universal.
President, Oxford Atheist Society