It’s the Faith, Stupid!

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Many freethinkers, especially when congregating in small groups, burn a significant amount of mental oil pondering the improbable fact that millions of seemingly normal people reject mountains of scientific evidence in favor of blind faith. This is especially the case when it comes to the theory of biological evolution by natural selection, which is not merely rejected in favor of some plausible alternative hypothesis, nor locked in some purgatory of perpetual skepticism, but outright denied in favor of belief in magical, divine machinations.

Apparently, such logical errors are not the result of a general cognitive deficit. If that were the case, these same individuals would scarcely be able to dress themselves, and the streets of America would be awash in men and women, only partially clad in their Sunday best, lost en route to the local mega-church. No, if there is a pathology afoot, it is one that selectively diminishes capacity for critical thought in very specific areas – a not very likely prospect.

It could, as has been argued, be a simple matter of willful stupidity – a striving to maintain the bliss of enduring ignorance through acts of self-deception. In fact, Larry Moran, at Sandwalk, has posted a piece with the provocative title “Do Fundamentalist Christians Actively Resist Learning?” This post reiterates the point that there is an inverse correlation between educational attainment and religious fundamentalism, and goes on to puzzle over the “remarkable” phenomenon that a “significant percentage of fundamentalist Protestants can go to college and still reject the basic scientific fact that humans evolved.”

As we’ve seen time and time again on the blogs (and elsewhere), the Christian fundamentalists have erected very strong barriers against learning. It really doesn’t matter how much they are exposed to rational thinking and basic scientific evidence. They still refuse to listen.

But, is it really that fundamentalist Christians are averse to scholarship or somehow unable to comprehend scientific concepts? While that may feed into our idealized view of nontheists as the exclusive members of the community of reason, I don’t think this premise holds up under scrutiny. Too many fundamentalist Christians exhibit other signs of intelligence for this to be the case. And it would be naive to view all Christian theology as simplistic and childish; in fact, Christian apologists have jumped through astoundingly complex theological hoops to support their core beliefs in the face of what others might consider daunting and compelling contrary evidence.

Instead, I suspect that education is not always able to overcome preposterous and unsubstantiated beliefs as a consequence of faith. That is, faith, elevated to the status of virtue. Sola fide, the road to God’s grace. The sort of faith, the defense of which becomes a matter of preserving one’s very soul. Once faith is framed as more virtuous than materialistic scientific evidence, it is no longer amenable to argument, and the glossolalic apples are unable to communicate with the jargon-speaking oranges.

But, of course, faith is not a virtue. To a scientist, faith – holding to views that are unsupported by evidence – is a cardinal sin. And it is this, rather than the content of specific factual disagreements, that warrants our consideration. Faith is anathema to critical thinking, and has fallen into well-deserved disrepute in most spheres of our existence. But when the magisteria of science encroaches into a believer’s essential biblical worldview, faith is touted as the salvation of mankind and presidential candidates.

Rather than framing religious believers – even those holding fundamentalist, literalist views – as incapable of rational thought and as being willfully resistant to enlightenment, we should seek to understand the roots of this faith, and what attributes might make some more susceptible to its grip than others. At the very least, perhaps we can encourage this faith to be relegated to its rightful place, at the alter of the primum movens.

As Richard Dawkins has said:

The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.

Amen.

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30 December 2007

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