JR'S Free Thought Pages
            No Gods  ~ No Masters   


                                                               People of Faith

I was listening to a phone-in radio show the other day on the question of same sex marriages. One of the talking heads urged listeners that the views of “people of faith” ought to be respected and seriously considered when attempting to resolve issues such as this one.

 I’m bewildered by the commonly accepted notion by many people today that all opinions should be equally respected and that one person’s opinion is as valid or reasonable as any other. Moreover, many of these same people seem to think that a person’s beliefs should be commended carte blanche simply because they are religious in nature or firmly grounded in some religious doctrine. In western cultures that generally implies Christianity. Although in a democracy we are all ostensibly entitled to express them, some views and opinions are simply misguided, irrational or even incoherent. In my view religious people all share one common characteristic. Their deepest most passionate convictions are grounded in pure ether. They are not shaped by concrete realities, but through implausible assumptions and pure speculation. We have names we assign to people who have beliefs for which there is not a shred of evidence or rational assent. When their beliefs are popular and accepted by many we call them "religious"; otherwise they are likely to be called "mad", "psychotic" or "delusional". Most people who call themselves religious are, of course, not insane including religious zealots who in the name of some deity are inclined to crash airplanes into skyscrapers. But what is the difference between a man who believes that Allah will reward him with 72 virgins upon doing so and one who believes that there are invisible purple goblins from Neptune who are communicating with him through his cell phone?

 People may believe what they like with the proviso that no harm is inflicted on others as a consequence of those beliefs. However, the violent history of religion has shown and continues to show that belief often translates into action as it did most recently on September 11, 2001.

 Suppose, for example, I believe that there are invisible benevolent omnipotent green zombies in my back yard that mysteriously keep my lawn healthy and control my annoying mole problem? No one can subdue my private thoughts and consequently can do precious little to prevent what I choose to believe no matter how inane or vile. However, if I insist that everyone else believe as I or face personal torment from the wrath of His Royal Eminence the Grand Invisible Green Zombie, then there is clearly a problem.

 Faith may be defined as the belief in some concept or proposition for which there is no evidence. Why then should religious beliefs (articles of faith) be seriously considered in settling the important issues of society? The application of religious beliefs to settle the issues of abortion, right to life or gay marriages is no more legitimate than allowing faith to enter our courts of law or our university science labs. No reasonable person would take seriously a jury that ignored all evidence presented at a jury trial and came up with a verdict based on faith. Nor would he accept a new drug claimed to cure cancer if the only support for the claim was an “article of faith”. People of faith should heed the following truism:   Anything that can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence and consequently weighs heavily against the intelligibility of any discourse within the realm of religion.

 The inconsistency, irrationality, incoherence and outright immorality of many religious claims should prohibit them from having any bearing on the important issues of the day. The Bible, for example, is plagued by inconsistencies and absurdities. Consider the following as one example of literally hundreds:

 Fact 1: The bible clearly states that homosexuality is a sin punishable by death. (Lev 20:13)

 Fact 2: The bible clearly states that talking back to your parents is a sin punishable by death. (Lev 20:9)

 Fact 3: The bible clearly states that trying to convince a  Jew/Christian to believe in another religion is a sin punishable by  death. (Lev 24:15-16)

 Fact 4: The bible clearly states that being the victim of rape is a  sin punishable by death. (Det 22:24)

 Could someone explain why most Christians believe in 1, but not 2 through 4?


The following is an essay by the contemporary University of London philosopher A C Grayling. Grayling is an excellent writer and thinker in the tradition of Bertrand Russell. I highly recommend any of his books and you can visit his personal website at: http://www.acgrayling.com/. This short piece on "faith" is taken from his very excellent book "The Meaning of Things".


Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope. – Herman Melville

Some religious devotees feel so embattled and embittered by the questioning or rejection of their cherished beliefs that they are prepared to resort to murder, even indiscriminate mass murder, as happens wherever fanaticism mixes with resentment and ignorance to produce the hateful brew of what is done in the name of belief. 'Faith is what I die for, dogma is what I kill for,' as the saying has it; and the trouble is that all faith is based on dogma.

It is a curious fact that responsible enquiry, of the kind con­ducted by scientists and expected in courts of law, is careful in drawing its conclusions, and open-minded about the possibility of contrary future evidence, whereas, in sharp contrast, matters of faith are tenaciously regarded as inviolable, irrefutable, and unrevisable. The careful and open-minded procedures of science have given us electric light, antibiotics, central heating, television and computers. Science has often been perverted to bad uses - bombs and gas-chambers - but it is politics and politicians, not science and scientists, who do that. Religious belief, meanwhile, whatever it might do in comforting the fearful in the dark, has always and everywhere brought war, intolerance and persecution with it, and has distorted human nature into false and artificial shapes. Some try to palliate or even excuse the crimes committed by religion in human history by invoking the glorious art and music it has produced; to which the answer is that Greek mythology and secular avocations have done the same, without burning anyone at the stake in the process.

Faith is a negation of reason. Reason is the faculty of pro­portioning judgment to evidence, after first weighing the evi­dence. Faith is belief even in the face of contrary evidence. Soren Kierkegaard defined faith as the leap taken despite everything, despite the very absurdity of what one is asked to believe. When people can doggedly choose to believe that black is white, and can, in their utter certainty, go so far as to shoot you because you do not agree, there is little room for debate. 'Faith, fanatic Faith, once wedded fast to some dear falsehood, hugs it to the last,' says Thomas Moore's 'Veiled Prophet of Khorassan'.

In the branch of philosophy called 'epistemology' - the theory of knowledge - knowledge is defined as belief which is both true and justified. One main theory describes knowledge as a rela­tionship between a state of mind and a fact. The content of the mental state is a judgment responsibly made, and the fact is (for example) some arrangement of the world which, when the judgment is true, is what makes it so. Belief differs from knowledge in that whereas the latter is controlled by the facts, and depends upon the right kind of relationship between mind and world, the former is all and only in the mind, and does not rely on anything in the world. One can, in short, believe anything: that pigs fly, that grass is blue, and that people who do not believe either are wicked. This is what makes St Augustine's remark that 'faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward for faith is to see what you believe', so sinister; for if one can believe anything, one can 'see' anything-and therefore feel entitled to do anything accordingly: to live like an Old Testament patriarch, which is silly, or even to kill another human being, which is vile.

It must strike even desultory readers of the Old Testament that the god it depicts - a tribal deity - is a bully and a tyrant of the first water. The contrast with the New Testament's avuncular deity is striking. But what readers might not know is that some biblical texts have a decidedly questionable history. Consider Deuteronomy, which in the midst of yet another doctrinal quarrel within Israel, was suddenly and conveniently 'found' by workmen refurbishing the Temple; and of course it gave unequivocal support to one side of the argument. Yahweh often entered on cue like this, apparently unable to resist politics; and invariably on the winning side.

Jesus's divinity affords another example. In Mark's Gospel he is a man; in the theology of St Paul he is the medium of the New Covenant; in the fourth century AD, after a massive controversy over the Arian 'heresy' - Arius of Alexandria had argued that Jesus must be less divine than the Father - he became a god in human form.

An intriguing argument is offered by Karen Armstrong concerning the rise of Islam, which, she claims, resulted from an Arabic sense of inferiority. Arabs, she says, felt 'mingled resentment and respect' for Jews and Christians because they had enjoyed direct communication with God. Leaders like Zayd ibn Amr longed for their own people to receive a divine revelation. It came at last to Muhammad ibn Abdallah in a terrifying experience on Mount Hira outside Mecca, in which the angel Gabriel instructed him to 'Recite!' The result, produced at laborious intervals over the following two decades, was the Koran, the 'Recitation', whose sheer beauty of language is reputed to have been a frequent instrument of conversion in its own right.

But as with Christianity, splits and controversies followed, and Islam's early tolerance towards other religions soon vanished, as did the early freedoms enjoyed by its women. And again as with Christianity, the long-term legacy includes the familiar horrors of intolerance, bigotry and persecution which characterise all organised religion.

The concept of God, as these thoughts show, is a gerrymandered affair. It is an invention of man, because humans are spiritual creatures, and spirituality matters. Some of us argue that only art and affection can appease its hungers. Rather than seek new definitions of deity, or 'New Age' religions, we do better to dispense with theologies altogether, and place our hopes in the best of things human instead.

If one wished for a particular illustration of why, no better example could be adduced than that of Urbain Grandier, a man who made a fatal mistake long ago, in the year 1618. Grandier's wit, his intelligence, his worldly ways, the romantic scandals in which he became embroiled, would not by themselves have ensured his downfall, even though he was a politically active priest in a region of France where relations between the Catholic Church and the Huguenots were tense. But his wit was of the satirical kind, and when in that year he ridiculed a government minister called Armand Jean du Plessis, he did not know how high his enemy would eventually rise, nor how unforgiving his enemy's powers of memory would prove; for Armand was the future Cardinal Richelieu. 

Twelve years later Grandier was accused by the nuns of the Ursuline convent in Loudun, where he was priest of St-Pierre­du-Marche, of conjuring demons into them. The nuns knew that Grandier, tall and handsome, and a spell-binding orator, counted among his notorious liaisons a love affair with Madeleine de Brou, to whom he dedicated a treatise on why it is theologically permissible for priests to marry. Bewitched by him psychologically, the nuns came to think they had been bewitched by him literally. Following a visitation of the plague in 1630 there was a series of hysterical outbreaks in the convent, which began to coalesce around references to Grandier, and finally into accusations that he had summoned the devil to possess not only the Mother Superior, Jeanne des Anges, but most of the other nuns. The result is well known, in film and story, as the 'Possession of Loudun'.

There was an inquiry after the first outbreak among the nuns, but local skepticism and the more influential disbelief of the Bishop of Poitiers and the Archbishop of Bordeaux put an end to it. Not long afterwards, pursuing a general policy of demili­tarizing France's provinces, Richelieu sent his agent Laubardemont to Loudun to supervise the demolition of its fortifications. This policy was unpopular in Loudun as elsewhere, for in depriving provincial towns of their defenses it exposed them to the depredations of mercenary armies. Demolition of the walls was therefore resisted, and in Loudun one of the leaders of the opposition was Urbain Grandier. Laubardemont reported back to Richelieu, who instantly saw his chance to remove an impediment and settle an old score simultaneously. He instructed Laubardemont to reopen the demonism enquiry, and a terrible inexorability entered the picture.

Three exorcists - a Capuchin, a Franciscan and a Jesuit - set to work on the nuns of Loudun, interrogating the devils in Latin and Hebrew. Such writhings of bodies followed, and such lewd displays and language by the contorted women of the Ursuline convent, that all France was set alight. The demons were ordered to reveal who had summoned them into the nuns' bodies, and with one voice they replied 'Urbain Grandier!' The proceedings were public; up to 7000 people at a time witnessed the devil­prompted indecencies committed by the nuns. The Jesuit exorcist himself became possessed by devils, and Jeanne des Anges, when she had recovered from her ordeal, became a national celebrity, traveling all over France to speak of her adventures. 

The principal evidence against Urbain Grandier was a contract he had signed with Satan and assorted subordinate devils, all of whom - Astoroth, Beelzebub, and Leviathan among them - had put their signatures to the document too, in flourishing calligraphy. On such conclusive evidence Grandier's case was hopeless. Before being burned alive at the stake (lesser felons were strangled before the flames were lit) he was tortured in the 'boots', a contraption designed to crush the prisoner's feet and lower limbs. His exorcists, fearing that the common executioner would not be strong enough to overcome the resistance of the devils in Grandier, wielded the hammers themselves. He was dragged from the torture chamber to the stake, and even as (according to one witness) the blood and marrow from his mangled legs left a trail on the cobblestones, some of the nuns took pity on him and tried to recant. To the exorcists this was proof that the devils were not quite yet banished.

To read about the terrible fate of Urbain Grandier is to follow - step by inexorable step - a black story of intrigue, politics, malice, duplicity, credulity, suffering and madness. Alas, it is not unusual in the history either of human folly or the crimes of religion.

Grandier's fate is the fate of a man lost under the joint gov­ernment of religious superstition and human malice - a natural and ancient partnership. Malice will always be with us, one supposes, but a question can be asked about the other half of the equation. Does religious superstition any longer deserve a place in the intellectual economy of the world?

The history of human knowledge shows that it does not. Religion is the legacy of our cavemen ancestors. Religious beliefs constituted their science, religious practices their higher technology. As the former it offered them explanations of wind and storm, the origin of the world, the meaning of the stars. As the latter it offered a means of avoiding drought, curing illness, and winning wars - by prayer, sacrifice, and the careful observance of taboos and rituals, all aimed at pleasing or at least appeasing the mysterious and often terrible forces which seemed to them to govern the world.

God, accordingly, is the name of our ignorance. As real knowledge and mastery advance, there is diminishing need to invoke supernatural agencies to explain the world. Deities inhabit the dark places over the horizon of knowledge, and retreat as light approaches. Yet the priests of these ancient ignorances, claiming their authority, exhort us to restrict our behaviour in a variety of ways, some of the restrictions being merely odd (avoid meat on Fridays) and some demonstrably harmful to our well-being (frustrate your natural affections).

Perhaps the most striking conflict between ancient ignorance and modern knowledge is found in the competing accounts they offer of the origin and nature of the universe. Each of the world's many religions has its own version of a tale in which some or other supernatural agency acts upon chaos to bring the world into being, the task taking anything between an instant and a week. Few of them offer any account of the agency's origins, which are left in mystery. For most religions the creation story is a fact of faith, an absolute truth. Contemporary science hypothesizes an evolutionary tale of physical forces. I say 'hypothesizes', note; hypothesizes on the basis of good evidence, severely tested, with many aspects of the accompanying theory successfully applied to daily life - as exemplified by the light you read by, the computer you work on, the airplane you fly in. The great advantage of science's careful and thorough hypoth­eses, always ready to yield if better evidence comes along, is that it makes use of no materials or speculations beyond what the world itself offers. Religions, in sharp contrast, offer us eternal certitudes on the basis only of ancient superstitions.

Some scientists, amazingly, are religious, and they are apt to say that the best argument they can give for having religious beliefs is the so-called 'argument to the best explanation', which in this case says that, given the inconclusiveness of our state of knowledge, the best account we can give of the world is that there is a God.

This argument is famously weak. Two thoughts show why. One is that it is very far from clear that theism is the best explanation for the existence and nature of the world, especially as by citing the existence and activity of a deity to answer questions about why there is a world and how it came into being, it simply shifts the problem back a step - to questions about why there is a deity, and how it came into being. Secondly, there is the simple fact that even if, improbably, appeal to the existence of a deity were the best explanation human intel­ligence could invent, the fact is that what looks like the best explanation in any subject matter can be wrong. Such arguments are intrinsically feeble; they amount to saying, 'This is the best we can do to explain such-and-such in our present state of ignorance.' And ignorance is the key: gods invariably inhabit the shadowy realm of ignorance beyond the horizon of knowledge, a horizon which recedes before us - taking its supernatural baggage as it goes - as enquiry advances.

Science, one would think, has put the ancient superstitions to flight. A mighty battle was fought in the nineteenth century over this matter in respect of Christianity; its history is a complicated one, but religious missions - not just to Africa and the Far East but to the slums of London and New York, in all cases proselytizing the ignorant and unlettered who had not heard of science - saved the churches and laid the basis for the many fundamentalist denominations prevalent in the world today among peoples once colonized by the European powers.

Religious apologists speak much about beauty and goodness, personhood, and subjective experience. These are indeed the things that matter most. But apologists make the standard mistake - and often willfully make it - of conflating these high and good matters of human experience with anything supernatural. Humanity's sense of beauty, and decency, our power to love, our creativity - all the best things about us - belong to us, to human experience in the real world. They neither need, nor benefit from, some alleged connection with supernatural agencies of one kind or another. They are ours, just as much as the evil, stupidity, greed and cruelty which they oppose. Indeed: why do not religious apologists say that these bad things come from the gods, the better things from man, rather than - as they always claim - the other way round?

                              From A C Grayling The Meaning of Things (2001)

                                            The book is an excellent read


Quotations on “faith” by some well-known intellectuals:

 "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."    - Richard Dawkins {Oxford Zoologist}

 “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”  – H.  L. Mencken

 “The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

 “If faith cannot be reconciled with rational thinking, it has to be eliminated as an anachronistic remnant of earlier stages of culture and replaced by science dealing with facts and theories which are intelligible and can be validated.” – Erich Fromm

 “In questions of science the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” – Galileo Galilei

 “The truth is that Christian theology, like every other theology, is not only opposed to the scientific spirit; it is also opposed to all other attempts at rational thinking. Not by accident does Genesis 3 make the father of knowledge a serpent -- slimy, sneaking and abominable. Since the earliest days the church as an organization has thrown itself violently against every effort to liberate the body and mind of man. It has been, at all times and everywhere, the habitual and incorrigible defender of bad governments, bad laws, bad social theories, bad institutions. It was, for centuries, an apologist for slavery, as it was the apologist for the divine right of kings.” – H. L. Mencken

 “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”  -  Thomas Paine

 “A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets.”  - Arthur C. Clarke

 "Faith is often the boast of the man who is too lazy to investigate." - F. M. Knowles

 "Faith is believing something that no one in his right mind would believe." - Archie Bunker

                                                    F.A.I.T.H = Forsake All Intelligent Thought


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