May 16 2014

Preaching Against Skepticism

I strive to have a fairly nuanced approach to religion in this blog and my other skeptical outreach. In brief, I think that faith is a personal choice that needs to be kept outside the realm of science and is not a legitimate basis for public policy in a free and pluralistic society. Further, I think that the real issue is ideology, of which faith and religion are just one type. Political and social ideology are just as pernicious to critical thinking as is religious ideology.

But I see no reason to gratuitously attack faith or religious belief itself, as long as it stays in its corner and doesn’t bother with science or other people’s freedom. At the same time, I am happy to identify as an agnostic atheist, and will strongly defend that choice on both empirical and philosophical grounds.

Not exactly a rallying cry, but that’s the price you pay for having a nuanced position.

I do also think it is important to point out when advocates of faith take an anti-critical thinking position. This is why I personally think that faith is a net negative – very few people can keep a personal choice of faith sufficiently walled off from science and reason that it does not erode the latter. Faith is inherently irrational, and while I respect the freedom of every individual to decide for themselves whether or not to have any particular faith, I think it’s important to point out the inherent intellectual risks in believing anything without evidence or logic.

Case in point is a recent essay I found through the Skeptic Reddit – What to Do When You Have Questions, by David Edwards, writing for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS, more commonly known as the Mormons). The essay, in my opinion, demonstrates the mental gymnastics people must go through in order to reconcile faith with reason.

The purpose of the essay is clearly to provide a comforting rationalization for those who have doubts, to ease them through the cognitive dissonance so that they can have the illusion of an intellectually rigorous position. Edwards addresses the problem, “what if something doesn’t make sense?” by quoting president Hunter:

“These doubts can be resolved, if they have an honest desire to know the truth, by exercising moral, spiritual, and mental effort. They will emerge from the conflict into a firmer, stronger, larger faith because of the struggle. They have gone from a simple, trusting faith, through doubt and conflict, into a solid substantial faith which ripens into testimony.”

That’s it, reassurance that your questions will lead to a stronger faith. This assumes, of course, that your questions are not valid, or that they are based on your own ignorance, rather than any genuine conflict or weakness within the faith itself.

While Edwards goes to great pains to pay lip service to questioning and doubt, his answer is always an invitation to not think or question, which is the result of reassurance that questions will give way to stronger faith. You just have to make the effort.

He continues:

“If you find that a question isn’t that important, set it aside in your mental “To Be Answered Later” file.”

He essentially advises complacency. Don’t worry, you don’t know everything, but you know enough to have faith. Maybe sometime later you will be smart enough to see that faith was right all along, and if not, no worries.

The relationship between faith and doubt is further explored in a quote from Gordon Hinkley:

“As a Church, we encourage gospel scholarship and the search to understand all truth. Fundamental to our theology is belief in individual freedom of inquiry, thought, and expression. Constructive discussion is a privilege of every Latter-day Saint.

“But it is the greater obligation of every Latter-day Saint to move forward the work of the Lord, to strengthen His kingdom on the earth, to teach faith and build testimony in that which God has brought to pass in this, the dispensation of the fulness (sic) of times”

I don’t know how it could be made more clear – feel free to question, as long as you don’t question your faith. Your duty to your faith trumps freedom of inquiry; it is the “greater obligation.”

He finishes with advice on how to dispel doubt:

“Remember that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other.

“Should doubt knock at your doorway, just say to those skeptical, disturbing, rebellious thoughts: ‘I propose to stay with my faith, with the faith of my people. I know that happiness and contentment are there, and I forbid you, agnostic, doubting thoughts, to destroy the house of my faith. I acknowledge that I do not understand the processes of creation, but I accept the fact of it. I grant that I cannot explain the miracles of the Bible, and I do not attempt to do so, but I accept God’s word. I wasn’t with Joseph, but I believe him. My faith did not come to me through science, and I will not permit so-called science to destroy it.’”

Again, this could not be more clear. Doubt is bad and must be “dispelled” by faith. Faith trumps science, and the faithful should not let, “so-called science to destroy it.’ You do not and cannot understand God or his miracles, but don’t let your lack of understanding bother you. Faith is comforting, so just stop doubting, stop thinking, relax and just believe.

This approach is not limited to the LDS church. It is inherent to faith. The Catholic Church, for example, has their own guide to how to deal with doubt. The short answer is – look to authority (religious and biblical authority, of course).

What about Islam:

I want to tell you that what you have done is very brave- trying to get help to clear your doubts about the Truth is something that is necessary for any Muslim to do. Many people live and suffer with the disease of doubt in silence for years while it takes a toll on their mental, spiritual and even their physical health.

Their advice, again, is to put faith first. And also know that doubt is, “Shaytan’s Weapon of Choice” (Shaytan is Satan). Doubt is a “disease” that will hurt you physically.

It is clear that doubt is perceived as the enemy of faith. Doubt, however, is the beginning of true inquiry, of exploration, of objectivity. Doubt is essential to critical thinking and to intellectual progress.

There is an undeniable clash here of world views – faith vs critical thinking and intellectual openness and inquiry. Religious scholars often try to pretend that the two can be reconciled, but it is they who acknowledge the inherent irreconcilability. At best faith can be contained, walled off in a tiny corner (such as deism).

Its inherent incompatibility with critical thinking, however, seems unavoidable.

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