Faith a good bet? How do you know that?
I often hear something like this in defense of religious faith:
“Some people may need a delusion to get through life. Why take that away from them?”
The problem is this: How could an individual know if they would be better off being deluded?
Let’s suppose a person has a devastating condition (we all do, it’s called mortality). Let’s say it’s a virus that will cause terror, madness and death, but will display no symptoms until the final hours of the person’s life. The thought is that the compassionate thing to do is not tell them about it. What’s most important is that they enjoy the time they have left. After that, we’ll keep them comfortable while the virus takes their mind and body.
This is what religion does. It tells us that suffering, death and loss are only apparent as long as we do something or believe something (at least in Western religions). We do something like this when kids suffer. It’s almost automatic to tell a kid it’s going to be ok, even when we aren’t sure whether that’s true.
Back to our friend with the brain virus. Let’s suppose a treatment has recently been developed for this condition. His friends have never heard about the treatment. They haven’t kept up on such things because they have a solution: keep patients in the dark. This is the problem with taking religious advice from religious people. They are not the ones who keep up on alternatives to religion.
If you’re afflicted with something like mortality, you can seek guidance from authorities who offer competing answers which can not all be correct. Or, you can refrain from investigating your options and adopt a comforting story of your own. Or, you can go looking for answers yourself. This takes the most courage because there is no guarantee you’ll find anything. There’s no guarantee religion or self-delusion will work, either, but they at least promise answers.
In this regard, there are two kinds of people. Traditionalists will end their search early, assuming that the old, local answers are relatively old and local because they are good ones. Adventurers will strike out on their own, excited at the prospect of finding a better answer. We know people have strong inclinations one way or the other. Perhaps it’s even innate.
The issue is this: We still need the facts to know whether we would be better off being deluded. But if we are given all the facts, it is hard to put them back in the bottle, and the path of delusion is denied us. This is why religion is essentially authoritarian. It requires submitting to a central authority that supposedly knows that we would be better off adopting their beliefs. Religious faith is a form of delusion because there is no way to rule between them. Most people choose the local one, but geography is no way to settle it. If it were, we would convert to the local religion wherever we moved.
Atheism isn’t a set of beliefs. It is a rejection of theistic beliefs for lack of good evidence. Religious faith is a set of unprovable claims, which are inadjudicable and thus meaningless. Science is a set of methods to adjudicate provable claims. Things like “I know that God exists because I feel Him in my heart but I can’t demonstrate it to anyone else” are meaningless because we can’t prove or disprove them. You can easily see this when you replace “God” with “elves”, “unicorns” or “Elvis”.
So that’s all that atheism is. But atheists invariably are much more. We experience the nakedness of shedding our delusions. Unsteady without our old props, we often seek others out and compare notes. When we do that, we find there have always been people like us, people who peeked behind the curtain and saw how the trick was done. Many of us felt a loss of innocence, but it didn’t last long. It was replaced by a grown-up awareness that we shouldn’t have been content with what we had been told before. Besides, after looking behind the curtain, it’s too late. You can’t unbreak an egg or unhurt someone’s feelings. We could only move forward.
It’s not for everyone. I myself have experienced biting fear and uncertainty, but that is only part of the story. There is also the deep satisfaction of finding others who share my plight and walking with them. I have only one life. It will end forever some day. I don’t want to miss it living in a fantasy.
Religious faith requires that we believe we are incomplete and that life is unacceptable the way it is. It then offers unbelievable solutions, and always at a price. Like most products, religion must create its own market by creating a need. Suffering, death and loss are painted as something to be solved. Then, guess what! They happen to have a solution. This is why the promises of religion should be rejected: we can’t trust them. They are selling answers instead of methods. And they naturally claim that their faith is the only solution to the problem they created.
Life includes pain, but do we really want to be exempt from it? Can you imagine being the only human free of suffering? That’s impossible, right? Because others suffer. At minimum, we would feel their pain. If we couldn’t do that, we wouldn’t be human. Shared experience is what binds us together. If we had a life without pain, we would yearn for some in order to connect with each other. This is just one of the absurd things about Heaven. It assumes we can be content when our fellows are not.
When faced with life’s brutal side, we have choices. But there is no way to make an informed decision about whether we should adopt religious faith. Once we know enough about our alternatives, it’s too late to choose delusion. Religious faith can only be maintained by stopping inquiry early and often.