I have been reading a number of different books lately on the subject of religion. Some have been fairly neutral towards religion in general and some are particularly negative towards it. I fully expected when delving into this territory that I would see all kinds of things about religion I didn't like and a few things I did like and mostly the books I have read have pointed out some good things about it. The general theme I have been encountering is that religion has some issues, particularly with fundamentalists who justify all kinds of awful behaviour with quotes from their religious leaders or holy book(s) but that religion has many redeeming values. Many of the opinions I have come across celebrate the virtues of family, faith, community and continuity that religion (according to them) provides, and most books and articles strive to maintain a positive spin on religion in general while condemning specific viewpoints or practices. Largely I felt myself agreeing that religion had some positive points to it even though many atrocities are committed in its name.
One of the most recent books I have read though really changed my mind on this matter. The book was Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. By far the most telling point he made in the book to my mind was his demolition of the image of Faith as a positive aspect of religious belief. Throughout my life I had always thought of Faith as a bit of sillyness perhaps, but nothing sinister. I generally thought of believing in things with no rational or scientific basis as a mistake, but Faith was lumped in with believing in a horoscopes, ghosts or crystal healing power. Dawkins specifically made the point that Faith was in fact what allows religious extremism to flourish and deceive.
When your local religious figure tells you that Faith is a virtue they are almost surely telling you that they want you to believe in things that are invisible and undetectable. I think what they generally intend is to instill a sense that there is a basis for optimism and hope. Unfortunately teaching people that they should ignore their internal moral sense and/or the laws of the land they inhabit and follow the literal words of anyone associated with a particular organization lead to religious extremists being able to convince people of things that are wrong in nearly everyone else's mind. Praising Faith is essentially the practice of encouraging people to ignore:
Their internal moral sense
The findings of scientists, reasearchers, and thinkers
The scientific method
The laws of the land they inhabit
in favour of:
What a particular set of extremely old texts written in another language says
What specific people say as long as they are associated with the religion in question
I am confident many people would argue that their Faith does not involve breaking laws, ignoring science or committing immoral acts. For large percentages of the population Faith is simply believing in some inherent goodness in the world and denying that the universe is simply random and uncaring. For many of these people they in fact pay little attention to what their particular religion says and simply take part in the rituals for various reasons. Obviously this variety of religious practice isn't harmful of itself, but the idea of accepting truths that cannot be disproved by their very definition are still there, and still problematic. When you encourage people to believe in something that cannot be disproved and refuse to accept any condition that would change your opinion you lay the foundation for religious extremism and the terrible things that come with it.
Probably the most powerful concept I have found in this research I have been doing is actually attributable to a friend of mine, The Philosopher. He said "What if I am wrong?" This is something that is the antithesis of Faith. Faith encourages us to believe regardless of physical evidence, regardless of personal feeling, regardless of law. A person bent on destruction for a fundamentalist cause does not ask the question "What if I am wrong?" because they have been told that they are not wrong, they cannot be wrong and that nothing could occur to prove them wrong. Their beliefs are absolutely undeniable and thus there can be no doubt. A person reliant on rational thought and scientific methods can express exactly how they could be wrong, what would prove them wrong and how they sat down and tried to make sure they weren't wrong. The very act of being willing to admit that you might be mistaken and that the world might not be quite the way you thought encourages us to moderation and to ignore extremist points of view. It is much easier to commit unthinkable acts when you refuse to acknowledge doubt or uncertainty, which is the danger of Faith.
To give an example, if you told a person all their life that the best way to make decisions is to think about what feels right, ask the opinions of many people, consult the work of learned leaders and thinkers and sit down and evaluate the total benefit and cost of their actions I think you would find it very hard to convince that person to go and kill themselves in another country to attempt to murder those living there. This is particularly true because they are probably going to be worried about the possibility that the orders are mistaken. How in the world would you convince this person to go and commit horrible acts upon people they have never met at the cost of their own life?
Contrast that with the example of someone who is told all their life that there is a promised land waiting for them after death, that the translations and interpretations of a very old text take precedent over all other considerations and that obeying and defending those who also submit to these views is more important than their own life. Convincing this person to go to another country to kill and be killed will be much simpler. Of course not everyone is willing to be a martyr even when raised in an extremely fundamentalist environment, but the problem is that some people are. The culture of praising Faith even within the moderate religious community sets the stage for people to fall into fundamentalist viewpoints and groups by teaching them that they should do as they are told rather than what they know is right.
Some would suggest that without Faith there would be anarchy, as there are no basis for laws and no guidance for behaviour. This is simply not true, as there have been many successful (and peaceful) societies that have not relied on religion as a basis for morality. Even primates display an understanding of social order and will support those who are downtrodden while reviling or punishing those who refuse to stick to the unwritten rules. Any society whose laws follow the basic ideals of protecting people's lives, possessions and health from others who would attempt to destroy, endanger or steal them can function just fine without any religious basis. Many of our laws surrounding taxation, driving, finance, copyright and more have no basis in religious tradition whatsoever (in some cases because those concepts have not existed long) and yet they work well.
The fundamental concept I want to advocate is this: If we teach people to use rational thought, think "What if I am wrong?", encourage them to empathize with everyone (not just those in their particular clan/religion/country), ask them to respect the law and encourage the use of the scientific method we will end up with a population that is relatively immune to fundamentalist dogma and influence. Certainly this is not a formula for some kind of utopia as people will still be foolish, greedy, desperate and angry at times, but it would be better than what we have.