Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Why Faith Is Dangerous

The recent Twitter spat between two people whom I admire has prompted me to look again at faith and what it can lead to. They are the (normally) left-leaning political journalist with a mercurial mind, rapier wit and impeccable logic, Mehdi Hassan, who is also a Muslim, and the evolutionary biologist, author, Humanist and Atheist, Richard Dawkins.

The spat began when Dawkins, who had previously been told by Hassan in a public debate, that he believed Mohammad had literally flown to Heaven on a flying horse, just as the Qur'an says, and Dawkins, perhaps rather abrasively (which is too easy with only 140 characters) seemed to question how he could hold such illogical views and still be considered an objective journalist.

I have previously written about the fallacy of faith and how how religious moderates can and do, albeit unwittingly, enable and permit religious extremism simply by giving a gloss of respectability to the idea that faith is a valid way to determine the truth; that the contents of a holy book can logically be held to be true, not on evidence or deductive reasoning, and even despite contrary evidence and common sense, by faith alone. I'm happy therefore to be seen as biased in this matter, if being objective can be considered biased.

I'm certainly biased in favour of factual and logical evidence because I don't regard my intuition or wishful thinking - call it what you will - as over-riding the evidence, and I certainly don't feel any obligation to hold evidence-free beliefs just because my parents pinned the label 'Anglican Christian' on me shortly after birth and got a priest to cast magic spells over me. If there is no evidential reason to believe something I see no reason to believe it. If I see evidential reasons not to believe something then I not only see no reason to believe it, I see reason not to believe it. It's that simple really. I have no difficulty following the evidence, no matter the conclusions to which it leads me. So in this respect I can see exactly where Richard Dawkins is coming from.

I admire Mehdi Hassan because I see him brilliantly arguing some political point or other by skilfully marshalling the facts and showing the logical deductions to be drawn from them - and 'facts' is the operative word here. Would anyone bother to read Mehdi or listen to him on BBC Question Time if he only ever argued that such-and-such must be true because he had faith in it, or because it was written down somewhere and he believed the author unswervingly and uncritically? I think not. I think he would long ago have been dismissed as just another swivel-eyed, sanctimonious fanatic. What makes him the journalist he is is his mastery of the facts and devastating use of logic - together with his ability to communicate these with words, of course.

How then does he come to believe, apparently with complete certainty, and certainly without any hint of embarrassment, in flying horses? The answer of course is that Mehdi accepts without question that the Qur'an is unquestionable truth and that the god described in it is capable of performing miracles. So, not only is a flying horse possible because his god can produce one at will, but Mohammad would not have said he flew to Heaven on one if he didn't. Therefore, the only permissible belief can be that it really happened. To believe otherwise would call the entire Islamic faith into question because it would call Mohamed's reliability into question. It is not permitted to even think that Mohammad could have been hallucinating or worse, and the idea that he mistakenly took a mythical Greek beast he had heard stories about as being real and used it in some sort of poetic metaphor to describe a transcendental 'experience' had whilst fasting has to be dismissed because he was guided by Allah, who wouldn't have made that mistake.

But let's not forget that Islam is not the only religion that requires belief by faith in things for which there is no evidence and which logic tells us are absurd. Christianity also has it's mythical creatures, including talking snakes, donkeys and plants and a belief that a primitive blood sacrifice and the act of humans is required to satiate and empower an already omnipotent god, and that killing an innocent person somehow absolves you of responsibility for your wrong-doings which you didn't do anyway. The only reason to believe these things is because they were written about in a book, other people in your culture believe them and most of all because your parents did. There is no evidence for them outside the book so they can only be believed by faith.

The frightening thing is what this ready, even proud, acceptance of the absurd by faith can lead to, especially when it is presented as a good, moral, even intellectually honest thing and something to be proud of and admired for. Admired for believing something absurd without any evidence? Really?

If one believes in flying horses, talking snakes, and the efficacy of human blood sacrifices, why not also believe that women should be subservient to their husbands, father and brothers, that apostates and Atheists should be killed, that a raped woman has committed a crime, that clerics can mandate you to kill someone without trial for saying something they disagree with, and without the right of appeal?

And if you can believe in human blood sacrifice, talking snakes and a person surviving in the stomach of a fish for three days, why not carry out Jesus' instructions in Luke 19:27 and slay his enemies or that women should not teach, nor usurp authority over the man (1 Timothy 2:12) or that women should submit themselves to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18)?

Moderates Muslims like Mehdi Hassan seem capable of compartmentalising and sanitizing - of cherry-picking - their faith, so that harmless beliefs like that in flying horses and miracles can be held with conviction because they don't do anyone any harm, yet they manage somehow to avoid following the same logic to it's obvious conclusions when it would lead to behaviour not acceptable in a civilised society.

Just so with the many moderate Christians who can believe with conviction that a barbaric human blood sacrifice worked once and a mythical first couple did something wrong for which we all somehow bear individual responsibility of which only that blood sacrifice can absolve us, and yet not repress women, stone rape victims, naughty children, gays and people who eat shellfish, and slay Jesus's enemies like he ordered. Even otherwise perfectly rational Christians who accept the evidence for human evolution and thus that there was never a first couple who could have committed 'original sin' nor any point at which humans ceased to be animals and became the special creation of a god with space reserved for them in a 'Heaven', can believe that they need to say the right magic spells on a Sunday to be forgiven for that 'sin' and ensure they get their allotted space in Heaven, or that they have a close personal relationship with the magic creator of everything.

The problem is, the fundamentalists of all faiths don't seem capable of that degree of discrimination - of being able to discern shades of grey - and can point to the respectable, harmless and 'admirable' faith of the moderates to justify it, even accusing those same moderates of hypocrisy or worse. If you believe in flying horses why not believe unbelievers should be killed? Who are you to decide which of Allah's truths and instructions is right and which you can ignore? In their simplistic, black and white world of certainties, if you believe in original sin and talking snakes, why not slay Jesus' or Allah's enemies?

As the 9/11, 7/7 and Boston Marathon faith-based initiatives and the Sabra and Shatila and Srebrenica massacres show, there is nothing of which humans are incapable in terms of inhumanity to their fellow man once they subscribe to the notion that truth and the will of a god can be determined by faith alone, that their actions are demanded, even mandated by that god and that death is not the end but the beginning - and life is a cage from which death liberates us!

The problem is the delusion that faith is a good thing. Faith, or rather the delusion that faith is a good thing, is probably the greatest crime against humanity, inflicted on us by the priesthoods. Religious faith has probably been responsible for more death, destruction and human misery, and has filled more psychiatric wards, than any other single human idea.

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  1. Yes, this is the problem. Someone like Hassan may think he can just neatly rope off Islamic dogmas as beyond question and be a rationalist otherwise, but it doesn't work, because those dogmas will always intrude on the real world.

    What if he had to report on a story about something where Islamic dogmas naturally impinged -- say, about Muslim women in Europe resisting traditional male authority? What if he had to report on evidence supporting Tom Holland's hypothesis -- which I find quite credible -- that Muhammad was as fictional as Jesus or Abraham and that the Islamic religion and its early history were concocted by the Umayyad dynasty in the 8th century? How objective could he be?

    Anyway, I'm quite happy that flying horses aren't real. I mean, think about it. Pigeons are bad enough.

  2. at least mehdi hassan was polite and even showed some good debate skills on political issues despite running away when richard dawkin tried to confront him that why the heaven was always up there for religions?and why flying horse and not a anti gravity shoes? i think cause it was taken from greek mythology(i think it has been borrowed from there remember zeus horse pegasus in movies like wrath of the titan.I think you really need to see this rosa Prof-Pervez and hamza on religion and rationality

  3. it is a clip edited by someone to show quranic verses about creation in six days and it states clearly that quran says repeatedly that world was created in six days just like bible despite mehdi saying that quran doesn't says it clearly shows that he hasn't read it well otherwise one cannot miss this one.
    Richard dawkins vs Mehdi on flying horse

    1. It simply shows that an extremely intelligent person can hold 2 totally conflicting viewpoints simultaneously.One based on cutting edge science, rationally derived by reasoned critical thinking skills; the other based on myth & faith.
      One achieved with boundless epistemological inquiry; the other by the purposeful construction of epistemological road blocks designed to coral thinking... such a waste!


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