We of little faith
By SUE BLACKMORE, GUARDIAN
Added: Thu, 07 Jun 2007 23:00:00 UTC
Thanks to Linda Ward Selbie for the link.
Religious belief is inconsistent with reason and corrosive to the human mind - and I don't want to live in a world where it is respected.
"Religious faith is not inconsistent with reason."
I nearly choked on my breakfast when I heard this on the Today programme. These words were spoken by Mr Blair, in his inimitably sincere style. He was addressing an Islamic conference in London, on June 4, and pledging more money to support Islamic studies in British Universities.
When I'd calmed down I went to check, and it really is true. In the full text of his speech, on the No 10 website, he says:
"In the face of so much high profile accorded to religious extremism, to schism, and to confrontation, it is important to show that religious faith is not inconsistent with reason, or progress, or the celebration of diversity."
But religious faith is inconsistent with reason (and much more that we value as well).
I'm not referring to the ordinary kind of faith by which we have faith in another person's honesty, or that taking an aspirin will reduce our headache. I am talking about religious faith, as Tony Blair was too. In this context faith means believing without reason. Indeed, this is precisely how it is defined, for example as "Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence" or in Merriam Webster as "firm belief in something for which there is no proof". Does this make faith inconsistent with reason? I would say yes. Reason demands that you look for evidence and believe accordingly - which is exactly what we do when we trust a friend because they've been reliable in the past, or doubt a rumour until we've checked on the facts.
Faith is corrosive to the human mind. If someone genuinely believes that it is right to believe things without reason or evidence then they are open to every kind of dogma, whim, coercion, or dangerous infectious idea that's around. If someone is convinced that it is acceptable to base their beliefs on what is written in an ancient book, or what some teacher tells them they must believe, then they will have no true freedom of thought; they will be trapped by their faith into inconsistency and untruths because they are unable to throw out false ideas when evidence against them comes along.
The whole point of a university education is to learn to think for yourself, to criticise theories, to compare ideas and to find out the truth by research, exploration and experiment. Whether you are studying French, chemistry, or psychology, you are given tools for thinking independently and ways of evaluating other people's claims. In this there is no room for faith, and should be no room for faith.
I want to be clear about some things I am not saying. First I am not saying that everything has to be rational. There is much about human life that has little or nothing to do with rationality; there's love and affection, art and poetry, happiness, beauty and intuition. But none of these things has to be taken on faith. University courses include much that is not rational, not just in arts courses but even in science, where one has hunches or enjoys beautiful ideas, but again there is no room for holding onto religious faith - wherever the ideas come from they must ultimately be thrown out if they are shown to be wrong.
Second, I am not saying that no students should have religious beliefs. This is (and must be, in a free society) a matter for them, in the privacy of their own minds. There will always be some students who believe things on faith and others who don't, but the job of a university course is to make people think and to give them the tools for doing so. Faith is not one of those tools. Indeed, by and large, a university education reduces religious belief, as indeed it should.
I have had countless students on my psychology courses who began as believers in God, or the afterlife, or spirits and souls, and then had to question those beliefs through the process of learning how the mind actually works. I have seen them (and I hope helped them) go through this painful process of throwing off their restrictive childhood religious beliefs and learning to live with the uncertainties and open-mindedness needed for real learning.
Finally, I am not saying there should be no courses on Christianity or Islam or any other religion. There are and should be, for there is much of importance to study: the history of the religions, the beliefs, their cultural background and much more. But universities should be teaching people how to think, question, and understand these things, not to have faith in "truths" proclaimed without reason or evidence.
Tony Blair pronounces the word "faith" with just that touch of special reverence in his voice, as though it were something to respect, something we should admire in others and grant them licence to believe whatever they want on its account. Indeed he proclaimed that the conference was "an opportunity to listen; to hear Islam's true voice; to welcome and appreciate them; and in doing so, to join up with all those who believe in a world where religious faith is respected". How despicable. How creepy. How frightening when we see the dire consequences of faith-based actions all around us.
Of course people of faith want us to respect their beliefs. For they have no other way of defending them than to appeal to respect, to promise rewards for believers, or threaten punishments for unbelievers. So anyone who cares about the truth should resist these meme tricks. Religious faith is something that we should struggle to throw off when we have better ways of learning the truth about the universe we live in; something we should overcome rather than something we should respect.
I, for one, do not want to live in a world where religious faith is respected. I do not want more "faith-based initiatives". I do not want more faith schools, and our great universities should continue to teach people to think for themselves, to respect the truth, and to take nothing on faith.
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