Having defended Richard Dawkins, one of our greatest God-bashers, in the first of these columns, it seems only fair in the second to consider a flawed species of argument from the other side of the debate.
Johann Hari spoke for many when he wrote in the Independent in May that “faith is a dangerous form of bad thinking – it is believing something, without evidence or reason to back it up. Where does that end?” I have every sympathy with the rhetorical thrust of his questioning and its implicit critique of extremism and dogmatism. Yet Hari is guilty of a common epistemological error, or at least of an epistemological crudity. Which is to say that his argument is a misrepresentation of the nature of knowledge and of what it is possible for us to know.
It is true that many beliefs can and should be tested against what we know of the world. I do not, for example, consider it reasonable to claim that anyone has ever come back from the dead, or that the world is ringed by a giant serpent, or that smallpox represents a form of divine possession—yet people have at some stage in history had faith in all these things. But I also do not consider it reasonable to claim, as Hari does, that any line of thought not based in “evidence or reason” is a bad one. Where will this end? If every claim that cannot be verified against empirical evidence is to be dismissed, we will soon find ourselves having to do without much of morality, aesthetics and metaphysics—effectively taking the position that there is nothing of importance to be said about many of the questions that most people spend much of their lives worrying about. This, surely, is a rather limited definition of importance.
As Hume argued, induction—the basis of the scientific method—is a matter of common sense rather than certainty. And common sense, if it means anything, means that our systems of thought must have some room to credit what is commonly said and done and thought. Do we all possess reasonable beliefs that cannot be supported by an unimpeachable rationale? Yes. Are all arguments made by people of faith necessarily wrong? No. Does their faith invalidate their ability to be rational? No.
To have faith in something is not, automatically, to be dogmatic or stupid. Indeed, it is the faith that a question is worth asking or an area of human life worth exploring that underpins philosophy’s most serious contributions to the world. Similarly, if criticisms of faith are to be a positive force, they need to deal with individual beliefs—and the way these beliefs are acted upon—rather than to pretend that it is adequate to vanish humanity’s oldest and deepest concerns into the ether with a few impecccably rational sentences.
Hari’s article as a whole is far from guilty of this, but it offers an interesting reminder of just how seductive the glow of righteousness—the belief that your assertion is free from error—can prove on any side of a debate.