In his book The End of Faith Sam Harris points out, “People of faith naturally recognize the primacy of reason and resort to reasoning whenever they possibly can. Faith is simply the license they give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail” (232). To believe something true without evidence or in spite of evidence is called faith — and many consider it a great virtue. A semantic distinction becomes necessary here; I am not talking about faith as trust — as in, “I have faith my wife will show up on time.” This type of faith is likely based on experience, e.g. the many times my wife has been on-time. Having faith as the result of weighing and thinking through available evidence is simply how one operates in a reason-based worldview. Logic, emotion, and even subtle “subconscious” cues may add to and aid our evaluations and calculations, but this kind of faith requires no leaping or revelation. This kind of faith does not require faith.
There is another kind of faith that lies “beyond” logic and cannot be shaken by logic. While our ideas about the importance of this kind of faith are likely based on a combination of childhood imprinting, evolutionary adaptation, and emotional gaps unsatisfied by reason, no amount of explanation or examination accounts for its power to those who have it. The importance of faith, especially in the concept of God — inlayed as it is upon our earliest experiences — becomes immune to the intrusion of logic and inquiry; as Freud states, “For any other question at all — even one that affects us so little as the question whether whales lay eggs — we demand more proof than we have for Providence.” And revealed religions recognize the need to regard faith as the final arbiter when judging what is true or false. The Bible provides a telling quote: “For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent” (1 Corinthians 1:19). Reason becomes faith’s enemy when reason points us in other directions; science and religion have been at odds because science does not recognize faith as a valid way of knowing, and is therefore not bound or convinced by the revelations and proclamations the faithful may hold as true.
Faith as a way of knowing is regarded not only as an alternative to logic and reason, it is held as a virtue. People of great faith are often judged as “good” simply by exhibiting those high levels of faith. This equating of good with faithfulfeeds the allure of religious extremism. Richard Dawkins finds this allure worthy of high concern writing in The God Delusion: “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them — given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by — to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades” (285). Conditioning the mind to dismiss reason as unnecessary (or inadequate) to know our deepest truths — and to perceive such a perspective as virtue itself — creates in the fanatically faithful a dangerous worldview. In this worldview lies an inexhaustible wellspring of answers that can be wholly detached from reality. Prayers of the truly faithful are always answered; the reply may be Yes, No, or Maybe but a willingness to hear makes even silence indicative of God. This deep attraction-to and hunger-for faith results at least partly from a failure to appreciate the complexity, strength, and power of human emotion.
We must remember that when asked, “Why do you want to marry that woman?” Because I love her is a perfectly reasonable and logical response. Emotion, intuition, and desire are not mutually exclusive to reason. To see faith as an alternative to machine-like rationality is to set up a false dichotomy of the most glaring kind, but for many believers “materialism” carries the taint of an impossibly cold and cruel logic. The Christian writer Ravi Zacharias describes his view of materialism in his book Can Man Live without God: “A materialist is forced to a theory of randomness and cannot avoid this reduction of man to flotsam and jetsam. Where there is the loss of wonder there is a natural tug toward a reductionistic view of everything aesthetic or virtuous. For that matter, all of life boils down to the rags of matter in chemical or physical reaction, and the strongest ‘reactions’ win. Man becomes another blip on the radar screen of time. The noblest is reduced to the lowest, and love is merely glandular.”
Holding such a view of materialism is as depressing as it is wrong. For love, glandular as it may be, is just as intense, wonderful, and valid regardless of its origin. The feeling of love does not subside when I learn that the human heart is a pumping machine. The metaphors that surround it are no less accurate, no less human, for our knowing that the heart is not heart-shaped. My appreciation of cardiac-mechanics in no way detracts from the love I have for my family and friends — in my heart.
To accept Zacharias’ definition of materialism is to become willfully blind to the incredible machinery of nature, and it is to cede our emotions, the most human of human qualities, as the sole domain of ministers and priests, gurus and mystics — all the men and women of faith. Under the guise “faith” lies a detachment from science, reason and reality. Faith may be touted by believers as a panacea for whatever ails. But faith can be a dangerous drug, an intense hallucinogenic for those fanatics tightly focused on the pages of their books or on the words of their leaders revealing to them the Truth of what must be done.