This week’s question: Without religious faith of any kind, how can you say you’re as good a person as someone who truly believes in something greater than themselves?
The first and most obvious problem with this week’s accusation (not everyone who has approached the “Ask an Atheist” table at the UCen is polite) is that it begs the question that mere faith can confer positive quality onto the wielder of that faith. The assumption is, as is commonly put forth, that faith is inherently valuable, or that it is a virtue. I would ordinarily (and have previously in the column several times) dismissed this claim out of hand as silly because it is unfounded.
But today I have more breathing room, so I’ll delve a little deeper. Let us imagine for a moment that faith (that is, knowledge-absent evidence) does not immediately slight one’s understanding of the universe, undermining the most useful and concrete method of true knowledgegathering yet discovered — human sense perception. Let us also imagine that faith does not undercut the confidence of the faithful in themselves, transferring that aspect of one’s personality most crucial in career and romantic endeavors to no one and blindly handing over one’s most valuable asset, the brain, to nothing. Let us imagine that instead, we only consider the possible positive benefits of faith. Let us wrack our brains to arrive at how holding faith might make us better people.
Humility, maybe? Perhaps humility is a virtue, and if it is, then faith might be valuable in order to breed humility. But is humility really a virtue? No, a better virtue would be to have an accurate perception of oneself. If one is a heart surgeon who saves 10 lives a day, takes home stray puppies on the street and drives a hybrid, one should feel good about oneself, not be more humble than one deserves. There are probably some people who could do with a dose of humility, but there might just as well be many more men and women in need of encouragement, ego boosts or a pep talk. Some might say it is better to be safe than sorry and be a little extra humble.
But why is it preferable to take the safe route that weakens one’s self esteem? Why is it better to be slightly unhappy with oneself than slightly overconfident? Secondly, calling something “greater” without defining the characteristics of that something is ridiculous and pointless. What is the measure of a being’s “greatness”? Is it physical size, intellect or magic powers? It is capacity to love or to create or to destroy?
If any of these apply, then I am greater than a squirrel (except for a lack of magic powers) in the same way that God is greater than I. Would it make a squirrel better or more moral to have faith in my existence, had it never been presented with evidence of my existence? — No, because faith in something true or false is not a virtue. It boggles my mind that one could conceive of blind faith as a virtue. Does that mean that a person who has faith in both the Christian God and the god of Islam simultaneously is even more virtuous? What about one who accepted everything he or she heard on faith — would they be virtuous or simply ignorant and naive? I do not take things on faith alone, but I do live in a world of incomplete information, making belief a necessity (i.e., I believe with little information that my house is not on fire because I don’t smell smoke or see flames).
And I do believe in things greater than myself. I believe in the ingenuity of humans to solve our problems, because of our fantastic track record of doing so (compared to other species like, say, the dodo or the dinosaurs). I also believe in the unifying power of human empathy, because of the track record humanity has displayed by the slow but steady expansion of its moral circle. Finally, let’s ask ourselves for just a moment what it would mean to believe in something less great than oneself.
What does it mean to be less great than I am, exactly? Or is it that just like every other aspect of this accusation, calling something “greater” is about as meaningful as calling something “most.” Do you believe in something most than yourself? Or do you not understand that you need something for that adjective to modify?