Is religion good or bad? In an article for the Washington Post, W. Bradford Wilcox argues that The latest social science is wrong. Religion is good for families and kids.
This is a good chance for me to weigh in on religion—and offer why I believe Wilcox is wrong. Or rather, why Wilcox misinterpreted his own observation in stating, as the sub-heading states, “On average, people of faith lead more fulfilling family lives.”
Wilcox acknowledges that
Religious faith is not a cure-all when it comes to families and children. And, of course, millions of secular Americans enjoy strong and stable families — indeed, a majority of husbands and wives who rarely or never attend church report that their marriages are “very happy.”
If both religious and non-religious people can live fulfilling family lives, how can Wilcox make the claim that “religion is good for families and kids?” Clearly, some other force is at work in people’s lives.
Essentially, religion is faith. Faith is the acceptance of “truth” in the absence of any evidence.
To be clear, by faith I do not mean the term loosely, as in a belief based on the weight of secondary evidence. For example, you may try a new dentist on the recommendation of friends. You do not know for certain if the dentist is good, because you haven’t used him yet. This is not acting on faith. You have reason to think the dentist is good, because you trust your friends’ judgement. People often use “faith” to describe rational confidence, as in “I have faith in you,” which is a belief that someone will succeed at some task against uncertain odds. This, too, is not faith. Your “faith” is actually a reasoned judgement based on your assessment of the person’s character and past actions. Neither case is about real faith.
By faith I mean belief in something for no rational reason whatsoever. In religion, it means unconditional, unchallengeable acceptance of God’s truths, as revealed in sacred texts written by people who claim to know God’s will through revelation or some non-sensory power. Observation, logic, and facts are not to be consulted. Blind obedience to the sacred texts, not observation-based independent thought, is the order of the day.
Faith, to borrow a phrase, is a wall of separation between your mind and reality.
Once one accepts faith as a valid form of knowledge and guide to action, one erects that wall. Once erected, where do you draw the line between rationality (a focus on reality) and faith—between when to face reality and when to retreat behind that wall? Rationality and faith are incompatible. The wall is always there, ready to retreat behind whenever one finds the facts of reality challenging, or wishes for something different from what the absolutism of reality offers.
The author states:
French sociologist Emile Durkheim explained that what makes religion vital, in part, is that it provides rituals, beliefs and a sense of group identity that deepens people’s connections to the moral order. In his words, the faithful “believe in the existence of a moral power to which they are subject and from which they receive what is best in themselves.”
But how many people in America see themselves as subjects? How many are, in fact, “the faithful.” In my view, not many, thankfully.
Why do I say that? Consider what real faith actually means.
Real faith is when parents abandon their 6-month old child so they can go out and slaughter 14 people, as the San Bernardino shooters did, or steal airplanes to knock down buildings, as the 9/11 Islamists did, just because they believe it’s what God wants them to do. Wilcox acknowledges this aspect of faith:
[R]ecent headlines — from terrorist attacks perpetrated by radical Islamists in Paris and San Bernardino to the strange brew of warped Christian fundamentalism that appeared to motivate alleged shooter Robert Dear at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs — feeds the idea that religion is a force for ill in the world.
But there’s more to real faith than terrorism.
Real faith is when a parent refuses medical treatment for their child in the belief that God will heal. It’s when a parent will kill his child because he believes God ordered him to do so. It’s when people forgo prosperity and live generation after generation in abject poverty-laden obedience to the Church, rather than direct their energies toward reshaping nature’s raw materials into resources and resources into material progress, for fear of upsetting God’s plan, as they did in the Dark Ages. It’s when someone lives a completely selfless life of serving the poor, in the belief that an Earthly lifetime of self-denial and self-immolation will guarantee eternal happiness and bliss beyond the grave. That’s real faith.
In America, religion does not have a firm hold. Far from it. That is my observation. Religion in America is heavily tempered by a tradition of reason (i.e. Enlightenment). Most people who consider themselves religious profess faithful adherence to their religion. But these same people live by reason. People are fact-oriented. They think things through. They investigate and research solutions to problems. People may thank God for things. But they know that God doesn’t and never will provide them with material goods. Goods must be created by thought and work and paid for by earning money. That’s why Americans value education and a good, decent earning career for their children.
The same goes for spiritual values. People profess to believe that friendships and romantic partners are gifts from God. But they choose and build their relationships deliberately and carefully based on common values. Few people actually believe in or wait for miracles or divine intervention, despite regularly saying their prayers. People don’t self-deny. They love their material comforts and pleasures. Faith, in the everyday lives of most “religious” people, is background noise. In choices between relying on faith or reason, people choose reason when it counts most—in making choices governing their lives. In ethics, people profess the virtue of selflessness but practice rational selfishness. People profess self-sacrifice but rarely self-sacrifice. They extoll Mother Teresa but would never want to emulate her. They’d rather live.
And live most Christians I encounter do. Religious ethics means altruism. But few people attempt to live by altruism. Altruism is a subjective ethics, with no facts of reality to back it up. Egoism, properly understood (which few people fully do), is objective. Holding altruism as the moral ideal yet living egoistically may foster unearned guilt. Nevertheless, most Christians I know live more like rationally selfish individualists than servants of God. Put another way, most American Christians live more like Objectivists than Christians. They may not admit it, or like to hear it. But it’s true. Few people, atheist or religionist, live by altruism, because to live requires a healthy selfishness.
Real faith is mind-closing and therefore both self-destructive and destructive towards others. It eliminates any possibility of rational persuasion. How do two people with opposing faith-based beliefs settle their differences? As we’ve seen throughout history; with bullets, bombs, or swords.
Wilcox seems to acknowledge this. He envisions “scenarios in which religion can be a source of tension,” both in regards to society at large and within the family. “[W]hether between husbands and wives or between parents and children, [religious disagreement] can spell trouble, especially when this disagreement is deep and heartfelt.” The problem is not the disagreements as such, but that religious faith closes the door to any possibility of reconciling differences, which requires a mutual respect for and adherence to facts and reason.
After basically telling us that we don’t need religion and religion can be dangerous to our well-being, Wilcox nevertheless concludes:
But religion in America is not the corrosive influence that it’s often made out to be nowadays.
On the contrary, for many Americans, it’s a source of inspiration that redounds not only to their benefit, but also to their families and communities.
It’s true that, as the author observes, religion can occasionally inspire. A faithful belief that Godis a wind at your back might inspire confidence to keep trying. But God won’t get the job done—God won’t actually “provide”—and people know it. The reason why “religion in America is not the corrosive influence that it’s often made out to be nowadays” is, quite simply, that on balance it’s not taken too seriously.
On the contrary, life is better to the extent people live by reason, and worse to the extent people actually try to live by faith. Religion dominates American culture—as far as people professing a belief in God or adherence to a religion goes—but only down to a certain level. For now, in my observation, religion in America is wide but shallow. If people ever began to take their religion and faith seriously, it would destroy America.
So religion, in my view, appears to contribute positively to people’s lives only because few people actually let their religious faith direct their lives, instead relying on reason. There is, however, a sense in which even America’s watered-down religion is a deep threat, and Wilcox points to the threat. He references “New Atheist” Sam Harris’s book “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,” in which
Harris not only asserts that the “greatest problem confronting civilization” is religious extremism, he further waxes that it’s also “the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself.”
I agree with Harris. The very acceptance of faith as valid, even if not fully practiced, disarms us intellectually against Islamic imperialism and terror. After all, how can a person who accommodates any level of faith—believes in the validity of faith—morally condemn a terrorist who kills innocents based on the faith-based belief that he is doing as his God demands? By reason, the very antipode of faith? Any accommodation to faith justifies all religiously motivated actions, including the most barbaric, because faith-motivated actions are by definition beyond reason and logical persuasion. On what basis can any adherent of faith claim that a faith-motivated terrorist is wrong to kill innocents? He’s following God’s unchallengeable truth. As Craig Biddle observes:
[B]y failing to explicitly acknowledge and articulate the fact that reason is man’s only means of knowledge—by granting legitimacy to the notion that faith is (or might be) a means of knowledge—Westerners have granted and continue granting legitimacy to the absurdity that jihadists have knowledge that they should convert or kill infidels. When hundreds of millions of Westerners grant such legitimacy—as hundreds of millions do—it adds up to a lot of spiritual aid. That aid is taking a toll, and we are paying the toll in Western lives.
Interestingly, Wilcox acknowledges several ways in which religion is bad for the world, and even for families, but still manages to find religion to be good, on balance, for “families and kids.” But there is no paradox. By defending religion, Wilcox defends faith. Faith, when you get right down to it, is feelings. By defending faith, Wilcox implicitly but inexorably justifies any action anyone may feel like doing. Despite his condemnation of “religious extremism,” his article is a gift of backdoor support to fundamentalist extremists of any religion. This is not good for families, kids, or anyone else. Faith is poison. It will kill. Maybe slowly, for the minimally faithful, or rapidly, as with serious religionists. But it will kill. It’s only a matter of time and degree.
Reason and faith are antithetical. They can’t both be good—and they’re not. Reason, not faith, is the force for good.
Reason or Faith: The Republican Alternative—John David Lewis for The Objective Standard
Freedom Of Religion Demands Freedom From Religion