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Religion is bad; that’s why I have FAITH

Maybe this has happened to you before. For the past 2 or 3 weeks, I’ve found myself using the phrase “distinction without a difference” in conversation over and over again. It hadn’t previously been part of my usual lexicon, although I know the phrase well. It describes a circumstance in which two concepts are contrasted, despite the fact that they are similar in every way that is relevant to the discussion. If, for example, you were about to be devoured by a great white shark, and a helpful passer-by (or swimmer-by?) pointed out that it was actually a hammerhead shark, in what way would that information be useful to you? While such a distinction would certainly be relevant in discussions of ecology or evolution or taxonomy, for your purposes as the soon-to-be devouree, it’s a fuckin’ shark!

So for some idiosyncratic reason, I’d caught myself using the phrase more often than usual. So when I watched this video, it really seemed to fit. Dr. John Lennox, a Cambridge-educated professor of mathematics, responds to Richard Dawkins’ claim that religion encourages us to embrace nonsensical claims by saying “maybe religion does do that, but not true Bible-based Christian faith!” Dr. Lennox doesn’t have a great white, it’s a hammerhead! Distinction without difference.

This is a common reply when atheists and religious folk discuss. Many believers will happily agree with atheists that religion is bad. While atheists list ad nauseum the list of atrocities committed by religious people, such believers will sagely nod their heads in agreement and say “what a shame” at the appropriate moments. At the end of such diatribes, however, such believers will smugly assert “you’re right: religions ARE bad. That’s why I think it’s better to have faith.” The argument such people are trying to make is that the organized religious authority is the problem, and if only people followed their individual beliefs then there would be no problem.

Distinction without difference.

There are several problems with this argument, chief among which is the fact that it is simply the “No True Scotsman” fallacy turned on its side. A straw man is created of religious people as adherent automatons who believe and behave as they are told, which is then contrasted with the idea of “true” faith, in which individuals are free to question and discover the “true” answers within whatever religious text they choose. It’s a pretty picture, but it’s ultimately false. Within any group of religious people there is a diversity of belief and adherence, none of which fails to qualify as “faith”. To be sure, specific dogma exists within strict religious traditions, but it is rarely so overwhelming that it fuels the kind of violence and vitriol that is the hallmark of religious conflict.

The predictable rejoinder to this argument is that it is the religious trappings – the ritual, the chants, and particularly the clergy – that fuel the real conflict. In Rwanda, we saw church leaders directing state genocide forces to massacre Tutsis. In the Inquisition, we saw the bishops and cardinals directing the Inquisitors to burn heretics. In modern Iran we see mullahs and ayatollahs issuing fatwas and directing jihads. It is the religion, say the “faith” proponents, that leads to these problems; not the beliefs of their followers. If only the followers had found their own “faith” rather than following religion, they would know better and would refuse to follow such monstrous orders.

This counterargument is simply another straw man, in which the cart is put well in front of the horse. What constitutes a “religion” is simply a group of people who share a certain number of articles of “faith” with each other. The trappings of organization are a consequence of that process, not the antecedent. To contrast “faith” with “religion” is like saying ‘let us come together as a group and decide who will be responsible for certain leadership tasks; that’s a better system than having “a government”‘. Once again, distinction without difference. In every way that is germane to the discussion, the two things are identical and it contributes nothing to the discussion to try and forge some kind of contrast between them.

The second major problem with this argument is that it presumes the possibility of a “correct” interpretation of something like religion (or maybe it doesn’t – more on this later). “What I believe is right,” says the argument “and if people simply read the Bible/Qur’an/Bhagavad Gita the way that I do, they’d see that these things are right and those things are wrong.” This is either conceit leagues beyond anything that we arrogant atheists could possibly aspire to, or (more likely) a failure to recognize that scripture works the same way as a Rorschach ink blot – you see what you want to see. If you believe that it is permissible to seek revenge on those who wrong you, then you can explain away the whole “turn the other cheek” thing; vice versa for pacifists who ignore the Mark of Cain or Jesus’ wrath against the money-changers in the temple (to use Christianity as my most familiar example, though Islam is subject to the exact same process, perhaps even more so).

All “faith” is simply interpretation of stories, and as such flies in the face of any claim of the “correct” interpretation. The mind is made up first, and then the evidence is found to support it. A person may not be aware that they are doing this, just as we are not aware of the way that subtle cues and organization patterns in the supermarket influence us to do things without us being conscious of making a decision. Afterward, if we are confronted, we back-fill our reasons and find a way to make it look rational. Watch a kid explain why she/he did a random action – she/he will hunt for a reason and often make up a convoluted and fanciful explanation for an arbitrary act. We adults aren’t much better – we’re just less likely to shug and say “I dunno”. Faith is the same way – we find justifications for our beliefs after we already hold them (and yes, I include myself in this “we”. Although I try my best not to, I am only human).

The only way for this argument to possibly work is to say “everyone should hold their private beliefs, and not share them with each other.” After all, since religion is simply the sharing of  faith-based ideas, the only way to have faith and not be religious is to hold those ideas in your own head and make group decisions on a non-faith basis. Under such an arrangement, we immediately divest ourselves of churches, clergy, religious heirarchy and dogma, leaving only the content of people’s conscience left in which faith could possibly operate. If that’s what you mean when you say “no religion; only faith”, then congratulations! While you might not be an atheist, you’re most definitely a secularist.

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