In Defence of Faith

Originally published as Truth and Consolation in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free – Belief section.

When my grandmother, a devout Catholic, faced death she turned to the
only atheist in the room: my father. The cancer had metastasised throughout and she was left blind, in pain and barely able to speak, yet she still found strength to proclaim that “even this is better than oblivion“.

That event was over twenty years ago and it is now roughly ten years since I shed the religious indoctrination of my childhood. Instead, I now run a successful meeting group for sceptics and critical thinking, an environment where atheism is almost ubiquitous. I hoped in such an environment that constructive discussion would always prevail but, as with any tribal belief, there are few within the group who are willing to truly discuss religion out of fear of undermining their social standing. The result is that arguments supporting faith are given the condescending rebuttal that a parent might give to a child’s fanciful stories.

Why, then, defend what I don’t believe in? When a religion demands faith and stipulates that God will never provide evidence of His existence, we have a dilemma. Science is based on the idea of a hypothesis and testing, but there is no clear test to prove or disprove the existence of a god. While a rational thinker will explain that there is no need to invent God to rationalise the existence of intelligent life, there is always an infinitesimal chance that they are wrong. The result for a sceptic is that they should have no issue with discounting God as implausible.

Beyond science, though, there is also the human aspect of faith. The inevitable reality of death haunts the thoughts of many. Science promises no hope of a different outcome and the majority of us will be forgotten a few generations thereafter. For some, faith provides the answers and they are comforted by the hope or belief of a purpose or life after death. I use the word “hope” as, for many, faith is not absolute, which many sceptics fail to appreciate. When a religion is called stupid or irrational, it is those with doubts who suffer and the perceived insults will only alienate them, while those with absolute faith will not be swayed by any amount of logic.

We therefore have to accept that science does not contain answers for that which cannot be measured. Furthermore, it is inappropriate to apply it to such concepts. There are at least some for whom religion provides a hope of answering those questions that science cannot, and in doing so facilitates the enjoyment of life. I therefore question if it is morally right to take away that hope when you cannot provide a suitable alternative.

Should we ignore religion altogether? No, but do not attack it for being without evidence; it is a pointless discussion. Question it, fight it even, when it is used to oppress, control or exert superiority over others. Just do not hurt the individual, the believer who does not want their hopes shattered. Perhaps I am wrong and it is nothing more than the ‘opiate of the people’, but if we want to promote rational and scientific thinking then trying to wage war on God is both pointless and futile. Instead, we should find common ground with those religions which are open to discussion and work to promote that. Many sceptics define themselves on the principle that factual truth is more important than belief. In the experimental laboratory, this is an absolute, letting belief cloud judgement makes science worthless, but in life a simple belief can provide the strength to enjoy the world. I believe the right to enjoyment of life is far more sacred than being right.

In spite of these views, I accept that when my grandmother made that final reflection to my father, her faith provided no comfort. At that point of already having undergone her last rites, it was the atheist she looked to for hope.

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