Wednesday, August 10, 2005

There’s No Such Thing as Reasonable Faith

Here’s something to think about:

Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution; 68 percent believe in Satan.
Here’s something else:

More than 50 percent of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God; 70 percent think it important for presidential candidates to be "strongly religious."
And another:

22 percent of Americans are certain that Jesus will return to earth sometime in the next fifty years. Another 22 percent believe that he will probably do so.
These frightening numbers come from a recent article by Sam Harris. In the (anti-religious) spirit of skepticism, I should note that Harris does not give a specific source for these numbers. Rather, he cites “several recent polls.”

Whether or not the numbers are spot on, Harris makes a compelling argument that “the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum.” He’s right. It’s convenient to believe that reason and faith can exist in harmonious union, but by their very definitions, the two concepts are diametrically opposed. Faith renounces evidence and reason demands it. In this case, black and white can’t make grey.

The faith vs. reason debate in this country is about more than philosophical bragging rights. It’s about what medical procedures doctors can perform, what kids learn in school, whether or not we go to war. The stakes don't get much higher. At the cost of stepping on some religious toes, secular intellectuals need to champion the benefits of a rationalist worldview, a point which I’ll let Harris hammer home.

The only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us. Nothing guarantees that reasonable people will agree about everything, of course, but the unreasonable are certain to be divided by their dogmas. It is time we recognized that this spirit of mutual inquiry, which is the foundation of all real science, is the very antithesis of religious faith.

--Matthew McCoy