Friday, July 4, 2008

Faith Plus Good Intentions: A Recipe for Disaster

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

~ Samuel Johnson
We must begin with the fact that all of us have a responsibility to have good reasons for what we believe - this is referred to as our Epistemological Responsibility/Accountability. Most people have good intentions when they act, but what we believe often has a tremendous impact on whether or not we accomplish something beneficial with those good intentions. This is particularly where faith hurts us - it enables good-natured people with the most well-meaning intentions to perform the most vile deeds imaginable. Each section of this essay will come back to this one simple and obvious responsibility.

Faith as an Influence in Personal Lives
“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”

~ Steve Weinberg
Consider the story of the parents who allowed their son to die of a urinary tract infection that created blockage. The cure was as simple as a catheter. Why did they do this? They did it because they believed that prayer and faith could heal the boy.

There can be no doubt that the parents did not want their son to die, and that they believed they were doing the most productive thing in order to help him recover. But because they did not make it a priority to have good reasons for what they believed, their overwhelming desire to save their offspring resulted in his death.

Sadly, bad reasoning shows a tremendous amount of resistance to change. After all, in many cases of people indulging in unreasonable behavior, they already have an aversion to rationality - with only good arguments at our disposal, what more can we do? For further evidence of this, examine the similar case of the Neumann family, which occurred shortly before the story I linked above. They also prayed their child to death, which is horrific enough in its own right. The really frightening thing is how the faithful often react in these situations.

Dale Neumann told investigators that "given the same set of circumstances with another child, he would not waiver in his faith and confidence in the healing power of prayer," according to the interview statement.

Police also said an e-mail Dale Neumann sent at 4:58 p.m. on March 22, the day before Kara's death, showed that the parents were aware their daughter was very ill.

The subject line of the email was: "Help our daughter needs emergency prayer!!!!" The e-mail was send to AmericasLastDays, an online ministry run by David Eells.

The man has three other children, and he likely cares about them very much. His ability to do so has simply been hindered (one may think it has been stripped from him entirely) by his failure to hold good reasons for what he believes.

So often, it is implied that people like myself accuse religious people of being wicked - most of them aren't. What all of them do have in common though, is that all of them fail in their epistemological responsibilities. Part of what strikes us as dangerous about faith is that it is not merely a vehicle for bad people, but that it allows otherwise good and sane people to embrace malicious acts and consider them holy.

Many people will respond to this by saying that religion also makes people do good things. While this notion is often true, it restrains the potential of peoples' good will and, as Sam Harris puts it, gives people bad reasons to be good when good reasons are perfectly available. We are talking about reasons that do not come dragging a heap of metaphysical baggage, that often corrupts the intentions of the kind and the minds of the good.

Faith as an Influence on Charity

Often, we are confronted with claims that religious people, like Christians, are far more generous charitably than their atheistic counterparts. This point is advanced as though it were without question. While this is certainly debatable, I find that it is less important than what gets done with the charitable money once it is donated.

Here's the basic gist, as a commenter on once put it:
If you are going to evaluate the religious organizations on their contribution to society, it needs to be done in terms of "the return on investment" - ie. people in society invest X and they get Y.

Money that has been spent on building beautiful churches that are functionally derelict, or money spent promoting and defending a religious belief, could have been spent on human beings, not in honor of an invisible deity. As an example, in 2006, Gideons International received $115 million from 'Gods people' as they put it, and $105.7 million of this was directly contributed for the purchase and placement of Bibles and New Testaments. Was that a good use of peoples' donations?

If everyone in the UK gave the church £1 per year (ie. the church gets £55 million a year) and they setup a charity in each major town of the UK to help the needy at a total cost of £10 million per year, have the people in the UK got a good return on their investment? The people may be pleased with their soup kitchen or whatever, and feel that the church is indeed a great organization for helping, because each person has only given a small donation of a £1. But when they see the bigger picture and realize that the remaining £45 million is being used to put bibles in hotel rooms, fund faith schools, campaign against gay rights, etc, they may start to wonder whether the church really is a good investment. That £45 million per year could certainly be put to better use."

An argument that charitable work may be seriously reduced without the church and without religion is easily countered. Secular charities already exist that put as much of their donations as possible into the causes they support, keeping only enough to pay the bills and promote the charity. If there was no church, encouraging people to donate funds to demonstrate their love of Jesus, these people would give to these other charities, enabling them to be stronger and do more good for society. If a secular charity spent a huge amount of money creating and distributing a book that simply says how wonderful the charity is, people may stop donating to that charity. They donate to the church in the knowledge of this, as charitable work is not the driver for the donation. What donation would you make for a chance of eternal life?
The fact is that when you give money to charity, you're going to give it towards something you feel does the most good. The problem is that faith, and holding bad reasons for what you believe, prompts people to believe that there are loftier goals for charity than actually alleviating human suffering.

Most religious people consider tithing to be a charitable act, but think about what those dollars accomplish. They go to hire on an entire staff, to build elaborate buildings replete with the latest in visual and audio technologies, to vehicles and the fuel to operate them, to insurance on the building, land, and vehicles - the list goes on. How much of their tithe actually gets used to help the world? Compare that to a fiercely secular charity like Americares, which dedicates 99% of its income to its programs.

Other donations deemed "charitable" by the faithful go to oppose things like gay marriage, where no perceivable harm is at stake. Think for a moment how much energy and resources get wasted on this issue while starvation and genocide go unnoticed elsewhere in the world.

It's not that charities contaminated by bad ideas, such as religion, do not manage to do some good, it's just that the formula of bad ideas plus good intentions limits the good we can do by causing these people to squander a harrowing amount of the money they receive, even while children starve.

Faith as an Influence on Philanthropy

If you really had the key to eternal life and happiness, then there would be no question as to whether or not you should try and promulgate that belief in a region where you will be killed for accepting it.

This is precisely what many religious people do.

Sam Harris, in all his eloquence, puts it more beautifully than I could:
The worst problem with religious morality is that it often causes good people to act immorally, even while they attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. In Africa, for instance, certain Christians preach against condom use in villages where AIDS is epidemic, and where the only information about condoms comes from the ministry. They also preach the necessity of believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ in places where religious conflict between Christians and Muslims has led to the deaths of millions. Secular volunteers don’t spread ignorance and death in this way. A person need not be evil to preach against condom use in a village decimated by AIDS; he or she need only believe a specific faith-based moral dogma. In such cases we can see that religion can cause good people to be much less good than they might otherwise be.
Even I could concede that what they were doing would be the best thing, despite all the death they cause, if they had a single good reason to believe they were right. Of course, they have no such reason, so like the parents that pray to god while watching their children slowly die, the missionaries in these circumstances rush in to become murderers - always with the best intentions.


nisemono3.14 said...

I love that last line:

"...always with the best intentions."

Sonya C. Triggs said...

I love this piece. Much like the Christians you oppose, you seem to have a clearly defined set of arguments that allow you to remain firmly entrenched in your own belief system. I don't personally use my faith as a means to do 'bad', but it certainly is an incentive to do 'good.' The whole premise of Christianity is to love God and then to love others as ourselves. To me, there is not much room for the type of ideology (i.e., blind faith (that God will heal in the absence of medicine) or blind faith (in our pastors and in our church 'buildings') that you discuss. As a matter of fact, the Bible clearly states that the church is 'us', plain ol' human beings. Therefore, we take our beliefs wherever we may go. I personally like to give to charities that feed the hungry (I'm a big believer in eating :), ones that help stimulate the local economy (such as in Africa) or the people right in front of me (like friends and family who are in need of funds - charity begins at home, after all!) I am no saint by any measure, but I'm somewhat offended that all Christians can be lumped into some big, overall, stereotypical category. Admittedly, to be out on the world stage requires a certain amount of personality, bravado and confidence, so I would imagine the loudest voices are often the ones heard. But, believe me, there are many of us who don't toe the line, discriminate against others or have problems with gay rights, condom use or AIDS prevention (all mentioned in your piece). I'm one of them.

I welcome and look forward to our blogalogue :)