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Is Faith a Virtue? (Thoughts on the Latest Rapture)

Updated on May 22, 2011

Is all Faith Created Equal, and Why do People Want the World to End?

As you have probably realized, the world did not end the other day. But at least this latest wave of rapture predictors has provided us with some always welcomed comic material. In my view, anyone who has mocked these people over the last few weeks has done “the faithful” a favor. Faith never seems stronger and nobler than when it is being tested. So when people point out the obvious holes in apocalyptic predictions, and in some cases the whole notion of a “rapture” itself, it forces believers to both defy common sense and face persecution, signs that they must be among the elect. The more ridiculous the belief, and the more that you are mocked for believing it, the more impressive and noble the faith.

For many skeptics, when they hear the word faith, they associate it with this sort of irrational belief. But even those who try very hard to be as rational as possible are forced to admit that they constantly think and act on the basis of faith. We all believe in things that we cannot see and are unable to prove without a shadow of a doubt. No one completely understands how and why gravitation, electricity, and evolution operate as they do, and it is theoretically possible that natural laws could be temporarily suspended or cease to apply in the future. I cannot prove that my mom loves me. In fact, I cannot completely measure or define the concept of love itself. I don’t even know if the can of chili that I open contains the ingredients that are listed on the label. Do they actually use beef, or are they slipping in some horse, pigeon, or dog meat? Still, my uncertainty surrounding all of these topics will not seriously impact my behavior. I will not jump off of a cliff to see if gravity still applies, I will trust my mom with my kids, and I will subject myself to eating canned food from time to time. Because in all of these situations that involve some degree of uncertainty, I do have some past experiences to serve as a guide. So far, my faith in the scientific process, my mom, and even corporations / the FDA has borne itself out. In addition, I have past and present testimony from countless individuals about the effectiveness of science, the experience of love, and the ability to survive canned food. My faith, therefore, is not blind to the point of defying common sense. I am simply playing the odds.

So faith is a necessary part of functioning in the world. If we demand absolute certainty before taking any action, we will end up in a mental institution. But all faith is not created equal, and in my view, faith in itself is not a virtue. The important thing is the object of one’s faith. A strong belief in noble principles and/or a loving, righteous divine being can lead to all sorts of positive behaviors. People of faith have done a wide assortment of things over the centuries to create a better world. It is important to remember, however, that misguided faith can be just as damaging. A religious extremist who blows himself up is a person of tremendous faith, and faithful fascists, communists, witch hunters, and crusaders, among many others, have also done horrific things throughout history.

Ignoring common sense and decency in the name of faith, therefore, is not something to admire. Not only does it lead to irrational behavior. It also leads to behavior that is fundamentally selfish. When people spent the last couple of months preaching about the coming apocalypse, this was not done, in my view, primarily out of concern for humanity. Instead, it was done so that they could pat themselves on the back for their so-called faith and their coming salvation. Normal people who enjoy healthy interaction with others would not go so out of their way in an effort to make blatant asses of themselves. The faithful, however, are trying to prove their faith by seeking out “persecution.” It’s a classic example of the martyr complex. So the simple truth is that people who are looking forward to the “end times” do not really like this world and most of the people who live in it. They look forward to a time just around the corner when God will solve their problems, judge those sinners who have mocked them, and create a perfect place reserved for the faithful.

If there is a divine judgment coming, I find it hard to believe that God will reward the people who did the best job of defying their common sense. If God has created a world in which we are asked to pass a test of faith that requires us to defy common sense and not demand a reasonable amount of evidence, then he is unjust, and both he and his followers are unworthy of being followed. No wise, just, and compassionate being would be impressed by the ability of people to take a leap of blind faith. If this is what he expects, then we have no reasonable criteria by which we can judge between what is likely true and probably false. Life would be a crapshoot, and one crazy preacher reading from a book of so-called scriptures would be as credible as anyone else.


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