[Don’t miss Part I of Jeremy’s article on Religulous.]
Why is faith a good thing?
To many people, the above question is an odd one. Of course faith is a good thing. Why question that? However, in “Religulous” it is one of Maher’s chief objections to religion (particularly Christianity).
The question is first raised by Maher after he asks the pastor of a small truck stop chapel how any rational person can believe in a talking snake in a garden 5000 years ago. The pastor responded by saying that, “It’s a faith thing,” to which Maher replies, “Yeah, but why is faith good?”
Maher’s argument is that a person who’s life is in danger or who is going through hard times would be justified to believe God, but for anyone else faith is pointless. His objection is that of many other skeptics: faith is unfounded and breeds comfort, but isn’t useful. I disagree.
Maher’s beliefs are incorrect for two reasons: first, he assumes that all faith is blind faith, and second, he thinks faith is not relevant. Although these two aspects of faith are inter-connected, I’ll begin by explaining the difference between faith and blind faith.
“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” says Jesus in John 20:29 (NIV). It seems this statement alone supports Maher’s belief that faith is blind, as Jesus is rebuking Thomas for not believing that He had risen from the dead until Thomas saw Him with his own eyes. However, when the rest of the story is read, Jesus’ harshness towards Thomas is justified.
John 20:19-20:29 describes how Jesus had already appeared to the other eleven disciples, and how these men, upon seeing him, believed immediately that Jesus had risen from the dead. These eleven men, who before seeing Jesus had locked themselves in a house out of fear of being found by the Jewish authorities, then met with Thomas and explained the whole situation to him. Nearly a dozen men, who went from being afraid for their lives to leaving their hideout, tried to convince Thomas of what they saw, but he refused to believe it. He insisted that he would need to stick his finger in Jesus’ wounds before he believed. He wouldn’t even believe if he “just” saw Jesus. Turns out he got his wish, but Jesus was not pleased with his lack of reasonable faith.
Were I in the same situation as Thomas, I think that I’d be more inclined to listen to eleven of my trusted friends, all of whom knew Jesus personally. Mortal men don’t normally rise from the dead (although the disciples had seen Jesus raise people from the dead), but as they already believed Jesus was God, it shouldn’t have been that unreasonable a task for an omnipotent deity (remember, too, that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times). Besides, lies and fanciful stories don’t breed heroism from cowardice. Had the other disciples not actually seen Jesus, it is unlikely these men would have risked their lives to tell their friend about what they saw. As usual, proper context is key in understanding what Jesus is actually promoting.
Still, one may argue that Thomas was an extreme example. Jesus still says that those who believe without seeing will be blessed. Sounds a lot like blind faith, right? Wrong. First, we should realize that Jesus physically appeared to the other 11 disciples– He didn’t leave their belief hanging on speculative conjecture. They had undeniable proof that Jesus had actually risen from the dead.
If Jesus wanted them to believe without seeing, He probably wouldn’t have appeared in front of them. Instead, He wanted credible witnesses who could testify to others that they had actually seen Him alive, rather than leave the matter up to blind faith, which could be, extremely misleading. Richard Dawkins has a famous quip about how there’s no more reason to believe in the God of the Bible than there is to believe in the flying spaghetti monster (FSM). Either Dawkins has a lot of good historical and archeological evidence to support the existence of his FSM, or he is sadly mistaken. Call me crazy, but I’m leaning towards the latter option.
Although Jesus does say that those who believe without seeing Him will be blessed, He does not say that people must believe in Him without good reason. When approached rationally, the Bible presents a very solid case for its historical reliability, leaving us with good reason to believe. As it turns out, Jesus wasn’t a proponent of blind faith any more than Maher is.
Speaking of Dawkins, he has (inadvertently) provided a great example of a problem with Maher’s argument. I once listened to a radio broadcast debate between Dawkins and Oxford professor of mathematics John Lennox about Dawkin’s book, “The God Delusion.” Dawkins, of course, does what Maher does and mocks faith as being something completely irrational and juvenile. Lennox’s response was terrific: “Professor Dawkins, do you have faith in your wife?”
Not only did this make Dawkins very uncomfortable, but it proved a very important point: everyone has faith in something. In fact, most of us put faith in a lot of things. We have faith that our car will start in the morning and will get us to work. We have faith that we will still have our job once there. We have faith that our employer will pay us for our work, that our spouses will stay with us, that we won’t die in our sleep, and that Armageddon is not likely going to occur today. Different people put their faith in different things, but we all put our trust in things that are not known for sure. What matters is whether or not we have a good reason to put our faith in certain things.
Maher’s second objection– that faith is only good in bad circumstances—is victim to another problem. If faith is an absurd concept, it should be absurd under all conditions. That means a man who is lying on his deathbed waiting for the cancer to finish him off is just as much a fool for believing in God as is any other schmuck. In fact, it may even be more foolish for the dying man to believe, as his faith would simply give him a false sense of hope. It may provide some comfort for him, but only in an “ignorance is bliss” kind of way, and is tantamount to a denial of his condition. Wishful thinking remains wishful thinking and reality remains reality, regardless of your circumstances. If you’re going to die, suddenly having faith in a God who otherwise doesn’t exist isn’t going to change anything for you. Faith in God is either always absurd, or always beautiful. There cannot be a middle-ground without contradicting yourself.
While I’m on the topic of inconsistent faith, I have a question for Maher: If you go your whole life as an unbeliever, but then have faith only when you’re sick or going through hardship, why should God care, provided He’s real? If He doesn’t exist, your faith is futile, just like I said above. But if He does exist, you’ve just treated him like the student who only speaks to his parents when he needs money. God has become your cosmic genie whom you call upon when you need Him, then ignore and deny when you don’t. It’s the mark of the spoiled child, the insincere friend, and the coworker who uses his colleagues for personal gain.
It’s possible, but the likelihood of this kind of “faith” being genuine is not good. Although I believe the God of the Bible would respond were your faith real, I do not think an omniscient being would be so dumb as to fall for false faith and heal you just to be ignored again. It’s a double-standard to say God does not exist and then call upon Him when you need Him.
Even worse is that many people will blame the supposed non-existent God for not giving them what they want when they ask for it. Although I cannot rightly judge anyone’s heart, I can understand why God would find the idea of, “faith is only good when you’re sick,” even more ludicrous than I do.
Once again, Maher has left himself with no ground to stand on. He confuses rational faith with blind faith, and denies faith any legitimacy, despite expressing his conviction of strict naturalism throughout the movie (which requires faith). Unfortunately for Maher, a self-refuting point is not a point at all, so his argument collapses. Perhaps someday he will escape his prejudices and honestly evaluate his opinions before presenting them as fact.