Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The amazing power of faith

A rant. You have been warned. (Edited to be less of a rant. Still pretty strong.)

Faith can have the power to change lives. This is often held to be a good thing. I think that in fact, it is a very, very dangerous thing. And, quite often, a terrible thing.

My reasons range from the mundane to le monde. These are merely examples; there are many more.

The mundane: I know a boy. A very nice, intelligent boy. A likeable lad. His brain is, unfortunately, completely infected with the faith meme. He takes ridiculous risks with his life. If you warn him of danger, his reply is that he believes in God and God will protect him from harm (and he will yell this over his shoulder as he plummets full-tilt down concrete stairs or heads toward traffic, in spite of the added danger not looking poses). The faith that his parents have inflicted him with, or have allowed others to inflict on him, places him directly in harms way.

If a parent deliberately and with forethought chose to deny their child some essential nutrient that substantially increased the risk of the child dying, the media would trumpet it to the world as evil child abuse. But instill blind faith in God’s providence, and the faithful treat it as admirable. This child is being denied an essential nutrient. The lack of it affects brain development and as a result, this child’s risk of death has gone up dramatically. One can cross one's fingers and hope he will come out of the worst of it before he is too badly harmed, but it’s rather like seeing a teenager taking up petrol sniffing – they might stop before the permanent harm becomes tragically too great, but you don’t necessarily believe they will.

The larger problem is, this increased risk in not limited to this boy. His faith rubs off on those around him (and, worse, he’s far from the most faith-meme-infected child I know). The fuckers that are playing with that child’s life are also playing with the lives of many children. Including my children. And, if experience is any guide, pleased with themselves. Like it's a good thing.

Perhaps slightly less mundane: Teenagers have sex. Many of them get pregnant. They always have. They always will. Getting pregnant when you’re not ready for it can be a bad thing. Further, having sex before you're mature enough to deal with it and everything that goes with it can be a bad thing. Some people of faith feel that the appropriate way to deal with it is to tell kids simply not to have sex. This is known as abstinence-only sex education.

The problem is, it does not work. Study after study show that it doesn't. Kids whose sex education consists of abstinence-only programs have sex younger and more often than kids who get full on sex-education, including explanations of how contraception works. Millions of dollars are being spent, especially in the US, on programs that, in effect, lead to more teenage sex and pregnancy. Older kids who take a pledge not to have sex until they are married have sex almost as often as kids who don't, but they're much more likely to engage in unsafe sex, and less likely to seek treatment for sexually transmitted disease. (And they feel guilty about it, for all the good that does them.)

The solution of the faithful is to spend more money on abstinence-only programs. You see, the problem is, faith cannot be in error, because it is faith - you have to believe it works, no matter what the evidence. To even examine if the results of a faith based program works is to doubt your faith, and that, apparently, is a bad thing. If, somehow, they cannot avoid noticing that it doesn't work, we must have done it wrong, so we all have to pray harder and do it more, and no matter how much harm it does, we have to force people to go along with it.

Le monde: Faith is, to a great extent, what got Bush elected. Faith is what convinces him that reason and evidence are trumped by the voice in his head. Faith (well, that and money, I guess) is what has convinced Bush and his cronies that trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of human lives must not only be spent, but must continue to be spent in a war that has made the world a far more dangerous place - and they were plainly told this in all manner of ways before it was too late. Faith trumps reason. Faith trumps evidence. Faith trumps truth.

Faith tells priests in Africa to tell people not to use condoms, that they're an evil Western plot. I see people say "that's no longer church policy". Well, they don't seem to have gotten the message in a lot of places. Go tell them, or stop whining that it's not fair to bring it up. If you're not doing anything about it, stop trying to interfere with those of us who want to give it some attention.

Faith is, to a large extent, why the world cannot currently deal with the greatest threat to my great-great-grandchildren, and my neighbors great-great-grandchildren, and dammit, all great-great-grandchildren everywhere – runaway global warming. Faith blinds people to truth, and makes them condemn the people who tell it.

Faith makes for very bad decisions, both large and small.

As a result, faith, in short, because it encourages bad decisions, harms, even kills children. It ruins lives, brings death, poverty, waste, ruin, tragedy. Don’t expect me to sugar coat this, because it's not a matter about which decent people should be polite.

Many theists, individually, might not agree with the bad decisions I’m talking about, but faith, and the belief that faith is somehow inherently good, is at the root of the problem of many bad decisions. Every major problem that keeps me awake at night, I see people of faith using that faith as a reason to stand in the way of solutions. Standing beside them I see people of less strident faith, people who hold “liberal” “sophisticated” beliefs, good decent people, not condemning them and everything they stand for, not fighting them. Instead, they praise their faith. They treat the misguided faith as admirable.

Pardon me if I don't join you in admiring it.

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