Ultimately, religious faith is irrational. Faith is the belief in things that cannot be (or in any case haven’t been) proven.

Beyond that, we all float in a vast sea of things that we “take on faith” — things that we’re told have been proven and believe have been proven, even though we haven’t gone through the steps of the proof ourselves. I take it on faith, for instance, that there are such things as electrons. People whom I trust tell me that the existence and properties of the electron are well established by scientific methods, so I believe in electrons without ever having seen one.

One of the key problems that arises, when the talk turns to religion, is that religious people are quite often convinced that the articles of their faith are in the second category rather than the first. That is, they themselves have not experienced [insert your favorite miracle here], but they have been told that other people whom they trust have had such experiences, and they believe it.

Or perhaps they have had an experience, such as praying for a parking place and then getting a parking place. Their faith is that there is a direct and logically explicable causal connection between the prayer and the subsequent appearance of the parking place.

Whether or not they have personally experienced what we might call divine intervention, people can (and often do) believe that their religious faith is logical or logically consistent.

If your faith is of the first type — you believe what you believe because you believe it, and that’s the end of the discussion — then logic doesn’t matter. Are invisible pixies dancing on your lawn? No problem. But the moment you assert that your faith has a logical basis, or that it conforms in some way to logical expectations, then you don’t get to pick and choose which articles of faith you’ll apply logic to, and which articles you won’t.

Logic doesn’t work that way. If you decline to apply logic with respect to some aspect of your beliefs, then it’s absurd for you to turn around and claim that some other aspect of your beliefs has a logical basis. Either use logic, or don’t — but don’t make the mistake of thinking you can use logic when it suits you and ignore it when it doesn’t.

This is the submerged rock that rips holes in the hull of the ship of religion. People of faith try to have it both ways. They insist that their faith does have a logical basis, that it’s not simply their own personal view — and yet, when the logical flaws in their beliefs are pointed out, logic flies out the window. They may change the subject, or blindly refuse to admit that the logical flaw exists, or spin off into an elaborate legalistic subterfuge in order to “prove” that there is no logical inconsistency in their belief. (And good luck untangling the “proof.”)

Consider the Bible. For many people across a wide spectrum of religion, the Bible is considered to be the inspired word of God. That is, an invisible entity (called, in the Bible itself, “the Lord thy God”) had a hand in the creation of this document, intending it in some manner to provide guidance for human behavior.

This assertion is not logically provable. You can believe it if you choose, and no one can contradict you. The historical fact, as revealed by extensive research, is that the Bible is a collection of texts written over the course of hundreds of years by a variety of people whose identities are unknown, later copied by hand by other unknown people (not infrequently with errors, or with intentional changes in an effort to make the texts adhere more closely to the copyists’ beliefs), and exceedingly difficult to translate because, for one thing, the original Hebrew alphabet in which the Old Testament was written did not employ vowels. As a result, a given group of letters might mean several very different things.

If you personally believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, you’re welcome to do so. A problem arises, however, when you attempt to apply the precepts found in the Bible (whatever you happen to think they are) to other people.

Let’s suppose I say, “The invisible pixies dancing on my lawn gave me a piece of paper — see, here it is! It says you’re supposed to wear green on Tuesdays, and if you don’t, you’ll get boils and your children will die.” That’s my personal belief, but it clearly doesn’t apply to anybody but me. You would be right to ignore my insistence that everybody wear green on Tuesdays. If I go a step further and insist that if you fail to wear green on Tuesdays, you should be thrown in jail because the pixies said so, then I’m a lunatic, and I’m the one who should be locked up.

The idea that everybody should wear green on Tuesdays, in this example, rests on the idea that the document the pixies have given me has some verifiable objective validity. If I insist that you follow the strictures set forth in my document, you would be quite right to insist on knowing what objective, logical standard has been employed to prove that my document was actually written by pixies — and, moreover, that the pixies are actually to be trusted. If I respond, “The document is trustworthy because I say it is, and that’s all the proof you need,” again, you would be well advised to ignore me.

Anybody who attempts to use the Bible as a guide to the behavior of anybody else in their community faces exactly this problem, though they’re very unlikely to admit it. They will claim that the Bible provides some sort of objective standard for human behavior, but no logical proof of the reliability or the verifiable authorship of the Bible will be forthcoming. The Bible might as well have been written by the invisible pixies dancing on the lawn. It has no more objective validity than that, and the private emotional view of a Christian believer, or of ten million believers, has no bearing on the case.

But in fact, the dilemma of the believing Christian is far worse than that. The Bible is, if you’ll forgive the term, a godawful mess. Even if we were to grant that it’s the divinely inspired word of “the Lord thy God,” it’s full of savagery and bizarre obsessions. No normal human being could be expected to apply the admonitions and prohibitions laid down quite explicitly in the Bible in course of their daily life.

Consider, for instance, the passage (Leviticus 18:22) used by conservative Christians to claim a divine prohibition against homosexuality: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” That seems pretty unambiguous, doesn’t it? But let’s turn back a page and look at Leviticus 17:6. “And the priest shall sprinkle the blood upon the altar of the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and burn the fat for a sweet savour unto the Lord.”

Okay, how many conservative Christians do you know who sprinkle blood on the altar in their church, or burn offerings of fat? Not very many, I would imagine. If you can find even one, I will cheerfully applaud his or her logical consistency — but I’m also going to worry about whether he or she has noticed Deuteronomy 17:2-5, in which it is clearly stated that those who worship gods other than “the Lord thy God” are to be stoned to death.

Among the prohibited deities are “any of the host of heaven.” This could pose a big problem for the whole Catholic deal with the saints, especially if the Methodists assume that they have the right or obligation to enforce Deuteronomy 17 against the Catholics.

But that’s okay, because there are no Christians who actually take any of this stuff seriously. Bob Dylan’s commandment to the contrary notwithstanding, nobody (at least in the U.S. or Europe — the Middle East is a different story) is going to get stoned. And yet … what about the Ten Commandments? If we’re going to ignore Deuteronomy, and also great swaths of Leviticus, because to take them seriously would be grotesquely savage, why exactly is anybody still taking the Ten Commandments seriously? Why take the position that the Ten Commandments should be carved in stone and set up in the courthouse?

Answer: Because Christians always and inevitably pick and choose which parts of the Bible they want to take seriously. They ignore the parts that are inconvenient, and see no logical fallacy in doing so. They ignore logic whenever it suits them to do so; and yet, in the next breath, they assert that the Bible has some objectively verifiable — that is, logical — validity, on account of which its admonitions and strictures apply to everybody, Christian and non-Christian alike.

This is why religion is evil. It is a personal, private belief system that attempts to pass itself off as having some sort of objective validity. As a result, untold millions of people have been massacred. Millions more have suffered assorted vile torments while still alive. And it’s still happening today, not just in the Middle East but in the United States. The religionists are on the march. They are well funded. They are tireless. They are absolutely determined to shove their personal, private vision down our throats and choke us with it.

On the whole, I’m bound to say, I think the human race is a failure and a disgrace. If we were in fact made in the image of God, then God is a failure and a disgrace too. A competent God would have done a better job.

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2 thoughts on “Logic and Faith

  1. The apparent multiplicity of Gods is bewildering at the first glance; but you presently discover that they are all the same one God in different aspects and functions and even sexes. There is always one uttermost God who defies personification. This makes Hinduism the most tolerant religion in the world, because its one transcendent God includes all possible Gods… Hinduism is so elastic and so subtle that the profoundest Methodist and the crudest idolater are equally at home in it.
    Islam is very different, being ferociously intolerant. What I may call Manifold Monotheism becomes in the minds of very simple folk an absurdly polytheistic idolatry, just as European peasants not only worship Saints and the Virgin as Gods, but will fight fanatically for their faith in the ugly little black doll who is the Virgin of their own Church against the black doll of the next village. When the Arabs had run this sort of idolatry to such extremes … they did this without black dolls and worshipped any stone that looked funny, Mahomet rose up at the risk of his life and insulted the stones shockingly, declaring that there is only one God, Allah, the glorious, the great… And there was to be no nonsense about toleration. You accepted Allah or you had your throat cut by someone who did accept him, and who went to Paradise for having sent you to Hell. Mahomet was a great Protestant religious force, like George Fox or Wesley….
    There is actually a great Hindu sect, the Jains, with Temples of amazing magnificence, which abolish God, not on materialist atheist considerations, but as unspeakable and unknowable, transcending all human comprehension.
    Letter to the Reverend Ensor Walters (1933), as quoted in Bernard Shaw : Collected Letters, 1926-1950 (1988) by Dan H. Laurence, p. 305;

    1. How one could “presently discover” anything at all about a fiction is rather mystifying to me. And it’s not clear to me that, “There is always one uttermost God who defies personification.” Always? Not among the Hebrews who wrote the Old Testament, surely. Their God did not in any significant way defy personification. Although not described in physical terms, that God quite clearly had specific personal tastes in such things as the odor of burning fat.

      I tend to think of Hinduism as tolerant, but I’ve read that there is at present a strain of Hindu fundamentalism that is quite intolerant of Islam. A lot of people on both sides are getting butchered over that, and an atomic war may yet be fought over it. So the idea that Hinduism is tolerant may be more a Western projection than an accurate assessment.

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