We have been told many times in popular songs and popular literature that “love is blind”. This phenomenon is easy enough to understand. Our hormones dispose to become so attached to our idealization of our beloved that rationality is pushed aside. It is only when relationships really mature that we realize that we can love someone for who they are, warts and all, and not become attached to some romantic and idealized version of the beloved that it is impossible to attain. Hopefully when we embody that unconditional love we can also be accepted as we are as well. This is the basis of mature relationships.
But irrational belief is far from restricted to romantic love. Many of us have spiritual beliefs that are also arrived at in this way. Sometimes we believe in what we would like to believe. Or even more frequently, we believe in what significant others around us believe without much rational basis for such beliefs. It is easy and convenient to take on such beliefs as they help us to feel a sense of identity and belonging to such groups and individuals. This helps us to generate a sense of identity and indeed helps us meet some of our important social needs – needs to belong and associate with others.
The famous sceptic, Mark Twain let the cat out of the bag when he said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
Many fundamentalist belief systems require that we suspend our rationality if we are to believe. No doubt if there is a God, He/She/It is beyond our comprehension. But I must confess I feel some resonance with Galileo’s statement, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use.”
Buddhism treats the issue somewhat differently. Buddhism has defined twenty mental afflictions which are gathered under the headings of:
• Ignorance and attachment
(See “Destructive Emotions” by Daniel Goleman)
The first heading under Ignorance is “Blind Faith”. This might seem odd to Western eyes. Just as in Western society, faith is considered a virtue but not faith that is not grounded in rationality. Intelligent faith is reality based, but faith not based on rationality is seen to be a mental affliction.
This is not to say that all religion is irrational – far from it. There are many religious traditions that have attempted to justify faith through rational argument. Just as one example I would instance Medieval Jewish philosophy. Saadia Gaon was the first important rabinnic figure to write extensively in Arabic. He wrote, “The Bible is not the sole basis of our religion, for in addition to it we have two other bases. One of these is anterior to it, namely, the fountain of reason.” This attitude towards the relationship between reason and faith dominated Medieval philosophy. It reached its highest, most elaborate form in the work of Maimonides.
Thomas Huxley added his weight to this debate by stating, “It is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.”
There is still a dilemma here. Human intellectual progress has often been aided by the mechanism of intuition. Intuition often provides leaps of thinking which is not initially supported by rational processes. But in the end no intuitive model can survive without rational support. In this way intuition might show the way but it can only be affirmed when rationality catches up!
There is a platitude which is prevalent in our society which suggests that, “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion.” But is this really true? Are there no limits on what it is possible to believe?
Should we not take heed of the words of the mathematician W K Clifford who wrote, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”
One of the proselytizers on the internet had this to say:
“Believers in God never ask for any tangible proof. They believe in God and that is that.”
This seems to me a very dangerous point of view. What if I had such a belief in Jehosiphat, Angels, Fairies at the bottom of the garden or whatever – it leaves me with no objective measure with which to judge my beliefs.
Those defending the concept of “blind faith’ (mind you they will probably call it something different) will often propagate one of the circular arguments about faith.
It will go something like this:
Faith is that power of discrimination made available to Mankind by God. Consequently if you have faith be assured it is supported by a loving and compassionate deity. There is no need for other justification.
There need be no particular rationalization for your faith. Perhaps you have been enlightened by someone with a particular religious belief. If it feels good to you there need be no further justification.
And of course your belief is affirmed by the writings in this particular religious book or the expressed beliefs of this important spiritual teacher.
(No matter that the religious book is as perceptive as “Winnie-the-Pooh” [yet often not so enlightened] or the spiritual teacher is as erudite as Homer Simpson!)