Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Folly of Blind Faith - Thomas had it right.

The improver of natural science absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, scepticism is the highest of duties: blind faith the one unpardonable sin. - Thomas Henry Huxley, Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews, 1871

Imagine for a moment that you were in an accident. The bones in your leg have been seriously broken. You are taken to hospital and the attending surgeon looks at you and tells you he is going to sprinkle some apple juice on your leg and all will be well.

When you ask him why he would do such a thing, having not even taken an x-ray of your leg, the surgeon tells you that he knows the apple juice will cure you because he believes it will. What's more, he believes it because it has been revealed, privately, to him by a magical Apple Fairy that cannot be see or heard by anyone else. Fortunately, he wrote down everything the Apple Fairy said. So not to worry, the surgeon tells you, the Apple Fairy will heal you. And if you just have faith, he will.

Of course, this little story is utterly insane. Any doctor who said such a thing wouldn't be a practicing doctor for very long. And yet, many of our fellow citizens make claims that are just as crazy and they make them with complete seriousness of purpose. Televangelist Peter Popoff sells "miracle spring water" on infomercials and claims it will bring you lots of money if you drink it...and send Popoff a cheque, of course.

People that buy that stupid Q-ray bracelet believe it relieves their pain, even though Health Canada has prohibited the makers from making any health claims about the bracelets because scientific tests show it has no effect at all.

Far more ubiquitous than holy water or magical wristbands is an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed, top-selling DVD and companion book called "The Secret".

In a nutshell, The Secret claims that you can actually change the physical universe purely through your own wishful thinking. You want a new car? A hot girlfriend? A better job? You don't have to actually do anything. You just have to THINK about it and the cosmos will provide. The Secret isn't preaching the old power of positive thinking routine the self-help book industry has been on about for years.The Secret goes one step further than the usual, don't-sweat-the-small-stuff-chicken-soup-for-the-credulous-soul junk. It claims your "thoughts can become things."

Apparently, the universe is like Aladdin's genie. Wish really hard and Shazam! it will come true. "Ask, believe, receive," is the mantra of The Secret. The real secret is that it's nothing but saccharine, pseudo-scientific, sycophantic babble designed to prey on the gullible, the lazy and the desperate. It's so dishonest that professional con-artists must be saying, "Wow, why didn't I think of that? I'm so stupid."

But people BELIEVE IT. They will shell out their limited money because they have faith that the miracle water, magic wrist bands or vapid DVD will give them what they want.

Now while many believe it, others will say "Well, those folks are just stupid and gullible. These things are OBVIOUSLY not true." And we know it's not true because the claims being made are ridiculous and, if tested, crumble under the light of scientific inquiry. Yet, if the doctor from the above scenario had not said apple juice would fix your leg, but that he would pray to Jesus over it, would you consider him just as crazy? Many would not.

Which brings me to the entire concept of blind faith - and really, I don't think there is any other kind.

Faith, simply put, is the complete acceptance of things for which there is no observable evidence. On this count, the outlandish claims of the Secret and the Bible and the Koran are on equal footing. In each case, you must ignore reason and cast aside evidence and believe the most fantastic things to be true. It is a surrender of the one faculty that truly marks us as human, and makes us different from even our closest genetic cousins - our faculties of reason.

It is this willingness to dispense with logic and reason that drives people to want to teach unscientific nonsense in schools, to demonize people because of who they choose to sleep with, and, in the most extreme cases, stone a young girl to death in public for merely dating someone of a different faith as we recently saw in Iraq. Or crashing planes into sky scrappers as we saw six years ago.

There is a story in the New Testament where, after Jesus has risen from the dead, his followers gather. They tell one of their own, a skeptic named Thomas, that Jesus is back from the dead. "Oh, come on," Thomas said. "Tell me another one." But they insist it's true. Thomas is incredulous. "I'm not going to believe something so insane unless Jesus stands before me and I can stick my fingers in his wounds." Of course, this is the Bible, so Jesus does appear, and Thomas gets to stick his fingers into Jesus's oddly unhealed wounds. Thomas, with the evidence of the resurrection standing in front of him, becomes a believer.

But the story doesn't end there. Thomas receives a rebuke from Jesus. "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."

The message is simple. Don't doubt. Don't question. Don't investigate. Simply believe. Have faith. Thomas, according to Jesus, shouldn't have been asking for evidence. He should have just believed in the unbelievable. And so today if a person says they have faith, that is praised as a virtue.

I don't see how it is a virtue. I rather think Thomas had it right. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Blind faith isn't just blind. It's dangerous.