Toxic faith?

  (19 January 08)

Christopher Hitchens, towards the end of a piece on "Belief in Belief" writes:

In other words, "faith" is at its most toxic and dangerous point not when it is insincere and hypocritical and corrupt but when it is genuine. 

 Now this is quite a bit controversial and one that even the most atheistic of us might find to be over the top (as Hitchens is capable of), and the 'progressives' among us will find distasteful. But he makes some significant points in the piece. that you might find challenging.


Is 'genuine' faith dangerous? I think it depends on the object of faith.

If it's a literal picture of God, or a supposedly inerrant Holy Book to which the faithful are clinging as if that itself were the Divine, then yes, that can be dangerous. The Divine, after all, overrides everything else, including human law.

However, if there's at least some critical realism involved: if the faithful recognise that all of our images of God, all our words about God are just human representations of something we can't adequately capture - as the mystics have recognised throughout the ages - then 'genuine' faith need not at all be dangerous.

The Buddhists talk about 'clinging', and that's the issue here. Blind allegiance to particular humanly-generated ideas (is there any other kind?) can indeed be harmful, and those who are most ardent about it are the most dangerous. Those who can 'sit light' to the formulations of faith but still have deep commitment to whatever those formulations point to - I believe we have nothing to fear from them.

Posted by Greg Spearritt

I agree with Greg. It isn't all faith that is toxic as Hitchens suggests but rather that faith that has been corrupted by individual self-interest (as with many evangelicals) or institutional aggrandisement (as we see in many established churches).

I was in a SOFIA discussion group at Tweed Heads on Sunday afternoon when the point was made (and agreed to by many) that the teachings of Jesus were something that we could follow (even an atheist like me) but that the Pauline accretions that followed and the theology developed subsequently by the Catholic Church, compromised for all time (almost) those teachings.

Human desires seem to get in the way of most 'faith' worth anything.

Posted by Scott McKenzie

There is a poison that post-modernism brings to all human thinking and human endeavour.It is that negativism that, in the name of science and sneering materialistic humanism, seeks to undermine all values and faith in one's self and one's values. We are told that there's no such thing as truth since all truths are relativistic. So we should not have faith in any truths we hold dear. Why should the teachings of Jesus escape this odium ?.Why make an exception of them? Destroy them as well.
Any ideals drawn from the highest and noblest of human traditions become highly suspect since whoever espouses them does so for some self- related motives and therefore are contaminated.
Those who never knew Mother Theresa personally and saw the work thatshe did are quick to accept the jaundiced opinions of attention-grabbers who may be hope to sell a book or two trashing her and her work whilst those who died in her care and arms know a different person, but we arent going to accept their testimony.No.Ofcourse not.

No one ewscapes. Not even our parents who MIGHT have loved us for our owen sakes.After all they may have had selfish motives. Today we sneeringly say,"Be careful how you treat your parents - remember they're the ones who will pick your retirement unit somewhere"...ho honor or trust, no ideals or values are safe. No such thing as the sweetest and noblest of anything...they are said to carry the odium of post-modernist cynicism and proof of some corruption or decadence.

It's a wonderful life in a wonderful world, really! We owe unrestricted and rampant atheism and post-modernism gone mad our heartful thanks.

robert of perth

Posted by robert halsey

I think faith when it is deeply held and geniune is one of the most dangerous errors a human can commit. Faith of this nature cannot be questioned, admits no possibility of doubt or error and has led to the worst of human behaviour.

It is only when we are uncertain aware we could be wrong that our behaviour reflects our true human value.

This faith of which I speak is found in political causes, nationalist movements nad gangs as well as religion. I don't think of it as a religious problem but a basic flaw found in human beings.

So I agree with Hitchens but find he has taken way to narrow an approach in only speaking of religion.

Let us not invoke post modernism as some demon. Mother Teresa was an evil women, self directed and twisted. Her methods were the focus of many investigations which highlighted huge problems with her mission. That is not postmodernist it is just a fact documented by those who met her and examined her work first hand.

In the same way nothing of great value attributed to Jesus that originates from him. Those teaching we admire had been admired well before his birth. This is in no way to say they are not of value and significance.

Posted by Wayne Crich

Sorry folks, I read Hitchins article a while ago and I don't find his quoted comment controversial at all. So he calls "faith", even when it is genuine, "toxic".

Dawkins calls it a "disease".

I go along with both of them. It's just plain common sense.

One example. Take the "faith" of Mike Huckabee, a Republican candidate for election to the Presidency of the USA, a role vital to the future of the entire world.

His 'faith' rejects evolution, claims the earth is only 6000 years old and the Rapture is due any day now, when those 'born again' will ascend immediately to 'heaven' to join god and the rest of us will burn in the flames of hell.

Is faith like this a disease, or toxic, or what ? Or just plain pig ignorant perhaps ?

Posted by Brian Wilder

Regarding ‘Faith’, Greg Spearritt tells us:
“Blind allegiance to particular humanly-generated ideas (is there any other kind?) can indeed be harmful, and those who are most ardent about it are the most dangerous.”

And Wayne Crich comments:
“This faith of which I speak is found in political causes, nationalist movements and gangs, as well as religion.
I don't think of it as a religious problem but a basic flaw found in human beings.”

My way of dealing with this issue is to label political causes, nationalist movements and gangs, etcetera, as ‘Religions’.
And in order to distinguish these from Supernatural Religion, I label them as ‘Secular Religions’.
So, in this sense, both religion and faith are natural to humans.

Posted by David Miller

I'd go along with Wayne in this discussion, Robert, in cautioning against throwing the baby of postmodernism out with the bathwater.

Yes, there are no Absolutes, but that doesn't mean we can't agree on some values as worthwhile/life-enhancing.

All ideas are human ideas. (This is the proposal so dangerously rejected by some of those most ardent in their literalist 'faith'.) Some are better, some worse than others. A postmodern perspective helps protect us from the literalist/absolutist who wants to project a certain set of values or ideas onto the cosmos and then demand that we all kowtow to it.

Posted by Greg Spearritt

"I dont think of it as a religious problem but a basic flaw found in human beings."
So Says Wayne...

Either we have faith in our abilities to think rationally and honestly or we don't. Clearly all subscribers to this website have faith in their rational abilities and their abilities to express what they have faith in or they wouldnt be using these blogs. So if they do have faith then all their outpourings are basically flawed, as has been stipulated, and as anything else they might wish to add by way of refutation or elaboration. So if they cannot have faith in what they have to say why should any readers of these blogs?
We are left to wonder why they have no faith in what they are saying.Cant really blame them, as far as I can see!

Let's be at least consistent with what we say even if we have no faith in them ourselves. It's all basically flawed, right? That is what Wayne would have us believe.

Make sense to all you guys out there??

Posted by robert halsey

Wayne,it is too easy to believe what someone has written about Mother Theresa after having met her once or twice and perhaps accepting what someone else has said or written about her, especially if you have an a priori attitude to per in particular.You have your own reason for doing so but a critical attityude isnt one of them.Especially if you are on the look out for "evidence" to support your atheism, or altruism.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of homeless and penny-less people who were helped by her. I personally saw her help a Muslim leper who was found dyind in a drain. She spent his last moments holding his head and bringing a smile to his face and gave him back his dignity even if it was in death. Your critics wouldnt know about things like this or if told where to go and see for themselves would not have bothered because it wouldnt fit their agenda.
People at a distance from the truth sit in judgement on people like her.
Why cant we be more broadminded and non-judgemental?Does one have to be a rabid atheist to be credited with altruistic deeds?Everyone else can be condemned, denigrated and lied about.
Is this the sum total and strength of your vision of life?
Come on,Wayne! Give some dignity to your intellectual status as a serious honest and critical thinker no matter how radical you want to be.
I find that there are so many atheists and radicalists who are so deeply in love with their own rhetoric that they cannot find any goodness in others.
That's sad, really,Wayne.

Posted by robert halsey

I agree with Brian's views on faith that can prove toxic..up to a point,though. I can also see what faith must have meant to God-fearing and God-loving Christians in times past. Out of their faith have arisen the magnificent cathedrals of Europe and the paintings and music dedicated to God,their Ultimate reality.

But those days have long since gone yielding place to the critical sensibilities of the Enlightenment. In its place have arise the products from the matrices of new devotions and newly-founded faiths atomic energy, the marvels of electronics and space ventures and the advances ov modern medical revolutionary ideas and inventions. The corruption of the old faiths residual largely in the USA can only come up wit the classical bestseller written by Jimmy Baker and Jimmy Swiggert, "We Do More Than Lay Preachers" kidding. You can get a copy from Amazon.
Gee, who'd be a lay preacher anywhere near the likes of Swiggert and Baker!!


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