Wow, it's been a while. Sorry about that. I'll try not to do it again.
In the spirit of some of my previous posts, I'd like to talk about the doctrine of faith, and why it bothers me - specifically, my problems with the idea that faith is paramount and the only way to salvation (a view held by quite a lot of people).
Let me start with a quote from Bertrand Russell. Russell was asked, once, what he would say if he died and found out that there was a God after all, and God asked him why Russell didn't believe in him. "Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence" was Russell's hypothetical reply.
This pretty much illustrates perfectly my position on the subject, but it also helps illustrate a larger problem - indeed, a problem that stems from the very reason we humans claim special status.
What is it that separates humanity from every other species on this planet? We are conscious, and through that consciousness we have gained an ability to reason that far surpasses all other life on Earth. According to almost all religious belief, this ability to reason is a gift from God, a sign that we are special and unique. And yet that very same religious belief is telling us that in order to achieve salvation - in order to have an eternity (a concept God evidently did not equip us to understand) in heaven, whatever that's supposed to be - we must ignore the very thing that makes us special in the first place. We must turn off our brains, ignore evidence, go against everything about the way we are built and put faith in spurious claims about a God who will not give us the slightest evidence that he exists.
I mentioned in a previous post that if you think God answers prayers, you have what is pretty much an impossible task if you want to pretend he's still a benevolent force - either he's capricious or he's malevolent or he doesn't have the powers ascribed to him. In this case, I again don't know how you can continue to paint God as a good force if the number one virtue he demands is faith without evidence.
There is exactly one framework under which this makes sense - that God is testing us. But the nature of the test is such that, if you believe he exists, God comes out looking like a narcissistic, capricious creep. He is saying that unless you ignore what the evidence tells you, unless you believe in him without the benefit of convincing evidence - which he could, but will not, provide - you're screwed. And, frankly, that is not the kind of being that I feel is even deserving of worship.
Because, let's face it, the evidence doesn't point to any sort of a God. Oh, a lot of people think it does, and do an impressive contortion act to try to make the facts fit their beliefs, but the more ironclad the beliefs, the more contortion you have to do. Any time you make specific claims (prayer, etc), there's nothing to back them up. And even people who think that the evidence does show that there's a God will have to admit that there's no smoking gun out there - God hasn't come down and told us flat out "Hi, I exist!". That's why everyone falls back on faith - because you cannot support religious beliefs on evidence alone.
Studies continue to show that religious faith declines as people get more educated (with the exception of the Mormons, whose statistics are skewed by BYU). The peak of this, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, is the National Academy of Science, where 93% of the Academy lacks any sort of religious belief. In contrast, poor and ignorant societies have overwhelming levels of religious belief - look at Africa, for instance. Are these societies somehow better and more virtuous? There's something wrong with the picture when your worldview states that the most educated men on Earth - because of that education - are in worse shape for the afterlife than the poorest nations on the face of the planet. Poverty is not a good thing, no matter what Mother Teresa (who couldn't sustain her own faith) tried to tell people, and we should be trying everything we can to bring people out of it. If poverty is more conducive to faith than prosperity and education, how can we see faith as the ultimate virtue? Exercising our ability to reason - which is what has elevated us above our cousins swinging in the trees - should not be seen as a bad thing.
When I die, I expect to cease existing. My consciousness will end, and my body will rot in the ground (or be cremated, or whatever). But if, somehow, there is something there, I'm going to tell it exactly what Bertrand Russell did - there simply wasn't enough evidence. And if that's not good enough - if exercising my ability to reason isn't what I was supposed to do - then that's not where I want to spend eternity anyway.