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David Hanson, Published March 10 2012

Faith as a virtue is a sham

I am puzzled by the recent dramatic uptick in our political candidates’ insistence on professing their “faith” and their strategy that voters should count it as a virtue of their character. This attribution of virtue to the one who has faith instead of someone or something who has earned that faith is dangerously misplaced.

If I have faith that McDonald’s will forget to put chipotle sauce in with my six-piece nugget order, my faith is based on the fact they have faithfully forgotten to do so enough times before that I can posit they will likely screw up my order again this time. But my faith in this matter hardly bestows virtue on me. The placement of any “virtue” of faith in this case would belong to McDonald’s, who, by their mindless consistency of getting my order wrong, has earned my faith. All I did was notice they missed my sauce enough times that I created a theory that they would continue to do so with an annoying consistency in the future.

The three Abrahamic religions of the world, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all postulate that the faith of the believer is something highly valued by the deity. The deity of these religious traditions attributes value to us when we make the Kierkegaardian leap from incredulity or agnosticism to the status of faith.

In our daily lives, we base the faith we have in someone or something on our experience of their “reliability.” We place faith in scientific theories such as gravity because they hold up over time through consistent verification of their hypotheses through testing and replication – in other words, the reliability of their accuracy of their relationship to the world “out there.” Things always seem to “fall down” so we have faith they will continue to do so even though there is no proof that they won’t just start “falling up” tomorrow morning when we get out of bed.

Is there virtue to be placed with us for having such faith? When we place faith in someone, that faith is always the result of the actions that someone has taken over time that can be expected to continue. Faith is a trust statement about the reliability of the person or theory or concept whom we have placed faith in; it is not a virtue to simply be holding a hypothesis on past performance and especially unproven performance.

In politics and religion this is turned upside down; virtue is posited to be due the person who has faith rather than the thing on which that faith is based. So now we have political candidates speaking emotively of how they are “men of faith,” and we are to be impressed enough by that mere fact to cast our vote their way. For a political candidate to peacock their faith as some sort of virtue they should receive for believing in the veracity of religious premises not proved or even universally believed by all is misplaced.

With that said, I do not claim any virtue for myself for my faith that politicians will continue to pander their faith as a virtue to get elected. They have earned my faith.