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Faith is a good thing, right? It makes you a better person. Happier. Better adjusted. More moral. Nicer to everybody. More capable.

We say this kind of thing about faith all the time. But what is it based on? Do we have any proof? Well, of course not. To demand proof, or even look for it, would undermine our faith. And faith is a good thing...

The argument for the complete and inherent goodness of faith is more circular than a child's model train track. I'm not going to try to argue here that all aspects of faith are inherently bad. But I do want to undermine the knee-jerk assumption that all aspects of faith are inherently good. When, for example, faith operates as an intellectual snooze-button, it can have distinctively negative effects.

One defining characteristic of faith is that it is an unshakable belief. It is maintained in the face of any and all contrary evidence. That's one big difference between Atheists and the faithful. Atheists, generally speaking, don't believe in God because there's no evidence for his/her existence. (Admittedly, this is not the case for Atheism in Communist countries, where it's a faith that is imposed as arbitrarily and forcefully as any religion ever has been. I'm talking good old fashioned about American Atheism here.) If provided with strong proof of God's existence, most Atheists would reconsider their beliefs. Not so with the faithful--no amount of proof against the existence of God would ever cause them to abandon their faith.

George W. Bush is a man of faith, as he likes to emphasize. And that's a good thing, right? Because faith is a good thing...

What's wrong with having a leader who relies on faith? Plenty. In as much as faith is unshakable belief in the face of all contrary evidence, it is a habit of thought that undermines intellectual projects in which evidence is gathered, analyzed, and compared critically to pre-existing assumptions and hypotheses. To be effective, intelligence gathering and science, for example, must rely on the latter mode of thought, not the former. These disciplines, at their best, admit to having imperfect tools for observing the world. They use terms like "might," maybe," and "margin of error." They don't talk about absolute certitude, but about "overwhelming evidence" (this is a difference not of degree, but of kind).

When we say that Bush started a war out of a "faith-based" conviction that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, it's more than a cute little smart-ass comment.

Bush started out saying he knew that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. How did he know? Saddam wouldn't let inspectors into the country. What did he have to hide? Saddam let inspectors in. They didn't find anything. Bush said he still knew Saddam had WMD. The inspectors didn't find them because they didn't have big enough teams or helicopters. The inspectors got bigger teams and helicopters. They still didn't find anything. Bush said he still knew Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors didn't find them because they were incompetent. How did he know the inspectors were incompetent? Because they didn't find the weapons. And he knew the weapons were there...

The Bush administration's belief in Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was unshakable in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It was faith based. Absence of evidence, as Ronald Dumbsfeld has emphasized, is not evidence of absence. True enough, but repeated failure to find evidence to back up something you believe to be true ought to tell you something. But it tells the faithful nothing. It told Bush nothing. Because Bush had faith. And faith is a good thing, right?...

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