The Weakness of Faith

Alan Jacobs, writing in the WSJ:

... I can't universalize my own experience -- but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they're not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.

Most of today's leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like Mr. Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company's products. Discerning a difference between people's professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do.

This point, I think, dovetails nicely with the argument I was making in this post on the disproportionate fear inspired by apocalyptic religious beliefs, whether they're being professed by Pat Robertson or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The proportion of religious believers who insist that their conduct is motivated by the imminent end of the world is vastly larger, so far as I can tell, than the proportion who actually behave in ways designed to hasten the apocalypse, as opposed to advancing some rather-more-worldly interest. Now of course it only takes one such person with a suitcase nuke to do an awful lot of damage - but as I said before, I think such people are sufficiently rare, and sufficiently unlikely to ascend to positions of great power, that they ought to be further down our list of worries than many secularists suppose.