Really great column on AlterNet by David Morris. He makes an interesting suggestion: imagine every time someone says the word faith they're saying superstition, since the definition of both is "belief without evidence." He paraphrases a statement from George W. Bush:
I believe in the power of superstition in people's lives. Our government should not fear programs that exist because a church or a synagogue or a mosque has decided to start one. We should not discriminate against programs based upon superstition in America. We should enable them to access federal money, because superstition-based programs can change people's lives, and America will be better off for it.
Let's be honest: it's called faith when you believe it and superstition when it's someone else. That doesn't make faith any more legitimate. You're allowed to make fun of the Reagans for consulting psychics; that's just silly superstition. You're even allowed to think they were stupid for doing it. Come on? Psychics? But the instant you suggest that a person's faith in God is just as ridiculous, you somehow cross a line, despite the fact that there is actually more evidence for the psychic—at least the psychic talked to them in person. But God is different. After all, faith is their personal belief! Religion is a deeply private thing and important to people and it gives them strength and hope.
Fine. If you believe that religious faith is off-limits for debate, discussion, and indeed ridicule, then to be consistent you should take those same reverent tones when somebody discusses tarot cards or telepathy or talking to the dead or palm-reading or faith healing. They all give people comfort when they need it by feigning certainty in the face of doubt. There is no difference between superstition and faith. None.
We all try to avoid laughing in someone's face when they are superstitious. I usually pull the, "Yeah, that's great," kind of half-smile thing and get out of there. So it would be counter-productive to suggest that people go up to an obviously religious person and start giving them shit for it. Everyone is entitled to believe whatever they want.
But we have an obligation to speak out when superstition organizes and tries to change our lives. Faith—in God or the local psychic—at least gives people hope. In contrast, organized religion has always been a force of division and control. It exists for no reason other than the imposition of the will of the few upon the many. First the will of the hypothetical God on the leaders, then the leaders on the followers, and ultimately the followers on the skeptics. It is the very basis of division and hierarchy and false authority.
The Quakers aren't hurting anybody! The Buddhists keep to themselves! There aren't a lot of evangelical Jews nowadays! Same goes for Taoism and Shinto! Agreed. These religions don't currently pose a threat to nonbelievers. That doesn't mean that they are true. It doesn't mean that their leaders have legitimate reasons to lead. And it definitely doesn't mean that they shouldn't be examined critically just like every other institution.
If there's one thing I agree with the anarchists about, it is this: question all hierarchy and authority for necessity. Any authority which is not essential is illegitimate. Unless there is evidence for the existence of a worship-demanding God there is no necessity for worship and therefore no necessity for institutions of worship. So it's your choice. If you want to spend your private time, effort, and money empowering other people to tell you what you should think, who am I to stop you?
The idea that faith is not a special category of belief and that it can in fact be examined critically is a paradigm shift that society is not prepared to accept. We have firmly entrenched the notion that faith is a taboo topic. Any belief a person can have is fair game for discussion, argument, and parody, unless that belief has to do with God. The culture has even deluded itself into thinking faith is a virtue! Believing things without evidence is apparently a sign of strength and conviction.
In truth, believing things without evidence is a sign of gullibility.