Faith (heretofore defined as belief in the absence of evidence) is a very odd thing. When applied to many situations, most people would agree that it is synonymous with stupidity - for example, having faith that you can jump off a skyscraper and survive is not terribly sensible. And yet a vast number of people use it to justify strongly-held beliefs. Where's the borderline between situations where faith is and isn't acceptable, and how is that borderline justified?
My belief is that no such borderline is justified. I have never seen any situation where faith has resulted in a more accurate understanding of reality. Holy books do not generally tell us any confirmable facts about the universe that we didn't already know. They don't make any testable predictions that we couldn't already propose. Faith, when applied to understanding the universe, is completely useless.
So why do people have so much respect for faith? One way or another, I think it's an intellectual cop-out. In its simplest form, it acts as an excuse for not thinking much about the universe. It allows an individual to opt out of the reality-based community with a clear conscience. It means they don't have to waste time that could be better used advancing their position in life. The reality-based community is seriously under-represented amongst the CEOs of major corporations, and I strongly suspect that this is why.
A slightly more complex variant arises from intuitive perceptions of the universe. For example, in this article in the Observer, Richard Harries argues that:
However, religious belief is a matter of considered judgment. It involves our aesthetic sense, our moral judgment, our imagination and our intuition. In this respect, it is not totally different from making a judgment, for example, that Beckett is a great playwright, the war against Iraq was wrong or the sheer existence of the universe is awesome.
It's possible for an idea to Just Feel Right to someone. They can't justify it, but they "know" it's true - so they call upon faith to spring the trap of rationality they find themselves caught in. Faith allows them to treat objective questions ("does God exist?") as if they were subjective questions ("was Beckett a great playwright?"). Faith claims that their intuitive feelings constitute a valid argument. The problem with this, of course, is that intuitive beliefs about the universe have a regrettable tendency to be horribly inaccurate, to the point that overcoming these intuitions is an essential part of joining the reality-based community. As a rule, "self-evident truths" generally aren't.
Of course, faith of this sort has trouble surviving in a critical environment. Any scientist claiming to hold to a scientifically-testable belief on the basis of faith can and will be laughed at. There's a definite social component to faith, and I suspect that it is often provided by those whom faith does benefit - the hucksters and frauds. Religion will never die out whilst there's good money to be made exploiting those who adhere to it. The demagogues, the televangelists, the politicians who are miraculously born again just when their popularity needs a boost - all these, and the honest people they dupe, contribute to an atmosphere where criticism of faith is considered unacceptable. The same goes for other snake-oil salesmen - the psychics, the Qabbalists, the sellers of "alternative therapies".
As many of the crazier religious folk would claim, there is indeed something of an underground war going on. In the red corner, we have the scientists, the skeptics, the folk who insist on hard evidence before they'll believe. In the blue corner, we have the fundamentalists, the quacks, the preachers and the innocent folks who believe them. The former group has by far the best credibility; the latter group has by far the most convincing rhetoric. Who will win? That remains to be seen.
[Reality Check Disclaimer: This post is a rather speculative rhetorical piece, and as such may not be accurate. If you feel that any of the arguments or conclusions presented are incorrect or insufficiently justified, please call me on it]