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0 Comments | Feb 04, 2010

The Failure of Faith

ca_200811_01_photo_BrokenCrossI cannot say what put me of a mind to delve into this particular topic, fraught as it is with emotion and history. Suffice it to say that the subject matter has troubled me for ages and I feel the need to get something down on paper, if only to concentrate my thoughts and bring a bit more focus to how I feel about it. I accept as well that precisely the opposite may be the result and that I may come away even more hazy and uncertain than when I began—a risk I am prepared to take. I should state at the outset as well that it is not my objective to change anyone’s mind with this treatise, nor is it in any event a likely outcome, since the topic is one so firmly entrenched in each individual’s psyche, either positively or otherwise. It is however possible that in reading this piece, someone may be moved to offer a counter argument that sharpens my own thinking on the matter, and surely that cannot be a bad thing.

My principal thesis is that faith is an inherently destructive, or at best counterproductive, force, to be eschewed at every opportunity. To the extent that many readers will experience some measure of revulsion at this sentiment being so clearly and unequivocally articulated, and especially to the extent that most reactions of this sort will come from a position of religious faith, that aspect of the phenomenon will be a significant part of the discussion that follows. That said, there are of course numerous alternative sorts of faith that have no religious underpinning at all, and these are as well meant to be included in my original thesis statement, to wit, that faith in all its incarnations is a poor substitute for proactiveness, cogent scrutiny, and other more worthy emotions or states of being, and one that has accomplished little throughout history save to make humans meaner, lazier and generally less happy (and more frequently than I’d care to recall, dead).

It is worth leaping into the most challenging, and doubtless most controversial, variation of faith right from the start. But first, it is important to clarify just what I take the word to mean, seeing as how there are dozens of extant definitions. I am not here discussing the sort of faith one has in the occurrence of something that has been demonstrated to take place under similar circumstances in the past, i.e. a belief that something will take place based on its having taken place many times previous. To say that one has faith that one’s father will come home from work today at six o’clock, a belief based on his having so appeared every working day in the past, is not, strictly speaking, faith, but rather a simple expectation based on the preponderance of empirical data. Similarly, to have faith “in one’s fellow man” to behave in a reasonably civilized and hospitable manner could be expected to stem from a lifetime of experience in which most of one’s interactions with others has been of that decent sort. Again, it is a historically driven and altogether reasonable expectation. No, what I speak of herein is, rather, faith as the belief in events (either past or yet to come) that have in no way been demonstrated to be real, or even especially likely. And this is where religious theology enters the story, guns blazing.

Indeed, it is faith, as just defined, that is the edifice upon which nearly all of religion is based, and without which religion would be of no greater consequence to humanity than Greek mythology. Consider the following hypothetical exchange:

Bob: Bill, do you believe in the existence of Zeus?
Bill: No, of course not. Zeus is a fantasy story dreamt up by the Greeks thousands of years ago.
Bob: But surely the Greeks of that time believed in him rather fervently.
Bill: Well, I suppose so. But we’ve come a long way since then. You’d have to be delusional to believe something like that today.
Bob: And do you believe in God?
Bill: Of course I do. Everyone believes in God…Well, most everyone…
Bob: And why is that exactly?
Bill: Because it’s what I’ve always believed in him.
Bob: And…
Bill: And because most people aren’t comfortable with the idea of living a life they believe to be meaningless and they find that meaning through a belief in God.
Bob: A life which, when it’s over, has you doing nothing but rotting in a box.
Bill: Something like that…yeah.

…etc, etc, etc. Such conversations happen every day in every part of the world. And while they’re not necessarily taking place at this admittedly superficial level, the gist of them is more or less the same. When pushed to objectively scrutinize why we choose to believe in things we cannot explain, rather than fall back on unconvincing explanations like a) because someone wrote it in a book, or b) because the man who runs the church I go to told me I should believe it, or c) because I learned it from my parents, or even d) because it provides a structure and belief system for my life without which I would consider the whole thing a waste of time, they instead inevitably fall back on some variation of “I take it as a matter of faith”. Which is where the danger begins to rear its head.

Taking something “on faith” in the complete absence of any reasonably corroborating evidence is a lazy substitute for intellectual scrutiny. It is something that seemingly intelligent people do all over the world voluntarily every day of their lives and it completely eludes me. It is tantamount to admitting that we will believe in anything at all, no matter how bizarre or improbable it may be, no matter how much it controverts the known laws of physics or simple common sense. But that, in and of itself, is not the dangerous bit. Many of us (though sadly not all) are fortunate enough to live in places where we are free to believe whatever we care to believe, a human right that is priceless and well worth defending. The danger however comes when we assign our faith a higher level of merit than the faith of others, whose rationale for what they believe is, by the way, no more empirically grounded than our own. If someone simply says to me “I believe in God because I choose to and because it makes me feel better”, this, as far as it goes, is a harmless thing. But the moment someone says “I believe in God and I further believe that my belief is the only correct one, the truthful one, whereas those people who believe in Buddha, Allah, or any other supernatural deity are all just ignorant heathens”, that’s when the trouble truly begins. Because that dichotomy has been the basis for more hatred and destruction throughout history than any other cause you’d care to name. And it’s all based on faith—faith that someone was born of a virgin, or that someone rode a horse into the sky, or faith that if I am “saved” I will spend eternity in heaven, or faith that if I blow myself up and take a few infidels with me, I will, as well, spend eternity in (a presumably different) heaven. From a purely intellectual standpoint, it is easier to have respect for the despot who invades another country because he is a greedy bastard and wants to steal their resources than it is to respect the person who does the same because he has a different faith than his neighbor and just can’t stand the thought that someone might have a different sort of faith than his own.

But taking something “on faith” in the complete absence of any reasonably corroborating evidence is not only a lazy substitute for intellectual scrutiny. It is as well the supreme cop out for believing in anything you want to believe (or that some authority figure tells you to believe). I was raised in a Baptist church in New England and I spent a good deal of my time in that church quizzing the pastor, to his obvious chagrin, on what seemed to my adolescent mind vexing matters of theological inconsistency. I made a supreme nuisance of myself asking questions like “how could the world have been created in six days?” or “how is it possible for the earth to be less than six thousand years old?” or “How can God be omnipotent yet unable to defeat the devil?” and in every case the standard response involved some version of accepting the matter on faith. As if that weren’t unnerving and unsatisfying enough, the message also came through loud and clear that it was inappropriate to even pose such questions, since doing so demonstrated that I did not have an adequate degree of faith.

I take as axiomatic that any belief system which refuses to submit itself to objective scrutiny is no belief system at all but simply an elaborate fantasy created by people who perceptively realized at an early date that a large percentage of the population could be made to believe anything (or at least to say that they believe it), no matter how incongruous, if they were exhorted to believe it enough times and with enough vigor (or at certain points in history with a suitable threat of retribution if they refused to believe, or at least created a convincing illusion that they believed). Someone once replied to me, when presented with arguments like the foregoing, that I should “listen to my heart and not my head,” and I fear that is what this all really boils down to. Faith, in its theological constructs, is about asking people to deny that most basic thing that makes us human, i.e. the ability and proclivity to question the things we do not understand, to seek explanations where none are apparent. It is how we end up with plausible, testable explanations for cosmology, genetics and chemistry. Are there things happening around us every day that do not admit good explanations? Of course there are. But it is our humanity that drives us to explain these things, compels us to get to the bottom of it. There are, to this day, people who believe that the sun is a god and that an eclipse is their god’s way of expressing displeasure or portending misfortune. We watch these people in movies or read about them in books, and we mock them for their ignorance. But structurally, conceptually, intellectually, there is absolutely no difference between believing in a sun god and believing in an old man in the sky with flowing robes and a white beard. The only difference is what you choose to have faith in.

There is of course a great deal more to faith than its role as the underpinning of religious fervor. Sticking for the moment with our original broad definition of faith as a belief in the occurrence of things that otherwise have no empirical or credible probability of actually taking (or having taken) place, we run very quickly into the notion of one’s faith in the occurrence of certain everyday events, the principal danger here being that our faith in such outcomes frequently gives us cause to take no steps to actually help bring them about (or defeat them), or, worse, our faith in these unlikely outcomes causes us to repeatedly make bad decisions. There is a subtlety at work here though, one that is worth exploring for a moment.

It would seem at first blush an act of supreme non-theological faith to purchase a lottery ticket. However, I propose that faith isn’t quite the right concept to apply to this situation, since I maintain that faith is the unshakable belief that an event is certain to happen, whereas it would be vastly beyond naïve for the lottery ticket purchaser to actually believe in their particular ticket being a winner. This would seem to me more a matter of hope (a seriously misplaced one at that) and it seems at least one good way of distinguishing matters of hope from those of faith, viz faith being a strong belief in the occurrence of something whereas hope is the desire for an unlikely event to occur, but accompanied by the reality of not actually expecting it to happen. Presumably however the one thing these two ephemeral concepts have in common is that the occurrence of the event they are looking toward is not supported by past results. Hope could thus be said to be a more honest emotion, since, unlike faith, hope carries with it a much diminished expectation as to actual outcome, which is of course what nearly always happens.

At this juncture a reasonable person, whether or not they possess their own faith, or even believe in the concept, might well ask “In what do you believe then?” To which I respond without hesitation, I believe in the things that merit my belief. I believe in reason. And there are numerous “tests” that will determine whether something merits this belief, not least of which are tests of plausibility, viewability, and repeatability. When you say to me you have faith that Jesus, with seven loaves and fishes, fed to satiety thousands of people, this to me fails the plausibility test immediately. Don’t get me wrong though—plenty of events that at first glance seem patently implausible, in fact turn out to be real, which is why mankind invented science, which is the human discipline based first and foremost upon viewability and repeatability. If something is said to have occurred, but it then turns out to be neither viewable nor repeatable, the discipline of science promptly rejects it, as it has throughout history with everything from perpetual motion to alchemy to cold fusion. Maxims such as “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” are derived from these ideas, the former platitude being directly and perhaps a bit too literally true in the loaves and fishes example.

Ah, you say, but how does scientific discovery proceed without a healthy dose of faith? Why would an otherwise sane person strap themselves on top of a rocket or be the first to test a new drug if they didn’t have faith in the technology? This though is a misapplication of the concept of faith, for indeed no sane person does these things without a good deal of analysis and examination having first taken place before they agree to put their butts on the line for real. In fact there have been plenty of people throughout history who undertook dangerous activities based on faith alone, most of whom failed to live out their natural lives as a consequence.

And while we’re at it, how does hubris fit into this discussion? For surely hubris is nothing but faith on steroids. The Titanic can’t possibly sink because it’s a totally new and impregnable technology. General Custer can beat those Indians because he’s always easily beaten them before. The space shuttle Challenger will fly perfectly today because it has done so on nine previous missions. I think hubris is somewhat different than faith, for in all of these examples there was in fact ample preceding data to suggest that the responsible individuals were not completely out of bounds in believing what they believed. The Titanic was genuinely better than all preceding ocean liners. Custer had proven himself to be an excellent Indian fighter. And Challenger had in fact performed wonderfully on numerous earlier flights. Still, something akin to faith built up over time until it came back to bite them in the ass. The saving grace in these real-world examples though is that people can learn from their mistakes. Ship building, military planning and space exploration are all safer and more effective today because of what was learned from these tragedies. The problem in each case though was that faith began to take the place of reason and analysis. And there’s the rub. If just a bit of reason and analysis being replaced by faith can result in breakdowns as cataclysmic as happened in these cases, what surely must be the result when there is nothing at all keeping us grounded aside from faith, i.e. no reason or analysis whatsoever? To say that we “know” that miracles take/took place seems, in the end, to be the ultimate hubris. At least the Challenger crew when they lifted off had a reasonable belief in the safety of what they were doing, else none of them would have shown up for work that morning. But if I throw myself off a cliff, as the devil purportedly exhorted Jesus to do in the desert, and I have faith that God, or whomever, will bear me up and keep me safe, there is of course an extraordinary likelihood of my meeting that God sooner rather than later.

Faith is a dangerous thing because it causes us to think in extremely unsound ways or, worse, to stop thinking altogether. It causes us to pollute the earth because we have faith that Jesus is going to return soon and if the earth is going to end in our lifetimes anyway, then the condition of the earth is irrelevant. It causes us to believe, and to teach our children to believe, in untestable nonsense. It is a pleasant-sounding word made up by someone centuries ago because they didn’t like the sound of equivalent words like naïveté, gullibility, or foolishness. Oddly enough when we today think back hundreds of years ago to a time when people believed that the world was flat, the universe rotated around the earth, or that an eclipse was some deity’s way of expressing displeasure, we don’t hesitate to use the above words to describe them, despite the fact that the strength of their beliefs was no less than our own. A popular thing to have faith in today is that humans are unique in the universe, i.e. that there are no other life-sustaining worlds anywhere else in the cosmos. Certain people take this on faith today, because failing to do so would mean that perhaps mankind isn’t quite as special as we like to believe we are. One wonders how this doctrine will have to be modified when the first extra-terrestrial life is definitively located elsewhere. Think as well of all the cults throughout history that have had the hubris to predict a specific date when either God would return or the earth would otherwise end—everyone from the Mayans to the Reverend Jim Jones—in every case having the date come and go without incident required some quick tap dancing so that the “faith” of that group’s adherents wouldn’t be dashed against the rocks of reality. And it is usually at these times that platitudes start getting distributed about how “God works in mysterious ways”, etc, etc, yet another rhetorical device routinely employed to keep us from actually scrutinizing the things we are being told to believe.

I close by enumerating the things that I do choose to have faith in—human decency, the unending advance of knowledge and discovery, the ability of nature to never stop astounding us, the creativity of the human mind. These are all things that deserve my faith, because I have seen them every day of my life. They are repeatable. They force my mind to remain open yet skeptical. They cannot, and ought not, be taken for granted. Yet, in a strange paradoxical way, they can nevertheless be counted on. Many people have said to me over the years that without faith they don’t know how they could go on living. That’s fine, as far as it goes. The question is what you have faith in, and what you do with your life as a consequence.

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