Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Battle For Faith

(Assembled from various points of discussion I have had lately on the topic of "faith"...)

I am very weary of people who keep wanting to equate "faith" with "unquestioning acceptance of unchallenged ideas" or "blindly believing something even when there is a way to either confirm or refute it". It has a broader and nobler meaning as a valuable human quality, that of devotion and trust, taking a chance on virtue rather than on certainty of outcome.

Some people talk about different meanings of faith as whether or not you trust your senses, or believing in something in the material world or beyond but without other evidence, or believing in such a thing contrary to evidence. But that misses the point. All of those examples buy into the idea that faith has anything to do with facts or physical evidence, an idea that has become prominent because many Christians like to cite a Bible passage of faith being "evidence of things not seen" and apply an interpretation of "evidence" as pertaining to the factuality of extraordinary claims such as those made in the Bible about God and miracles. In other words, the preceding examples of different definitions of or the usefulness reliability of faith all belong to a single category of definition, one of the two I am contrasting.

But that cited Biblical passage in Hebrews 11:1 about faith being evidence also has a poetic meaning--in other words, faith is "evidence of things of the heart" such as love, compassion, equanimity (i.e. "not seen" as in human qualities you cannot pull out a tape measure to gauge as opposed to "not seen" as in the supernatural). For many early Christians coming out of various Jewish traditions, the affairs of the heart were in a sense a demonstration of the existence of God, but in many modern versions that middle step gets left out and we are simply left with "faith=evidence of God" instead of "faith=evidence of heart=demonstration of God". But this term need not be tied to God. A broader meaning more similar to this concept of faith connected to the heart is found among all major religions (including many strands of Christianity), while the fundamentalists and dogmatists tend to share the other meaning. For example, saddha, a Buddhist term that has been translated from Pali as "faith" is more accurately rendered as "to place the heart upon" (there is a great piece on this written by Sharon Salzberg and reproduced at Beliefnet).

Another related use of the word showing a similar dichotomy is the idea of faith as devotion. This has also been stretched by certain religionists to equate "devotion" with "blind obedience". This can be contrasted again to devotion to principles or virtue (which may or may not be embodied in a prophet or God or what have you). In other words, in this latter usage, it has more to do with why one might choose to work with convicted felons who are sentenced to life in prison. Logic says the odds of rehabilitation aren't as good for some kinds of offenders, and besides, those with life without parole aren't going to be reintegrated into society anyway. But some folks have faith in the principle of basic human worth and dignity for all people. They trust in the principle before they see any additional evidence that such a trust is well placed. That is a stark contrast to devotion as "blind obedience", in which faith is measured by acts like "lying for Jesus" or attitudes like "hating fags because preacher said it's in the Bible".

Obviously faith has many connotations for many people, yet in one kind of usage it seems to always be rendered as a form of absolute submission without question, wherein the other kind of usage sees it more as a liberation to possibilities beyond those available to reason alone. Yet the more controlling and anti-intellectual form has been favored in popular usage in the West. In American politics some Republicans have through their usage of the term given an implied definition of “people of faith” as “far right conservative evangelical fundamentalist Christians who are registered as Republicans”. Hence even non-Christians frequently start with the presumption that faith is being pushed as "an alternative to empirical evidence or reason" at best and as "a mark of willful ignorance" at worst. Hence many atheist and humanist organizations proudly refer to themselves as “faithless” or “faith-free” and a few even align themselves as “anti-faith” to oppose what they perceive as a dangerous form of an emotionally charged ideological control mechanism. But that really shortchanges a very wonderful human capacity based on its most perverted usage as framed by those pushing for dogma and subservience. Or to use an analogy I made and have become rather fond of, it's like equating "romance" with "cheap sex"--it may be true for a huge number of awfully shallow people but it hardly does justice to the concept.

“Liberating faith”, when combined with reason, has been at the forefront of progressive social change including fights for religious liberty, the abolitionist movement to end slavery, charitable organizations to feed the sick, cure disease, etc., as well as equal rights movements for various marginalized groups. This stems from teachings about the inherent value of all people. The episodes of violence done in the name of faith are usually associated with

A) disguising an injustice as a moral necessity through lies and propaganda (often focusing on teachings of judgment and condemnation)


B) resisting progressive social change (often instigated by others of faith) by framing the more conservative position as 'traditional values' (again, often focusing on teachings of judgment and condemnation)

The point is not to start a contest for what good or bad things are done in the name of faith, but to indicate that it is not inherently 'good' or 'bad', any more than curiosity is good or bad, or reason is good or bad. We shouldn’t blame curiosity, reason, or science for the eugenics movement, or for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Faith is a human quality, and like all our quirks under various conditions it can be utilized for purposes whose ultimate ends are wonderful or horrific. Hence, rather than making a simplistic association of how some fundamentalists view faith and "all the bad things associated with religion" (which in itself presumes no role for social, political, historical, economic and other factors), let us look more closely at the complexity of human interpersonality.

This brings up the issue of decision-making. The component of a decision based on the logical analysis of data/track record producing that scale of the most conservative expectations to the most daring is related to what we refer to as "reason", but other elements of decision making also use such information (but in other ways). And of course reason is neutral. It does not say “the most consistent answer is right.” It does not say “the choice with the fewest unnecessary assumptions is the best.” Reason merely offers us up a buffet of choices. How we react to them, what we choose, goes beyond “reason” and involves preference, emotion, and other forms of mental calculations that are often dumped into the wastebasket term “intuition”.

The ability to "go out on a limb" is closer to what we call "faith". Faith is about trusting. If I had sufficient reason to trust you, even if I didn't have "all the facts", I would believe you. It would be a risk. It would be an intuitive leap (based on incomplete set of facts, not necessarily "no evidence"). Taking risks, opening yourself to bold and exciting new possibilities, is an important hallmark of the human condition. Rationalism has its place, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient to fully function as a human being. Or as Spock said, "Logic is the beginning of wisdom-- not the end."

Ignorance and superstition and radicalism, rather than "faith" per se, is the real danger. Faith is not the same as superstition. Faith is not always the same thing as unquestioning obedience and belief. Yet faith (capitalized or otherwise) is sometimes necessary to cross the gaps in our path of self-actualization. Instead we should frame the issue as reason and empirical evidence versus superstition and mythic literalism. It is fanaticism, which requires blind obedience and an unwavering conviction in the moral certainty of an organization, polity, or leader, which permits the suspension of regular ethical and moral consideration. Humans need reason and faith, and whatever one thinks about the affair, humans will always express both.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...