Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What is Faith?

"The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves."

--Richard Bach

Everyone, even atheists, should consider the possibility that a spiritual world exists. However, we shouldn’t assume it exists until we find evidence that it does. I've heard people respond to this argument by suggesting that the burden of proof lies on those attempting to disprove religion, simply because religion has ruled unquestioned for thousands of years. Let me point out that the reason I take issue with religion, spirituality, and god, is lack of evidence, not because I want to go against the flow. The burden of proof isn't a matter of chronology. For example, I can’t assert that there's a monster under my bed and then deny you proof simply because I presented my position first. That would be childish.

Right now, the planet contains upwards of 6 billion people. With the widespread use of social media, a kitten can’t make a cute noise without being recorded and posted online for the entertainment of others. There are TV shows with large budgets that have the express purpose of investigating paranormal activity. Digital technology has made every computer with an Internet connection a portal to a monumental documentary on humanity and nature as the story unfolds before us. Tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, deforestation, revolutions - all of these are now available to view, often as they occur in real time.

Yet, with these millions of videos, there hasn’t been one that’s been proven to be undeniable evidence of a spiritual occurrence. I know I’ve never experienced any allegedly spiritual happenings that couldn’t be explained in a much simpler, more natural way. Ask yourself when you last witnessed a miracle rather than hearing about it secondhand. In religious books, however, miraculous incidents seem to be the norm. Oddly, those occurrences become more frequent and fantastical as the clock rewinds. So, the question becomes, is it coincidence that well-documented, large-scale spiritual occurrences have diminished as science has progressed; or has it become easier to verify facts, causing demand to sharply decline for stories claiming to be true but offering no evidence to back them up? I’m going with option number 2.

Really, that should be the end of the discussion. If you tell me a unicorn exists, and I ask you to show it to me - or at least a picture of it, tuft of hair, or possibly a horn that was shed - and you refuse, I’d be a fool to trust you; yet a significant portion of the population believes wholeheartedly in the concept of faith. This is likely due to a denial of faith's true role in religion. It's the theological trump card played by spiritual leaders on questioning members of the flock in order to maintain control. I’ve experienced this many times in the Christian church.

Boiled down, faith requires that we believe the word of god, period. However, more complex versions do exist, such as the Calvinistic notion that people can only obtain faith if it is bestowed upon them by god. As a result of this theological loophole, I've already been asked several times whether or not I ever really believed in Christianity. The reason for the question is all too obvious: if faith is a gift, or calling, then those who change their minds were never really given the gift. This copout is one of the few things a Christian can say to me in a debate that will actually make me angry. I recall times in my life when I would pray to god every evening and ask for forgiveness for my inability to be selfless in all my actions throughout the day. So, yes, I believed – to a fault. Where did I get such an unhealthy, self-deprecating mindset, you ask? Answer: from the Bible.

Christianity holds that we are deeply flawed and worthless outside of Christ’s sacrifice, which makes us perfect, as we are meant to be. However, the fact remains that the Bible tells us we are reprehensible as we are, so much so that god won’t allow us in his presence until we’ve been cleansed. Because we exist in this world as we are, and not as we should be according to divine standards, the message is the same: you are unacceptable. Note the similarity in this type of relationship with god when compared to an abusive marriage, wherein a husband might beat his wife knowing she will not leave him, because he has convinced her she is worthless and will never find someone better. This technique is also used by pimps to keep prostitutes working for them.

 Theological nuances aside, the end result of faith is the same: believe without proof - belief for the sake of believing. By that reasoning, we should all believe in unicorns. However, the general consensus is that unicorns don’t exist, because we haven’t found evidence of their existence. Strangely, religious people bypass this logic using the concept of faith, but only on matters associated with their own religions. This exercise in mental gymnastics when presented with one’s own cognitive dissonance is disconcertingly similar to the concept of “doublethink,” as George Orwell described it in his political thriller, 1984. In the novel, a totalitarian government maintains control over its population by training people from an early age to rely entirely on the government, not only for information, but also for thought processes.

One common argument used in religious circles to placate the need for proof is that life is evidence of god’s existence, because it’s just too complex to occur without a guiding hand. This concept has been dubbed, “general revelation,” in many theological circles, and really there’s nothing wrong with, it except for the conclusion that almost always follows. It’s true that an “intelligent designer” (as Michael Behe refers to his alleged creator in his book, Darwin’s Black Box) may be an explanation for life; but that is as far as the argument can take you.

Even if there is a creator, we know nothing of its nature. It could be kind or cruel; it might have a limited source of knowledge or be all-knowing; it could be male, female, or asexual; it could be alive or dead; it may expect certain behaviors from us, or it might not care at all, choosing simply to observe and take notes in a bizarre, cosmic experiment. A Christian pastor might tell you that god’s nature has been revealed in the Bible, while an Islamic caliph would point to the Quran as god’s revelation to mankind. They can’t both be correct, as they both claim god endorses only their version of the truth, and those who disagree with them will be punished in the afterlife. But if you listen to their reasoning, they sound eerily similar; it all comes down to faith. This is to say nothing of the fact that science has provided us with a perfectly viable theory that uses reason to explain our existence instead of magic or imaginary friends.

So, what is faith? Faith is humanity's attempt to selectively ignore the inconvenience of reason in favor of the emotional comfort derived from familiar ideologies, institutions, and power structures.