Friday, May 25, 2007

Faith, Belief, Hope

I have been trying to purge my language of the word faith. In my opinion it creates more confusion than clarity. Secularists accuse the religious of acting on faith, by which they mean acting irrationally. The religious accuse secularists of denying the pervasive nature of faith—faith in science and progress and whatnot.

Last summer I engaged in a lengthy debate on the nature of faith and rationality with some friends of mine. I wanted to say that faith is irrational. One Christian friend in particular wanted me to define rationality. This is the right question, and I have realized that rationality is acting based on a reason. We all have opinions on what are good and bad reasons. Because the Bible said so is a bad reason in my opinion. Because empirical studies indicate—that’s a pretty good reason.

I realize that empirical studies can’t tell me everything, and even when they do they are indications. In the end, I have to say I believe things for a reason. The word belief encompasses the concept of faith, and I think belief should replace my use of this ambiguous word. People believe for many different kinds of reasons. Discussions about faith versus irrationality are no longer to my liking.

Please notice that I am not saying what is true for you may not be true for me. My opinion about what are good reasons for belief is formed by my understanding of Truth and how one might most likely get there. As I have said elsewhere, I believe there is one single Truth about reality. I just don’t have it in my back pocket.

There is another common use of the word faith that can be replaced by the word hope. An atheist and theist can both have hope while admitting they do not have very good reasons for believing in this particular outcome. A hope for things unseen—what is more human than that?


Sweet Jane said...

I'm not sure that the word "faith" in and of itself is problematic, rather, I think the problem lies in the rationality or irrationality of a certain faith. Someone who has a faith in the idea of an afterlife is being irrational: we have not one speck of proof that life after death exists. On the other hand, someone who said that they had faith that their spouse, who in twenty years had never once been adulterous, would continue to be faithful (ha ha) is being rational about their faith: they have twenty years of a certain behavior to back them up. Of course, there just might be life after death and the spouse might after all those years decide to begin cheating. However, the former example requires an incredible leap of faith, whereas the latter requires a mere step of faith.

I think it is indicative of the stranglehold Christianity has upon American linguistics that the word faith has become almost implicitly linked to irrationality. There is a world of difference between faith in things or people we have rational reasons to trust and ideas that are mired in a pre-Common Era mindset.

Hey, thanks for the comment on my post, by the way. That essay was really sloppy, and you helped point out some major problems that needed clarification. I think it's fantastic that we can have a discussion like this without ever having met one another (at least as far as I know).

Sub-sub-librarian said...

I realize that I kind of jumped in there and wrote a critical comment on your post, sweet jane, without introducing myself. No, I don’t think we’ve met, but I am a friend of whatyoudream.

Your essay was well written. I responded the way I did because I have gone through a similar thought process recently (biology has more important/useful things to say than religion), and have run into some difficulties. Your follow up was right on target.

I realize that my post on faith was very abstract, which I tend to do. You gave some examples of different uses of the word faith: a faith in an afterlife and a faith in a spouse. Although I agree that those two situations are different, I can’t ultimately say that one is more rational than the other. You say that there is no speck of proof in an after life, but for some religious people, they believe there is proof every day of their lives, in tiny answers to prayer, fuzzy feelings during worship, perhaps a vision. Both are rationalizing, and I no longer reserve the term “rationality” for myself and proclaim Christians to be “irrational.”

The reason that, for example, a belief in the process of evolution on planet earth is so much better than a belief in a seven day creation is that the scientific method works better than the religious method (if it can be called a method). In the end, I must admit that I base my belief in evolution on my endorsement of this method. It requires almost as much trust as the seven day creationist, I’m sorry to say. I have never personally seen rock strata or fossils, and I have never been to the Galapagos and examined the beaks of finches. It is not accurate to say that a belief in evolution is rational and a belief special creation is irrational. Natural selection is just the best damn explanation we have for life on planet earth.

To look at it another way, if I say that Christians are irrational, by the same standard I would be tempted to say that quantum mechanics is irrational. Some quantum physicists engage in blatant illogical thinking (the electron both is and is not at location x, y, z at time t), but are comfortable doing so because this theory is incredibly accurate in predicting what happens in the micro world. The truth is, the very fact that this theory is so successful is an acceptable reason for believing it, which is to say that it is rational to do so. Most Christians would say they are doing just fine by believing in Jesus. I will not go out of my way to tell them they are not.

This is mostly a matter of semantics, and as such it might be beside the point for some people. However, it is important because our words sometimes carry connotations that are not very clarifying and, what is worse, evoke an emotional response that is counterproductive. Nobody likes to be called irrational. I don’t like to say that I have faith in science. It’s a matter of preference, and I don’t think it’s trivial to consider how these words are used and understood. It is more productive, in my opinion, to discuss particular beliefs in terms of logical or illogical, scientific or unscientific, dogmatic or non-dogmatic.

As far as consciously avoiding the term “faith,” I don’t feel sentimental about that term (and I am in no way saying that anyone else should follow me in this—it is entirely a personal choice). Another word I try not to use is “postmodern,” for similar reasons. It is such an overused, and for that reason, vague term that can almost always be replaced by a word that is more precise. In my opinion it’s an unimaginative way of saying “contemporary” or “confusing” or “formless.”

thecrazydreamer said...

hi sub-sub, we haven't met, but i've heard much about you from whatyoudream, and followed her link to your blog.

i appreciate your thoughts on this matter because it is particularly relevant to the topic that everyone in my limited blogosphere seems to be interested in lately (atheism and such). i'd love to add my own opinions and interpretations of your statements, but i think i'll just endorse your statements for now, as seeming to me to be true and relevant.