Can Less Faith Bring More Belief?
by Chris Barrett
This blog is not about faith in the sense of having faith in a person or similar. It is about religious faith. Here's an example definition: “a strong belief (faith) in God or the doctrines of religion, based on a spiritual apprehension, rather than proof.”
When I use the term “belief” in the title and in this blog, as compared with faith, it is in the sense of having come to believe something as truth or fact based on evidence and reason, rather than a spiritual apprehension which requires no evidence or proof.
A popular Bible based definition of faith is “..the substance of things hoped for the evidence of things not seen.” Now, we could go on forever about what people “hope” for, and the unseen things people consider real, but we are going to look at the concept of faith itself.
If faith is the evidence and substance of both what is hoped for and what is not seen, at least two suggestions arise: First, that faith itself is simply what happens within the mind of the person involved, effectively, a decision. Secondly, that the resulting state of mind, or mindset, is ultimately the sole evidence for the reality of the things that are hoped for, but not seen.
Some may like to suggest faith can be bolstered by, or associated with evidence that lies outside of this human, mind based, experience. However, the moment one does this, to the degree that evidence exists, faith is no longer faith. It is belief. Empirical data or evidence based belief, and faith, are mutually exclusive, for where evidence encroaches, faith, by definition, ceases to exist.
It seems from this wish to bolster faith that there is a desire for and belief that evidence actually matters, yet, in my opinion, the Biblical definition of faith demands it be “blind". It believes in what it cannot see, and its evidence is in itself. Strangely, in spite of this, people long to fortify their faith with evidence, yet, by doing so, they effectively relegate faith to second place and allow the erosion of its territory. Even if this is not giving faith second place, it most certainly is giving themselves ultimate authority over their view of “truth” as seen through their faith. Of course, this does not address the equally self granted authority required when they set out to interpret data, be it Biblical or scientific.
At the end of the day, it is human reason that determines truth as perceived by each and every individual. Whether that person accepts empirical data, as seen through scientific eyes, or any of the vast array of faith based, potentially imaginary realities on offer, all are evaluated and selected by human reason. Even the person claiming the most “blind” faith is forced to admit they have either selected their “faith” by reason, for it is one among many, or worse, they simply accepted it “hand me down” fashion from others, who previously reasoned it the best from among the many, or perhaps also received it “hand me down”. Long live tradition.
Thus, I argue that everybody builds their belief and/or faith by reason. They grant themselves the authority and ability to do this. So, a few reflections: what do you do when things believed by faith contradict reality as viewed by the collective reason of a vast majority of humanity? One example is the theory of Evolution. Do you reject, or ignore such evidence based conclusions, and allow only faith to decide? If so, how do you justify that you used reason to obtain your faith, but now refuse to allow reason to challenge a conviction you hold dear, but have also, at least partially, reached by reason? If you were to change your mindset and believed only what could be seen, evaluated, and empirically shown, would the scope of things you believe about how this world is increase or change?
Perhaps the real question is: Is there a place for faith, and if so, faith in what? Does it not seem strange that things like angels and God, require faith to affirm their reality, yet we in turn use their existence as evidence that faith must remain?
Why should we not simply believe that which is empirically demonstrable, and let the chips fall where they may as evidence comes to light? Of course, there will be many things for which we have no answers. There may in fact be many experiences, especially on a subjective level, that we cannot explain, but why do we have to? What is wrong with simply not knowing the answers – yet? Is it not, in fact, rather foolish to try to interpret that which we cannot explain, especially if we present those interpretations as fact?
I propose that religion may be nothing more than the collectively evolved and highly polished outcome of the human imagination over the millennia as it tries to interpret experiences or observations that it cannot otherwise explain. We have learned that ancient civilizations thought gods caused the inexplicable thunderstorm, but this has long ago been exposed as creative imagination. I propose that all faith based statements or interpretations place themselves at the same risk of exposure in the future. So why go there? The gaps are shrinking and revealing a more unified landscape with every scientific discovery.
All data requires interpretation, but, with the collective weight of human experience doing this, at least in theory, it should lead to greater consensus. I believe the opposite is true for faith in the context of religion. History shows that the moment one leaves behind rational, empirically based thinking, the shades of imagined reality permitted by faith based interpretations are endless. Thus, the likely outcome of faith is less, rather than more consensus.
Consensus tends to lead to harmony, respect, unity, and tolerance, and I find no historical or contemporary evidence that faith in any form will deliver this. I find the opposite. Currently, I believe faith destroys common belief in many truths about our world, and hinders unity on any scale beyond the church, club, religion, or group to which one belongs. The tribe is a deep seated result of human evolution, and religious faith plays right into tribal power, too often with evil consequences. Religion, the historic vehicle for faith, is arguably the most divisive idea ever developed by humanity.
So, I suggest that, perhaps, it is time for less faith and more belief. Perhaps when belief trumps faith we will have created room for tolerance, respect and the realization that one human being is equal to any other human being. It would be wonderful if religious intolerance could stop fueling bloodshed and evil. I suggest faith is perhaps the greatest offender in this package. If so, what should we do with it?
Let's reason our way to a sensible world!
Now, it should be noted that some readers may find this blog offensive. Some will wish to call the carpet cleaners. It is perhaps worth noting that I do not seek to destroy anyone's sense of the spiritual or numinous. I happen to have had, and continue to have experiences I would define as spiritual. I can rule out that any were drug induced. Some of these experiences may well be the result of confirmation bias, and others are clearly beyond current explanation. I accept them on face value, but make no effort to interpret them with conclusions that require faith. I can do this, and yet have a deep sense of awe, perhaps even worship, when I sense the wonder of what IS. This is firmly grounded in an awareness of the beauty of nature and its blood, its magic and its misery. While I sense a deep connectedness and mystery behind it all, I choose to refrain from interpretation. I suspect it is the constant desire for understanding that has carried the evolution of faith to a place that seems, at times, devoid of reason and full of the fantastic, the incredible, and the imaginary, the imaginary world of mythology, theology, and doctrine.
We live in an age where there is so much evidence based knowledge about our world in which to believe. Is faith a shackle that cripples the freedom of thought and the joy of being human?