Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Different Type of Faith

One of the things that I've had a really hard time understanding over the years is the idea of "faith". I recently had a little insight, however, that finally gives me a plausible way of accepting the idea.

The Christians that I've met usually use "faith" as a way of evading the logical problems that come from any sort of sceptical analysis of their religion. If you raise the standard arguments about the existence of God, the answer isn't some sort of counter-argument---it is "faith". If you suggest on the basis of scriptural analysis that the Bible is a fallible document written by human beings instead of being a "holy book", the answer is "faith". If you suggest that some of the teachings of the church flow not from God but the internal politics of the organization, the response isn't an attempt to prove you wrong, it's to say that you simply don't have enough "faith".

It came to me pretty early on that "having faith" is what you do when you hold onto a belief even thought you have very good reason not to. Later on---after gaining a little wisdom---I came to other conclusions, ones that diminished the harshness of this judgement.

It is really important to understand that the vast majority of people lack the ability to clearly explain their thoughts and motivations. Most of the time this is the result of two reasons. First of all, most people don't spend a lot of time on introspection. Instead, they get caught up in work and family, and spend the rest of their life following one damn thing after another. Ask them why they believe in God and the truth is that it comes from the same place as the actions of a ten year old when he's ask why he tossed bubble gum in his sister's hair---but for an adult "I dunno" doesn't sound right. In the same way, if you put any of their other beliefs (politics, etc) to the same sort of scrutiny that I put religion under, you ultimately have the same sort of answer. Luckily, religion has developed a word that---at least for some people---sweeps away all the embarrassment.

Secondly, and probably for related reasons, the overwhelming majority of people have a dreadful time expressing their ideas. I learned this during my work life when various higher-ups tried to explain to me what tasks they wanted me to do. Time and time again with very different types of people I've learned that you can't simply say "yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir". Instead, you have to interrogate them, ask them to explain things that they didn't mention, work through aspects of the job they hadn't considered, etc. (Luckily, most of my bosses over the years have understood the complexities after the fact and thanked me for being thorough instead of being upset with me for being "uppity".) In a similar vein, I now understand that at least some of the time people of faith do have some rationale behind their belief system---but they couldn't explain it to anyone else if their life depended on it. The world "faith" takes away some of the discomfort.

As I began to understand these two points, I also began to understand the wisdom of something that my first meditation teacher and a therapist who was treating my post traumatic stress disorder both said to me. Someone as smart as I am has to learn to be compassionate to the people around me who just aren't as educated, articulate and bright as I am. In effect, I found it really hard to believe that the "faithful" didn't see what I saw in a situation because it is so blindingly obvious to me. The only plausible way to understand it, therefore, was to think that they really did understand the truth, but they were being wilfully obtuse in order to pursue some other objective. In other words, I always secretly believed, for example, that Pat Robinson really knew that God didn't send an earthquake to Haiti because of a "pact with the devil"---but that he was just saying stuff like this to keep the money flowing.

(I remember my therapist getting agitated with my inability to understand this point when referring to our local government. He said to me "Bill, you have to realize that half the people on Council are so stupid that I wouldn't hire them to cut my grass! You can't blame them for the idiotic things they do.")

Now I don't get upset about people when then have this sort of conventional "faith". Most of them are too dumb to really figure out how lame the whole idea is. The others have some sort of good notion that they feel in their guts but can't really explain. And the two groups are so well mixed together that it is a mug's game to try and differentiate the two. The only reasonable thing to do, therefore, is to follow the advice of Matthew 7, verse 16: "You'll know who they are by what they produce" (Scholar's Version.)

This doesn't mean that this insight allowed me to accept any sort of faith, however. It just stopped me from being so angry at conventional believers. It also stopped me from arguing with them in the mistaken notion that I would be able to force them to see how wrong-headed they are. (Although put Pat Robinson in the room and have him spout about how Haitians are to blame for their earthquake and I'd be sorely tempted.)

Later on, it occurred to me that I do accept a very limited concept of "faith", the sort that comes from society's division of labour. I have to have faith in the skills of a tradesman, doctor or scientist. If I didn't, then I would have to accept the burden of having to figure out every last bit of the very complex world we inhabit. The difference with this sort of faith, however, is that it is at least potentially testable. I could, at least theoretically, do the research myself (you almost have to in order to not get ripped off when you hire a tradesman.) And with regard to practical things, like getting your car fixed, there is the old "proof in the pudding" test of seeing whether things worked the way they said it would.

Recently, however, it has occurred to me that I have had a certain degree of faith all along. This realization came to me while thinking about my understanding of the Zen Buddhist concept of "Buddha mind". As I understand the term, it is the idea that underlying one's day-to-day consciousness there exists a more placid mind that is a sort of "pure consciousness". The process of meditation is one of both stilling the consciousness in order to make this underlying psychological reality more obvious and introspection so one can observe the relationship between one's ordinary mind and this deeper level. As I understand it now, this is almost exactly the same notion as the Daoist practice of "holding onto the One".

Where "faith" comes in, is how I understand the importance of this "Buddha-mind" or "the One". I see it as being the wellspring of my being, the source of my creativity and inner strength. Keeping it pure and calm is the most important thing in my life. When I am calm and seeing with the eyes of "the One", I am in heaven. When I am disturbed and have totally lost any connection with it, I am in Hell.

This isn't totally a leap into the dark, like saying that there is a God up above. Instead it is based on lived human experience----first in the example of teachers and then on the basis of your own life. But it does seem to me to be something that is so personal that it must seem totally incomprehensible to many others. For example, were I to try and explain this experience to Pat Robertson no matter how skill-fully I tried to explain things, I don't think he would understand.

I also personally think that it makes a lot more sense to talk about a direct personal experience than to try and bring in all this extraneous stuff about God in his heaven and so forth. But I think that at this point I occurs to me that maybe the real point is that the Christian idea of "faith" is simply a tremendously inarticulate way of talking about the same sort of thing. After all, there were Saints who spoke of the "Christ within". My arguments with Christians don't end, however, because I believe that the "powers that be" exert such control over Christianity that they will not allow it to get beyond this archaic language that holds the religion prisoner. I'm just glad that Daoism never developed a centralized ecclesiastical structure that would force it to still use the same language and imagery for 2,000 years. If so, then perhaps I would be pursuing some other path.


The Rambling Taoist said...

To my way of thinking, everything we "know" is based on faith. If I say, "The sun will come up tomorrow," I don't actually KNOW for certain that it will; I have faith that it will. This faith is borne of experience from every other day in my life. There has yet to be a day in which the sun didn't come up, but that still doesn't equate with me "knowing" it will indeed rise tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

(note: the link doesn't seem to be working now -- it worked when i posted this on a forum a year+ ago.)

the following article talks about brain chemistry and persuasion, and experiments with political partisans, but I presume the same holds true for any beliefs including religious beliefs:

"First, partisans don’t listen to facts, and their opinions are difficult to change even with hard evidence. Second, political opinions are generally not based on fact at all, they are based on emotions. In The Political Brain Westen writes: “The results showed that when partisans face threatening information, not only are they likely to ‘reason’ to emotionally biased conclusions, but we can trace their neural footprints as they do it.”

By “trace,” Westen means using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see what’s happening in the brain. The researchers found that subjects confronted with negative information about their party or candidate initially feel the unpleasant emotion of distress. It doesn’t last long. Very quickly, the brain uses faulty reasoning and false beliefs to counteract the negative feeling by reaching a false conclusion. The brain then produces positive emotion — a reward for having reached an illogical decision."


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Rambling Taoist:

Yes, you are right to a certain extent. David Hume made this point back in the 18th century. But it didn't lead him to faith so much as to scepticism. For example, he denied that the term "cause and effect" came down to much more than constant conjunction. That is, if I strike a bell people say that hitting the bell causes the sound. But in actual effect all we can really say is that every time we hit a bell we find that a sound follows.

I think that the point you are making is irrelevent, however, because the faith of religious people isn't usually about things that we have evidence of at least "constant conjunction". Instead, is of things that we manifestly have very good evidence to disbelieve.


Yes there are certainly strange things going on in the heads of "true believers" of all faiths. My little meditation was more about the odd person who really is trying to come up with something that is a little more honest.

I suspect that a great deal of political and religious behaviour is about the form and context of discussion than the content. When I last ran for public office myself I came to the conclusion that what I said when giving a speech wasn't nearly as important as how passionately I gave it. Perhaps this was the basis of Hitler's hold over the German people---most of what I've seen by him was idiotic drivel, but the films I've seen show him giving speeches with spell-binding passion.