Sunday, April 15, 2007

BIG QUESTION, and also dogging

First Question: what is faith?
I recently read a definition of "faith" that called it "the unknowable promoted to the irrefrutable."
(9 Chickweed Lane by Brooke McEldowney, April 3 2007)

(Click for bigness)

I've spoken with a lot of Christians about their definition of faith, and this seems to encapsulate it quite nicely. I've been told by several people "faith is something you choose to believe," and they readily acknowledge that you cannot know for certain the thing you believe in, hence the need to believe, rather than know, it.

So, if we accept that definition of faith, my

Second Question is: Why is faith a good thing to have?

In the Gospels there is a bit after the Resurrection where Jesus appears to the apostles who are cowering behind a locked door. Everyone is ther except Thomas. Jesus appears, everyone's amazed and happy, and when Tom gets back they tell him what's happened. He announces that he won't believe it until he sees it for himself. Next week, same deal, except this time ol' Tom is in the room when the Big JC floats in, and he pokes his fingers into Jesus's wounds and delcares "My Lord and God!" And Jesus utters the famous sentence, "You have seen and believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and believed." (John 20: 19-29)

Why??? Why is it good to believe anything without good cause? Why is it a good idea to be utterly convinced of something you openly acknowledge you don't actually know to be true? The concept of faith, espeically in America, is held to be a great virtue. I remember during the 2000 presidential election there was great speculation as to whether Joe Lieberman's (Gore's running mate) religion (Jewish) would be a negative factor for Christian voters. It wound up not being an issue. The vast majority of people polled said they didn't care what he believed in, they were just glad he was a religious man.

I find it strange that as a society we think that believing things we know are unknowable is a good way to go about life. It just doesn't make sense me. If I were to say to you "I believe there are giant, invisible bunnies hopping around the streets of Bristol. There is no evidence for this idea, but it cannot be disproven, and so I choose to believe it," you would think I was nuts. You would say there's no logic in it, and just because I want to believe something that doesn't make it true. And you would be absolutely right.

So why is the very concept of faith held to be so virtuous? Why do we think it's a good, noble, reasonable thing to believe in things we cannot know?

I'm not trying to be arguementative here. I'm genuinely curious to know what you think about this. I'm really struggling with this idea.

Lastly, continuing along the theme of things that baffle me, while I was out with my mate yesterday for a couple drinks and a flick, we went into the ladies' loo at the Arnolfini and discovered, much to our amusement, that there was a couple in one of the stalls having sex. Very loud sex, complete with heaving breathing, moaning, grunting, the periodic and cliche'd holy exclaimation, and of course the ever-popular skin slapping. I admit it: I giggled. It was pretty funny.

One or more of you lot was involved in that encounter (Spinny??), give a shout out!


MinCat said...

you know, i have ALWAYS wanted to understand that. being well raised in the belief of skepticism, i sometimes envy people who have faith. to be able to say well, you know, its been shite my whole life, theres not a thing in sight that could make it better, but it will becomes better because [insert name of deity] will make it better. and sometimes it would be nice to think that there is something larger that can fix it.

Annie Rhiannon said...

Check out celebrity athiest Richard Dawkins being interviewed by the delightful Jeremy Paxman for a definition of faith:

"Faith is simply a belief in something with absolutely no evidence to back it up"

Annie Rhiannon said...

While I'm googling Jeremy, also check out Ann Coultard's definition of Darwinism as blind faith...

First Nations said...

faith is a learned behavior, and you know what i mean there, right? we both went to catholic school. people well-trained in faith have one uniform, strong narrative uniting them, whatever other differences they may have. very useful for controlling groups.
also, trained believers are very malleable. one person well-trained to believe wholeheartedly without the necessity of proof is a person ten times as likely to believe all kinds of other useful things, like 'those people over there serve satan and god says it's ok if you kill them.' read 'The True Believer' and 'Mans Search for Meaning'.
poeple believe faith is good because they were told to believe faith is good.

Timorous Beastie said...

There are several great books that might answer your question, The God Delusion, by the above-mentioned Richard Dawkins being one of them.

Dave said...

Unless we believe the gospels, for instance, are works of fiction, then we're not believing in something for which there is no evidence. We have first-hand, eye-witness evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Too big a subject to discuss properly here.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

mincat: indeed! isn't there an old addage, "wishing it doesn't make it so?"

annie: been meaning to read that for a while. must borrow Flatmate's copy.

and oooh i can't STAND anne coulter. god she's smug. and her response to EVERYTHING is "i've written a best-seller so i must be right!"

FN: exactly, but why are people so eager to believe what they're told???

TB: will do.

Dave: my response to this is too lenghty for a comments box. stay tuned for Part II.

Hannah said...

Oh blimey. And here was I expecting hot tales of the Pirate and cutsey Bluto pictures. I'll come back later...

Lorna said...

There was an article in the Young Man's Scientific American about using mathematics to prove the existence or otherwise of God: the maths was far too hard for me, but I did point out that this was quite an unexpected thing to have in a scientific journal, given the general tension between science and religious faith. He replied that apparently there are significant numbers of scientists who, though they don't rationally believe in any form of god, still quite seriously keep a level of faith and observance because you never know what's going to happen after death. Faith, maths and pragmatism - nothing like covering all the bases, eh?

Nothing fun ever happens in Cambridge toilets. Meh!

Chaucer's Bitch said...

I knew a priest once who actually said that the reason he became a priest was because he didn't know if there was a god or not, but he'd rather assume there was and be wrong when he died, rather than assume there wasn't and be wrong.

personally i think hedging your bets for the afterlife is insufficient motivation to give up sex. but maybe that's just me.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

hannah: sorry luv. there'll be more hot hot pirate whoopee and hamster pics later, but it's been a while since i did any serious writing on here (and i used to do rather a lot of it, if you peruse the 2005 archives), and this really has been on my mind a lot.

right now i'm in a place where i don't really know what to think, so i'm going back to first principles and starting from scratch and questioning everything.

Homo Escapeons said...

When the Roman Empire collapsed the 'Church' filled in the know how (humans)nature abhors a vacuum.
The political power that the Vatican wielded was doubled by having the fear of eternal damnation to back it up. There is no need to recite the litany of horror that people living in the Middle Ages were forced to endure because of this arrangement..however there were many positive reactions to this Tyranny that we have all benefited from.

I agree with Nations..religion is a learned behavior and for best results must be injected as soon as possible in order to reap the benefits of having a couple million Manchurian Candidates ready to do your bidding.

It is the BEST form of crowd control because of it's mysterious unprovable (unproven) attributes.
Unfortunately we are still dragging this millstone about (dogmatic political pseudo-religion not the nice share the world spiritualism) and it is still all about power.

I probably wouldn't want to live in this world without beautiful little blue-rinse Anglican Ladies but I can sure as hell do without the extremists.

Random Thinker said...

Every computer needs an operating system - be it may, Unix, Dos, Windows, Vista, or MacOS or you name it, to function. Human beings call it faith - Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, paganism, scientific rationalism, or secular humanism all fall into the same category. They need it to function in the natural world. They all operate on a fundamental given or axioms.
You can't avoid faith. The real question is which one is right for you - only you can decide that.

Keith said...

The Gospels were written by firsthand eyewitnesses to Christ's life.


Michael said...

It's comforting to believe. It's easier to believe.

There was an interesting op-ed piece in USA Today on atheism. Wait. Did I say interesting? I meant amusing in a maddening way.

I find it most telling that this "believer" thinks so little of human nature. Without the fear of God, he thinks morality becomes, if not impossible, exceedingly difficult. Then further "Thou shalt not kill" loses much of its force when reduced from commandment to a suggestion. With no retribution in the afterlife, what's to stop you from shooting that guy who cut you off on the expressway? Or chopping up grandma for that crappy Christmas present? Not much, he thinks.

Oh, one more: A universe that isn't God-centered becomes ego-centered. People come to see choices through the prism of self: what promotes the individual's well-being and happiness. Such a worldview does not naturally lead to benevolence or self-sacrifice.

People bad. People need scary God to make them pretend to be good. Ah, it's all making sense now.

Michael said...

Ooh, ooh, can I link you one more time? If I promise to do it fast and nasty? There was a fascinating article in the NYT a few weeks back on just this subject. It delves into what evolutionary benefit there could be to religious belief, since it is admittedly pervasive. One of my favorite parts was the phenomenon of "spandrels", or phenomenon that occur as a byproduct of things with more direct benefits (e.g. hemoglobin carries O2 in the blood (beneficial) and so blood is red (byproduct)). Spandrels (the "V" shape formed where structural arches meet) can be pretty, but aren't particularly useful themselves.

OK, that wasn't so fast and nasty, but don't even front cuz you loved it bitch.

B said...

To Dave: The gospels are not first hand accounts but copies of copies of copies. There is substatial doubt in (a) whether the witnesses can be relied upon (after all 20th century psychology tells us how easy it is to get people to do extraordinary things in the right social circumstances) (b) Whether the gospels were substantially modified to make them make sense together (copies of sources often get modified by people with an agenda). Furthermore many of the stories that ended up in the gospels exist in other traditions as well (such claims of the virgin birth, coming back from the dead, feeding of the 5000). It is more parsimonious to explain the gospels as literary creations based upon previous sources with perhaps a political figure or cult figure (read Jesus) in the center egging them on.

To Random Thinker: Postmodernism is so last century. But seriously science has an amazing body of evidence showing it to be a fruitful way of seeing the world. When I use axioms of logic or mathematics it is because I am convinced they are true (i.e they sound unassailable and I have a huge amount of practical evidence for them). When I use the philosophy of science to make choices between competing theories I am using a system that has good intuitive rationals for all its methods and which has consistently allowed us to make breakthroughs in our understanding of the world.

The difference is evidence. There is no good evidence for religions or cults. There is good evidence for science.

ZB said...

You have seen and believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and believed." (John 20: 19-29)

Why??? Why is it good to believe anything without good cause? Why is it a good idea to be utterly convinced of something you openly acknowledge you don't actually know to be true?

Why not?

You believe that when you lock in behind the blade it's biting the water. You don't have to see it to know it. We take on 'faith' a lot of things that we've never actually seen for ourselves but that form an integral part of our daily lives. I think you want God dissected on a plate before you can say 'Okay, now I believe' and while I'm as cynical as they come, it just doesn't work like that. I don't believe the bible, I don't believe the he rose again schtick or any of those things considered integral to the christian faith, I don't believe in organised religion beyond the fact that they're just a social group the same way that being part of a rowing crew means being part of a social group (same rituals that are incomprehensible to outsiders as well), I think that believing what some guy wrote about some other guy a thousand years before me and a thousand years apart is dubious to say the least but I know I'm R.C. Fuck, people believe in their football team, their mates down the pub when they tell them a tall story, their partner...It's just as arbitrary. It really ain't worth worrying about. If you don't want to align yourself to that, don't. But allow others to if they choose to. They'll allow you to align yourself to whatever else you want, whether it's science (which by the way, we take on faith just as much as religion) or logic (ditto). There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamnt in any of our philosophies...

And Richard Dawkins is very readable and as about as substantial as a meringue in a hurricane.

Sacred Slut said...

Fuck, people believe in their football team, their mates down the pub when they tell them a tall story, their partner...It's just as arbitrary.

No, it's not. Those people have generally given you reason to believe they are behaving in a certain way, according to an expected code of conduct. That belief is FALSIFIABLE. If you had evidence that your partner was cheating on you, that would change your belief, wouldn't it? You could find out your mates were lying (and perhaps you already suspect it if the tale is too tall).

Religion, OTOH, is based on nothing but a book of ancient myths. The evidence to support those stories being veridical is scanty to none. In fact, there's often evidence against the stories being true historically. But for the "faithful" nothing will change their minds.

And to say that we take science based on faith...what a load of shite. That's the very antithesis of science, which is designed to be based on evidence and can thus be proven false or supported by further evidence.

Why do believers keep coughing up this same old bunk? Are you really so credulous that you believe it? You can't have given it any serious thought.