Sunday, December 14, 2014

Faith is extrapolation...

I started writing this post ages ago, following an Unbelievable show featuring Peter Boghossian and Tim McGrew. It languished in a semi-finished state for a few months. I thought I may as well finish it and post it now. Apologies if it seems half-baked. It probably is.

I'm not going to say too much about that show as it was simply annoying, Boghossian (the atheist) grinding his axe the whole time, while McGraw repeatedly pointed out that it wasn't an axe, it was something else. Or something. Anyway, the discussion was fairly pointless, as it never really got beyond a dispute about what the word 'Faith' actually means.

Boghossian asserted (without evidence) that faith really means "believing something even though it is not supported by evidence"and "pretending to know things you don't know".

McGrew pointed out that the dictionary definition was more along the lines of absolute trust, and made a few examples of faith that is basically putting your trust in something where you have no control of the outcome, but choose to trust someone or something; for example taking a parachute jump - you trust the guy who packed the parachute, with your life... you get the idea.

Anyway, I don't think that the majority of believers use the word 'faith' the way that Boghossian claims, but neither do I think that believers generally use the word the way that McGrew claims either. The truth is somewhere in the grey area in between.

So what is faith? Or rather, what is religious faith? 

I'm currently putting my faith in the chair that I'm sitting on. But that doesn't tell me much about religious faith. When I go to the dentist I put my faith in his ability to detect decay in my teeth, and occasionally have to put faith in his ability to fix the decayed bits. But that doesn't tell me much about religious faith either. One of the problems here is that we have the same word used in different contexts and there are nuances to the word that we miss if we assume it means exactly the same in all instances. It doesn't.

"Faith", without a given object of faith is not a useful concept to debate. If someone says "I have faith" or "I'm a person of faith" it means nothing without saying what it is they have faith in. Even saying "I have faith in God" doesn't help much, because to understand your meaning for that phrase, I have to understand your concept of God, or more importantly, your interpretation of what your God has apparently promised to do.

Most of the Christians I know (so we're talking about British evangelicals, for the most part) use the word faith to mean something like this:
In situations where I do not know what the outcome will be, I will act in a way consistent with my past experience and my understanding of what the biblical promises say the outcome will be.
That is, the believer essentially extrapolates from their understanding of the bible and their understanding of reality and, if exercising faith, will behave as if this extrapolation is true.

Of course, a good many Christians would omit 'past experience' and 'reality' from that if you asked them. The promises of the bible should trump experience. In theory, given enough faith, they can move mountains or walk on water - the bible explicitly says that they can do this - but experience and reality tend to temper those biblical principles, so nobody really expects mountains to fall into the sea if commanded to do so.

So its not a question of believing without evidence, its a question of deciding to take a particular course of action, when there is no evidence (or, perhaps, when the evidence is not known by the person taking the 'leap of faith').

Occasionally Christians use the word faith to mean this:
I will obey the commands of scripture, as I understand them, even though my past experience and understanding of the situation would suggest that this isn't the best course of action, from a human perspective.
This is, of course, what most Christians mean by living by faith, even if few Christians actually exercise this kind of faith regularly. Note that this version of faith doesn't claim to know anything without evidence, it just seeks to trust a promise of God more than an expectation. And even if the expected outcome happens, and the action leads to loss of respect, loss of money, or loss of something else, the Christian may still feel that it was the right thing to do because God may be at work in some hidden way.

Problems arise for the believer when evidence or experience suggests an outcome that is contrary to biblical promises and there is no divine hidden agenda apparent. I guess this is most apparent in the 'snake handling' churches in the USA. Mark 16v17-18 says:
"And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."
So there are some minority churches who practice handling poisonous snakes as part of their church services. And you know what, most of the time, the snakes do not bite the people. And sometimes when a snake bites a person, they don't die. All of this confirms the promise of scripture. Of course, occasionally someone is bitten and they do die - does this disconfirm the promise of scripture? No. It shows that the person who died didn't have enough faith! And so the snake handling continues.

Here its easy for a person with even a vague understanding of snake behaviour, venom toxicity and probability to realise that when you do all the calculations, there's pretty good odds of survival from handling a poisonous snake. Faith doesn't need to come into it at all. I've commented on this before. For the believer, there is no negative feedback loop (here and here). Failed promises are explained away or reinterpreted. But if this happens again, and again, and again, then the honest believer will end up having to question the promises. When the evidence consistently goes against the faith, then faith will begin to erode. Of course, probabilistically speaking, faith will sometimes be validated and sometimes not. It really comes down to how often faith 'gets lucky'.

The thing is, faith works. I know plenty of folk who live 'by faith' and get by just fine. Along the way, some of them have experienced some very fortuitous situations, and their faith is boosted. But even to those who didn't get unexpected windfalls of cash at "just the right moment", living by faith seems to work. I'm just not sure that there needs to be a God behind it, sending 'good luck' at all the right moments. When you consider every fortuitous event as a blessing and every hardship as character building and a challenge, the net effect is a faith boost and a confirmation that living by faith is the right thing to do. 

1 comment:

Blogger said...

Faith can be a result of understanding, which is then trusted by the person. For example, you had a realization of the existence of God, and then you continue to believe in it, even when you don't quite realize the same. Then (or before) somebody tells you that this is what the Bible is about, and you start to trust it (in this case, it is faith by authority; truth is that Christianity isn't the only religion, and if somebody told you at the same time, trust the K'uran, or the Vedas, he may have been equally right). Moreover, the very Christian affiliation is not based on faith, but on mere claim of "belief": when you become a Christian, you claim that you believe in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene creed says that Jesus is the only son of God, and that he was on the Earth in a physical body in the times of Pilates; you essentially should claim that a certain event has happened though there is no way that you could have verified it for yourself. This means that this is essentially a lie. For if somebody told you the same thing in a court of law, and you were told to believe it, what would you do? Believe it as they asked you? Or ask for evidence? Is Jesus the only son of God? How do you know that? etc. etc. Mind you that the Nicene creed has nothing to do with the realization of God, or anything mystical for that matter, but it is just asking you for permission to continue brainwash you in anyway they please, because you have admitted in the first place that you can subscribe under anything, because you have said that you believe in something you could not verify for yourself.