Since I started reading and posting at this site I have had huge problems with the idea of faith. I have been thinking about it a lot lately and Agnastic’s thread encouraged me to post my thoughts. So, soup to nuts, here it is.
The first problem I have is the very amorphous definition of the word. Xians and others use the word to mean whatever they need it to mean at the moment. It can range as follows:
1. Faith is religion – what is your faith?
2. Faith is trust – I have faith in my wife.
3. Faith is loyalty – I am faithful to my wife.
4. Faith is believing without evidence – god wants us to believe by faith.
5. Faith is some kind of mechanism that keeps you religious – you just have to have faith if you have doubts.
All of these uses are valid, but they make having a conversation impossible. It is like only ever using pronouns. “He took the thing to him because he asked him to give it to him.” Whom are we discussing again? In college, my philosophy of religion professor treated it as items 2 and 3. You do not have faith that
god exists, but you do have faith in
god. He pointed out that the roots of the English word “believe”
were the Germanic word “galauben” which means “beloved” or ”to hold dear”. That was great, for the 16th century. That is not how it is used these days, however.
If even we atheists are confused about it, I can understand why. My conversation here
I think shows that. I do not think SkepticX and I were ever quite on the same page. So it goes with religious discussions. When I think I am attacking definition 3, the xian happily tells me he is talking about definition 4. When I am pounding on the nonsensical logic of definition 4, he just smiles and tells me he means 5. It could be they do that intentionally, just to push buttons or because they cynically know it will cloud the conversation. I think most likely they are somewhat innocent and have no idea what they are talking about.
I think there is an overlooked and important 6th meaning – a feeling of certainty. How often have we read some xian say he KNOWS god exists and he has faith? Every other post, it seems. And what are they really saying? That they think there is a god and that they are certain they are right. No more, no less, though I suspect they do not understand that. SkepticX did get that much out of it I think. So, faith is often nothing but an emotion in most contexts of religious discussion.
In the future I will strive to be as specific as possible when speaking to theists about which faith we are using. That keeps everything above deck, limits confusion and leaves them nowhere to hide.
Once the problem of definition has been solved and the theist and I seem to have agreed on what we are talking about, I have the problem of understanding what purpose faith has. From an atheist’s perspective it is relatively easy to answer. It is the trick of the holy man to keep his customer base. When people show doubt and threaten to take their business elsewhere, tell them they just need faith. When your rituals and dances fail to produce miracles, tell them they did not have enough faith. When some young punk asks difficult questions, tell him he needs to have faith. When your faith healing powers do not provide an immediate recovery, your faith was insufficient. I am not the problem. You are.
It is also the stress ball of the doubters who are afraid. Not sure you believe in god anymore? Well, just tell people you have faith. Eventually you might believe it too. And it serves wonderfully in this capacity. Reinforcing these beliefs is required to maintain them. I am pretty well convinced that is the real function of prayer too. It makes the petitioner feel better, but mainly it keeps them religious. As with the point that it is an expression of certainty, it can act as a shield to deflect contrary and inconvenient facts. It is a statement that whatever you might tell them, they are not listening to you.
But from the theist’s perspective, faith is more difficult to explain. It must be, because I ask all the time and I have never been given an answer. “Why does your god want us to believe by faith? Why is faith important to your god? Why would a deity care about faith? Why is this the criterion by which our eternal fate is determined? Why not juggling skill or how we treat our fellow humans or how fast we can run? Why is it something over which we have no actual control?” Those are the questions I ask and I have never been given even an apologetic answer. Nothing. I have so far just been ignored. And I have been hard pressed to think of anything that would be meaningful. Sure, I could play the mysterious god card, but I think even the lamest xians here acknowledge it is an unsatisfactory answer.
Why would faith be valued by a god? I can understand, to some extent, why usages 2 and 3 might matter if the god is a particularly human, petty and vain god. If I were a god, then my enormous ego would be assuaged by loyalty and devotion. They love me, they really love me. So, I might show my pathetic followers some favor. You can see how it would be important to people to have that kind of faith. But gods like me would be roughly the equivalent of modern day celebrities – insecure, needy, passive- aggressive, out of control, frequently drunk. Look at the older pantheons of gods. Their escapades were on par with Paris Hilton, the sisters Kardashian, or those Jon and Kate idiots. But nobody believes in those gods anymore. Well, except about a billion hindus. But we westerners know gods like that are a sorry lot when compared to The God that modern abrahamists boast.
When regarding The God, faith makes even less sense. The God is supposed to be beyond all that. It does not need us. It has no wants. Flattery is a thing for imperfect mortals. The God is supposed to be bigger to us than we are to ants or bacteria. But do we care if bacteria notice us? Do we care if bacteria are loyal to us? No, we do not. So why would The God care about our loyalty? The atheist’s explanation for faith still makes more sense. Or perhaps we are looking at the wrong version of faith.
If we consider belief without evidence, I cannot imagine why The God, the god that allegedly gave us these big giant brains, would want us to not use them. I cannot fathom why “he who has not seen, yet believes” would be specially blessed, or blessed at all, for that matter. He who has not seen, yet believes should be ridiculed and outcast.
If we consider faith as some external mechanism that maintains religious belief, I think the concept is a fallacy. It does not fly. Believe in the Tooth Fairy. You say you cannot? Then just have faith. Do it. The eternal salvation of your teeth depend on it. Still cannot do it? Don’t feel bad. Neither can it. We all know this, even theists. When this is pointed out, they usually try to change which version of faith we are talking about.
If we consider the last version of faith – the emotion of certainty – it becomes meaningless from a theological point of view. Telling someone they need to have faith is the equivalent of saying “be happy”. If only it were that easy, there would be no need for Prozac and there would be no atheists. Likewise, proclaiming your deep faith is like telling the world how grouchy you are today. Who cares? To the point, why would The God care about that?
There are only a couple of options left that make sense and none of them are happy news for xians. Either The God is not what they think it is – omnimax, dignified and perfect – and is actually a petty, insecure, drunken god like myself. Or The God does not care about faith. And if it does not care about faith, where does that leave the faithful?