Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On Faith

There has been much interweb discussion of faith, what with Brit Hume claiming that if only Tiger would come to Jesus he would be cured of his urge to bone beautiful sluts -- or something like that.

Another source of discussion on the topic of faith was Sarah Palin's divination that McCain's choice of her was part of "God's plan" (to make Obama win?). In passing, Demfrom CT said of this, Faith is a wonderful thing, and to be respected. "I don't have to study up on the issues because God plans for me to win" is not.

I couldn't let this pass, however, and so my riposte, basically Faith = figleaf for bigotry, and many other poorly spellchecked words to this effect. And upon futher reflection it occured to me that faith is a synonym for prejudice: strong belief in the absence of knowledge.

But in further retrospect, the issue seems a bit more complicated. I recall, some years ago, lying about with a lithe and earnest young scientist (a researcher of mating behavior) who, on the matter of faith, laid this bit of pillow talk on me, "Even empiricism is a leap of faith; it's based in the assumption that nature's laws will continue to operate as they have in the past." Shortly after that she turned us to further researches, but that conversation has always stuck with me, so, I must admit that yes, in action, faith is a good thing. We'd be paralyzed without the faith that our memories, calculations, deductions, intuitions et cetera are correct (even if sometimes they are not), and also, I agree, we take on faith that the laws of nature will continue as before. But our calculations, et cetera, and the operations of nature are confirmable or refutable, which is why we can make meaningful assertions about them, even if at some level they're predicated in faith.

There is another faith, on a higher plain, that I will also heartily endorse, despite its abundant conflict with the empirical evidence: the faith that it is better to be empathetic, ethical, honorable, than selfish, exploitive and deceitful -- though in fact there is very little evidence in the world of reward for virtue. Indeed, crime pays quite handsomely. This faith, that one ought to be "good" is the common essence of all decent religion. Insofar as I have any respect for Christianity it lies in the notion of Christ as a proponent of an ethic of reciprocity, and an example of the way, though the world will not reward you for virtue, it is best still to aspire to it, even unto the edge of doom. Any other complication of Christianity (or any religion) is just idolatrous gimcrackery, scam, magical thinking, or a combination of these.

Which brings us to the modern usage of "faith," the true contemporary definition, which is, all too often, just prejudice really, or superstition, a backsliding to magical thinking of the most primitive, sacrifrice-to-the-volcano sort, and that is the belief, against all evidence, in magic and miracles, messiahs and monsters, and above all the belief that God will suspend the laws of nature for people whop properly propitiate him. This sort of thing credulous millions (billions?) get sold on the most dubious exploitive authority; then they want desperately to believe, and they'll reinforce their shaky faith (in what their good sense tells them is nonsense) by trying to get others to Amen! it too, at the point of a bayonet if necessary.

The fundamental religious conflict is really between the ethicists, who say things like: 'God is love, love thy neighbor, judge not' et cetera, and the magical thinkers, who say thing like 'I am a jealous God, God wants you to be rich, God will beam you up to heaven', et cetera. The latter claims are what constitutes the Golden Calf of faith in our backsliding age, when the Generals of our crusade can claim 'My God is bigger than your god' (much to Brit Humes' delight) and gain the tacit endorsement of our leaders. I don't see how another Dark Age will not ensue.

(Illustration is Rodin's Christ and Magdalen.)


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