Gnosis, pt 2

In my last post, I wrote about my own ups and downs with knowledge and belief about God, and the several-years-long transitional phase where I was truly neither a theist nor an atheist. Today I want to dig into what I think was going on with that.

I’m inclined to compare my transitional phase with the apparent beliefs of a lot of non-theists who nonetheless talk about things like “the universe,” “fate,” or “karma” on a regular basis.  There’s a kind of animistic habit of mind which seems very common to human nature, which insists on attributing intention and consciousness to everything. It’s this habit of mind that remained when my explicit God-belief had vanished from my brain; it’s this habit of mind that made me say “God took away my belief in God.”

On top of that animistic habit, I had a deep and thorough understanding of an internally consistent Christian worldview. Everything that I perceived in the world could be interpreted through the lens of Christianity in a way that made sense on its own terms. Even my loss of belief could be interpreted that way. It did not require mental effort or self-deception to come up with an interpretation of the world that was consistent with Christianity: having grown up Christian, it was easy, almost second nature. That meant that it was still possible to continue believing in (a form of) Christianity with full intellectual integrity; what had changed was that it was also possible not to.

I did some studying; I read The God Delusion and some other writings; and I came to the conclusion that an atheist worldview was also internally consistent. I had hoped that there would be features of reality that couldn’t adequately be explained without a deity, but in my search I found none. I found myself looking at two complete, coherent accounts of reality, both plausible to me, both accounts that I could accept with full intellectual integrity, and entirely incompatible with each other. At that time in my life, I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that I was a theist or an atheist. I found both believable, and consequently couldn’t truly believe either.

I said before that I don’t like to use the word “know” in relation to questions of theism, because of its ambiguity. But if asked at that time in my life whether I believed in a god or not, all I could have honestly said was “I don’t know.” For a few years there, I’d say I was a true agnostic, an agnostic lacking both knowledge and belief.

Halfway through those transitional years I returned to Christianity, not because either my beliefs or my assessments of the truth had changed, but because I wanted it to be true. Not a strong reason, but it was all I had. If I’d had more unbelieving friends at that time, it probably wouldn’t have happened — I’d probably have continued in my agnostic paralysis until the unbelieving neural pathways clicked into place. (I just made that up, but it’s a terrific way of thinking about it… the whole thing was basically like a gear shift, and there was a long period there where the chain was suspended, adjusting over the gears, neither one thing nor the other.) But I was lonely, and all but one of my close friends and family were Christian, so I was looking for a way back in. I never thought that my desire for the Christian God to be real made it more likely that he was real; I just seized on desire as an acceptable stand-in for “faith,” since I didn’t have any of that. And I was backed up in that interpretation by some statements in the first few chapters of Introduction to Christianity, by Joseph Ratzinger, who did rather well in the ranks of his faith profession.

I’ll write more about my ins and outs with religion later; now I have to go rant about truth!

Is doubt opposed to faith?

Yesterday I wrote up some comments about doubt and faith.  I am quite happy with it as it stands, but a question was emailed to me from an acquaintance that led me to wonder if I had not been sufficiently clear about one thing, so I wanted to publicly clarify a related question.

The comment emailed to me was this:

Doubt is not the opposite of faith – fear is the
opposite of faith

It was followed by a question about whether there is a difference between religious faith and the belief in things that you simply don’t know for sure or don’t have evidence for (yet, due to lack of sufficient information, etc).

I responded thus (edited to exclude unnecessary specific information):

I have heard that comment about faith, and I don’t buy it.  I think that the fact that you don’t know [some specific fact] and faith in supernatural things, or at least things for which there is no evidence, are very different questions.

I make a distinction between a reasonable expectation and faith.  Based upon your limited experience with me, your understanding of human behavior, etc you can assign some rough probability to my potential actions.  You have empirical information upon which to make a guess, even if your certainty about it is shaky.  But if you have a belief in a thing that you truly cannot prove, or at least that you do not have evidence to support or rational reason to accept, that is a qualitatively different question epistemologically.

Also, I would be cautious in using the word “prove” or “proof.”  In questions of empiricism, such as science, we don’t ever prove things.  We gather information, create a hypothesis to explain the information we have, and if that hypothesis stands up to scrutiny then we call it a “theory” which is further tested and stands or falls upon that further testing.  But we cannot deductively prove such things because that is only applicable to purely logical/mathematical questions; things that only exist in the abstract.  Questions such as what will happen in the real world are not subject to formal logic, and so cannot be proved.  There is always room for doubt, even if it is very small.

So, to accept something like “there is a god” or “a soul exists” despite the lack of supporting empirical evidence is faith because faith is the belief in something despite the lack of evidence (or in the face of conflicting evidence).  To believe something that has not yet been given support (in this case because it is a proposition about the future) is a probabilistic process; you can assign probabilities based upon experience with similar situations.  But since we have no evidence which supports certain types of claims (like a soul, for example), we cannot assign any probabilities because we have no supporting data to work with.  A probability assigned in such a situation would be purely fictional and arbitrary.

In short, they are not the same thing.

Fear is not the opposite of faith because it is possible to be in a position of believing something that you have no evidence for because of fear or at least while experiencing fear.  Not that it must be the case, but that it is not logically incoherent.  Therefore, they cannot be logically opposed.  While doubt (the state of recognizing uncertainty about some question) is not the opposite of faith, is not easily consistent with it.  My claim is not that doubt and faith are always incompatible or opposed, only that faith often does not long survive in the presence of doubt.

To truly doubt something means that the belief becomes mitigated.  To be a skeptic (which includes doubt but is more than that) is the opposite of faith.  Skeptics only believe a thing based upon evidence or reason.  I am a skeptic first, and that leads necessarily to atheism and the lack of belief in many other spiritual or religious things (because of the lack of supporting evidence).  Until supporting evidence is presented, this is the only rational conclusion for a skeptic.  Someone who does not care about evidence to support their belief is not concerned with rational conclusions, so asking what would be rational in that case would be irrelevant.

I care what is true, and want to have as many true beliefs as possible.  As a reuslt of this, I doubt things for which there is spurious or no evidence (often to the point of lacking belief in them).  I still may believe untrue things, and am open to being shown that this is the case.  I have not found this attitude to be true for many religious or spiritual people, although there are obviously many other exceptions to this observation.

I hope that clarifies my views on this.

Faith and Doubt

This is a wonderful book

I have been told by many people, over many years, that doubt is part of faith.  The idea is that a person who does not challenge their faith has a weak form of faith.  I sort of appreciate the sentiment here, but I wonder how genuine this is.  I wonder how deep this lauding of doubt goes.  I wonder if it is real, skeptical, doubt.

Skepticism is about doubt.  A skeptic is a person who demands substantial evidence in order to accept something as true.  Yes, a person may not be ideally skeptical about everything,  and therefore may accept as true beliefs which would not stand up to even their own scrutiny if they were to apply it. But I think this is simply the nature of our cognitive limitations.  In other words, we are all credulous to certain dumb beliefs, but we’re just human.

It take a certain amount of courage to dig deep into your own beliefs.  To be an archaeologist of the soul, as Nietzsche put it, is a hard task.  And not everyone will be up for it, nor would most know how if they tried; we sometimes need a little help from our friends, I suppose.  And so when I meet a religious person who has the courage to at least make a surface or moderate attempt to doubt, to dig beneath the surface of their convictions, I find myself bestowing respect upon them, at least provisionally.

The provisional nature of this reverence is necessary, I have learned, because the institutions of religion, the insistence of doctrine, and the fragility of faith’s foundations are such that such ego-archaeological excavations often lead to one falling into holes, and thus clutching onto the ground of such landscapes in order not to feel the true exhilaration of freethought.  To fall into oneself, underneath the facades of our social selves padded with commitments to supernatural hopes, is a terrifying prospect in the face of oblivious alternatives.  The human condition of being, in the end, alone and finite (it’s alright) is a reality which doubts lead to, and which is less often the object of faith.

How often have you met a person committed to a faith that they will cease to exist upon death, and that there is no god that loves them? These ideas are conclusions reached upon careful thought and skepticism, not hope and desires.  The claim that these ideas are equally based upon faith are absurd, and are an attempt to level the playing field.  It is a rhetorical trick with no substance.  Faith seems to almost exclusively own subjects which we seem to prefer (like Heaven), or at least fear as an alternate to what we prefer (Hell).

So, does this imply that faith and doubt are truly at odds? The snark-laiden answer is to point out that if people had evidence (the answer to doubt), then they would not need faith. And while I think that this snark contains an important insight into the nature of the question of faith and doubt, I think that we can go elsewhere to address this issue.  The skeptical methods, science and reason, are a means to figure out what is likely to be true given our best tools for determining such things.  Doubt, in other words, is the seed of science and all of our (limited) mastery of the natural world.  Faith seems to be opposed to this progressive methodology, both philosophically and practically.  Anyone who has a long conversation with a true believer will ultimately hear the faith card played; all of our questions, doubts, and debunking of theological apologetics runs into this wall at some point.

Recently Eric MacDonald weighed in on this question of doubt and faith with the following, which was a concluding comment to his long piece about a Julian Baggini article in The Guardian:

If the kind of questioning ”theology” that [Richard] Holloway now indulges in were to become the norm, the churches would simply fly apart from the centrifugal forces of doubt and questioning. And that is why religion will remain dogmatic at its core, and why openness to changing one’s mind is simply not accessible to the religions. It may happen one by one, as religious believers are leached away from religion by the corrosive forces of science and reason, but a religion whose leaders were open to changing their minds in the way that [Julian] Baggini suggests is necessary in order to avoid fundamentalism would spell the end of religion, because religions have no foundation. They are built on air, and openness to revision would quickly expose this.

That is, even where doubt, or questioning in general, is encouraged (whether by accommodating atheists or moderate or liberal theologians), it is a recipe for the excavation of holes in the landscape of religion and the faith which binds people to it.  Doubt may be considered a part of being a faithful person, but the religion that survives this process is not the same as the religion that was handed to us from pre-scientific ages.  This religion is moderated by compromise, non-literalism, etc and away from fundamentalism.  Eventually, it erodes away into postmodernism, metaphors, and empty vessels with sentimental import.

And this is precisely what religious academics, such as the Bishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and King’s College president Dinesh D’Souza have been doing for some time; we “new atheists” are addressing a straw man, they say, and religion is full of doubt, questions, and nuance which are ignored by comments like Eric MacDonald above.  For such people of faith, doubt is part of their lives and to imply that faith is somehow antithetical to doubt is to be unfair and biased in a way that does no justice to sophisticated theology.  But it all falls apart, at some point.  Eventually, in the corrosive environment of doubt, religion becomes a shade in tattered robes that haunts our ivory towers and sanctuaries, largely unseen by the masses whom insist upon feeding on the corpse of literal truth, real historical promises, and miracles.

Well, Eric MacDonald (who is no stranger to sophisticated theology), Jerry Coyne, and others have said a lot about this very subject, and I shall not try and sum up their thoughts on such things here, as this would quickly turn into a small ebook if I were to do so.  So what I want to do is pose some questions which I intend to follow up on in the future.  They are questions about faith which I have some perspective on already, especially in conversation with former Christians (almost exclusively) about the role of questions and doubts in religious communities.  Having known people who would pose tough questions, voice doubts occasionally, etc within their religious communities, I have seen how some moderate religious communities (like Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, where I visited a couple of years ago) respond to such things.  Doubt and questions are not met with curiosity or answers, they are often met with ostracism and loss of friends, as I have had it explained to me.  Also, in my experience, outsider’s questions and doubts are treated with initial interest and then silence, in the vast majority of cases.

My questions are as follows (and I intend to ask them of people in positions of leadership in religious communities in coming months):

  • Are questions, doubts, and criticism welcome?
  • (if so) are doubts about any and all doctrines acceptable?
  • Have you seen or heard of people being socially sanctioned for having questions, doubts, or criticisms?
  • (if so) do you condemn such sanctions?
  • Is doubt more likely to be lauded or demonized?
  • Would the answer to the above change depending on the severity of the doubt?

As I said above, I have some experience with exposing religious ideas to doubt.  In the extremely vast majority of cases (I have not maintained a running count, but there are few exceptions) even when questions, responses, or criticisms are proposed, they almost always fizzle into nothing.  It is almost as if the leaders of these communities, whether they are priests, pastors, or whatever are so glad to hear some commentary, feedback, etc that they don’t notice at first that you have some serious objections to the message they are conveying, and then once that sinks in, they simply close off.  They are not interested any longer.  I suppose I am not surprised, nor should I be.

But right now, from where I sit, true skepticism, the kind of doubt which seeks to excavate the very foundations and assumptions of one’s worldview are not healthy for faith.  But perhaps I err in using “faith” as the Christian scriptures do:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

Because that seems, on the surface, to be in philosophical opposition to skepticism, and therefore to doubt.  Perhaps some other religious tradition has a use of the word faith which differs from this.  I don’t remember much about what the Quran says about faith (there is this, for starters), but I doubt that it says much that is friendly to skepticism.  And insofar as many religious people do have and maintain doubts, how far do they push those questions, are their questions they would refuse to apply doubt to, and would they truly be open to changing their mind?

I have long said that I want to know the truth.  If there is a god (or gods) I want to know.  I am open to being convinced of things which I do not currently believe.  Do believers share this quality? And if so, how many and to what degree?

And why aren’t more people doubting?

Faith v. Evidence

theistic ironic comedy?

All too often I will hear from theists (but not exclusively), that there is plenty of evidence for what they believe.  And sometimes there is.  In that case, well bravo! Now we have something to talk about.  But inevitably, somewhere along in many discussions, the dialog comes down to their faith.  That is, when the evidence that they demonstrate either has not convinced someone else or they are shown why the evidence is insufficient, they pull out the faith card.

But what is faith? It is the believe in things despite the lack of evidence.  It actually may be, in some cases, the belief in something despite contradictory evidence.  Creationism is a prime example.  Despite the overwhelming evidence for evolution by natural selection, some people still think that magic man done it.

And, of course, creationists don’t have any evidence of their own, just lame apologetics.  But the same goes for gods in general.  What’s worse is that the evidence pointed to, even if reasonable, points to some vague higher power rather than their very specific deity with all of its personality.  But they believe anyway.

There is a very short and quick response to such faith and the attempt to show such evidence.

If you had evidence, you would not need faith.

That’s right, folks, faith is what is pulled out because you have insufficient evidence.  The whole idea of faith is that one believes something despite the lack of evidence.  So if one actually did have evidence (as theists, creationists, birthers, etc do not) then their belief would never have to appeal to faith because they would have something demonstrable to point to and then we could all take a look at their evidence and deal with it.

Pulling out faith is akin to admitting that one has no rational reason to believe in what they believe.  They have admitted that they have no evidence to bring.  Sure, they will trot out apologetics, but these are only brought out either in some ironic sense (they are putting us on, perhaps?) or or because they don’t see the extreme irony of being people of faith trying to provide evidence.  It’s almost like saying that one does not need evidence (faith, after all, is better in many of their minds) but insisting that they show evidence anyway because they know, deep down, that evidence is how the rest of the world (including themselves for every other belief they hold) is how the world makes decisions.  It’s a beautiful little display of compartmentalization and irony, unfortunately not intended to be funny.

It’s quite adorable to watch.  It’s almost as adorable as watching a small child pour tea for their imaginary friends while introducing you to them.  It is play, so you say hello and drink some pretend tea (perhaps its supernatural or transcendent tea–what is the difference between the transcendent and the non-existent anyway?).

Except they are adults, which makes it a little weird.

So, the next time someone tell you that they have faith AND evidence, perhaps you could stifle your laughter at the joke, because they might not get the irony.

The homeopathy of god

The hand of God or gas?
The hand of God or gas?

The mind is creative. We can take a pile of clay and make bowls, find junk and make art, and we can organize complex instruments into symphonies. We can make patterns out of chaos, see images in clouds, and religious images on various foods and walls.

This ability is a wonderful part of our species. It has allowed us to be artists of various kinds and it gives richness and meaning to our lives. But sometimes this skill can be problematic. It can be problematic because it can sometimes create the illusion that we have found something important or true in places where there was little of significance. In other cases it can make us see more than there is in things because our preconceived notions will not allow us to see something plain.

Theology. The study of god(s) right? I’m not so sure. I think that this is more likely finding patterns in human experience and making ideologies out of them. It seems like people reading scriptures and finding ways to reconcile contradictions into mysteries, nonsense into ultimate meaning, and atrocities into justice.

Because there are many things within the written history of humankind that are interesting, obscure, and opaque.  There are periods of history unfamiliar to us when history, philosophy, and mythology were indistinguishable.  But much of it is now looked at as true.  And some of these true things come across to me as, well, disgusting.

Take, for example, this story from the book of Judges.

11:29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon.

11:30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,

11:31 Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

11:32 So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands.

11:33 And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.

11:34 And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.

11:35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.

11:36 And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.

11:37 And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.

11:38 And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.

11:39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel,

11:40 That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.

What has happened here? It seems quite clear to me. But in a recent conversation with a Christian (a ‘real’ Christian, as he said), I found that what happened here is that Jephthah had offered an animal sacrifice because burnt offerings were always animals. He could not see what the story said because he had a preconceived notion that the God of the Bible and what he would do.  If Jephthah killed his daughter and this was the literal truth of God’s word, then that god is a monster.

What about the Trinity? How did that come about? There is no concept of the Trinity in the New Testament. It is a concept derived from a need during the early church and became orthodoxy in the third century for many churches (but not all). If Jesus was God, then the message is important. If Jesus is just another prophet, then so what?

Mystery. That is the key. Where there are things not understood, the mind reels in the mystery. It looks for understanding, a seeking of sorts, and finds something in the seeking whether something is there or not.  And the further the mystery travels from the sense we employ to the rest of our experience, the more important and meaningful it is. It is sort of like what happens with gambling; sometimes a few dollars come back in small snippets and it keeps the mind attended, even though most of the time it is draining you dry.  Mystery is an addiction.

It is sort of like homeopathy; the less actual presence of the ingredient, the more potent it is. That is, the more mysterious, distant, and unknowable God is, the more it sticks to the mind and suffuses everything.

It will skew interpretations, create the presence of divinity in clouds of woo-woo emotional feelings, and it will create a strong sense of divinity in the stillness of calmness and tranquility. It is the smallest, simplest of assumptions that has the power to make the world look mystical, magical, and miraculous.

Yes, our creativity, sparked by the mystery of the divine, brings the divine into everything. It becomes the explanation of everything. God did it. Godidit. It becomes the placebo that supplies meaning and structure to our lives, when it actually does nothing at all.

In the history of human culture our understanding of nature has pushed the concept of gods back to the corners of the universe. We understand enough to know that the concept of miracle is not necessary, so God gets shuffled to the corners of morality, purpose, and gets attributed to the woo-woo feelings we get when we feel spiritual.  And it works because we want it to work; because our powers of creativity allow us to see it working when it very clearly does not.  But with the faith blinders on, it is difficult to see what is plain and simple.

Jephthah killed his virgin daughter.  God is unnecessary to explain anything.  Santa does not exist.  Sorry, kids.