Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The 'F-word' 2 (you gotta have faith)

It's valid, but not particularly original, to comment on the way religion is increasingly being re-branded under the warmer and more positive-sounding label of "faith". It certainly sounds more friendly and inclusive, but what does the shift mean?

The word "faith" has two distinct meanings:
  1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
  2. Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
I wonder whether what's going on here is a spin-savvy conflation of these two meanings, so that definition 2. can hijack the positive associations that should really only attach to meaning 1.

The first definition generally refers to faith in indisputably real people, or things, or ideas. You might have faith in a friend, or a spouse, or a relative, or a colleague, or an organisation, or a way of doing something, or a product. This faith isn't based on one hundred per cent certain knowledge. Just because your friend, colleague, spouse, preferred way of doing things, favourite, brand of car has never let you down so far, there is no guarantee that the person or thing you have faith in won't let you down at some point in the future.

But it's also true that faith in such people and things isn't generally baseless. In the real world, we don't have one hundred per cent certainty because we don't have one hundred percent knowledge. But we do have some knowledge and it's reasonable working assumption that if your friend, colleague, spouse, preferred way of doing things, favourite brand of car, has a track record of reliability, you've got some reason to have faith in that person or thing. Even without direct past experience, it's possible to make judgements - there's often circumstantial evidence to suggest that a person, thing or idea is likely to be reliable and, likewise, there are often warning signs that alert us when someone, or something, is a bit dodgy.

Because it's a matter of judgement, people occasionally find that their faith has been misplaced. Circumstances can change, crucial information can be unavailable to the person who chooses to trust in x, deception happens and some people are just gullible. On the whole, though, people's faith in real world things is a reasonable judgement call based on incomplete evidence.

Most of us have got pretty good grounds for having some faith in other people. After all, we all started out as small, helpless beings, completely dependent on other humans for our very survival. And (with a few horrific exceptions) in most cases, parents and guardians manage to care, more or less effectively, for the powerless infants in their care. As we grow up we encounter people in a society that may be significantly less than perfect, but which (with a few horrific exceptions), is a long way from the Hobbesian war of all against all.

You're most likely lucky enough to have encountered at least some people you can reasonably rely on. Just as important, you've probably experienced somebody putting their faith in you. It's these bonds of mutual trust that help to make everyday life tolerable. The alternative - selfish mistrust of everybody else - leads to the dystopia of Hobbes-world. In general, being reasonably trusting and trustworthy (as opposed to the extreme of being entirely gullible), provokes similar behaviour in others and leads to a virtuous circle of reasonable behaviour. It's no wonder that we, rightly, value justified faith in those we trust most and the faith they have in us. Likewise, it's no wonder we're so outraged when we encounter the exceptions - lies, abuse of trust, or cheating.

Faith in demonstrably real people or things doesn't depend on absolute certainty, but it is a provisional thing based on reasonable, though sometimes fallible, assumptions about reality and probability. It depends on judgement and wisdom and has real, testable, outcomes in the real world. If we're wise enough to have faith in the right people and things and sound enough and lucky enough to have other people putting their faith in us, our lives are enriched. It's no wonder that people rightly value the idea of faith in this sense. (which is almost synonymous with confidence).

Definition 2. - religious faith -  is an entirely different proposition. Definition 1. involves incomplete empirical knowledge of people or things and some form of judgement about how reliable (for want of a better word) those people or things are. Definition 2. involves having an a priori "faith" that, by definition, precedes any empirical knowledge of the thing (God, gods, a spiritual realm) you have faith in. Yet, although this version of faith is founded on absolutely no empirical information (as opposed to some provisional knowledge) adherents are supposed to have absolute certainty about the thing they can't even demonstrate the existence of. In religious faith there seems to be an almost perfectly inverse relationship between the amount of evidence you have for believing in something and the strength of your belief in that thing.

You night argue that some people hold on to type 1. faith just as strongly and irrationally as others hold on to their type 2. faith. The thing is, even if we doubt the wisdom of somebody's type 1. faith in x, x is at least somebody, or something we can all agree actually exists. As for the irrational strength of that faith, I'm sure there are people whose faith in their friend/spouse/colleague is as strong as others' faith in their god. The other thing is, faith in tangible people or things is subject to a reality check. If your judgement is good and your faith in someone or something is justified, you'll observably not be let down by that person or thing. Misplaced faith is painfully obvious if your friend leaves you in the lurch, your spouse runs off with your best friend, your trusted colleague gets caught embezzling, or your pride and joy, that classic car you bought from Honest John's Motors, turns out to be a resprayed, rusting, cut n' shut death trap.

If belief is supposed to precede evidence, there's no equivalent way to test your spiritual beliefs. However life treats you, your God/gods/spiritual realm remain(s) just as invisible and intangible as ever. And the effects of the invisible and intangible spiritual realm are often so inscrutable as to be indistinguishable from plain old chance or contingency. 'God', as William Cowper put it, 'moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform'. A reality check on the things that are intangible and act in inscrutable ways is, as near as makes no difference, impossible.

Take the so-called "problem of evil". Theologians and clerics of various faiths waste oceans of ink and hours of sermonising over this one, despite their holy books, prophets and predecessors having already provided multiple answers to the problem of why bad things happen to good people. Some of the obvious answers (within religions' own internal logic) include:
  • We just don't know why - God's wisdom and reasons transcend human understanding (see William Cowper, above).
  • The people suffering aren't really innocent but have sinned in thought, word, or deed (humans being imperfect there's probably always some sin, as defined in your holy book, that nobody could escape committing).
  • Even if we can't imagine how an individual might have deserved to suffer, we might all be intrinsically sinful whatever we do or don't do (see the doctrine of original sin).
  • Even if we can't imagine how an individual might have deserved to suffer, maybe that individual did bad things in a previous life which he or she can't actually remember, but which has an effect on that person's current life (see reincarnation, karma, etc.).
  • Maybe the misfortune is all part of God's greater plan for your welfare. Say you don't get a promotion at work, At first, this seems like a real bummer. Six months later, the post you were trying to get promoted to is axed due to budget cuts, but the one you're in stays safe. Hallelujah! God was looking out for you and you didn't even know it (pity about the people who got downsized, but they were obviously either sinners who deserved it, or good folk who God will do right by in the end).
  • Maybe God's just testing your faith (see Job).
  • Maybe there's no apparent justice to what happens to you on this earth, but God's plan involves an eternal afterlife in which the just are rewarded and the wicked punished. There will be jam tomorrow (and for ever after).
And so on... With so many possibilities, it's pretty near impossible to test whether type 2. faith in a god or some higher spiritual reality matches the truth, since almost any circumstance you care to mention might conceivably represent the working out of some divine plan or other - or might alternatively (and far more plausibly) be down to chance, coincidence, sheer dumb luck and the working out of the everyday laws of nature that govern the tangible world around us.

In short, any sufficiently inscrutable god is indistinguishable from no god at all.

There are, I think, a few good reasons for the positive connotations that attach themselves to the word "faith".  I just don't think that they apply to faith of the religious sort.

Anyway, that's enough of that particular F-word. The next F-word to be filleted on the chopping board of my blog will be "fair"...