Believing in “Believing in”

October 3, 2011

I’ve never gotten this “faith” thing.

I seem to have been absent when the “gift of faith” was given out. I’ve never felt I even knew just what it is, or how it works, or why it is supposed to be good for me.

To the Dawkins school of atheism, “faith” is simply a failure of rationality, a shared delusion, a dogged persistence in erroneous and unsupported opinion. I know it can’t be that simple. There are far too many clearly intelligent, sane, rational people out there who not only profess a “faith” but claim it to be central to their lives, who say it gives meaning to everything else that they think or do.

I accept that.

I just don’t get it.

Some defenders of religion at times argue that everyone has some kind of “faith;” we all believe the sun will rise tomorrow, that the floor will hold our weight when we get out of bed and stand on it. This is clearly a non-starter. For one thing these “beliefs” are supported by specific past experiences, in a way that religious propositions are not, at least for most of us. (I’ve written elsewhere of people who claim specific “spritual experiences” as the basis of their faith; I am more concerned here with the majority – in my experience – of religious adherents, who make no such claim.) Of course there are philosophers who will argue for the logical inadequacy of any inductive conclusion, but that’s beside the point too; if you set the bar high enough no one can claim to “know” anything, but no one religious or otherwise really lives like that.

But my main objection to those who make the “sunrise” argument is that they  seem to want it both ways. They clearly don’t really feel that their religious faith is as ordinary and everyday a thing as the argument makes it sound, they feel it is very important to have the right faith, the right kind of faith, so they must think there is something special about theirs, so let’s talk about that rather than pretending it’s just like standing on the floor in the morning.

So what is it? The most liberal of religious folk seem to want to separate the idea of “faith” from any specific doctrine. This is what my UU friends do when they say we are a “faith tradition” as much as any other. I’m not persuaded that we can speak of “faith” as something without propositional content, a general positive attitude towards life for instance – hey, I’ve got that, lots of us have it at least part of the time, but to most people who claim a “faith” it means faith in something. What? It varies. So how does “faith” tell you what to have faith in?

The most promising approach to a definition equates “faith” not so much with opinion, as with trust. I am not talking so much about those who call it “trust in God” or some such; this presupposes that you already have an opinion about there being this or that God. My question is how you get that opinion, and what makes it seem like more than just an opinion.

But I once attended a talk by a Catholic theology prof who put it in terms of trust in other people, starting with childrens’ reliance on their parents, and then extending to broader circles of people until finally, if one is a good Catholic at least, one comes to have the same trust in the Church, its leadership past and present, its “deposit of Faith.”

This I can understand. I can even understand why I don’t have it and feel OK without it. When I was a child I learned early on that I could count on my parents’ intentions, their eagerness to do the right thing by me, their love, but not on their necessarily knowing what they were talking about; this realization has stayed with me throughout my life, and has carried over to my attitudes towards what all others say to me. I can easily separate whatever positive feelings I have towards people from my evaluation of the fact-content of what they say… Maybe there’s something about other people’s upbringing, their emotional or intellectual development, which makes the difference.

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