Thursday, December 26, 2013

Can we be honest about the word "faith"?

I have faith.

I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow.

I have faith that when I take NyQuil, my cold symptoms won't prevent me from getting a good night's sleep.

I have faith that my dog will come back to me when I call her.

In all of these cases, I'm using the same word, but the meaning is not exactly the same. The problem with language is that its use can often be rather imprecise, which can create confusion.

In the first instance, when it comes to the sun, I'm not really taking much of a leap. It's risen every day of my life. (And yes, astronomy nerds, I know that it only appears to rise. You know what I mean.) As far as I can discern, it has risen every day since recorded history. Considering the explanation as to the mechanism of what makes it "rise" every day, there is no reason to believe that it has EVER failed to rise.

If the sun were to not rise tomorrow, that would mean that centuries of knowledge about our solar system has been completely wrong. Is it possible? Sure, but only in that same sense that anything is technically possible. It is, however, totally improbable, so much so that you can feel safe saying it's impossible, knowing that people will have bigger concerns if you turn out to be wrong.

In the second instance, my faith in NyQuil is also based on experience. Has it sometimes failed me? I think, maybe once or twice when my symptoms were particularly bad. However, for the low-grade colds that I tend to get, it usually does the trick. Sure, I don't have as many tests as I do with the sun rising, but I can also talk to people who have had similar experiences. Not only that, but there is science behind it that one could research if one were so inclined.

Being wrong about NyQuil is also improbable. While one can certainly attribute some instance of feeling better to the placebo affect, we'd have to account for a whole lot of people getting one hell of an effective placebo. Also, much work would have to go into rethinking everything science knows about alleviating cold symptoms. Perhaps it's a bigger leap than the sunrise thing, but you're still operating on that which is verifiable and objective.

The biggest leap of faith comes with my dog. She's a really good girl, and even though I spent far less time training her than some other dogs I've had, she sometimes strikes people as being "well trained". She's just very submissive and obedient, which is a nice thing when you're trying to walk a dog and watch out for an inquisitive three-year-old boy who's tagging along on the walk.

Much like the other two examples, I have experience with her which makes me feel confident in letting her off leash in a public park. Sure, sometimes I have to say her name a couple of times, particularly when she's sticking her nose in something disgusting and awful that she finds delicious. However, I can rely on the fact that she doesn't run up to strangers and other dogs, and she'll come running back to me soon enough.

Still, she is a dog. She has instincts that can overwhelm her loyalty and obedience to me. Also, she will get older some day, and perhaps she'll be less inclined to come running when I call her. I'm taking a leap when I let her off that leash, and the very possible truth is that one day my faith in her will fail me, and she'll have to remain on the leash every time we go for a walk.

So there you go, three examples of faith, all somewhat similar, but all a little bit different, as some require greater "leaps" of faith than others.

And now let's get really clear - the following statements also use the word "faith" but are not the same as any of the other examples:

I have faith that God exists.

I have faith that Jesus rose from the dead.

I have faith that the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard have the ability to unlock one's true potential. 

The first one is different for the simple reason that it's not an expectation like my previous three examples. It's a belief in something for which there is no verifiable and objective evidence. And while I risk using generalities, in my experience most people who use this phrase use it as a knowledge claim, and when you ask them what would shake their faith, they give everything from a long-winded answer to a flat-out "Nothing can convince me otherwise." This is also different from the sun rising scenario, as any person would tell you that the thing that would convince them that they're wrong would simply be it failing to rise in the morning.

The second one is making an even more specific knowledge claim. It's stating a belief about an event in history. And while it's true that we can't know for certain that the campaigns of Julius Caesar, for instance, occurred as they did in recorded history, we have multiple sources and multiple forms of evidence. In the case of Christ's resurrection, we have a series of writings that were not written by eye-witnesses and contradict each other. Even more importantly, there is nothing about Caesar that contradicts everything we know about the laws of nature. Saying that you have faith in the resurrection of Christ involves you saying that you believe that something extraordinary happened yet you don't require the necessary extraordinary evidence. In other words, it's not just believing something that "might" not have happened, it's believing something that in all probability couldn't and likely didn't happen.

The third not only is unlikely, but it goes against everything we know about the human mind. And unlike the historical Jesus, where most of the details are shrouded in myth and legend, we know a thing or five about L. Ron Hubbard and what a con-artist he was. We know that the reason why Scientology rejects psychotherapy is because when he submitted his "findings" to psychiatrists, they rejected it for the quackery it was. So, even more extreme than the other two scenarios, having faith in Dianetics is not only believing something that's unlikely, it's believing something where the evidence is overwhelmingly AGAINST it.

Lastly, I will point out that the following uses of the word "faith" are non sequiturs: 

I have faith that there is no God.

I have faith that Billy Dee Williams isn't standing behind me right now.

I have faith that astrology is bogus.

It requires absolutely no leap at all to reject a concept. I mean, Billy Dee could very well be behind me right now. I'm not even saying that he definitely isn't. I'm just saying that I don't have a good reason to think he is, so I'm just going to assume that he isn't until given evidence to the contrary (like somebody handing me a tall, cool Colt 45). I'm not hoping, wishing, counting on, etc. any of those things. I'm just taking the default position of: "I'll believe it with evidence."

So yes, we all have faith, but we don't always mean the same thing when we use this word. Let's just be honest about what we're dealing with, and then we can have more productive conversations.


Roger Rabbit said...

Hi Lance. There is another point you didn't mentioned. Often when religious people talk about "faith in God", it isn't simply "faith in the existence of God", but something deeper. It is rather something like
"I put my hand on fire for this concept, and I trust whatever it is said that this concept wants me to do" or even worse. It is not like your faith that your dog will come, but rather like the faith your dog has in you.

In any case, good post.

Lance Johnson said...

"It is not like your faith that your dog will come, but rather like the faith your dog has in you."

I love it! Thanks.