Friday, March 11, 2011

How Nonreligious People Misunderstand Faith

I often hear nonreligious people assert that faith means willingly ignoring logic and reality in order to believe something for which there is no evidence, simply because they want to believe it. Such people reveal their ignorance of a matter they do not comprehend.

      Faith is not a willing suspension of disbelief, and it doesn't mean believing something just because you want to. At its most fundamental, faith is trust. It means acting based on a hope about the future. For instance, let's say you arrange to go to lunch with an old friend. When the bill comes, it's on one tab and neither of you has cash, so he puts it on his credit card, and you agree to pay him back. What proof does your friend have that you will do so? What empirical evidence have you shown him that you will pay him as promised? He has no such proof. You might simply refuse to pay, and there would be just about nothing he could do about it. Does that mean that he was being stupid or illogical when he paid? Of course not. Although he had no evidence of how you would act in the future, as your friend he had some familiarity with your actions in the past, and based on that, he trusted that you would honor your promise. In other words, he had faith: he acted based on a hope for future occurrences.
      Because the future has not yet occurred, there can be no evidence or empirical proof at all about it. In the strictest sense, all knowledge about the future is mere assumption that we arrive at by taking our knowledge of how things have been in the past and projecting it forward. All action is based on assumptions about future results, even though strictly speaking, the future is unknowable. Therefore, all action depends upon the exercise of faith. Lectures on Faith* quotes Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is therefore the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." It then comments, "From this we learn, that faith is the assurance which men have of the existence of things which they have not seen; and the principle of action in all intelligent beings. If men were duly to consider themselves, and turn their thoughts and reflections to the operations of their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action in them."
      The only difference between religious faith and the kind of faith that all people exercise in order to continue their daily lives is the subject of the beliefs and the sort of evidence upon which it is based. Sociologist Rodney Stark argues against the notion that when it comes to religion, otherwise rational people discard logic and make irrational decisions. He believes that people are just as rational in their religious decisions and beliefs as in their decisions and beliefs about anything else.
      I agree. There are more kinds of experience than the empirically demonstrable. The things which are the most real are not physical nor measurable nor can be studied in an experiment and published in a peer-reviewed journal. As impressive and authoritative as Science seems, and as useful as it is for learning about those subjects that are within its purview, it is simply not equipped for investigating certain fields: morality, religion, epistemology, and ontology, for instance. Francis Collins, who is often cited as an example of a prominent believing scientist, told Newsweek, "Basically, science is the way to uncover valid, trustworthy information about how nature works, about things about the natural world. But if you limit yourself to the kinds of questions that science can ask, you’re leaving out some other things that I think are also pretty important, like why are we here and what’s the meaning of life and is there a God? Those are not scientific questions."
      In Alma 32 in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma describes the process of developing religious faith in very empirical terms, even calling it "an experiment upon my words." The difference is that the results are inherently personal. They are observable only by the individual, since they occur within the soul. They are hardly even describable using secular language, and the religious terms are meaningless to people who have not had such an experience, since religious experience has no close analogy in secular experience. But those who have experienced it know that it is real, that it is not the result of wishful thinking or mere emotion, and based on that, they are willing to place trust in religious belief. As they base their actions on their religious beliefs, they observe the results, both observable and personal. They don't demand proof for everything their religion teaches, because their past experience has shown that the religion is trustworthy. Their faith is active, it informs their choices and their lives, and it is practical, requiring sacrifice before the person has any evidence of what benefit will result. Sometimes those results are slow in coming. Sometimes they are of a purely spiritual nature. But ultimately, people of faith continue to exercise faith because doing so has produced positive results in the past.

In summary
Criticism: Faith is synonymous with irrationality; it is the antithesis of reason. It means deciding to believe something illogical because you want to, not because it makes any sense.
Response: Faith is synonymous with trust; it is the antithesis of fear. Religious faith is based on the same basic principle of hope in the unknown on which every action is based, but religious people accept that there are other types of evidence beside those that are outwardly observable and subject to scientific investigation.

*Lectures on Faith is a series of lessons prepared for the School of the Prophets, a theological seminar of sorts that Joseph Smith established in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1833. The exact authorship of the lectures is unclear, but it appears that Sidney Rigdon wrote them with input from Joseph Smith. Sections of the Lectures on Faith which conflict with Joseph Smith's later teachings on marriage and on the nature of God were most likely written by Rigdon. For a while the Lectures were included as the "doctrine" part of the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the books in the Mormon scriptural canon, but they were removed in 1921, since they had been included in the Doctrine and Covenants without being properly canonized.

1 comment:

Joran said...

This is a poignant article. Thank you. I would simply like to add an additional layer to the argument. Some who argue against religion point to many examples of people who DO follow their faith without regard to logic (i.e. blind faith). While there are certainly many individuals that are blind followers, using this as an argument against religion is invalid.

Some people may not understand how to fully and truly follow their religion, or may follow a religion that is not entirely true. However, their negligence in developing their faith or adherence to an erroneous faith does not negate the truthfulness of God nor religion.

As mentioned in the article, faith is not a scientific endeavor and scientific tests and principles do not hold. This is a common mistake by those who argue against religion. Faith, by nature, must be an individual experience. Empiricism holds no validity since they are different forms of knowledge altogether. Faith is a subjective exercise, meaning that each individual must explore it. Because language and physical communication limit thoughts and expression to empirical values, faith cannot be simply "told" to someone else.

That being said, although the discovery of faith is subjective, this does not imply that truth is relative. Truth is not constrained to time-space, and therefore the theory of relativity does not apply to truth. It has different dimensions altogether. This unfamiliar property is the reason that each of us interprets truth differently. Even in the most unified religion, subtle differences of opinion will exist. This condition is due to the human inability to fully sense truth. It is for this reason that those who seek truth must also seek the best sources of that truth. While no physical source will be perfect, less a divine manifestation, some are clearly better than others.

My personal faith is that God does exist and that His word has been revealed to prophets. These prophets recorded their experiences and subsequent ministries in the Holy Bible, Book of Mormon, and other scripture. I have come to develop this faith because I have prayed to God and received a personal witness of these. In this witness, I did not physically see God, but my I was able to spiritually feel of of them in such a way that I know it is true and cannot deny it. The nature of this witness, though, cannot be communicated through words, and so I can only stand as a witness myself that they are true.

I hope that adds some additional dimensions to your article. I appreciate it. Thank you.