Monday, April 30, 2007

Leaps of faith and self-belief

Stephen Law reports on a religious debate he took part in with (among others) Brian Smith, the Bishop of Edinburgh:

“In our quietest moments, he said, each one of us – yes, even a cynical atheist – is aware, deep down, of a light. It’s an awareness of something fundamentally good, of a yearning to be something better than we are. This something is... Jesus.”

His response is based on the well-documented malleable credulity that our species often displays. The Barefoot Bum offers another reply:

“Smith's position is fine, up until the very last word, which should be omitted and replaced with a question mark: ‘This something is...?’ What is this ‘light’? What is this awareness? I have my suspicions, but I don't know. Maybe it's trivial, maybe it's important. But if it really is important, we shouldn't just guess, we should know.”

And if, at the moment, we can’t know, then we should be cautiously sceptical.

This touches on something that I think is a significant part of any firmly held faith (some people’s faith, of course, is more modest and self-doubting).

The leap of faith from “This something is” to “Jesus” is really nothing more than a guess. A Buddhist monk might have a different view. So might a rabbi, an imam or a shaman. So might a neurologist or a psychologist. Some of these views might be supported in one way or another; others, less so.

To leap from a feeling – or even from an introspective reflection upon a feeling – to a theory of life, the universe and everything is completely unwarranted. It’s a guess, and an unnecessary one at that when the option of provisionally suspending belief is so readily available. But to take a leap of faith is to lose rational control over where one will land.

Is it so indisputably Jesus? Couldn’t it be a demon ingeniously disguised as Jesus? Or a moment of Bodhi? Or an idle tingling of the temporal lobe?

And what if one knows that there might be other explanations – some of which are guesses informed by some breed of received wisdom and others more open-minded attempts to investigate – but one still sticks firmly with one’s own guess? That’s when we get to the significant part of unshakeable faith.

Somebody who grows up in Italy to be a Catholic will interpret such a feeling differently from somebody who grows up in Iran to be a Shi’ite. It is to the credit or detriment of neither that they have happen to have acquired these ready-made narratives for labelling feelings. It is blind luck. And that’s what strong, undoubting faith is really in: not in this god or that one, but in oneself. The core article of such faith is that one’s own guess is right.


Ophelia Benson said...

Great concluding line. You should use it as an epigraph on the site.

Liam Murray said...

I couldn't agree more Tom and although it may not have been the main thrust of you post (perhaps not even where you stand on the issue), it's one of the best rebuttals I've read of the aggressive and fundamentalist atheism a la Dawkins, Grayling etc.

The key sentence for me is when you say "some people’s faith, of course, is more modest and self-doubting". Feels a little facile trying to quantify these things but I'll bet that the vast majority of people who describe themselves religious fall into this category - 80/85% + I'd say.

What they have is a narrative for navigating their feelings and emotions, a narrative that provides a moral framework for them to operate within. Most people simply don't have the linguistic skill or philosophical background to express this without recourse to banalities like 'Jesus' and 'God' (and I don't mean that disrespectfully)

As you say 'it's to the credit or detriment' of no-one that they happen to have adopted a particular outlook.

Alex said...

I can feel your heart here Tom. I have no problem with people saying "I believe such and such is the answer to all existence...". That's a belief. For that person it's informed by their life experience and the best knowledge they have available to them. What I strongly disagree with are those who say: "I believe such and such is the answer to all existence and since you don't agree with me you are surely going to an eternity of torture and despair."

I find if difficult to believe that our lives are deep metaphysical riddles that either reward us or damn us based on our fallible judgment calls on incomplete information. It must be deeper than that. If one is unwilling to accept that...

well, I think I need to go see if my toast is done...