What So Many Believers Get Wrong about Faith, and Why

I recently watched the exchange between Colbert and Gervais about the existence of God and how it is possible to prove that it exists (or not). As such, I’m once again disappointed by public figures – who hold sway over public opinion – and their inability to argue intelligently about such matters.

The debate between the religious and the secular has been raging for quite some time now, and more than ever the former are desperate to demonstrate that what they believe is true. And why shouldn’t they? They’re certainly being challenged by the secular community, especially the scientific community which continues to discount some of the historical “truths” found in various religious tomes. And this is to say nothing of the call of Logic and Reason, too, which demands that all be subject to enquiry, determining the veracity of propositions and conclusions, and deeming “worthy” that which should be accepted by enlightened minds.

One example of this conflict involves the age of the Earth. Using the Bible’s chronology, some interpreters have put the literal age of the Earth at between 5 and 10,000 years old. However, scientists in the fields of geology and planetary physics have determined that the Earth is, in fact, 4.5 billions years old. Without going into detail about why, other than science operates by a more demanding methodology and that the nature of both the Old and New Testaments are problematic/dubious, this author will state justifiably: the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

Science, for quite some time, has been encroaching further and further into the belief systems of religions, and the reaction is not surprising at all. But what’s behind it? Ultimately, I think it a two-fold process relating to both individual psychology and systemic preservation. As regards the first, the individual believer must preserve the integrity and legitimacy of the self and their belief in the religion. For the individual wants to think of his/herself as a rational agent that came to believe in something genuine and real. To challenge a belief system in the way science often does not only threatens the rationality of the system but the individual his/herself. A challenge like the one science creates by positing differing narratives of the Earth’s age, for example, makes the religion’s account wrong; but also the believer of that religion foolish for believing in something obviously and verifiably wrong.

But there is also something deeper happening within both the system and the believer: a heretofore solved crisis is resurfacing, threatening the livelihood of the system and the existential peace enjoyed by the believer. In effect, what a truthful account does when it contradicts a religion is demonstrate how the latter is wrong. Eventually, if enough contradictions occur, the belief system dies – for it has no demonstrable value, at least when it comes to explaining that which is verifiable. “That which is verifiable” is an important qualifier, one to which this author will return. As it pertains to the believer, having the belief system shown to be false, especially as it concerns something as profound as metaphysics and ontology, creates a palpable and profound fear about one’s self, its relation to the Universe, and its ultimate fate within it. These are not insignificant personal issues that most must struggle with at some point in their life; or at least have resolved by adopting (and, though, less adamantly pursued: adhering) to a religious code. The stripping away of the psychological comfort provided by the answers religion provides – contradictions demonstrated by science – create an existential crisis of the highest order. Imagine coming to understand that all you once believed was a lie. This is the effect of the dissonance between belief systems and facts that contradict certain empirical elements of those systems.

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That all said, this is not quite the point worth mentioning. The real point – the reason for this author’s disappointment in celebrities, or the debate in general, was articulated best by Christian intellectual, T.S. Lewis. But before I paraphrase (I can’t seem to find the source of the exact quote despite my best efforts), a few definitions will help to clarify.

The OED defines the following:

Belief1) the mental action, condition, or habit, of trusting to or confiding in a person or thing; trust, dependence reliance, confidence, faith 2) mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact, as true, on the ground of authority or evidence; assent of the mind to a statement, or to the truth of a fact beyond observation, on the testimony of another, or to a fact or truth on the evidence of consciousness 3) the thing believed; the proposition of set of propositions held true 4) a formal statement of doctrines believed, a creed

Fact – 4) something that has really occurred or is actually the case; something certainly known to be of this character; hence, a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to what is merely inferred, or to a conjecture or a fiction; a datum of experience, as distinguished from the conclusion that may be based upon it

Faith – I. belief, trust, confidence 1a) confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine b) belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority 3) belief in the truths of religion; belief in the authenticity of divine revelation (whether viewed as contained in Holy Scripture or in the teaching of the Church), and acceptance of the revealed doctrine

Science – 1a) the state or fact of knowing; knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied 2a) knowledge acquired by study; acquaintance of or mastery of any department of learning b) trained skill 3a) a particular branch of knowledge or study; a recognized department of learning 4a) in a more restricted sense: a branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which include trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its domain

To summarize (using the most relevant definitions to the discussion here): there are significant differences between a belief and a fact, and between faith and science. A belief is an acceptance of a proposition as if it were true, while a fact is a something that actually is true. Similarly, faith is a belief in a particular proposition or series of propositions, while science is method of studying propositions to determine their veracity and the general laws that may govern them. Fundamentally, what faith entails is the blind belief in something higher than one’s self, and science is the method of investigating what is observable, measurable, and testable in order to approach truth.

Paraphrasing Eliot (poorly): If religious beliefs were to ever be known as scientific facts, then it would not require faith to believe in it; but would, in fact, destroy the faith in those propositions of belief. What is true and known does not require believing in it (or faith in it); for if something is known, it is – no belief or faith is necessary. This is the significance of religious faith/belief – this is why it takes faith to believe in it. To remove the unknown, replacing it with factual certainty, renders such a gesture meaningless. The true believer can never know for sure, for if she did she wouldn’t need faith.

That said, it is also worth mentioning that faith and science deal in two very distinct arenas. Faith deals with matters of spirituality, and given the nature of spirituality – a realm of souls, gods, immaterial forces – science can never deal with those aspects of humanity. For there is no observable soul, or god, etc to observe, measure, and test. However, when it comes to everything else that is observable, measurable, and testable – like the age of the Earth, for example – science will continue to reign supreme.

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So. Can we stop having these inane “debates” in such a way that intends to prove one way or another whether or not God, or any other immaterial phantoms, exist definitively? I’m not against a good round of hypothesizing, philosophizing, or debate; but it’s the desperation – founded upon profound ignorance – of demonstrating some finality regarding the issue that irks this author. Again, faith in a higher power (i.e. God) isn’t something that requires empirical justification – to do so is not only impossible but it completely misses the point of having faith. However, faith has its own limitations, and where it stands in contradistinction to the proven methodology of science in physical reality it should stand down, accept verifiable facts, take itself less seriously, and realize what it’s all about. Humility is instructive for us all.