Most of us, depending on what side of the theism line we are on, know how we feel about those on the other side. The theists worry that non-believers are going to be sinners punished with damnation; the atheists see credulous cretins believing in fairy tales. That is to be expected in an argument in which neither side has any evidence to prove its case and, in which the opponent is an anonymous other.
But what do you do when the person on the other side of belief is someone you know and perhaps even love. Shouting epithets across the street at the guy with the sign that says you are going to hell because your politics contradicts his faith is one thing, across the dinner table is quite another. Nothing can spoil a meal, or ruin a relationship like an accusation that you are evil, or an idiot for believing in angels and demons.
Faith is a curious cognitive causal connection of dots. It puts things together almost out of thin air. A sneeze becomes a minor exorcism of little demons rather than the action of pollen-agitated nasal cilia. Storms become the anger of the gods, seemingly from some deep need to install our human emotions as the clockwork of nature’s forces. It is not the “seeing” that is believing, but the un-seeing. Belief is a process of narrative invention. Belief is stories, written as parable and fable, not in mathematics and code.
Faith is also a significant anchor in many people’s lives, people who would be lost without their trust that a better (after)life awaits them and that they way they conduct their lives gives them some assurance of that outcome. It is manifestly easier to pray to or express anger at a deity that looks like you and understands English, Arabic, Farsi, or Mandarin. One need only look about them to see that many people need faith almost out of desperation. Life would have no worth or hope for them without faith.
Faith is therefore something we should not set out to destroy, anymore than the believer should set out to eradicate the infidel. I personally know and have known people for whom their faith is a precious gift to their lives and I would not attempt to convert them to my non-theism because I don’t think they could handle it or would love me for it. Indeed, there have been times when I wished I could believe what I regard as their blissful ignorance.
But reason is a harsh master. There is no Bible, Quran, or other sacred text to memorize and repeat, no liturgy, no rules about food or sex or clothing, no do’s and don’ts with merit or grace to account for, no promises other than the utility of rationality. Reason demands evidence, proof, something that can be apprehended by the senses, that does not violate logic. Faith gives reason nothing to work with except precedent, mystery and the intellectual joke of “intelligent design.” There is no more apt term than “a leap of faith,” a vault across the yawning chasm of unknowns and unknowables to a teetering precipice of credulity. Even “knowns” might be rejected in he leap of faith, by consigning Darwin or science in general to just a competing “faith.”
So there you are, across a dinner table or bed sheets that can seem almost an equal chasm, distanced from someone whose well-being and happiness are co-mingled with yours, but who has taken that leap. (I must necessarily write this from the POV of the non-theist, although there is no reason a believer could not fashion a case from his/her perspective.) History and personal experience have taught us that here is considerable jeopardy in such uneven relationships. My own mother, busied with her own mortality at age 92, now seems to accept my apostasy, or secretly believe that the expense of my Catholic education imbedded a subconsciously un-rejectable kernel of credulity in me that will insure our reunion in heaven (as she is assured of her reunion with dad.) Who would wish to disabuse her of such a comforting belief?
One of the “techniques” I have found useful in reaching an accord of sorts with believers (not all, mind you), is one that I employed in teaching graduate seminars for many years. I call it, for lack of a better term, “scrambling categories.” It comes from the fact that the positions of many believers are often not very well thought out; faith requires acceptance (“accept Jesus as your lord and savior”) not a conversion by arduous internal debate. Indeed, the non-believer has often put himself/herself through a lot more rigorous intellection.
Me: “I believe in Jesus.”
Believer (astonished): “You do?”
Me: “Yup.” (I really do, and this also keeps me from being consigned to being an infdel out of hand).
Believer: “Your pulling my leg.”
Me: “Nope. This I believe, on historical basis: I believe in the account that there was this First Century rabbi/carpenter who had some good things to say and did some good stuff. Actually, I rather like the guy because it seems he was for many of the same things I am for.”
Believer: “Like keeping gays and lesbians from getting married?” (OK, I realize that I am making the Believer sound stupid with this, but I just couldn’t resist putting it in. I will try to restrain myself.)
Me: “No, silly. I mean that he seemed to care a lot for the sick and the poor, and he didn’t seem to like rich people very much. He hung out with working class guys. I’m not sure about the Mary Magdelene being a hooker thing, but I can see how that would fit his values. In short, Christ was a bleeding heart liberal, certainly not a Republican.
Believer: “But do you accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God and your lord and savior?”
Me: No, just as a cool guy. Anyway, Jesus Christ was a name he probably never heard applied to himself. It’s Greek. He was Yeshua bar Yusef. As Jesus Christ he should have been called the son of Zeus.
Believer: “You’re trying to confuse me.”
Me: “You’ll get your own chance when you explain to me the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. But let’s not get sidetracked here. Just because I don’t think Yeshua was the “Son of God” doesn’t mean I don’t take him any less seriously. For example, he brought the Golden Rule to Judea, the idea that we should treat people as we would have them teat us. I don’t know where he got that, but remember he sort of drops out of sight from age 15 to about 29 or 30, a long time. Maybe he went off searching for the Golden Rule. I like the Golden Rule.
Believer: “But that doesn’t make you a Christian. You have to believe that Christ is the Son of God.”
Me: “But I believe in the principles Christ—I mean Yeshua—espoused. If I believe in the principles of “natural selection” then I am a Darwinian. So, if I believe in Christ’s principles I am a Christian. Unless, of course, you want me to believe that Darwin is the Son of God, too. Maybe you would accept as a Christian someone who does not espouse Christ’s principles, but proclaims Christ as the Son of God? It seems that’s just what many people who call themselves Christians do.”
Believer: “Go to Hell.”
Me: “See ya there.”
OK the last part is just fooling around, but you get the point. I like Jesus as a secular-historical person with good, liberal principles he espouses for us all to practice, and the Believer likes him foremost as a Son of God and a lord and savior. If we agree on his principles it should at least keep us from killing one another, that is if we don’t get bogged down in a debate overmonophysitism.
If I can be accepted as a “believer” of sorts, then I have a basis of legitimacy that allows for working the edges of a secular philosophy that is fundamentally consonant with what is arguably the essence of Christianity, even, perhaps, making the case that I am a more genuine Christian than some so-called Christians who ascribe ludicrous “what would Jesus do” values to Christ that contradict those fundamental principles. (How did Jesus feel about gays marrying, or torturing detainees at Gitmo, anyway? We know that the Old Testament said about gays, but wasn’t Jesus about some new covenant?)
Well, you get the idea; it begins to be sort of a negotiation, not only on what is believed, but what is the basis of belief. Once the old categories have been scrambled the one who has done more critical thinking about the reasons for what they believe, has the advantage.
In most societies faith is not something we leap into, but something slipped into our breakfast cereal when we are young and innocent. Later, it’ hard to get rid of it; it seems like it has always been there, everybody else seems to have it, and one doesn’t leap back, but first must fall into the chasm and climb out, arduously. Yet many of those who were not indoctrinated seem to find faith so easily, claiming they are “saved” out of some social convenience.
Recent surveys report a decline in religious belief in America, to nearly one in five with no faith at all. It might be because they are more easily defeated when we have the audacity to confront them, or that the insinuation of religious belief into the political realm has produced a counter reaction because some believers also seem to need faith to feel superior and “chosen.” But they are only those who have chosen to believe in something they have no way of knowing.
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.26.2009)