[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
What is “faith”, anyhow? The answers can become abstract, but concretely it’s what gets Salman Rushdie stabbed in the face. Oh wait, is that statement anti-Islamic? Guilty as charged; but then I’m also anti-Christian, anti-Hindu, anti-Buddhist, and, well, there are too many organized religions to list them all. Herewith too many words on Faith and Truth, albeit with pretty pictures. I do find positive things to say, but at the end of the day, well, no.
I’m not a moderate on this issue. I don’t believe, in general, that any supernatural event has ever occurred or, in particular, that any prayer has ever been answered. In my lifetime the outputs of organized religion have been mostly war, sexual abuse, and political support for venal rightist hypocrites.
Does it even matter? · Maybe religion has become irrelevant to your life, a common experience these days. It’s worth studying anyhow, as an example of the human propensity to believe things that are not just untrue, but wildly unlikely. Things that entirely lack supporting evidence. Things that make you shake your head.
I may not partake in faith but I’m a keen amateur student of religions. Perhaps it comes of having grown up in Lebanon, where a whole lot of ‘em run up against each other with a mostly disastrous impact on the civic fabric. I’ve visited Jerusalem and Damascus and Chartres and Stonehenge and Avebury and Carnac and Kamakura and Izumo and Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, and some of the world’s great forests.
Faith is real · I think that in my youth I maybe knew a saint. No, really; Father Leonard Guay, a Jesuit architect and astronomer. He built a university in Baghdad which was taken over by the Ba’ath, so he built another in Aleppo; the same thing happened. He offered no regrets. An American Midwesterner, he was in a combination monastery, winery, and observatory in rural Lebanon when we knew him. He loved coming over to talk English, eat corn-on-the-cob, and swap crossword-puzzle books; he took regular puzzles and did them diagramless, with just the clues. He loved kids, knew a million utterly lame jokes, and enjoyed telling us about the current research in the observatory, apologizing for using pagan language, as in the names of constellations and Zodiac signs. His faith glowed within him and around him.
This is the challenge to my personal aversion to the supernatural. I observe empirically that faith exists and that it’s real and that it appears to be good for some people. But my mind recoils at all the crazily baroque apparatus that is inextricably attached to every organized religion. I believe in belief and have no faith in faith.
But I went to Sunday School and my Dad even taught it in his youth. Once, when I boarded for a semester with family friends, I attended a Southern Baptist congregation which even at the age of twelve struck me as pretty looney-tunes. In my own mainstream-Protestant scientist family, the religious pressure was more or less zero.
What I’m not buying · So I understand pretty well what it is. I’m not buying a deity who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, provoking plague and child slaughter across a whole population. Nor, in general, gods that purport to exhibit gender. Nor any who thrive on praise and consider it essential from their devotees. Hindutva smells to me like old-fashioned ethnofascism with Pujas. I scoff at a putative Savior who lectures that lust is morally equivalent to adultery. I’m not down with Wahhabi support for autocratic murdering princes nor with Crusading nor with throwing settler garbage down into lower Hebron. And the phrase “blasphemy law” makes me shiver with anger.
Faith and humans · But religion comes naturally to Homo sapiens. Perhaps the first big reason is that for much of humanity’s passage across time we were manifestly not in control of our destiny, just ephemeral sparks of life blown about by whims of climate and disease and geography and the population dynamics of our prey and predators, those sparks often snuffed out with no warning. It would have been comforting to think that Someone was in control. Maybe the improved ability to steer one’s own life, enjoyed today by those in developed societies and with an education, is partly responsible for the fading of faith?
Second, worship is a human built-in. We are small after all, regularly confronted by things much greater than ourselves: Our starfield, away from light pollution. The meeting of the Eastern Pacific with the Western Americas. Canyons and waterfalls and great ancient trees.
Of course, we build some of the things we worship. I know of two people who say they acquired faith following on a visit to Chartres, and I believe them. If you can enter that great stone poem without your sense of worship activating, I think you’re weird. The first time I walked in, it felt like a giant hand round my chest, interfering with my breathing.
But I dunno, I’ve had the same feeling at concerts by Laurie Anderson and Slava Rostropovich and The Clash and a host of other artists. Is my gratitude for being alive at the same time as these exceptional people “worship”?
Trees · My family has the great good fortune to own a cabin on a small island in Howe Sound near Vancouver, where I regularly experience worship of that Pacific perimeter, and especially the island’s great evergreens and bigleaf maples that tower into the filtered forest light, never still, wind never entirely absent in the greenery. I keep telling my kids they should shut up and listen to the damn trees and they’ll learn things and I’m right but they don’t, usually.
Feeling reverent around trees has the advantage that they’re not avatars of anything that is said to be twitchily concerned about how and with whom you deploy your genitals, or whose intercedents will require your cash to support their lifestyles.
Positives · I think it probable that religion will continue to decline, to the extent that its concerns are absent from public discourse. In my own civic landscape it already has.
That’s not entirely a good thing; you can admire aspects of religion without actually believing it. One of them is ritual, prescribed and choreographed public actions. It’s a thing that a high proportion of humans once experienced on a weekly basis; but no longer. I think we miss it. Military services retain rituals, as do the centers of government – consider America’s State of the Union address, or the opening of various nations’ parliaments. Weddings and funerals retain a ritual dimension but are infrequent. While I have no patience for Catholic dogma I often tune in their midnight Christmas mass for its own sake – the singing and chanting, the inner space of St Peter’s basilica, and priestly processions carrying the Host. I love the opening and closing of each Olympic games.
Sacred texts · Every faith has them. While I decline to honor their claims, it’s good to believe that written-down words are important, because they are. The use of language defines what’s special about our species as much as anything else does and I believe the single greatest cultural shift in humanity’s story came when it could be written, and lessons could outlast the storage provided by a human skull.
The worlds of sci-fi, fantasy, and computer games are full of powerful and magical texts; obviously this notion speaks to many people. Religious texts are also historically important because they were replicated a lot and are thus well-represented among the fragments of language that have survived the ravages of centuries. Some of the books and the verses and words are very beautiful.
In fact, the Christian Bible, particularly in its seventeenth-century “King James” embodiment, has been at the center of the cultural experience of my own ethnic group to the extent that I think it probably deserves routine study at some point in the standard curriculum. A whole lot of our ancestral history and much wonderful literature and art is going to elude understanding without at least a basic grasp of its scriptural embedding.
If you want to get inside the head of someone who really held close to those values, go listen to Hildegard von Bingen’s O vis aeternitatis (“The Power of Eternity), probably written around 1150. It’s wonderful music! The world Hildegard inhabited, of faith made real in cloisters and their communities, is as remote from mine as that lived by the characters in the sci-fi I enjoy reading.
The flavor of truth · Of course, since sacred texts are said to express eternal absolutes, they must necessarily be immutable. Which seems boring and just wrong. It is a core value of scientists and engineers and philosophers and reference publishers that truth is contingent and dynamic; always capable of being better-expressed or deepened or falsified. On top of which, the language we use to express truths grows and mutates across the centuries. I’m not holding my breath waiting for Christendom to convene a Third Council of Nicaea and revise the doctrine of the Trinity. Still, we should respect and preserve and study the sacred texts because they are full of lessons about the people who wrote them and believe them.
Exegesis · Around those scriptural mountains are the rolling hills of exegesis; works of commentary and analysis, for example the Hadith and the Talmud. Christian exegesis is unimaginably vast in scale although it lacks a single named center.
I got lost in the exegetical maze during a failed youthful attempt to write a novel about the rise and wreck of the Tower of Babel, when I tried to understand what that crazy story might really be about.
Exegesis is fun to read! Intellectually challenging on its own terms, and if you have any familiarity at all with the Bible, the depth of meaning apparently waiting to be uncovered in the crevasses between adjacent words is astonishing. Next time you’re in a good library, I recommend looking up “Anchor Bible” in the catalog and poking around the stacks where the call-number takes you. If you’re like me your mind will be boggled at the vastness and complexity of the collection.
On this subject, if you ever find yourself in a colloquy of theologians or bibliophiles or antiquarians, even a brief mention of “The Church Fathers” will get you nods and smiles. They constitute the first few waves of Christian theological writing, there were really a lot of them (no Church Mothers, though), and they wrote an incredible number of books, many beautiful in form and content.
What a certain number of these theologians are trying to do is very similar to the goals of Physics theorists: An explanation of the universe from pure logical principles, showing how it really couldn’t possibly be any way other than the way it is. Christian theologians assert that this must be the Best of All Possible Worlds because what else could God have made?
They want the necessary outcome, via pure logical reasoning, to include an omnipotent omniscient male-gendered Creator and also a Savior, a single instance of God-made-flesh, plus a really hard to understand “Holy Spirit”. Which is to say, they have a heavier lift than physicists do. But to this day, Proofs of the Existence of God remain an amusing sub-sub-domain of theology and exegesis.
[I think you were supposed to be writing about the redeeming features? -Ed.] [Oh, right, thanks. -T.] Finally, it would be unfair to consider religion without acknowledging its leading role in philanthropy across the generations and continents.
Faith why? · None of which means we need to believe what the religiosos claim is true. But why, in the 21st century, do they still believe it? I really don’t have much to add to the two points I made above: The feeling that Someone must be in charge, and our built-in capacity for worship.
Let me offer an incredibly cynical but kind of entertaining take on the subject from Edward Gibbon, in his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, six massive volumes dating from the late 1700s. [You didn’t actually buy it and read it, did you? -Ed.] [Sometime around 1984 I joined the “Book of the Month Club” and these great-looking books were the sign-up bonus. I read a lot of it, but got bored around 1000AD in Vol. 5, all that endless Byzantine treachery. -T.]
Gibbon is discussing the rise of Christianity in the Empire, which he argues contributed to its fall, but that’s neither here nor there. He includes a sprawling survey of the religious landscape and, while discussing the Jews, notes that unlike many other faiths of the time, they weren’t prepared to go along and get along, host an occasional sacrifice to one Caesar or another in their temple; they resisted militantly and to the death. So, quoting from Chapter XV, Part I:
But the devout and even scrupulous attachment to the Mosaic religion, so conspicuous among the Jews who lived under the second temple, becomes still more surprising, if it is compared with the stubborn incredulity of their forefathers. When the law was given in thunder from Mount Sinai, when the tides of the ocean and the course of the planets were suspended for the convenience of the Israelites, and when temporal rewards and punishments were the immediate consequences of their piety or disobedience, they perpetually relapsed into rebellion against the visible majesty of their Divine King, placed the idols of the nations in the sanctuary of Jehovah, and imitated every fantastic ceremony that was practised in the tents of the Arabs, or in the cities of Phœnicia.10 As the protection of Heaven was deservedly withdrawn from the ungrateful race, their faith acquired a proportionable degree of vigor and purity. The contemporaries of Moses and Joshua had beheld with careless indifference the most amazing miracles. Under the pressure of every calamity, the belief of those miracles has preserved the Jews of a later period from the universal contagion of idolatry; and in contradiction to every known principle of the human mind, that singular people seems to have yielded a stronger and more ready assent to the traditions of their remote ancestors, than to the evidence of their own senses.11
10 For the enumeration of the Syrian and Arabian deities, it may be observed that Milton has comprised, in one hundred and thirty very beautiful lines, the two large and learned syntagmas which Selden had composed on that abstruse subject.
11 “How long will this people provoke me? And how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewn among them?” (Numbers xiv 11). It would be easy, but it would be unbecoming, to justify the complaint of the Deity, from the whole tenor of the Mosaic history.
(Gibbons’ footnotes, included just for fun.)
Um, is that anti-Semitic? Maybe… and some other things Gibbon said definitely were. But he was also anti-Muslim and arguably anti-Christian. And his scoffing seems more aimed at theologies than ethnicities. In fact, the only religion to get many kind words was Rome’s indigenous paganism, because of its tolerance.
While his text is loaded with nods to Christianity being The Right Answer because of Its Divine Provenance, those passages glisten with cynicism (see above) and he was frequently attacked as an enemy of the faith. Gibbon is fun to read.
A miracle · Finally, let’s consider what miracles are: Things that happen for which there is no conventional explanation in our physical understanding of the universe. At least one miracle has happened. The universe, including its cosmic background radiation, its galaxy clusters, its black holes, me and my thread of consciousness, you and yours, and the text I’m writing and you’re reading: They all exist. There’s no explanation at hand as to why anything at all should. Miraculous!
However, check out Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, by Jim Holt (Norton, 2012), a serious but entertaining tour through metaphysics and religion looking for an answer to the question in the title. Spoiler alert: While Holt’s best attempts are stimulating, I was still left thinking of the existence of anything and everything as a miracle.
Future? · You could think of religion as a pathology of society as a whole, consequent on ignorance, fear, and certain built-in features of the human mind. I don’t think it’s going away, although a faith-free world would probably be a kinder, more humane place.
With these words, I may have offended some who partake in faith. I can’t honestly apologize, because an apology is at some level a promise to Stop Doing That.
I really, really just don’t buy it.