Monday, January 23, 2012

Faith Pt 1

Lewis does two chapters on faith so we're just going to follow his example.

"Roughly speaking, the word Faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels, and I will take them in turn. In the first sense it means simply Belief—accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity. That is fairly simple. But what does puzzle people—at least it used to puzzle me—is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue."

So why would faith be considered a virtue?

Lewis goes on to ask the question in this way: "what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants to or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid."

I disagree with Lewis' word choice here, inability to believe something does not make one 'not very clever', especially if the evidence is not at all as clear cut as some would like us to believe. But he does hit on why you can consider faith a virtue in my opinion.

Here's the bottom line, as far as I am concerned with regard to the 'evidence' of any religious group: you choose to believe it or not. There are *always* arguments against and different explanations for *anything* that has been recorded as a religious event or miracle. We may not fully understand these reasons yet but they are always there. So an inability to believe that an account written down 6,000, 4,000 or 2,000 years ago is utterly factually correct given the authors limited knowledge does not make a person dull or stupid. I take 'scientific' proof of any religion to be ridiculous. You will never prove anything that way. Not ever.

People of faith *choose* to have faith. Yes, there's something about the human mind that wants to believe in things. I think it's tied into our imagination and sense of curiosity and wonder. We need there to be meaning to our existence. We need there to be something after death which is a place that we cannot explore or understand with just our minds as we are now.

So you choose to have faith and then you choose what to have faith in. And then you choose to continue to have faith. Faith is a stance that you take. And this is true whether we're talking about having faith in a god or faith in the laws of nature.

You can *know* that something is true, but believing in it takes a little more effort. For example, floating on water. As a child, you know that you can float on water if you lay out on your back because you have been told this and you have seen other people doing it. But there is always that point when it's you being leaned back (learning to swim) where panic wants to set in because part of you is not entirely convinced that the water is going to hold you up.

That's where you make the choice. You can either believe that the water will hold you up if you are still, or you can not believe it and panic. Your panic makes the water fail to hold you up, reinforcing your reason for panicking. :) Conversely, if you choose to believe and be calm, the water will hold you up and reinforce your choice to believe.

That's how faith works and that's why it can be counted as a virtue. Faith is not simply something that one has any more than patience or charity. You train yourself and are trained by the people around you to have those things. But in all of that you are making the choice. Virtues are things that we all think that we should have because they make us better people and make society work better. The downside of that is that we don't have them naturally, though they do tend to make society work more smoothly. We have to work at them. We have to train ourselves to them.

That's faith.

I have an issue with conflating faith with a 'moral good', of course. There's the implication in that way of thinking that people who lack faith are somehow morally corrupt or more likely to commit crimes. Which is not true, of course. But this helps me to see where the idea came from when atheism was emerging from the shadows that atheists were godless people who would rape and steal and murder without a seconds thought because people who had been raised in this mindset had a hard time understanding that people could be good without this particular virtue.


  1. I like the way you described this. It makes me think of faith not as belief in a religion, but choosing to believe what your experiences tell you is true, and acting accordingly. Science works because scientists have faith that they can believe what it tells them, and so they continue to use it and therefore develop better technology, medicine, etc.

    1. That's pretty much it exactly. :)

    2. I think you're right that religious faith is a choice people have to make. Some people are just not able to do it. Doug Muder says "Unitarian Universalists are precisely the people who can't believe whatever they want." :)

      I think your floating on water example shows that there are instances outside religion where we also have to make a conscious choice to believe something, although it is always easier when there is strong evidence for it.

      Whether believing by choice is a virtue or not, I'm not sure. I guess you are saying that if what you believe in makes things better overall, like makes you a better person or helps you achieve something, then it is a good thing, and I think I'd agree... but I can think of many examples of religious faith where this is not the case. Also, having faith often seems to mean trusting some authority or other and suspending criticism, which I think is dangerous rather than virtuous. :)

    3. Yes, that's what I was getting at with the water example. I know plenty of people who, even though they had the strong evidence of their senses telling them that they would float still panicked because they couldn't make themselves believe it. There are plenty of things that we choose to believe that have nothing to do with religion but I think that most of us don't think of them in the same manner as we do when we're thinking of religion.

      I actually wouldn't put having faith down as being a virtue. It implies too many things having to do with the relative goodness of people who believe or don't believe in the first place. However it's listed as a Christian virtue and I've never quite gotten (like Lewis) why it should be a virtue. The nearest I can come is that it's included because people believe that believing in God makes you a better person, which is not necessarily true and that they acknowledge even if it's only subconsciously, that faith is not something that just happens without any effort. Like the other virtues.

      But like you point out, sometimes religious faith does make you be a better person and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's just another way to take advantage of people and hurt them. Nothing is ever purely one thing or the other. So I would never say that having faith is an absolute moral good. Sorry if that wasn't clear in the post!

  2. I like what this passage in II Peter says. Mentioning "faith" and "virtue" together made me think of it since the KJV uses those two words in the same verse. Also I think it goes well with your last paragraph to Sarah about "sometimes religious faith does make you be a better person and sometimes it doesn't." Maybe this is why Peter exhorted them to:

    5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. (NIV)

    So maybe if we add these things to our faith, we won't be those who "take advantage of people and hurt them."

    Great post! Sorry for my late reply!

    1. Nice. It's also true that if you take all of those things, minus the 'faith' and 'godliness' portions, and apply them to any person you're going to get a better person, someone who won't take advantage of people and hurt them on purpose, which is sometimes all I think we can ask for. :)


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