11. Faith Card

Fact-Checking

With the retrospective firmly in mind, I must be honest and admit that in all my prior investigations, I had never actually examined the integrity of the Bible itself. It glided above sight-line, a presupposition which was too near to be seen. We can usually only answer the questions we ask, and it was an unasked question. Like most believers, I had revolved my entire life around a volume that I had never actually fact-checked. And yes, it has become clear that we actually can fact-check a great deal:

– Who wrote its parts and when

– Evidential corroboration of historical events

– Internal consistency between its parts

– Accuracy with regard to predicted events

We can check these things, but I did not do so. The research that comes so naturally when considering what car to purchase next – this stands patently neglected for nearly all religious people and their beliefs. With cars and vacuum cleaners and schools and business deals, we check into things. We look for evaluations from someone other than the group doing the selling. We actively seek the objective third party evaluations, the Consumer Reports, and the fact-checkers. But suggesting that a Consumer Reports view should be taken toward faith investigation will be quickly decried. That is until the faith in question is Mormonism, Islam, or Hinduism. We marvel at what other people are willing to believe because we’ve read the Wikipedia entries about their faith. And yet with ours, we do not. And if we do, we discount what we read.

The decision for faith remains to a large extent an existential one: the leading of the Spirit; a burning in the bosom; hearing God’s call; feeling God’s presence. If we study the faith before making the leap, it is usually from materials offered by the faith group itself. But this is somewhat akin to reading about a car exclusively from dealership brochures. I have wondered at those who give themselves over to Mormonism, thinking that they should have done a bit of checking on it first. Yet I realize that I did not do so with Christianity – not even after the past crises of heresy and orthodoxy. We come to surrender ourselves to faith much the way a feelings-driven buyer chooses a car, oblivious to the known shortcomings so well documented in openly available resources. It is the single most important decision that a person could ever make (eternity being in the balance), and yet we are typically told that it cannot be made with the head, only the heart. This is, of course, a paradigm claim that serves all religions equally.

And after the leap, life inside the religious ecosystem reinforces the insularity.  We are encouraged toward apologetic-oriented studies, but serious inquiry tends to be labelled as doubt or ‘faith crisis’.

I believe that objective interrogation should be undertaken with regard to any work of men, including religious texts. Sacred scriptures are far too plentiful and too contradictory to claim a categorical exemption. They ought not to be granted an exemption in any case, in light of the authority they claim. We should take a very hard look at the authors themselves. We should take a very hard look at any text that purports to invoke divine authority. Anyone claiming a special uplink to God should be scrutinized at a level unseen in any other field of human discourse. Of all claims, this one carries the greatest presumption. And this does not become less true for ancient authors, simply because it has been some time since they were breathing humans. This domain is the last place to believe that feelings are the weapon of discernment, as evidenced by the proliferation of false religions the world over. Besides, we only ever believe that existential faith is legitimate if its target is our faith. And we know this. Certainly I knew this.

Wish-Thinking

Among those that believe, few deviate from their religion of birth. Among those that read and consider, few stray to resources outside the ecosystem. Among those who do engage with the outside, few cease granting faith bias and special pleading to our revered resources. The gradient climbs upward against serious, objective, and uncharitable scrutiny. On considering my own anecdotal recollections, I believe this is true because we wish.

I would very much like to live forever. I would like to say that my ancestors were born in grandeur, that I am descended from an immortal race. To say that I am on a journey commissioned by the cosmic King. To think that one day I will be a glorious and perfected creature. To have a divine indwelling that makes me, even now, something more than my neighbors. To have my words wield power over illness and tragedy. To think that even dying is winning. And I would like to think that I need only believe to make it true.

In my honest quiet moments, my soul does crave and reach for those things. It is not hard to see why. They would mean that I did not have to settle for being what I am: human. Actually mortal. Imperfect, and ever to remain so. Minute. And yes, unimportant.

Why is it that we affirm our religion’s grand propositions without evidence? Why do we nestle in our ecosystems and resist normal, objective, and external fact-checking? Why do we not want to find out that we are mistaken? I do not believe that it is hard to see why.

It has been difficult to accept how complicit I have been in transacting my own insularity. But realizing that this is the normal human way, it has really been a journey of discovering how the human brain works where religion is concerned: how little evidence we require; how much benefit of the doubt we confer; and how tenaciously we defend the frameworks that grant us our identity and meaning. And the motive is transparently evident: what we get to believe about ourselves.

Faith Card

Faith has been heralded as the solution to the so-called evidence ‘problems,’ and it has been trumpeted as the prerequisite for ‘seeing’ the authority of the scriptures. Of course, I always believed as much, for my journey has been one that started from a position of faith. We believe that faith is a means to actual knowledge, an epistemological mechanism to appropriate Truth. The truth obtained by faith-knowledge hovers above evidence and inquiry, being both superior and different-in-kind when compared with mere reason-knowledge. Faith-knowledge is a higher knowledge. I have believed this for as long as I can remember. I hear it in conversations with my friends, and it can be found in book after book. We believe in two separate categories of knowing. But is that real?

I survey my own past. On the back-check, does faith as a means to knowing truth actually work?

By faith, I once believed with Arius that Jesus was not God incarnate, but was His entirely human son. That was before (by faith) I believed that the doctrine of the Trinity was indeed correct, and that Arius was mistaken.

By faith, I once believed in a literal Garden of Eden, with its magical fruit and talking animals. I once believed in a literal six-day creation and a young 6,000-year Earth. That was before (by faith) I believed that Genesis should be understood in a different and less literal way.

By faith, I once believed that a global flood had wiped out life on earth, save those that were with Noah on the ark. That was before (by faith) I believed that it may have been simply a regional catastrophe conveyed in phenomenological language.

By faith, I once believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch; that the Gospels were penned by their namesakes; and that the Bible was free of contradictions and accurate in all its parts. But that was before I read scholars who advised that one must see (by faith) that the inspiration of scripture was a less clairvoyant process than I had been taught.

By faith, I once believed that humankind was made entirely separate from the animal kingdom. I believed that we were once something grander, a kind of creature above death and corruption.

By faith, I once believed in the apostolic calling of an endearing old gentleman that I knew, whose un-lying eyes masked his own inner delusions, much to the detriment of myself and others who followed him. And by faith, I once believed that an apocalypse was coming with the turn of the millennium.

I once believed a great many things – by faith – which were fully and completely discredited some years later. So in my own honest inventory, faith as a utility of discernment has fallen short. It has enabled a variety of delusions in my life. Its performance with regard to knowing has proven rather abysmal. I ultimately escaped my past positions of error through serious inquiry, which overrode my faith claims and realigned them. By the strident and baseless claims of my own faith, I have affirmed utter nonsense time and again, each of which burgeoned scandals awaiting the reveal. My path has been muddled, and I find that I have played the faith card on many bad bets.

And I am not alone. I observe this same muddled meandering in the wider community around me.

By faith, different Christians continue to uphold mutually exclusive views about the two central sacraments: whose baptisms are legitimate and what the Lord’s supper actually means and is. We may note that some large percentage of believers on these subjects is ultimately wrong – by faith.

Successive generations of believers continue to migrate back and forth across the Catholic-Protestant divide, even among those closest to me. Centuries of debate have proven inadequate to resolve the questions and differences that remain, and it would appear that subjective affinity, rather than truth, may prove the ultimate determiner of allegiance.

Some Christians maintain the traditional and literal view of Genesis in all its parts. Yet also by faith, other Christians embrace the full portfolio of science, while discerning that Genesis was meant to be read in quite another way.

By faith, Galileo was persecuted – and Darwin after him.

By faith, crusades and religious wars were transacted throughout the history of the Christian church, proving that even faith in Jesus lacks the specificity and efficacy to avoid horrific consequence.

Likewise, slavery was upheld to be a biblical and God-ordained precept, to the shame of my nation’s history. And by faith, we maintain today that God meant his sanctioning of slavery as a mere concession to ancients who knew no better.

By faith, the world’s Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists and Mormons all believe and affirm entirely contradictory religious claims.

And by faith, we should never forget, religious fanatics commit murder-suicide, the natural terminus of a robust belief in a promised outcome.

I mark these observations for a specific end. The obvious should be conceded: faith is no compass. If we mistake it as a tool for discerning the real from the artificial, it simply falls short. The brief lists above may be expanded – without limit. By the mechanism of faith, it is clear that any belief can be justified, and every belief has been. Faith-knowledge stands in near-perfect orthogonality to actual knowledge. I myself would be at pains to conceive a more wholly ill-suited tool for discriminating fact from fiction. For by faith, I myself have believed a great many fictions, as does the rest of the religious world. We, in circles, trudge together.

Yet I must admit that the concept of faith is somewhat elegant. Its elven construction leaves it feather-lite, able to be wielded by the slightest among us. It grants even the most uninformed intuition a gratifying precedence and authority. It bestows the power to make astonishing claims without basis. It gives gifts and promises grandeur, generally of an intangible nature or in deferment post mortem. And perhaps best, it grants us confidence in so-called knowledge, for which we need not do the hard labor of inquiry and discovery. I recognize that in myself and others, apathy and ignorance are empowered to claim both knowledge and certainty. As a contrivance of popular appeal for an ancient humanity, at a time of nearly universal illiteracy and ignorance, faith was brilliant.

And even today, it remains addictive. We are allowed to claim so much for so little, never we mind the question of accuracy.

Retrospectively, it was an interesting proposition: that faith is a path to knowledge both higher and truer than what reason and investigation can attain. But the proposition simply collapses under a crushing breadth of cases to the contrary. Faith is easily gotten wrong, it would seem. And on my own experience base, I will venture even more specificity than that: faith in Jesus is easily gotten wrong. Playing the faith card, it would seem, must be done just right. It seems on review somewhat like a compass never magnetized: its needle does indeed give direction, and it is followed often enough, and on manifold bearings by sundry people. And it does indeed point true, as often as chance permits, and to the extent that good thinking prevails.

Next: [12] Moral Pivot >>

5/21/2013

Comments

  1. archaeopteryx1 says:

    Brilliantly written, as usual, except possibly for the one redundancy – “false religion” –:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Arch,

      LOL. I was actually trying to figure out what the redundancy was for a second there. Not enough sleep last night. 🙂

      Thanks!

      Like

      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        Hey, you keep writin’, I’ll keep readin’ – deal?
        BTW, you mentioned Arkansas and Tulsa – I’m originally an Okie myself (though LONG since gone), we share a common background.

        Like

        • Yeah, I was born in California, lived in Texas for a while, then Indiana, then Seattle, then back to Texas, then college in Arkansas on the border with Oklahoma, then back to Texas… and here I am. Did outreach ministry stuff in Tulsa, which was an experience.

          The downer of all that moving is that its hard to claim a home. The upside is that I can adopt regional accents pretty easily. A little too easily sometimes. “Where are you from?”… “Where does it sound like I’m from?” 🙂

          Like

  2. Cody says:

    I just wanted to say thank you. On January 9th I took my life back from the false deity my parents indoctrinated me to give it to. But there of course has been pain and doubt along the way. I’ve read the whole thing and am now in the bibliography. I resonated with hundreds of your points, not that you should be surprised. The most valuable point that addresses doubt for me is the New Testament was manuevered to intentionally fulfill prophesy, not because these prophesies we’re actually fulfilled. I now am free to love people and live to the full. When you write this book, which you should, I’m coming to Austin for the signing buying you a beer. I now know the truth and the truth has set me free!!

    Like

  3. archaeopteryx1 says:

    Congratulations, Cody, you’ve just overcome the Stockholm Syndrome! Liberating, isn’t it? Kinda scary too, ’cause now you don’t have anyone to blame things on but yourself!

    Like

  4. This is an excellent piece, Matt.

    Like

    • Thanks Ark. The Catch 22 is that most people I know that might benefit from it won’t read it. That’s why I’ve come to think of faith as a sand trap for the mind. Like a lee shore, once the ship ventures too close to the rocks, it will likely never overcome the wind and break away to blue water again.

      Like

  5. archaeopteryx1 says:

    That sounds like a spam comment, wonder how it slipped past your filter? I get them too, from time to time, they usually don’t make any sense, because they’re designed to get you to click on a link (which I would advise against), and are generally sent by people who don’t speak English.

    Like

  6. Ain't No Shrinking Violet says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I left catholicism about seven months ago and am still having trouble dealing with the fact that I was duped for so long. You lay it out pretty clearly here by calling it the “faith card,” which is helpful language to have. I’ve started meeting atheists online who have been wonderfully helpful (Arch gave me the link to your blog)…but not too many were serious believers before, and I find it most helpful to hear those stories. I’ll be reading more as time allows, but so far have found your story captivating.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. archaeopteryx1 says:

    WAY ahead of you, she already has the link. Your “Journey” and “Paisley” are at the top of my recommended must-read list.

    Like

  8. archaeopteryx1 says:

    Speaking of whom, say “Hi” to Janelle for me –!

    Liked by 1 person

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