Monday, December 24, 2012

faith sucks, belief rules

I’ve been thinking about the concept of faith a lot lately. This is due to my recent Bart Ehrman kick. Erhman is a biblical scholar focussed on the New Testament who specializes in textual criticism, which is the art of figuring out how much of the original ancient texts are reflected in the versions we have now. I never thought about this, but back in the days of hand copying mistakes were common, and some copyists would also purposely change texts.  This means we don’t truly know exactly what was written by Plato or Confucius or, as Ehrman points out in books like Misquoting Jesus, the authors of the Christian bible.

Misquoting Jesus is a fascinating book that describes the attempts to figure out what parts of the New Testament are authentic. At times it reads like a detective novel, as he explains how textual critics compare writing styles and check other sources to figure out what is original and what was added later. Sometimes things were added long after the original documents were created - that “let he without sin cast the first stone” story is an example of that. Sometimes words were miscopied by barely literate copyists. Sometimes minor changes were made to, for example, deemphasize the role of women in the Christian religion or to deride the beliefs of competing Christian groups like the Gnostics (an interesting group who I learned about in another Ehrman book, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. They believed that the God of the Jews was a crazy asshole and that there is another, better, higher God to worship).

Ehrman was brought up an evangelical Christian who considered the Bible the literal word of God, but he eventually concluded the book was very much man made, and that its authors each had their own points to make. He points out that Jesus is portrayed quite differently in each gospel; he says we must respect the authors by reading each story on its own, rather than doing a Jesus Christ Superstar-style mashup.

Misquoting Jesus made me wonder if Ehrman was still a Christian after coming to understand what a mish masch the New Testament is. And in the book I’m reading now, God’s Problem, I learned that Ehrman is, in fact, an agnostic. But not, apparently, because of the conclusions that lead him to write Misquoting Jesus.

Erman begins God’s Problem by saying that he has “lost his faith,” and I found that an interesting statement. He makes it sound as though he lost an appendage, like his hand, and he still misses it. And as I thought about it I realized that while he had faith, when I believed in God as a child, I only had belief. Which is a very different thing.

I believed in the existence of God when I was young. I also believed in the existence of Santa Claus. In both cases my belief was based on the information I had been given. My parents, who I considered a reliable source, told me there was a Santa Claus. They would take on any questions I had; when I asked how he could get down our skinny chimney, they would say they left the back door open for him.

But then I discovered that not everyone believed in Santa Claus, I found the illogic of the Santa myth increasingly difficult to overlook. I expressed my doubts to my parents and they eventually admitted there was no Santa Claus.

My path with God was very similar. I believed there was an all powerful supernatural being who had created everything and was in charge of the world. I used to talk to him, either asking him for a better life or, when I was in a more charitable frame of mind, asking him to end suffering throughout the world.

By the time I was in Junior High, I discovered that not everyone believed in God, and just knowing that made me think about whether the whole God thing made sense. I concluded that it did not. I did ask the minister questions, but was unsatisfied with the answers.

Just as with Santa, I had a belief, I became more intellectually sophisticated, analyzed my belief and found it wanting, and decided to believe something different.

Erman became an agnostic not because the evidence for the existence of a savior was insufficient, but because he ultimately found he could not reconcile his faith in an all-powerful, all-loving God with the horrors of the world, both man-made horrors like war and natural horrors like disease and disaster.

I couldn’t help wonder though, why just the fact that the texts upon which his beliefs were based were an inaccurately copied set of documents written and chosen to fortify one of many competing views of Jesus.

And I realized it all came down to faith. Because faith is not contingent on anything. Once you have faith, you don’t need proof. Proof is irrelevant. Ehrman could see that the New Testament was not the literal word of God but still believed in God and Jesus, because that’s what faith is; believing regardless of everything.

Ehrman’s problem was he had faith in a very specific God. I believed in God as a child, but I wasn’t that clear on what he did. I didn’t really think about the issues of being loving and all powerful yet allowing suffering, because I was not a sophisticated nine-year-old. By the time I could think about these things, I was done with God.

God’s Problem is a book about how the bible deals with suffering, and he apparently found nothing in it that fit with his faith. His faith wasn’t, seemingly, in the God that tortured Job to win a bet with Satan, killing his family in the process, or the God who punished children for the sins of their parents. I still don’t understand why it  took him so long to reach that point, but faith is a powerful thing.

Beliefs can be changed with new evidence; faith cannot be. Yet, insisting on proof for what you believe is considered somehow petty and mean.  If you don’t believe in God, or ghosts, or psychics,  or astrology, many people will see you as a cynic with no sense of childlike wonder, as though unquestioning belief is far more admirable than trying to really understand the world through careful study and a rational exploration of factual evidence. Instead, we admire what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”; believing in something there is no proof for because you feel it in your gut.

People love the famous editorial in which a newspaper man tells a little girl that yes, there is a Santa Claus, even if there’s no proof, a piece wonderfully rewritten by Greta Christina as No Virginia, There is No Santa Claus, a paean to rational thought I found through a lovely post on the allure of irrational belief by my friend Tim Martin.

I don’t have faith. I don’t believe I have ever had faith. I have believed wrongly, but only because I was lacking information, or was trusting the wrong sources, or was too lazy to really consider all sides of an issue. But I can’t recall ever having blind faith in anything; I remain open to information refuting what I believe, and the model of the world I keep in my head is still constantly changing as new information arrives.

Certainly I have opinions I will not release. For example, I believe the world should devote more resources to feeding those who starve than to building weapons. This is not based on fact. Starvation is not inherently wrong, it is a natural part of nature. But I don’t think you could really talk me out of this belief - you can’t use facts to persuade me I shouldn’t worry about people starving to death. Even then, you could, if you martialed your facts, possibly persuade me that starvation is inherently unsolvable, and that attempts to feed the world would ultimately just make things worse. I haven’t heard such an argument, but I feel certain someone out there is ready to make it. And if a good case could be made, I would adjust my beliefs accordingly.

Faith is not as easy to adjust. It isn’t based on proof, so it cannot be disproved. Asking for proof is not faith, and in fact, those with faith would say wanting proof demeans faith. As Kris Kringle explains in Miracle on 34th Street, "Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to."

Thomas Paine once wrote that it would make no sense for God to give man the ability to reason and then insist that he not use that gift. It’s exactly the sort of reasonable statement that faith easily discounts.

While faith is portrayed as beautiful, it actually an example of man at his most primitive, the confused cave man fearfully offering chickens to unseen spirits because he just doesn’t know any better. For centuries, man has been creating something beyond faith, something much, much better, based on rational thought and experimentation. I believe that is a good thing. But I have no faith in anything.