Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

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What is faith?

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I’m concerned that faith is widely misunderstood—particularly by people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others that have been dubbed New Atheists. My sense is that they understand faith as a kind of antithesis of scientific knowledge. While scientific conclusions come from logical reasoning based on consistent observations, faith they say is unreasoning belief in something that can’t be observed, belief in an idea just because it’s written in the scriptures of some traditional religion.

Some sort of contrast between faith and knowledge certainly isn’t new to the New Atheists. The Oxford English Dictionary defines faith as:

strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.

But taking this definition as a starting point, we still have to ask what this spiritual conviction is. Is it just blind acceptance of the teachings of a religious authority? I say no.

While that could be true in theory for rank-and-file members of a religion, it can’t possibly be true for a religion’s founders. Nor can it be true for any of the later teachers that had a role in developing a religion’s doctrines over time. These people weren’t just accepting pre-existing ideas—they were formulating new ones—so where did their new ideas come from? Inspired by God? From a deep spiritual insight into the nature of reality? But such explanations are rejected out of hand by New Atheists and other people who categorically prefer science to religion. So where do the formative figures in a religion get their ideas?

I don’t think acceptance of authority is a complete explanation even for the faith of a religion’s rank-and-file members. Some societies may be so closed to outside influences that they offer only a single belief system, and everyone is pressured to accept it. But in most societies today, people are exposed to a variety of beliefs, so how do they choose which one they believe?

I guess the path of least resistance is to accept the religion you grew up with. But plenty of people don’t—they give up the religion they grew up with and convert to another one. I can’t imagine they choose their new religion at random, so there must be some other explanation for their faith, besides a blind acceptance of authority.

I’m convinced that the spiritual conviction in the Oxford English Dictionary definition is a kind of intuition that draws from emotions and unconscious cognition and half-formed ideas that can’t quite be put into words. I agree that faith is distinct from reason, insofar as the logic behind a reasoned conclusion can be described step-by-step. But I don’t agree with the New Atheists’ conviction that faith is distinct from empiricism. Faith is empirical, but the observations are introspective rather than sensory. We each make our own evaluation of the teachings of a religion not by looking at the world but by listening to our heart. The truth that a person finds in their religion is present and real to them through their intuitions, even though they can’t justify it with the instruments of reason.

Note that this description of faith says nothing about whether the metaphysical content of religious beliefs is true or not. If their metaphysical content is not true, then our “spiritual” intuitions actually tell us something about the human brain, and the deep undercurrents of emotion that it produces in our experience. As Pascal said—the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. But if the metaphysical content of religious beliefs is true, then our spiritual intuitions are a channel through which we sense an underlying metaphysical reality. Either way, faith results from experiences that are present to us in our intuitions. The metaphysical ideas and other doctrines of a traditional religion may be taught to us by someone else, but we will only sincerely embrace those doctrines through faith if they resonate with what we feel in our heart. That’s very different from the notion of blind faith that is so common today.

© Joel Benington, 2011.


Written by Joel Benington

October 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Eid saeed

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The Islamic month of Ramadan ended Monday, and yesterday was the beginning of the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, celebrating the end of the fasts of Ramadan. Thinking about Eid ul-Fitr this morning, I was reminded of one of my first encounters with Islam.

I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC, and as a teenager I bicycled a lot in and around the city. One day, a friend showed me the Islamic Center of Washington, and I was impressed by the beauty of the mosque and grounds, and by the spiritual atmosphere of the space. Muted light came through latticework, there were lovely columns, and tilework with a beautiful blue-on-white arabesque. It fronted right on Massachusetts Avenue but was quiet and contemplative within.

Some weeks later, I was bicycling near the Islamic Center with another friend and I suggested we stop in. I showed him into the mosque, where we sat on a bench near the back. But even though we were trying to be quiet and respectful, a woman who was in there praying kept shooting us dirty looks. This weirded me out, because the last time I was there the people had struck me as friendly and welcoming.

While we sat there, she had a brief conversation with a man who then came over to speak to us. He welcomed us, and explained that we were wearing short pants and in Islam men did not bare their legs. The moment he said this, I remembered having heard about that and was ashamed for being so stupid. When my other friend first showed me the place, we must have been wearing long pants and it just hadn’t occurred to me this time that shorts would be a problem.

I apologized and said that we would leave right away, but he stopped me and in a tone of kindness said, “No, next time.” Even though we were clearly in the wrong, he didn’t want us to feel we had to leave—he just wanted us to remember how we should dress the next time we came.

His patience and compassion on top of the embarrassment I already felt moved me so much that I almost started to cry. He saw that I was fighting back tears, and I think that made him feel even worse about our being made uncomfortable as a result of our unintentional mistake. I probably attempted some explanation or reassurance, but what I really wanted to do was leave and stop offending people, which we did.

That was some thirty years ago, but thinking about his kindness still brings me almost to tears. It was one of the key experiences of my young life, and it has stuck with me as a model of how I should treat other people in similar circumstances.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

August 31, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Posted in humanity, religion