Josh Haas's Web Log

Faith for Atheists

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This is probably a little more timely than I really intend it be, this being the rapture and all, but I want to talk about faith. We have a culture where faith is associated with religion; it’s a two-for-one sale. Atheists don’t have faith. Theists do. And then there’s the murky middle, the “spiritual but not religious” masses who don’t really buy the whole religion thing but want to keep one foot in the door of higher meaning.

This post is for the people in the room who want to buy only half of the package deal.

People are delicate, pathetic things. A strong wind, an errant car, or even a rogue microorganisms can wipe us out like a foot crushing an ant, and those lucky enough to survive external threats to their existence eventually fall apart from the inside out. We all stand next to complete disolution, and for the most part just try to distract ourselves until we get so senile that we die without worrying about it too much.

From time to time, events force us to confront the fact we live in a world outside our control, that we are small and it is big. Sometimes a new episode of Jersey Shore isn’t enough to distract us. At those times, when we confront this face on, the two reactions are horror or awe: raw, nihilistic despair that we live in a meaningless world where absolutely everything we care about and work towards will die, or a heightened sense of aliveness and appreciation of the preciousness of each ounce of our limited span.

Let’s call the quality that allows awe and dispels horror “faith.” It is the feeling that the universe will meet us halfway; that though our existence is pathetic, we have our small part to play and if we play it well there is joy for us in it. Or in other words, that we live in a universe that we can look at and say, “this is good”, even as we watch kids die in car accidents and genocide in Africa and our smarmy coworkers get promoted ahead of us.

I think true faith is something experienced, not believed. We all have lots of beliefs, most of which are bullshit. A belief is just a theory that we haven’t gotten around to disproving yet. Staking our hope on a belief always leads to cognitive dissonance, because the human mind seeks truth and always knows at a deep level when we’re clinging to something that we hope is true but have no evidence for. Experience, on the other hand, is direct perception; you don’t believe that you’re feeling happy, you know it, because that’s what happy is.

Religion can breed true faith by calling attention to the abyss and providing community support in facing it courageously. But it also breeds a lot of false faith, by propagating hearsay claims: we live in a good universe because there is a God out there who will reward or punish us. These consquences are hearsay because, in most versions of the story, you have to be dead first before you get to experience the fun firsthand. Hearsay creates belief, but it can’t create experience. I think a lot of religious fanaticism is underlied by a deep insecurity, a subconscious acknowledgement of the foundational weakness of the position, where the response is to attack anyone who dares question our hopeful narrative. (I say “our” because everyone does this from time to time — we all have beliefs that we are fundamentalists about).

So I don’t think religious faith — the good kind — can be related to God as the provisioner of moral consequences. Rather, I think where belief in God and faith can overlap is when God is used as a metaphor for our perception of the universe. The faithful sees the universe as personal: love, not emptiness, underlies the cosmos; the abyss is illusionary and life has meaning.

But one metaphor can be discarded for another. You don’t have to believe any external fact about the world to experience the universe as fundamentally good. In fact, I would argue that dropping the talk of God can even make our perceptions of this clearer.

Unfortunately, the predominate discourse in our society is that science — generally viewed as the other option for understanding our reality — tells us that we live in an amoral universe. We’re just collections of elementary particles or vibrations of very tiny strings, evolved by natural processes into beings that, for various survival-driven reasons, display moral sentiments as the occasion warrants.

That’s almost right: science is in fact amoral. But science is amoral because the scientific method works on the world viewed from a third person, objective perspective; value judgments occur from a first person perspective. Science says nothing about the moral content of our existence; it doesn’t speak the language. I think a lot of people would say that it really comes down to us whether or not we see the universe as fundamentally good or bad, empty or meaningful. My personal opinion (which I’ll try to write about later) is that the nature of human consciousness itself makes life meaningful. Either way, though, the point is that experiencing the universe as fundamentally good is something that you can do regardless of what you believe re: metaphysics, Gods, spaghetti monsters, etc. So I’d like to reclaim faith as something that everyone can do, not just the (officially) faithful.

Written by jphaas

May 22nd, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized