Sunday, January 10, 2010

The most meaningless term in the world

Okay, maybe next to "doodlemastery".

But "faith" is the most empty and uninspiring concept I've ever had to confront.

When I was younger, this word meant everything to me ("faith", not "doodlemastery" you twit, keep your head in the game). Of course, remaining a Catholic would have been an unwise career decision for the 17-year-old I was when I finally came to the age of reason. So now the word has even less meaning for me than "tacorific".

That's a great word, by the way, I wish I had more use for it.

Every time the word is used it means something different, because everybody uses it in a personal way that reflects their beliefs. And everybody's beliefs are different by at least a small amount, even in a supposedly monolithic religion. Take God as an example. Some people think he's an invisible sky man, or woman. Or three people. Or several more. Some believe that he's the universe, or completely outside of it, or both (the hell does that mean?). Others will tell you that God is a sort of abstract concept encompassing the core nature of existence or morality. And others will try to snag you with the idea that God is anything that a person holds in their heart as being greater than themselves. One person on Penn&Teller's Bullshit! tried to imply that for an atheist, "God" could be a rock. So what, would an atheist be someone who believes that the rock doesn't exist?

Arockist. There's a new meaningless term for you. But still more substantive than faith.

So what does one mean by "faith"? Let's just say for the sake of argument that in a casual conversation mentioning the scientific theory of the expanding universe, your devout mother inappropriately posits that you need to accept that kind of belief based on faith.

Let's just say.

Well clearly in this case faith would be defined as something related specifically to belief itself. But it can't possibly be the same as belief, can it? I doubt that every little thing you accept to be true or probable would be considered by a religious individual to be an "act of faith". Although when you get in a prolonged conversation with just the right kind of rationally desperate mind, you'll find yourself confronted with the assertion that you believe the earth is round in the exact same way that they believe an invisible person sends hurricanes to collectively punish residents for housing those who wear feather boas and use nipple clamps.

So let us distinguish just what we mean when we say we believe things to be true. Yes, we are all the same in that belief means any one thing any one of us acknowledges as part of their personal worldview, something we really think of as part of reality. No, we do not believe in science and sandwiches in the same way as others believe in gods and ghost phalli, precisely because of the reasons we believe them. I'd wager that most of us believe most of the things we do for reasons in of themselves. Explanations, elaborations, facts, tidbits, data, hints, clues, signals, signs, patterns, consistencies, conclusions, necessities, and logic. This isn't just cold scientific shit either. I believe my girlfriend exists and cares for me since I can see and hear and feel her, and all my past experiences and all of the consistencies and logical conclusions in life would lead me to believe she's a person who cares for me. And she can use the same facts about me to realize that I'm a person who cares for her too. If I began to discount my senses (not question or doubt them, I do those all the time and I still get quite good results, thank you) then as far as I know I could be spinning ass-over-teakettle in a vat of tar, with no girlfriend and no sense of direction or reason.

Do people believe in the supernatural for reasons too? Well... yes... kinda... a lot of the time, I would hope. Although the reasons for religious and spiritual belief tend to be murky and vague at best and often using mixed data, if not precisely contrary to all available data. The belief in a creator God could be attributed to the rational conclusion that everything requires a beginning and an end, but this leads to the logical problem of where God came from and when he intends to end his existence. Where exactly do you leave a divine suicide note? Ah, but this problem was solved long ago, since we all know that God is beyond our rational laws of logic and so he can have no beginning or end. Then how can we conclude that anything else must have a beginning or an end? Why then does the universe need a beginning, and even if it had a beginning couldn't it also forgo the logic of requiring a creator?

How? Why? Because God says so, that's how and why. And who says God says so? Lots of people say God says so, including God, purportedly. And we all know how reliable the clergy and religiously orthodox are.

I'm not a big fan of the "just because" explanations, myself. I much prefer an individual to say "I don't know". I do it all the time. Does it mean I'm wrong, that I give up my beliefs? No, it means I'm not asserting anything for anyone else to believe and therefore am not the one who has to account for himself, so shut the fuck up, would you kindly.

So clearly faith is not synonymous with all belief. What is it then? Some beliefs? What is it about the belief in an expanding universe (a scientific fact) and the belief in a Jewish demigod (a not-so-scientific fact) that could lump both of them in the same category as beliefs taken on faith? Perhaps our purely hypothetical mother was implying that we don't personally know very much about either of these belief systems and therefore assume them both to be true for convenience's sake.

Before we get into just how belittling it is for religious people to be told their heartfelt beliefs about God are just an assumption, let's compare religious and secular assumptions, shall we? Of course we will, because it's my blog and my rules.

A layman can have a reasonable amount of confidence in scientific theories because science is a very rigorous process of eliminating erroneous notions in light of new data. Bullshit ideas are not highly publicized in scientific journals, and when they are they're quite open to review and revision. The same process of observation, controlled interpretation, experimentation, and calculation that tells you the universe is most likely expanding at an accelerating rate is the same one that's given you little things like medicine, atomic energy, modern engineering, information technology, fuel-efficient cars (well maybe not in America...), and ice cream. (Ice cream! Yay!)Science has an impressive track record and can only be improved with better science. You can't very well go about disproving scientific notions with half-baked ideas, random-ass guesswork, or "revealed knowledge". I have not yet seen a hypothesis being supported by the scientific method, then be disproved by some paranormal sort of gnosis. You'd think that someone could tap into the source of that knowledge and set everything straight, but apparently the money isn't good enough to convince "real" psychics and prophets to see daylight.

Religious belief, on the other hand, is assumed because of the overall weakness of the believer's original worldview. Do you honestly think it's a sign of strength for theism if it's just a convenient assumption? I'm sure that most religious believers would rather be certain that they have reasons for thinking there is a God. You know, like any other sane person. But if you just assume there is a God and then base your worldview on that, you've made your entire worldview completely fucking arbitrary. There's nothing to argue about or test with religious belief if that belief is already formed from an arbitrary baseless assumption. In science you can get things wrong, you can be disproved, unless you decide to forgo logic in favor of "faith". Isn't it beginning to sound like a vapid, insulting word already? Faith. "I don't need reasons, I have faith." Nobody wants to admit that they're stupid, but that statement comes close.

Maybe I'm being too harsh here and there's some other meaning to faith other than belief itself or assumed belief. Something more personal and heartfelt, like trust. Could that be what it means to have faith in something, to have trust in it? Possibly, sounds like a good match doesn't it? Aren't we faithful to our loved ones, and have faith in each other? We often mean it in the same way that we mean trust, personal trust. Which makes more sense, I suppose. After all, the devout are more likely to identify with a religion where you feel like you can trust whoever is on the other side of reality. Okay, so there's quite a bit that's still assumed in this relationship, like that the people on the other side (not to mention the other side itself) actually exist. But still, at least we have a definition that unites religious and secular worldviews, right?

There's only one problem. It doesn't work beyond that personal level of trust. Remember that in this case we're talking about the theory of the expanding universe, and by that connection the scientific method itself. Science has no personal identity, not even the scientists. What, is it implied that we have personal trust in the scientists collectively? I guess, but science isn't about authority, it's about facts and logic. If an idea has no reflection or base in reality, all of the scientific authority in the world couldn't make any more sense out of it. That's why science is so open to revision, so that nobody gets to declare a monopoly on truth, and bad ideas can be exposed and deconstructed and taunted, sometimes with pointed fingers and laughter. Creationists are still new to this sort of thing, so they think they're under selective treatment. But they're not, they're selectively intruding on science with no idea how it works, and accordingly they're surprised when they're ridiculed and their ideas are discounted as nonsensical nonsense.

Besides, there's one definition of faith that our not-at-all-real-life mother has neglected to consider, and this one's going to be a dandy when trying to apply it to "faith" in the expanding universe. When I was in high school, I was told by my Christian Ethics teacher that faith was a personal relationship that one had with God. Specifically this is referring to love. Thus it was explained to me the difference between knowing about somebody, and knowing somebody, biblically (Eww). Look, the universe and I have been through a lot together, we're virtually inseparable (what with me being made of matter and all), and it will continue to mean literally everything to me, but... I'm just not up for that kind of commitment on a cosmic level. And... there's someone else, a human girl I've been seeing for a few months. She means so much to me, and it may not seem fair, but I'm just not really into infinitely vast stretches of time and space. I'm really more interested in cute peeps, at a personal level at least. So this isn't goodbye to the universe, but I think that it would be best if the universe and I were just good friends.

And thanks, Bible, for making even the word "know" an inneundo.

"I knew it... three times."

The problem I always had with this definition of faith is that it's not exactly healthy to love someone you don't even know. Marriage arrangements on internet chat rooms are not encouraged, so why should anyone be expected to give unconditional love to some hyped-up ancient celebrity, a battered, bearded, tripped-out zombie man with an intellect from before the Dark Ages who no sane person has ever even met before? Unless you count rituals where celibate men in robes say some magic words over breakfast cereal and claim it's become the flesh of said zombie celebrity. Damn, this is some weird kind of kink. I'm not sure how eating one's flesh is an expression of love, but it's pretty sick, divine or not. You'd think that if a god wanted his "substance" - and I don't even want to know what the hell that is - to be put into a human being he would just will it, and not have to bother with this disturbing imagery. But then, that would make too much sense, and we've got a lot of irrational bullshit to accommodate. And the first time I heard this illogical definition of faith as love, I told my teacher "But I can only know a person if I at least know that they exist."

I never got a good reply to that. If I was manic enough, I'm sure I could think of something.

There's only one other definition of faith I can think of, and it's the one thing a religious mind would be holding onto at this point: hope. Faith defined as hope for something you cannot see. And it's at this point that the self-degrading of faith as a concept gets to truly pitiful levels. It's essentially admitting that there's no reason to believe in anything you claim to have faith in, so one can only hope that maybe everything will turn out alright in the end. This is stupid because if you have no rough guesses of the chances or the odds in your head, then you have no hope, it's all just completely random. If you have some idea of what your chances are, then you have that much hope to go on. None of this of course has anything to do with whether things will turn out the way you want them. This isn't Oprah, people. Hoping things will become so will not under any circumstances make it more likely to become a reality. You have to act if you want things to happen, and if everything in your mind tells you it's impossible, then you're just being stupid. I've heard of people acting with good reason while everyone else thinks they're crazy, but believing something you don't think you have good reason for? That's wishful thinking in a nutshell, and there is no genie in that nutshell. You get zero wishes. Divide those wishes by the chances that you're right and you get FUCK.

If a person is left without real chances of success, if they have nowhere to go, and things aren't likely to work out, then that's just sad. Can we accept that? Terminally ill patients, people under oppression, and people with very serious life-altering ailments are under unfortunate, often terrible circumstances, and that sucks. It's awful that bad things happen to good people, so can we just acknowledge that little fact? It's probably one of the more important things you'll ever learn, so don't pray for people, don't hope that Jesus will descend from the clouds and make everything picture perfect, DO SOMETHING. The only morally reasonable options are a) do something to give people hope b) if you have no hope, either try to fight all the way anyway or come to terms with it or c) cope. Being in a circumstance where you have no hope and can't do anything about it and can't even come to terms with it is probably the saddest thing conceivable, and you can only do what you can to get by until your suffering can be alleviated. But that is not how people who can act for the better ought to be thinking. Don't try to cope with the fact that there's no justice, no peace, no loving God in sight. Accept reality for what it is and work for the better.

So no, clearly-not-my-actual-mother, I don't have faith in the expanding universe, or anything else for that matter. I don't assume, trust, or hope that it is so. I'm what I call "reasonably certain with some degree of falsifiability". I'm also reasonably certain that regardless of the baseless, broad, insulting, stupid, offensive, demented, illogical, arrogant, authoritarian, high-minded, pseudo-philosophical, self-proclaimed to be "humble" bullshit claims that you have, that you're also reasonably certain about most things in life too.

I therefore have no use for the word faith, except to define that meaningless quality in certain religious contexts in which so many are still so intellectually preoccupied and so overly emotionally-invested. Belief, assumption, trust, love, and hope are all fine concepts all on their own. Faith has nothing to do with any of them.

Fuck faith.

"Faith is believing what you know ain't so." - Mark Twain

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