Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Atheist Approach: On Faith

I wish to resume my discussion on atheism and just what it is and why I am here even writing this with you. To do so, I believe it is necessary to start over. I will thus be rehashing a lot of old ground here, hopefully in a way that makes more sense. Let's start with faith.

Faith has two definitions, one general and one more specific.

In general, faith is the complete trust of a thing. For instance, I trust that the chair I am sitting in will hold my body from falling onto the ground, I trust that our star will continue emitting solar radiation to keep us alive, and I trust that the computer I am typing on will transmit my message onto a location on the internet for others to read from their internet connection. I trust that certain things are true, even if I do not fully understand them, and even if those things could change, sometimes with drastic consequences. The reason I trust this is because there is a consistent response when I perform an action. I type into this website and it creates posts and I sometimes receive responses from others regarding them. I wake up in the morning or afternoon and I am still alive and not a solid block of ice from our star ceasing to provide warmth. I sit in my chair and I do not end up on the ground.

If I sit down and 10% of the time my chair decides to fall apart or I go through the chair or it is actually a raptor that attacks me, then the remaining 90% of the time when it functions normally and I am able to sit here and work or write or read or play video games are not enough for me to continue to trust the process. I will perform tests like touching it with my hand before placing my full weight on it. It's the same with people...if they let you down or are abusive to you or flake out, you rely on them less and less. It's the same with institutions. If they constantly say one thing and act completely differently, then you stop relying on that institution. This is a loss of trust. One can choose to trust regardless of the pattern because there is more to take into account, such as  screws needing to be tightened on my chair or it not existing beyond a formless projection or my definition of a chair needing to be adjusted to exclude extinct dinosaurs that are in my room for some reason, but in general, blindness is not a part of this trust. This is an active process, one that involves my reason, my senses, and my ability to understand. If I continually or sometimes fall through the chair, or even if I fall through it once or twice and it functions correctly 99% of the time, then I am going to investigate why this has sometimes happened and correct it. Perhaps I am unknowingly using holographic technology that was not adjusted to hold me up properly those few times, or perhaps I am in the Matrix and there was a glitch that caused problems that I will never be aware of, no matter how much I investigate. However, there is an explanation. To assume there is an explanation is part of the process of trust. It would be idiotic to say that the chair is a mystery that will never be understood because answers are not forthcoming. This is not because there might not be an answer, but because it is simply irrelevant. I don't care if it's a mystery why that chair doesn't work sometimes, I want an answer so I don't fall on my ass. In this case, I have lost faith in the chair and I am asking questions. This is not traumatic (unless I fell on a lego or something), it is part of how we interact with things. We find things that give us the results we want and we do them. To choose to "just have faith" in the chair when it has failed me may become a necessity if I cannot figure out why it has failed me (or I'll just buy a new chair), but it is not an acceptable answer when I am theoretically capable of assessing the situation, figuring out what the problem is, and fixing it.

To reiterate: general faith is one's trust in a thing, to "act in good faith" is to move toward answers using patterns and evidence, and when that trust is broken, one no longer has general faith in that thing until it can be re-established using a process that a person accepts as correcting the problem. When a problem becomes irrevocable with a thing one has put their trust in, then one has lost faith in that thing, and they move on. This is what the general definition of faith means.

Faith's special definition is to trust in the existence of God or in doctrines of a religion, based on strong apprehension as opposed to proof. Despite being reassured repeatedly by those with this faith that I either did not have the faith I claimed to have or that everyone has faith, especially those that say they don't, I'd like to think I understand this sort of faith as well. This is the sort of trust that some may characterize as blind. The thoughtful of those with faith will say that they have faith in their god or their doctrines because they work, or because it makes their lives better, or because they intuitively understand it. God's existence is apparent from the nature of the universe around them, for instance. Some may also say that God has been proven through a religious text or through witnessed miracles (like a chair not existing in a tangible sense 10% of the time) that should not be investigated, but should be marveled at, because of the mystery and wonder. This is faith, the thing that puts people in awe.

In other words, faith's general definition is complete trust in something that involves understanding, and faith's specific religious definition is necessarily subjective, intuitive, and lacking in objective proof. However, the common ground we see here is one of trust. Somewhere, for example, a person of religious faith received a message that God exists. This may have been from the natural world and their interpretation thereof, from organized religion, from a proselytizing friend, or wherever. Eventually, they made the choice to trust that person. Or, in the case that there is a god, they interacted directly with that deity and chose to trust in his existence. Considering the turmoil and conflict over which god we could be talking about or if that god exists, this would fall into the category of subjective proof. The point here is that religious faith falls into the same category as general faith because they both involve trust, which is probably why the same word is used for both. However, there is a distinction between the two that I wish to make clear.

It is true that trust is common to all people. However, religious faith is not. Because I trust that math is consistent and representative of reality or that the chair you're tired of me bringing up will hold me up or that weird things happen in our reality will be explained eventually given enough explanation does not make me religious, and it does not mean I have religious faith. Remember, religious faith is specific to something one does not have complete objective proof of. In other words, religious faith is a choice to trust. Though this may become actualized into a person and integrate into their personality, it initially starts with a choice. Perhaps that choice was given to them at an early age before they understood it, perhaps it was made under extreme emotional duress and they do not see the connection between trusting a person, a historic institution, or an event and implying the existence of a god, but that connection does indeed exist.

What we are talking about at this point is two difference mindsets. One says that you have to trust in something, you have to believe in something, and here is why what I believe is the best way. The other says that you do not have to believe anything beyond what you can perceive, understand, and reason through, and I will try to convince you based on the evidence available to me of how reality is. One is open to mystery, and the other is open to evidence.

I would stop trusting in the scientific process being used to gain greater understanding of reality if it began to be unreliable. In that case, we'd need another process. We'd need other theories, other data, and other ways of thinking. This is common sense for most things to most people, because everyone puts their trust in something. However, when this process is applied to religious faith, all sorts of outrage occur if it is rejected. This is because it is commonly understood that religious faith is an exemption, a belief necessarily and rightly held without objective evidence, and there is a special category created for it to exist.

Historically, the religious type of faith has been the only one to exist for a long time. When the crops received no rain, there was a real threat to survival, hence the higher power in control of weather needed to be appealed to. Personally, I can understand this type of thinking today through something as simple as driving. When I drive somewhere and every single traffic light I come to is red, I do not know enough about the way traffic lights work to assume anything other than the "god of traffic lights," or perhaps "fate" is angry with me and wants me to wait, or "traffic engineers" have designed these lights to screw me over. When there is a pattern, people want to find the reason for it so they can get what they want or need out of it. Somewhere in my mind I am also aware that my anger at "fate" or "traffic engineers" is idiotic and that traffic lights work a certain way and I am not being singled out. This is because I understand that there are holes in my understanding of what's going on, and if I studied it, I would find a way around it or at the very least new things to be mad about when it comes to traffic lights and how they operate. This does not make me special, it makes me a logical thinker.

At some point when you are investigating reality, things stop making sense. Whether this is through gaps in your understanding or gaps in our race's ability to understand or our lack of sensory or cognitive ability to grasp it, we sometimes cannot make sense out of things we run into. Great and wonderful or terrible things happen and there is seemingly no reason for it. Miracles seem to happen, we become emotionally invested in things happening around us, we feel strongly about things, and we come to conclusions that make sense to us. To some, God lives in those gaps, fed by the initial trust in the conveyor of the message regarding this god. So God lives in those gaps of our understanding, he is the light by which we see all other things (à la C.S. Lewis) and he is present in the mystery in our lives. This is religious faith.

Then we learn more things, intentionally or unintentionally, about reality. We come to more understanding about our universe, and those gaps get filled. So god lives in other gaps of our understanding, or he was the primal cause of that bit of reality we discovered, or he lives in any mystery that is left, or we become angry at "science" for having some agenda against God and rail against it for disrupting our world. Whatever the case, God has to exist because of religious faith, because one chooses to trust in his existence from a religious book or from the messages they received or from the way they choose to interpret things or from their feelings regarding the mysterious nature of the universe or from the voices in their head or from any other reason that humanity has yet to come to any consensus on whatsoever. We cannot even agree that there is a god, let alone what his name is, which translation of which book talks about him correctly, if any, or if he's not simply a force holding the universe together which is slowly being eliminated from our understanding by scientific and philosophical progress.

Regardless, it is a person's choice to have religious faith. However, not everyone makes that choice. Not everyone chooses to trust in the existence of god or in the truth of religious doctrines. There may be reasons for this if they were previously religious, but regardless, this is not religious faith. Choosing to trust in scientific processes or in oneself or in certain people or in only what they can perceive with their senses and understand empirically and philosophically is NOT the same type of faith as religious faith. It is looking for something that works, and moving forward with it until it doesn't.

For a great many people, myself included, it has become too much to ask to continue to trust in the religion of their upbringing, too much to ask to trust in things with no objective proof being put forward by an institution (or institutions and fragments thereof) with credibility that has been stretched beyond relief by modern scholarship and science. It has become an artifact of their past, and they have moved beyond their shattered religious faith. They require something to put their trust in, because the thing they trusted for a long time is no longer there, and they're realizing it never was in the first place. They still act in a tribal manner, they say "I am an atheist and I am angry at religion and it should be destroyed!" because they're still trying to move out of that mindset, and they feel lied to, betrayed, and like they've wasted a lot of time with pointless guilt and religious fanaticism. So instead of Jesus being their Messiah, Neil DeGrasse Tyson becomes that and they post every photo with a quote of him (real or imagined) they can find because they are trying desperately to trust in SOMETHING and they're driving everyone crazy doing it.

For me, I trusted exactly one leader in Christianity for a very long time, and that trust has recently come to an end. I will be exploring that further than I already have very soon, once I am no longer blindingly angry that the last vestige of my past has pulled the "you just have to have faith, you can't explain that!" card.

However, one must not mistake what it is to be an atheist, at its' core definition. It is to lack belief in gods. I lack that belief because I lack the trust in any of the "facts" I have been presented "proving" it, the institutions telling me that they exist, and I do not see any objective proof for the existence of gods. Questions are not proof, they are questions. Gaps are not proof, they are opportunities for understanding. Religious texts are not proof, they are usually ancient collections of writings preserved by institutions, or, if they are in recent historical memory, imaginative writings that no one is sure of their lasting power or influence.

Being an atheist is not being angry, it is not being anti-religion or anti-religious faith, it is simply not sharing in those things. It is not worshiping Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Richard Dawkins or any other prominent figure associated with atheism (after all, they have almost as little of an idea of what's going on as we do, they just have more data and particular talents for organizing and conveying it). Being an atheist does not mean having every answer and the arrogant certainty that there is no god. I would be happy if someone could prove to me that a god exists, because I miss religious faith a whole hell of a lot. But then, that wouldn't be true religious faith, would it?

The worst part of writing all of this is that I know nothing I say will put any of this discussion to rest by itself. I've heard "I'm not an atheist because I don't have enough faith" or some absurd variation thereof so many times I want to bash my face into my desk until I lose consciousness whenever I read it or hear it just to make it go away, and it won't stop anytime soon. People are too invested, and my voice is too small. However, luckily, I know I am not the only person making this sort of distinction. Those independent of myself, while seeking truth, also come to similar places. They also lose faith for good reasons, and they move on from it.

The atheist lacks religious faith, and no person, religious or not, is correct when they say that atheists are people of religious faith in any sense of the word. The only faith we have is trust in what we see working, the adaptive ability of humanity to seek answers and truth and survival, the ability to trust based on evidence. That should not even be called faith based on society's understanding of what faith is, but if we were to go that route then atheism isn't even a label I should claim because I'm not an anti-theist or think that religion is the sole cause of all of society's problems. C'est la vie.

I was told throughout college to "just have faith" when I had questions about theology. I was told that I should convert to Christianity and "just believe" while holding to the most sincere faith I have ever known and continually asking questions and coming to conclusions in the process. My faith was alive, vital, and full of questions and dizzying moments of ecstatic worship, and 95% of those I came in contact with had written me off entirely because I have a problem with authority and ask questions and most were more concerned about professors telling them, half of the time in class, that I do no believe in the Trinity. My college faith was an exercise in missing the point to most people, and I've come to agree with them for entirely different reasons. Now that I am no longer a person of faith, now that I am an atheist, I'm being told that I have faith because I have to because everyone has faith in something and they're more reasonable so have less faith because obviously God exists, or have different faith and their faith makes their life better than mine so believe in their god. Which god? The one they grew up hearing about or had an emotional experience regarding, of course. One would think that people could make up their mind, and perhaps esteem their primary reasoning for the existence of their god a little higher than ascribing it to their opponents when they claim the opposite, or blindly ascribing it to everyone using blurry definitions and fuzzy thought processes. At the very least, have a little respect. I am angry because people claim to know how I think when they don't have a clue, and people largely seem to lack the basic ability to listen and engage what's being said, because constructing a straw man and attacking it instead is a lot more fun, as are recreating definitions of words like faith until one can make a point that is not true or even relevant.

At this point, I do not give a damn if a single person listens. I write because it comes bursting out of me and I put it here for people to read because I enjoy sharing. If you're still reading, then please continue to do so in the coming weeks as I explore this topic more fully. I appreciate those of you that read what I have to say and if you want to have a conversation with me about it, I'm open to that, as always.

To sum it up: I am an atheist because I do not see evidence for the existence of gods, and every institution that has claimed that god or gods exist has been a dismal failure at convincing me of it. I am not a person of religious faith because I do not choose to believe in things that lack evidence, and I do not trust that the institutions or people telling me to have religious faith are correct.

Friday, March 8, 2013

As someone I knew once said, life's thrown a few curveballs my way lately. I'm not even on my feet at the moment, I'm still laying on the ground in a dazed state after some truly insane things happened. I want to continue my series regarding the atheist position, but I do not have the capability to do so until some healing has occurred. Every experience changes a person, and I hope I come through this with more ability to put my thoughts into words with generosity, critical thought, and with my usual edge intact. Perhaps I'll start what I was saying over, or perhaps I'll pick up where I left off. It's anyone's guess at this point. However, I will be back to the topic of deconversion, post-christianity, and atheism in time, count on it. It is far, far too important to me.

Sometimes I think the whole world has gone mad, and I will do no one a favor writing while I feel this way. Until next time.