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June 06, 2007

Faith

Ross writes:

I understand that atheists and agnostics have a vested interest in arguing that all religious beliefs are equally absurd - that there's no difference between believing n the God of Abraham and the flying spaghetti monster, say, or between a belief in the possibility of miracles and the belief that the Genesis account is literally true; and that the only reason the Book of Mormon looks more implausible than the New Testament is because the New Testament is older, and so forth. But serious Christians should reject that view (for reasons that I think should be self-evident, though I'm sure I'll have reason to elaborate on them at a later date), and within Christendom there's a pretty big distinction between the faith-and-reason crowd and the kind of fideism that Huckabee seemed to be gesturing at last night.

In an utterly sincere way, I would like him -- or possibly Stephen? -- to elaborate on those reasons. The flying spaghetti monster and what-have-you are clearly not belief systems with the demonstrated resiliency or applicability of Christianity, but my crude understanding of the way faith works in all this doesn't provide much illumination as to how certain religions justify their worthiness for faith, as opposed to a sort of for-the-good-of-society adherence. Buddhism, for its part, has always sought to sidestep this question by arguing that it's an empirically provable system, while Judaism appears to have largely reconciled itself with a great mass of members who aren't necessarily believers, but think financially supporting synagogues and the state of Israel remains important. It's almost as if group identity has overtaken the religion, a state of affairs I find unsettling. I get that the Christian approach differs from those attempts to protect religion from skepticism, but how it goes about this quest remains, to me, mysterious.

June 6, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

I'm curious what this supposed "vested interest" is. My lack of faith is in no way dependent on whether all religions are equally absurd, whether all are absurd but some are more absurd than others, or whether (as I believe) some are not absurd but all are unproven.

Posted by: Steven desJardins | Jun 6, 2007 12:01:39 PM

It's a little different from that. Only Christianity makes faith a central article of religion. Many other religions, including Judaism, have always more about religion, law, ritual, and social organization. Judaism does not have any explicit requirement that you believe anything, you just have to follow the laws. Protestant Christianity requires that you actively believe. Since we're an overwhelmingly Christian country, religion and faith get confused here, the terms used interchangeably.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Jun 6, 2007 12:05:04 PM

Since faith can "support" any belief, and believing through faith in X is no more likely to be correct than believing through faith in not-X, faith is utterly worthless as a guide to the truth. Beliefs held through faith have the same epistemic status as a guess or a hope.

Posted by: JasonR | Jun 6, 2007 12:08:04 PM

I would actually turn that on its head. It's Christians who have a vested interest in arguing that their belief system is perfectly reasonable and the true way of seeing the world, and that all other belief systems are implausible.

Posted by: Steve T | Jun 6, 2007 12:20:23 PM

Yeah, Mormonism seems more transparently absurb because it is so clearly a product of its time and place - 19th century America. If I was more familiar with Israel in the age of Jesus, I might feel his story was equally absurd. The distance does strip the story of its context. (Although some of Paul's pandering to the Romans is pretty obvious.)

Posted by: Misplaced Patriot | Jun 6, 2007 12:21:21 PM

In an utterly sincere way, I would like him -- or possibly Stephen? -- to elaborate on those reasons. The flying spaghetti monster and what-have-you are clearly not belief systems with the demonstrated resiliency or applicability of Christianity, but

It's simple. The difference is that "the flying Spaghetti Monster" is made-up, wherease "Christianity" -- along with the 6000 year old Earth, Noah's ark, etc., are all *TRUE*.

Posted by: Ross I-doubt-that | Jun 6, 2007 12:34:30 PM

The point is, you should only have faith in things that are *TRUE* -- like Christianity -- and not have faith in things that are *FALSE* -- like Islam and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

And if you happen to have faith in something that's *FALSE* then that's where The Decider comes in -- he'll invade your country, kill your leader and convert you to Christianity.

Not that I approve of The Decider. Even though I voted for him and every other Republican whore on the ticket.

Two days ago I kicked him to the curb for good when I realized my taxes might have to get raised.

Well, at least the money got spent on something worthwhile, like killing people who believe in the Invisible Sky Fairy, instead of something stupid like health care.

Posted by: Ross I-doubt-that | Jun 6, 2007 12:38:33 PM

Congratulations, you are doing the work of the christianistas. The whole discussion is absurd, and has no place in our political discussions. The reason it exists is to provide republican talking points, since they have no rational arguments to remain in power. Republican reliance on this absurd discussion is just another reason why this brand of republicanism must be crushed.

Posted by: jimbo | Jun 6, 2007 12:39:35 PM

like killing people who believe in the Invisible Sky Fairy,

What I meant to say was, "killing people who believe in the wrong Invisible Sky Fairy".

Posted by: Ross I-doubt-that | Jun 6, 2007 12:39:58 PM

LMAO, noahs ark isn't true. Don't go around claiming that scenarios that violate commonly accepted physical laws are true.

And while there is some difference between a belief that nobody actually follows and one that someone does, there is virtually no difference between Christian beliefs and those of older religions. It's hard to argue that the Chinese worship of Sun Wukong and the Jade Emperor are any less (or more) realistic than the belief in a fallen angel called Satanalle and a Diety that calls himself Elohim. Hell, there isn't even any real difference between the belief in bigfoot or a divine Jesus. Hell, if I had to place odds, I'd say that a hairy hominid walking around in the pacific northwest without ever being seen is only almost impossible. A guy walking on water (or any newtonian liquid) and transmuting water into wine is outright impossible.

Posted by: soullite | Jun 6, 2007 12:51:14 PM

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/theo_hobson/2007/06/atheism_is_pretentious_and_cow.html

Posted by: mijnheer | Jun 6, 2007 1:02:46 PM

Judaism, as a religion, is unusual in that it is not internally defined. When the long knives come out, the people with the long knives get to determine one's religious bona fides and history suggests that they usually aren't fussy about doctrinal matters. Converting to Christianity, or Buddhism, or blending into Persian or German society are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions in unmaking a Jew.

Given the last thousand years or so of history, it makes perfect sense for Jews, even long lapsed Jews, to contribute to Jewish institutions and keep an eye on their exit strategy even as they back local institutions and otherwise assimilate. The Enlightenment is still an experiment with mixed results and limited reach.

Posted by: Kaleberg | Jun 6, 2007 1:05:39 PM

It's almost as if group identity has overtaken the religion, a state of affairs I find unsettling.

How is that different? Religion has always been more about group identity than about doctrine (doctrine exists purely as a way of enforcing group identity).

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jun 6, 2007 1:16:31 PM

"Given the last thousand years or so of history, it makes perfect sense for Jews, even long lapsed Jews, to contribute to Jewish institutions and keep an eye on their exit strategy even as they back local institutions and otherwise assimilate. The Enlightenment is still an experiment with mixed results and limited reach."

I love this paragraph.

Posted by: Korha | Jun 6, 2007 1:17:02 PM

I don't know what Ross is talking about specifically, but there's a reasonably large subfield of Christian apologetics that tries to show that the Gospel stories are historically plausible, if not clearly true as a matter of historical fact. In general, this involves arguments like (to simplify), The facts that so many people apparently had some kind of mystical, life-changing experience around the time of Christ's death, and that the disciples talked about this event in terms of a resurrection, gives some historical reason to believe that SOMETHING huge and resurrection-like happened -- so while it may take "faith" to believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead, it's a historically plausible leap to take in a way that believing in a Spaghetti Monster isn't.

Posted by: Christopher M | Jun 6, 2007 1:19:00 PM

Historical plausibility is a very slippery thing, especially if you're going to claim "mystical, life changing experiences and descriptions" as evidence of miracles.

Posted by: Meh | Jun 6, 2007 1:32:45 PM

a) Everyone has a vested interest in sustaining their position. Atheist, agnostistics, monotheists and polytheists. The real difference is power to enforce it on others. Faith is irrelevant to the discussion because the discussion is about power on Earth. "render unto Caesar" and the whole bit. The discussion is not whether there is a God or not. No one would have a problem with God as a concept if it didn't create structures controlling non believers.

b) Group identity is correct. That's what this has always been about. What a closed system fears most is change. We are all tribal. It's just a question of which tribe, and again what kind of power to we exert.

c) All this being said, there is a difference between the Christianity of which scholarship is based (which does go into such issues as say what's a "just war") versus the cult-like religion that most Americans follow. I assume this person is referring to the former rather than later approach. It's not enough to say "I'm against homosexuality" you must contend with the same arguments, factual analysis, history etc as any other system would face. The real problem is that all of that is lost on the masses because the primary goal frankly of the faith as it was created first through Catholicism, and later Protestantism is control. Not greater connection to the Kingdom of God, but control on Earth.

d) Never let anyone tell you that this discussion isn't at base about power,. Who has it and who does not. That's what politics is. Any pretense that it's about faith is ultimately a lie. Faith isn't an external thing. It wasn't for Jesus, and it's not for us humans. It turns the whole idea of being "saved" upside down in that rather than it being a personal awakening , it becomes instead something forced on others by the state. We have specific prohibitions against that kind of use of power. Rather than discussing that- they bring up red herrings designed to make wonks sit around debating concepts like 'faith." Again, if you are debating faith- you are missing the point.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 6, 2007 1:34:29 PM

I totally agree with Kaleborg. I find myself utterly puzzled by ezra's puzzlement in this post. There's not "strong" difference between judaism and christianity on any one matter such as belief/not belief. That Ezra thinks so is a byproduct of history and is contingent on the taking over of the public identity "religion" by a particular religion "christianity" over centuries. Jews don't and haven't been fully able to define their own religion and its public understanding since the romans destroyed the temple. Christians, once they got into power, have ceaselessly and very effectively taken control of the interpetive language we use to talk about religion (and each other). I'm not complaining about that, just pointing it out. The whole model of judaism as being a religion of "laws" and christianity a religion of "faith" or "love" or any other single word is *propaganda*. I'd recommend Ezra read James Carroll's Constantine's Sword for a really good historical overview.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Jun 6, 2007 1:35:12 PM

I second the recommendation of Constantine's Sword.

Posted by: nolo | Jun 6, 2007 1:38:03 PM

Sorry for the double post here but I wanted to come back and explain something important to Ezra: just because (some) christian sects seem to place (some) heavy emphasis on faith and a personal relationship with jesus and disparage other christian and non christian sects and religions as lacking belief etc...doesn't make it either
a) true of their own theology and practice or
b) true of someone else's theology and practice.

Just look, for example, at the way Obama's christianity is undermined for true believers with reference to his alleged muslim father. Since all christians by definition come to christianity post birth through some kind of baptism the idea that obama is a lesser or not real christian because of his muslim father is theoretically anomalous, based on the kind of race based/ethnic/tribal identities that ezra naievly thinks is inherently non christian/jewish.

Absurd. every christian sect has a different relationship with faith, tghe body of believers, the laws and rules of religion, the laws of the state, and their imagined god. Some cross over into what ezra thinks are non christian ideas of materialialism and tribalism, and others float free. The same can be said about the various judiasms that have existed over time, although some of the most faith based --like hassidism--were almost eliminated or eliminated in their original form during world war II.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Jun 6, 2007 1:40:28 PM

aimai,

So what is Judaism, in your view? What does the word refer to? I get that you don't think it can be defined "fully," so what is it mostly, or approximately, in your opinion? What's the core or essence or heart of it?

Posted by: JasonR | Jun 6, 2007 1:56:04 PM

so while it may take "faith" to believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead, it's a historically plausible leap to take in a way that believing in a Spaghetti Monster isn't.

No, it really isn't. The claim of the physical resurrection of a 3-day-old decomposing human corpse is so extraordinary, so strongly at odds with the evidence of science and reason, that four inconsistent 2,000-year-old texts of dubious authenticity and originality, that were not even written until decades after the event supposedly occurred, don't constitute any kind of serious evidence for it whatsoever. It's like saying that Uri Geller's explanation of his spoon-bending conjuring trick is more plausible because millions of people watched him do it on The Tonight Show.

Posted by: JasonR | Jun 6, 2007 2:03:20 PM

Off thread..
But --
"Buddhism, for its part, has always sought to sidestep this question by arguing that it's an empirically provable system..."
Where would I find your best (short) piece on this Buddhistic thrust to rationality?
[or have I just missed understanding anything about what I saw as -largely - belief system?]
Serious.

Posted by: has_te | Jun 6, 2007 2:10:05 PM

JasonR,

I don't trouble myself very much about the "core" or the "essence" of judaism because its not a very relevant question to me. there are as many judaisms as their are jews, and that of course is true for buddhism and for islam and for christianity. The truth is that many religions see themselves as a "practice" that only a few get right--so many christians, muslims and jews, perhaps because of their shared heritage, see the individual as striving for some kind of perfection or perfect relationship with their god through either faith, or practice, or both but not inherently able to get to where they are going. Hindus, by the way, don't have thta kind of relationship to their religion. To the extent that you are born definitively into one caste or another you are also born into your castes practices and their fate--low caste, low fate, high caste, high fate. The individual can fall or rise in this life or the next through their perfect obedience to the rule of their caste but whether they do or not isn't really clear since it mostly happens either in the past life or the next one. But one's faith is totally not at issue, just one's practice.

As for me, qua jew, I tell my children something that is only partially true: Buddhists emphasize compassion, christians emphasize charity, and jews emphasize justice. Because of modern judaism's disinterest in personal salvation and afterlife, that interest, to me, is untainted by the bizarre self interest of christian love and christian acts in the world. The very notion of using medicine, for example, to "save" other people's souls, or feeding the hungry in order to prosletize them, strikes me as disgusting.

I agree with your second point at 2:03
aimai

Posted by: aimai | Jun 6, 2007 2:13:08 PM

Has te,
I don't have a link but the Dalai lama has said repeatedly that if science disproves any tenet of buddhism then he would respect that because, to him, buddhism is nothing if not factual, provable, real. He doesn't draw a distinction between faith and reality, though he may have a deep understanding of realities that we don't know or have access to yet. But he has absolutely said striaght out that the purpose of buddhism and buddhist teachings is to make the world a better place and to help the individual and to the extent that it is not doing that it should be abandoned.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Jun 6, 2007 2:16:36 PM

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