Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Problem With Faith

Look at the picture of this car. From the side, I can see only two wheels. I can reasonably assume by the definition of a car and from my own experience that there are two more wheels on the other side of the car. I can reasonably assume that these two hidden wheels are the reason the car sits level on the ground. If I were a gambling man, I'd put money on the fact that when I walk around to the other side of the car I'll see two wheels in identical locations on the vehicle.

Looking at this picture of the other side of the car, I can verify two things: first, that there are in fact two more wheels on this car and that they are positioned in identical locations on the vehicle. Second, that my knowledge and experience with cars has led me to a correct conclusion as to the construction of this particular car. This presents a dilemma for those with faith.

As one who trusts in the laws of the physical world, there is no reason that I would ever assume that there are elves holding up the other side of the car, nor would I attribute the apparent hovering effect to a magical repulsor lift system. Even if someone knowledgeable in automotive engineering told me that one side of the car rides on a cushion of air I'd be skeptical and would have to see for myself. Such are the workings of a rational mind. People like me require evidence. The more exceptional the claim, the more exceptional the evidence would need to be.

Believers in gods have faith in a being or beings that exist outside of our physical plane and have various, exceptional properties. These properties include such things as omnipotence, omniscience, and perfection. Some of these beings are said to be personally involved in the events of the physical universe, some are said to take more of a passive role, and some have even moved on since kick-starting this cosmic play. The one thing all of these beings have in common is that their definitions change and their boundaries shift depending on the situation.

For example (and I'm using the Biblical God because that's where my experience lies), God is defined as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. He's perfect in every conceivable way and never makes a mistake. But let's not jump to conclusions just yet, that may not always be true. In Genesis 6:7, we see that the perfect creator admits to having obtained new knowledge about His creation: "So the LORD said, 'I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them.'" God -- who knows everything -- says He is grieved (troubled, regretful) that He created man. How can this be? Surely, a perfect being with infinite knowledge of time and space would have foreseen the events leading up to this defining moment in His existence when He comes to a startling realization that His perfect creation is, in fact, imperfect. Why is He surprised? Surprise, regret, and anger are all emotions we imperfect humans feel when we obtain knowledge previously hidden from us that alters our perceptions about our situation - especially in a negative way. Merriam-Webster defines these terms as follows:

Surprise (noun): a taking unawares.
Regret (noun): sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one's control or power to repair.

If a being such as God exists, who is defined as omniscient (all-knowing), such a being could never be surprised, regretful, or angry because all of the knowledge available in the universe would already be known to that being. If that being is also defined as omnipotent (all-powerful) then there would be nothing beyond that being's control. Admitting that your creation has surprised you is admitting to a mistake. So we begin to see where the definition of a "god" breaks down. In fact, it could be said that if one or more of the defining properties of a god is not true, it's highly likely that the other remaining properties of that god are also not true.

Let's get back to the car. If I were to have walked around to the other side of the car and seen this image, I would have been very surprised! Given my knowledge about cars, this image makes no sense (in fact, it's not even a good Photoshop job). Given this new information, I might reasonably assume that I have miscategorized this object and it is not a car at all. While it may, from certain angles, appear to be a car, it does not actually have all of the properties of a car. Likewise, I can also not logically classify this vehicle as a motorcycle even though it has only two wheels. Because one of the properties by which I had defined this object a "car" is not true, my skeptical mind would begin to question whether or not this object is a car at all, and I would want to test the object for the other defining properties of a "car."

People of faith hold so dearly to their ill-defined supreme being(s), they overlook these obvious contradictions in favor of the comfort that the concept of god(s) gives them. At face value, there's nothing wrong with that. If faith in a god or gods gives you a meaning for your life, a sense of comfort and well-being, and a reason to be a good person then I suppose I can understand why you believe and would urge you to continue to do so. I would not, however, urge you to treat your faith as fact. I would not urge you to make the assumption that your faith is a universal truth and therefore applicable to everyone. Merriam-Webster defines "faith" as follows:

Faith (noun): firm belief in something for which there is no proof. (I prefer the term "evidence" to that of "proof")

Most of all, I would not urge you to make it your personal quest to convert others to believing as you do. This is where the concept of god(s) becomes dangerous. Because there's no proof even of the existence of such a being, there's also no proof of what such a being would or would not command its believers to do. Because each believer holds to the idea that their personal relationship with this being is a different, individual experience even from other believers, there's no way to tell exactly what each believer would do in this being's name. The end result is a large population of people who share the same foundational beliefs but differ in their individual interpretation and implementation of those beliefs and are therefore unpredictable. When there is a large, unpredictable population attempting to govern the rest of us on the basis of their faith (as has been done in the past) we see bigotry, intolerance, forced allegiance, and violence as the status quo. I don't want to live in that world.

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