Redefining Words: Faith.

Redefining Words: Faith. August 22, 2013

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. . . Without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

Hebrews 11:1-6

faith: 1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability.

Dictionary.com

Without question, faith is one of the most important cornerstones of the Christian belief system. The idea goes like this: without faith, which is a strong conviction that Christianity’s claims, offers, and demands are valid, a Christian can’t please the Bible’s god. If a Christian’s faith is strong enough, then his or her dedication to that god won’t falter no matter what sorts of refutations or disproofs that person sees. If the Christian’s faith is weak, though, these refutations will eventually dismantle the entire religious walk. Faith, which is just being sure about something, gets confused in Christians’ minds with actually knowing things, as in knowing real facts like how big the Earth is or what the square root of 16 is, and becomes a substitute for knowing real facts; if you have certainty in your god, or “faith,” then facts debunking your positive claims about that god are totally irrelevant.

Entire books and websites exist to help Christians drum up and maintain their faith. Christians exhort each other to have faith and help each other get over any hurdles to faith that they may be experiencing. Do a word search for “faith” and you’ll quickly see that the Bible is very concerned about this concept! And when talking to ex-Christians, they are generally very quick to claim that the apostate in question never “really” had faith, or else that deconversion never would have happened.

A few days ago, I ran into a creationist who ran through all the standard talking points (macro- versus microevolution; supposedly unreliable dating technologies; denying the existence of thousands of transitional fossils; etc) and when finally pushed to the wall, came out with this gem: “You just have too much faith in naturalism to understand the flaws of Darwinism!”

Yeah, I guess this means that the latest Christian apologetics trick is to claim that acceptance of objective facts equals faith.

I think he really thought that, too.

I see Christians saying things like that and I just have to ask myself: Are they really sure they want to go down that road? Because I see where it ends, at “please show me the facts about your religion that I can accept just like I accept all the repeatedly-demonstrated facts of the Theory of Evolution” Drive, and I’m guessing that’s not where these creationists really want us to go. It’s pretty insidious, really; by trying to relegate scientific fact to the same level as their faith, they try to make their faith seem perfectly reasonable.

But is it?

You can have faith in all sorts of things that aren’t true. People did it all the time back then, and they do it all the time now. There are huge chunks of America that truly believe that free-market capitalism works, that the President is Kenyan, that vaccines cause autism, that David Barton is a reputable historian, that homeopathic remedies do what they claim to do, that the morning-after pill is abortifacient, and the lunar landings were faked–among a host of other simply erroneous beliefs. We’re not talking about “chocolate is better than butterscotch cream” or “Saturday Night Live was better in the 80s than it is now” subjective calls here (though while we’re on that subject, both of those assertions are absolutely true). We’re talking about simple yes or no facts. Either you understand the evidence supporting or denying these things and accept that they are true or false, or else you don’t and mistakenly believe something that’s untrue.

So humans can have faith in ridiculous things. That doesn’t make those ridiculous things true. Having faith in homeopathy does not mean that homeopathy is a valid science or that its remedies actually do anything they claim to be able to do. In the same way, having faith that the Rapture is coming tomorrow doesn’t mean the Rapture will come tomorrow.

English: Permission is given in the text below...
English: Permission is given in the text below the picture on the original site (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Like this except with a laser pistol.

And losing faith isn’t a bad thing. As a child, I had faith for a long time that I was secretly a space princess whose emissaries would one day come to fetch me to rule my war-torn planet and guide it back to peace and prosperity. I’m not kidding. I was just a kid, and I had a horrible home life. I retreated into this fantasy often to escape the reality of my situation, just like I would retreat into Christianity to escape the reality of my adult life and like I see modern Christians doing today to escape the reality of theirs. Some people get into LARPs and roleplaying games; some people get into sexual fetish communities; some people dive into Facebook and forums. Some people get religious. But I wasn’t a space princess (obviously), despite my huge amount of faith in this fantasy. I’d been taught in Christianity that if you had enough faith anything was possible, and I took that very seriously. So I was a space princess. A Catholic space princess. (Don’t ask me how that worked. I couldn’t even begin to answer you.)

Eventually I came to realize that this fantasy had some credibility issues. I eventually perceived a distinct lack of space emissaries coming to fetch me, along with irrefutable evidence that my birth to a perfectly normal Earth woman had been seen and witnessed and that there were way too many baby and toddler photos of me to think that I’d been secretly deposited on Earth to keep me alive through my planet’s political turmoil.

I had a couple of choices at that point, didn’t I? I could drill down on the fantasy with “faith,” denying reality and ignoring the glaring lack of evidence for my claims. Or I could let it fall away from me like a shroud and try to make the best of my reality that I could without fantasies.

What’s mind-blowing is that I did not compare my space princess fantasy to my later involvement in fundamentalism. I’ll just leave that here.

In the same way, Christians have this huge fantasy about Jesus and the afterlife. In Hebrews 11, the verses make it very clear that faith is not only required but also will be rewarded in ways that can be seen and experienced.

Is that really what’s happening today though?

Hebrews 11 tells us that by faith, Noah built his impossible boat and was saved from the worldwide genocide his peeved god committed. By faith, Abraham got told that a particular land was now his (I can just hear it: “sorry, all you dudes who lived there originally–this is Yahweh’s tribe’s lands now”) and he went out and got it. By faith Abraham almost slaughtered his own child at the bloodthirsty demand of his wicked god, but got spared having to do the actual horrific deed at the last second. By faith Jericho fell and who knows how many innocent people died during that attack, but the harlot Rahab, who also had faith enough to help the spies coming into her city, was spared. By faith people were resurrected, conquered kingdoms, made peace with lions about to eat them, and worked miracles.

Elsewhere we are told in the many verses giving promises about prayer that faith is all that’s required to move mountains and bring the dead back to life. Faith–as opposed to “works,” or good deeds–is what saves humankind from eternal doom at the hands of its “loving” god.

Are we really seeing faith work this way today?

I’d say not.

The simple truth is this: that one cannot have faith in something without some kind of return. There’s never been a verified healing, despite the Bible’s assurance that faith definitely produces healings (such as the soldier’s servant in Matthew 8; this officer’s faith “amazed” Jesus). Remember how Biff got humiliated when he tried to pray for my dying pastor’s healing from cancer? There’ve never been any mountains moved, despite Matthew 17:20’s insistence (among a few other verses) that faith can do this and even more, even for believers whose faith is only “as big as a mustard seed.” Mark 11 informs us that all we need to make the spell work is absolute certainty that it will work. In other words, faith. But how can one have faith in a god who is decidedly not healing people in any meaningful or definitive manner or moving mountains (or doing anything even resembling such grandstanding theatrics) today?

If I had a carpool buddy who was always, always late when it was her time to drive, and I really needed to get to work on time one day or lose my job, would I rely upon that buddy to be at my house at the correct time? Or would I drive myself that day? How many times must she be late for me to stop depending on her to be there on time?

If I had a partner who was constantly not doing things he said he was going to do, and he promised to get some yardwork done before an all-important family gathering, would I believe him and trust him to get it done? Or hire an outside company to come do it for him? How many times would I need him to disappoint me before I realized that if he says he’s going to do something, it’s probably not going to get done?

Christians already understand the importance of trust just like everybody else does; they just don’t apply it far enough. When someone cheats on you, it’s like a knife to the gut because it violates the trust you had in that person. Just imagining their beloved partner doing that to them makes some people feel sick inside. Getting that trust back is almost impossible once it’s been destroyed. And Christians have been faced with this betrayal just like anybody else has. Even after the storm has passed, there’ll always be that questioning, that skepticism, and that narrow-eyed sidelong glance as times and dates and phone logs get added up. While it is possible for a relationship to recover from such a betrayal as infidelity, the partner who committed the betrayal is always going to be under a cloud in a lot of ways. The person who gets betrayed is always going to wonder if the relationship is–and maybe always was–just an illusion, and it’s hard not to wonder if–and when–that illusion will be broken again. And even if the relationship falls apart in the wake of that storm, the next person the betrayed partner loves will be under a similar cloud just by association. Trust–or faith–is so hard to rediscover once it’s been dissolved.

Remember that MechWarrior Online game I told y’all about a few days ago? The latest scandal going through its community involves a patch they just put out for the game that radically changes the nature of its play style. That’s probably putting it mildly. What it is really doing is making its previous tactics completely unworkable. Some people are fine with it, but others are taking it as a complete betrayal; there are hints of a lawsuit in the works, some of these folks are so mad. Never ever underestimate the power of a disappointed nerd, especially a really analytical one with money to burn on a freemium game. (I’d link you, but their forums are quite literally impossible for me to access at the moment. You’ll probably be hearing about it soon from gaming sites anyway; the level of betrayal here goes up there with that botched ending of Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2’s general existence, maybe even as bad as the SimCity situation or the Diablo server issues.)

A few players have put it very eloquently: that they spent money on this game for perks and spent hours and hours of time devoted to moving through its rather steep learning curve to get good at it, and now the company putting it out has released some new code that invalidates everything this game stood for–and even more to the point, the company putting out this game promised long in advance that this code would not be a major part of the game, while in reality it’s actually one of the new cornerstones of their new direction in tactics. That’d be like the Sims 4 dev team telling people that no, this won’t be a “social” game that requires an internet connection at all, but then–after people have already bought the game and invested time and money into it–deciding to release a patch making it a social game requiring an internet connection after all. How likely do you suppose these burned players with MWO are feeling right now about spending more money or time with this game? Even if the devs take it back and apologize, what’s to say they won’t do exactly the same thing again later?

Luckily nobody’s threatened to murder anybody over the patch, so nobody has to go through what that poor lady with Dragon Age recently got. But that’s the level of frustration we’re dealing with here.

And it’s impossible for me to see that frustration and not think immediately of the frustration I felt as a Christian trying to please a god who seemed unwilling–“unable” was a term I couldn’t even consider back then–to touch me. At first, in that rush of new conversion to Pentecostalism, I felt him all the time. I moved in a world that breathed in and out to the cadence of his name. But it didn’t take long for that rush to wear off and for me to begin struggling and floundering to re-find those feelings.

Everybody else who sought him seemed to be finding him. The Bible said if I just had faith and wanted him very much, I’d find him. I knew I had faith; maybe I just had to prove I wanted his attention. I wept tears until my eyes hurt; I cried aloud till my voice cracked; I read and prayed and studied and hurt my knees kneeling and my shoulders from raising my hands for so long. Yet my prayers felt like they bounced off the ceiling. I’d heard preachers talk about that feeling, but they always put it into the context of “and then I fasted and finally I felt like I was getting through!”

What, was my god waiting till I’d proven how much I wanted his attention? Did I have to be like the prodigal son and go out and party and act like a worldly sinner for him to want to treat me well? Did I have to just about kill myself with deprivation? He loved me–his Bible said he did. So why didn’t I feel loved?

Apologetics books didn’t help at all, nor did my church leaders. They told me that everybody went through these “dry spells,” and the problem was me, not our god. I was doing something wrong, obviously. No, they didn’t know what that might be either. But obviously it was something. Once I’d cleared that out of the way, I’d feel close to my god again. That led to an entertaining spell of me doing weirder and weirder things to prove to my god that I really truly wanted his attention.

The Bible promises that anybody who earnestly seeks its god will find him (Matthew 7:7-8 and others); that faith is what makes Christians “right with God” over and above obeying rules (Romans 3:28); that the Christian god reveals the secret of faith (1 Timothy 3:9); and that faith that “does nothing is dead” (James 2:17). Interesting merry-go-round, but the upshot is that if its first premise–that anybody who wants to find the Christian god will be able to do so–is where it falls down.

I knew for 100% sure I wanted to find him. Yet I wasn’t finding that reservoir of certainty that everybody else seemed to be finding. The Bible remained maddeningly vague and riddled with contradictions that nobody could resolve. Despite countless stories about how Jesus was touching and loving all these people who claimed to feel totally sure he was right next to them when they prayed or went about their days, I felt alone. I felt like I was just talking to myself when I prayed, like nobody was listening, and the results certainly bore out that impression. Noah got a flood; Abraham got a son against all odds that he didn’t have to murder; Daniel got lions that refused to eat him; and countless people got healed by Jesus for their faith. It wasn’t hard to see that I was getting exactly dick for mine. What was I doing so wrong that everybody else was doing right? What was I not understanding that they did? Why did I feel so alone while they got the Jesus Zap every service?

It’d break your heart to know how hurt I was that I was being constantly and utterly rejected like that, yet how faithful I still was. I prayed a thousand times for something–anything–to show me I was even just on the right track, and got nothing in return–no still small voice, no quiet sureness, no bolt from the blue, certainly no angel to tell me any message from the god who supposedly hungered and thirsted for my love. Every single time I thought I had some idea what this god wanted from me and did what I thought he wanted, what I did turned out to be a massive mistake. And it didn’t take long for me to notice that, despite all the assurance in the Bible that prayer works miracles, I had never–not in all my life–seen an actual miracle resulting from all those prayers. In fact prayers seemed useless; whatever I prayed for happened if it seemed likely to happen, and didn’t if it wasn’t possible to happen.

Exactly how long was I supposed to maintain a solitary “relationship” with someone who didn’t seem to know I was even alive? Exactly how much work was I expected to put into this one-sided “relationship?” It’s not like there aren’t tons of other religions out there; I thought my religion was superior because it had a “personal” god who cared about his people and was deeply invested in their lives. If that wasn’t true, and it certainly did not seem to be so, then what made Christianity so unique and superior?

All of this was percolating in my mind as I rushed headlong to my fate that one summer. And finally I remembered the space princess fantasy, and how much faith I’d had in it. I remember that I’d had faith in Santa Claus too until a worryingly late age; I remember at like 8 telling some mean girls to quit being mean or they wouldn’t get presents. But I’d eventually grown out of those fantasies. My faith in Santa and being a space princess had not been lost because I was a bad or inferior person. Really, I can’t even say I “lost” my faith about those things. Rather I had discarded my faith in those things because they had turned out to be untrue.

Having faith in Santa Claus–as in a literal belief in the idea of a fat guy in red clothes who goes down all the chimneys in the world on Christmas Eve–is fine if you’re a small child. But having faith in Santa Claus as an adult? Way less acceptable. There’s a reason for that. Eventually, that child has to join the real world and understand that adults are the ones giving the presents and just pretending there’s a Santa for a variety of reasons. What would we think about a 40-year-old man who insisted up and down that Santa is real and really does make all those visits on Christmas Eve? What would we think about parents who keep up the Santa charade well into their children’s adulthood? What do we think, for that matter, of those frantic parents who’ve decided against all medical certainty to the contrary that their kids are autistic because of vaccines, or of those parents who murder their children by praying for them instead of getting them medical attention?

We consider such parents bizarre, crazy, weird, and their children unfortunate and pitiable, that’s what we think. So why do we give religion a pass and insist that despite all the debunks to Christianity’s objective claims, people should still “just have faith” and persist in their beliefs? “Yeah, none of its historical claims are accurate, and don’t trust any of the scientific stuff in it. Also, praying to Jesus works about as well as praying to Kristen Stewart, and you have a considerably better chance of achieving two-way communication with K-Stew than you do with J-Skiddy. But you have to still believe and have faith.”

But how? Just parrot the words? You can’t just make yourself trust someone who is at heart untrustworthy, and you can’t make yourself believe an idea that is simply impossible to believe. It’s so sad to hear the partners and parents of ex-Christians insist that this disbelief is “just a phase” and the apostates will come back to their senses–and their faith–any day now. But that isn’t how faith works. I’ve been out for over 20 years and I honestly don’t see a way I can force myself to believe that 2+2=187 even on a mythic, purely spiritual level. Christians can’t force themselves to believe in Santa, and I can’t force myself to believe that there’s a god-man-wizard named Jesus who is passionately in love with me and wants to do nice things for me if I just believe in him and love him. Neither can I truly love a character I know only from a myth (sorry, Whovians).

There are two ways I can look at this situation. If faith truly is simply a gift from the Christian god, as Ephesians 2:8-9 seems to suggest, then it seems to me that the gift got lost in the mail somewhere. Clearly even after all the things I did and believed and tried so hard to maintain, I just didn’t have enough faith. I failed personally, and it’s all my fault.

Or.

Or.

Or I did my best to live up to an impossible and invalid belief system, that I did every single thing and believed every single thing that every Christian should do and believe, but when push came to shove, I saw how my beliefs conflicted with reality and chose to go with reality instead of maintaining my belief in what I’d come to realize was purely a fantasy.

I know which seems more likely.

I still have faith in things, just not the Christian god or his religion. I have faith that people will generally aim to cooperate. I have faith that the driver ahead of me on the road will turn left if she turns her left blinker on at an intersection. I have faith that the sun will rise. I have faith that one day we’ll find a copy of Celsus and figure out exactly what made the author of Contra Celsus so hopping mad. These are things that I have faith in exactly because I have good reason to believe these things will or do happen.

But I do not have faith that we’ll ever figure out if there was just one person inspiring the Jesus myths, or many, or none at all. I do not have faith that there are any gods who passionately want to love humans or even communicate with them. I do not have faith that Biff will magically turn into a decent human being and that we’ll get back together again.

And I do not have faith in things that I know. I don’t need faith to know that 2+2=4. I don’t need faith to understand and accept the Theory of Evolution. I don’t need faith for science and objective truth to be true. They just are. I can measure these things as often as I want, from whatever philosophical mindset I please, and I will always get the same results. No faith is required.

So here we are at the whole reason I object to the way modern Christians mis-use and mis-understand the nature of faith. It wasn’t ever meant to be “belief in perfectly preposterous things that have been disproven a billion times” or “certainty that something’s true even though every single objective sign about it indicates it’s false.” It wasn’t ever supposed to be the luchador-masked opponent to facts. Remember that “cruel dilemma” I’ve talked about? That’s what I see Christians doing: setting up this bizarre showdown between reality and fantasy. And the problem is that as malevolent as so many Christian practices and beliefs have turned out to be, fewer and fewer Christians and potential converts are going to be willing to turn their back on reality to embrace a fantasy life. It never had to come to this showdown, but we’re here now.

I build my faith out of objective truths, not in opposition to or defiance of them. And when objective truths indicate that my faith was misplaced, then I’m totally fine with going a different direction rather than persist in fantasy. I might really wish I was a space princess sometimes even today, but I’m not, and it’s just silly to keep my faith in something disproven as solidly as the identity of my birth planet.

Wow, this was long. Y’all are the best. Next up, we’re going to talk about one of the major articles of faith of modern Christians and some other privileged classes: the idea that they not in fact a dominant faction but rather a persecuted minority. Poor little things. And we’ll be touching on that persecution fantasy with a redefinition post about “toleration.” And later on I’ve got some fun stuff I want to talk about when I somehow ended up during the middle of my deconversion as the co-founder of a college group called PRAYER WARRIORS FOR JESUS. I hope you’ll join me. I’ll try not to talk so much next time. Maybe. You know me.

PS: Holy cow, the MWO site is still down. WTFBBQ! Hearing rumors that they’re scrubbing it and/or terrified of the lawsuit looming, but still, wow, that’s pretty wild IMO. I’ll let y’all know links if/when the site returns. Sorry, friends…

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