In several of my recent posts I’ve skirted around issues of faith but not really dealt with the matter head-on. It’s ironic that the great majority of the Twitfriends who most loyally re-tweet my “new blogpost” pimps are serious, big-time atheists who were probably a tad disconcerted when they discovered that I’d come out as someone with an active faith. To their credit none of them has so far un-followed me in disgust, although I suppose they might now that I’ve decided to go on about it again.
It might be ironic, but the fact that I’ve naturally associated with sceptics and atheists doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. For a start, I’m at least as often embarrassed by my fellow faith-travellers as I am enthused by them. Rather more often, actually. Every time there’s yet another public statement of homophobic bollocks, or thinly disguised misogyny, or happy-clappy fantasy, I cringe inwardly and protest outwardly. But in fact it’s not these matters that most connect me with those atheist comrades, since homophobia and misogyny are not the exclusive preserve of the religious: there are plenty of unpleasant ideologies spilling from the mouths of unbelievers as well. No, it’s that most of the critical arrows shot from the archers of atheism leave me untouched since I don’t believe in half the stuff they think I must believe in anyway.
We have a lot of words and concepts in this area that we tend to use somewhat uncritically as if they all mean the same thing. In particular “faith” and “belief” are often used virtually interchangeably. That’s by no means all, and I’ll return specifically to this in a moment. There are also the relationships between the literal and the metaphoric; between the symbol and the thing symbolised; between myth and history; between the poetic and the narrative; and much more besides. All of these dialectic oppositions are the ways in which we try to make sense of the world and our place in it, to ascribe meaning to ourselves and others, to deal with our identity and our mortality. These activities are universal: they’re not some special thing that only religious people do. It’s not my intention here to make the case for my particular ways of understanding these imponderables, and the only claim I’d make is that I have thought long and hard about them and tried to bring my tentative conclusions to explicit consciousness. There are both atheists and religious believers who appear to have done nothing of the kind. Easy and thoughtless acceptance either of religious dogma or of cultural (rather than examined) scepticism seem to me to be fundamentally identical approaches. I feel much greater commonality with atheists who’ve wrestled with constructing meaning from their belief system than I do either with my religious colleagues who’ve simply swallowed the whole faith pill without chewing it, or with some atheists who show no evidence of having thought about anything beyond shopping.
So back to faith and belief. In a nutshell, I take the view that belief is not something about which one can choose freely. Belief is about evidence. To believe something in the face of contradictory evidence is at best bizarre, and at worst ridiculous. And by extension, to believe in something for which there is no evidence one way or the other is presumptuous to say the least. Where there is no evidence, agnosticism is the only valid response. Faith is a different category altogether. Sometimes faith and belief do indeed go together, but they don’t have to. I believe in the reality of my car’s braking system, but I also have faith in it. I’m prepared to propel myself inside my metal box at speeds that will kill me on the basis that I put my trust in the braking system, and in those who have manufactured it. But it’s also possible, and perfectly legitimate, to put faith in things or ideas that are not literally true or real, or which can’t be known about or examined at all in the way that a braking system can be. I put enormous faith in my wife’s love for me, and act on the assumption that her love can bear the weight of my faith, often in the teeth of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps especially then. When we’re fighting, or when she doesn’t seem to care, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the evidence is now on the side of divorce. It’s my faith, rather than my belief, that gets me, or perhaps more correctly, us, through.
My Christian faith keeps me optimistic about humanity despite the overwhelming evidence that humans are capable of the most appalling cruelty and destruction, and that too often these traits seem to be winning against those other traits of love, co-operation, heroism and the rest. It’s open to anyone to say that I’m deluding myself, and perhaps I am. I feel always vulnerable to the counter-position that life is absurd, and that meaning is illusory. My faith in metaphorical and symbolic categories such as the death and resurrection of Jesus does not mean I believe in magic any more than Wordsworth believed he was experiencing solitary levitation when he wandered lonely as a cloud.