On faith and belief

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.

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10 thoughts on “On faith and belief

  1. We share very similar beliefs. Walking down the street today in Paris, I heard a guy talking on a mobile phone say in French “in good faith.” I haven’t heard that expression in ages, although I’ve seen it as an inscription in antique wedding rings. But it reminded me of how far away from faith we’ve come, if right-wing extremists, both in Christianity and Islam, can hijack these religions. The bad behaviour of a few sometimes make it seem as though being a Christian or being a Muslim doesn’t make sense. I become incensed when I hear right-wingers in the US – who in no way behave like Christians – use the name of God as though they have a hotline to heaven. But their extremism suggests otherwise, as they say and do very bad things and advocate killing those who don’t share their political beliefs. I don’t attend church services very often, although I go into churches to pray and light candles almost every place I travel. So maybe I’m more spiritual than religious, but I do have faith and try to be tolerant of all ideologies; certainly I would never presume to impose my personal beliefs on anyone else (I believe strongly in the separation of church and state); many of my friends are agnostic and at least one is an atheist.

  2. Believe it or not, I am not an atheist, and I fully fully support the right of people to believe what they choose. My objection comes, when a minorities religious belief- has influence over other people- especially when that influences harms- ie restriction of womens health services, condoms, sex education, homophobic legislation.

    • I admit to some surprise at your non-atheism, but I guess it just goes to show!

      Personally I don’t think it’s wrong for religious people to seek to influence: but it is wrong for them to seek to back that influence with sanctions.

  3. A really well thought out & presented argument which clarifies the faith/belief dichotomy. I certainly would not un-follow you! There is narrow mindedness on both sides of the religious/agnostic-atheist divide – and you by no means demonstrate that horrible quality. Bravo! xx

  4. And I would never unfollow you, same as I would not somehow view someones religious belief, as a reason to end a friendship. People have the right to believe what they like.

  5. The hardest bit of advice that I have read has been: Love your neighbour as you love yourself.

    That is the hardest thing to do in life.

    A television personality said during an interview on TV something about her parent’s advice to her: “when there is a choice, choose the one that is the ‘be nice’ choice” – That was such an important message for her, that she shared it on TV.

    Because work is such an important part of my life. People with the responsibility to manage, hire and fire, should also share the love and choose the ‘be nice’ choice.

  6. Thank you very much for that highly intelligent and thoughtful piece. It is a great relief to learn that one isn’t the only person on Twitter with a faith of some kind. The (sometimes) vehemence and knocking that one occasionally finds does worry me, but has only once led me to unfollow a person. I accept it as the way things are. I have found my faith (albeit a bit woolly) a source of great strength in extreme situations, but it’s not something I broadcast because of its essentially personal nature.

  7. I really loved this beautifully expressed post. I have had a real journey in my quest for faith. I’ve wandered from ignorance and child-like belief (as a child!) to extreme fundamentalism to agnosticism and now finally to a very precious faith. It has been a long journey, particularly recovering from what I believe was akin to spiritual abuse. These days I’m far more centred. I don’t really attend church services (except for the Christmas/Easter) but I do pray/meditate whatever you want to call it every day. I understand your faith, and your beliefs, and I respect them as I would hope that other people respect mine.

  8. A really excellent post on what is a very difficult subject. I entirely agree with the seperation of faith and belief that you put forward and it is easy to confuse the two. I’d say as an atheist i also have faith, but it is just not in theism or spiritualism, but more in people and ideas. I suppose those two sets of faith are the same for most religious people as well, i just knocked faith in god off the list some time back.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

  9. Pingback: An immaculately conceived offence « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog

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