Thursday, August 05, 2010

Knowing the sun will rise

When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I'm talking about God?
--Shepherd Book, "Serenity"
Several years ago, a relative and I had an interesting conversation about religion (I'm a Mormon; he's an atheist). The conversation has stuck with me in part due to his thoughtful comments, his gallant demonstration of respect toward a faith he did not share, and his lack of rancor on a subject which too often inspires overheated rhetoric from opposing sides.

One of the things he said about faith I found particularly thought-provoking. I'm paraphrasing like mad here, but the gist of it went something like this: "I wasn't raised in any particular faith, and in some ways I'm sorry I don't have that. There are times I'd like to believe in God, or in some kind of Supreme Being, but I just can't make myself believe in something I can't see or prove. I don't have any practice doing that."

The only thing I remember saying to him at the time was that faith wasn't really about making oneself believe in something one didn't believe in. There were a number of other ideas regarding faith that came to mind, but I didn't mention them and the moment passed. But they've stuck with me almost as much as the original conversation has.

What is faith? There are several definitions, but the one I'm taking under consideration right now is "a firm belief or conviction in something for which there is little or no demonstrable proof." Based on that definition, I believe that everyone on earth performs at least one action each day -- and most perform many such actions -- based on faith, usually without ever recognizing it. And as referred to in the opening quote, this kind of faith has little to do with belief in a deity. Let's just set aside religious faith for the nonce, and consider some of the ways people might exercise other kinds of faith from day to day.

How do you know there are nearly 7 billion people on this planet?

Yes, you can point to the population clock and Google Earth and a number of other sites purporting to show the world's population figures, but how do you know how many people there are on the planet? Have you seen them all? Did you personally shake all their hands (or, in the case of Wowbagger, insult them), one by one? Maybe there are far less people than the statistics claim; maybe there are far more. The figure cannot be empirically proven by the experience of any one person.

Is there really an uninhabited island called Nikumaroro in the Pacific Ocean?

Sure, go to Wikipedia and look it up. I'm sure I need not remind you that Wikipedia harbors more than its share of patent-nonsense entries. Have you ever been to Nikumaroro? Know anyone who claims to have been there? Look up the coordinates in Google if you like, though even that doesn't offer much proof that Nikumaroro exists. And even if you assume that the island is real, is it truly uninhabited? Or did my friend Stephen Tanner become a mad scientist after all and take over the place, à la Dr. Moreau? (Great story, but pretty unlikely. Sorry, Steve.)

OK, maybe you don't care how many people there really are on Earth or whether there's really a tropical island being ruled over by some power-mad Random Avenger somewhere. Let's take it closer to home. Most Westerners have driven, or traveled in, an automobile at one time or another. How do you know you won't be killed in a collision when you get into that car and drive away?

Here's where statistics, if you rely on them, start to work against you -- there are about 40,000 automobile-related fatalities every year in the United States alone. If you prefer to rely on empirical evidence, you probably know of at least one person who was killed in a car accident. And yet despite the manifest danger, many people continue to drive. They have faith -- in their own ability to operate an automobile with reasonable safety and adherence to traffic rules, in the ability of other drivers to behave likewise, in the ability to adjust to changing weather and traffic conditions, and other factors too numerous to mention. They run the risk of being harmed or killed, but they exercise faith by driving anyway.

Are you sure your drinking water is safe? Do you know where it comes from, and who is responsible for making it clean and potable? How do you know whether those people have your best interests in mind? Yet you probably drink water from the tap, or from a bottle, without any concern that it might be dangerous -- because you have faith, a reasonable expectation, that the people upstream are good and decent and that your water isn't tainted in any way.

Can you prove to me that you love someone? Oh, you can say the magic words, you can shower that special person with gifts and attention, you can spend time with the person you claim to love, you can smile and kiss and cuddle and get intimate all you like -- but this might all be show, an elaborate pretense to convince an observer. And yet when you really love someone, you know it with absolute certainty. The loving feelings triggered by being around that particular person, or the yearning to be with that person if you're separated, are absolutely real -- and absolutely subjective, therefore unprovable to an objective party. And yet love, that unprovable yet very real feeling, inspires so much good in what we do from day to day.

We make so many decisions each day based not upon things we can prove empirically, but upon things we have never seen or experienced, yet nonetheless choose to believe in. It's nothing to be ashamed of; it's part of what makes us human -- and there would be no human civilization without a preponderance of people choosing to act on faith each day. Our capacity for faith is so strong that sometimes we continue to rely on it, make decisions based on it, even when it turns out to be misplaced. On the other hand, when we have personal experiences that seem to bolster our faith with evidence -- even when that evidence is entirely subjective -- then over time that faith becomes stronger and stronger until it grows into something akin to knowledge.

That's all faith is. It's not forcing yourself to believe things you can't believe. It's leaning on things which are not always visible to others, but which somehow provide support anyway.


Almond said...

Well said. As a practicing atheist myself, I appreciate your definition of faith and find your thoughts refreshing and particularly insightful. Thanks for sharing them!

Soozcat said...

Hey, Almond, I'm glad to see you here! Your comments are always welcome.