The F Word
Faith. It's a funny thing. The word gets used to mean 3 things really, connected but different, and that's just the beginning of the confusion.
First it has a general meaning of being able to rely on a thing or a person. Having faith in your child's teacher, or the subway system. A common synonym is belief, in all three senses, but this is probematical, and gives the word belief a secondary meaning. If you don't believe in the subway system you must be in serious denial because it exists. No doubt about it. This is what cracks me up about language you know, we always have to examine the syntax before we can even communicate effectively. Oy.
Secondly, there is a (usually) religious meaning. This is when faith becomes a bit more than the first meaning, and takes on a special idea that is famously explained in the New Testament book of Hebrews as "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things unseen." This is also used outside of a religious setting when we take a leap of faith, or place faith in a person with an unknown track record. It's a bit of a gamble. But it's best known as the word we use in describing religious beliefs, which often include ideas that cannot be verified by science.
The third meaning is the really odd one, when a person is asked what faith he belongs to. In other words, what belief system he follows. I only mention this because it crops up in the ex
Quite often, I have noticed, when people, of a wide variety of religions, say they have faith, they are using both the first two meanings. I'm not sure they are aware of this, much of the time, but there's a sense of both belief (in existence of whatever) and trust, at the same time. On the other hand, some people, by their own admission are not CERTAIN about either, and the faith is definitely more along the lines of things hoped for. To be blunt, wishful thinking.
It must be noted, before we go any further that faith is widely considered a virtue. Why? Why is it a positive thing to believe in things unseen? You've all heard the entreatment "You must have faith." Says who? Why MUST I? I'm sorry, but for me, personally, putting faith before experience is putting the cart before the horse. Your mileage may vary.
After giving the matter careful consideration, I decided that I, actually, don't have any faith. And when I expressed this once, I was told "sure you do". And they gave me lots of examples of meaning #1, people and things I trust. Wasn't what I meant.
I was referring to the Great Gamble.
People all over the world do this, often quite young. They look at the religion they were raised in, and instead of tossing it aside, they take it on board consciously, they choose it as their religion, largely because they are familiar with it, and it's sort of expected of them. It is so much easier to go along with what is socially and culturally accepted anyway, and in many places it could even save your life.
Which isn't to say that everyone does this. Many young people, especially if they receive a higher education away from home, question their own religion and/or explore others. It's one of the reasons that some families restrict their kids' education options in fact, because they know of the risk of other ideas. Travel and education broaden the mind.
Some families welcome this. The Amish deliberately send their kids out into the world at the age of 16 to see how others live, and their hope is that they will be quite reviled by it. As culture shock, it's apparently pretty effective.
But there is, obviously, a difference between following a religion because of coercion, however subtle, (the risk of losing the whole family safety net is a powerful but subtle form of coercion) and following it by personal choice based on considerable examination of it. Some churches believe that examination is a vital part of the faith process and encourage it. Others seem to fear questioning and vehemently discourage it. Sometimes the discouragement becomes a very unsubtle coercion. Sometimes faith is demanded.
I'm not sure how reliable a faith required by law is. In some religions we see the two examples of where faith turns ugly, the violent zealot, and the person forced to tow the line by the zealot. Both are driven by fear, but it has a different source. This is where "You must have faith" takes on a bizarre twist. I question whether the zealot really believes, deep down inside, that he can actually create faith, by fear, in another person. Conversion by the sword has been a popular feature in human history, and it seems to me totally delusional that the faith of the new adherants would be geuine. But maybe that doesn't matter after a few generations.
If fear can't instill a religious belief in a person, it can certainly hold him back from leaving it behind. We all know people who are "recovering" from a childhood or earlier religion, and who have left it, but retain some lingering fears of divine anger. This is the ugly side of faith. Children who are taught (and effectively brainwashed) that they must believe "or else". God's gonna git ya. I have come across more than one suicide resulting from this lingering fear, and quite a few nervous breakdowns.
I think then, that we can safely say that faith is powerful.
So what is it?
A couple of years back, I became friendly with an Irish Catholic who was not totally stable. She had good reason not to be, and her instability was not a problem to our friendship. I have always had friends, good friends, who were not Pagan, and who did not ever try to convert me to their beliefs, and I take it as a mark of their own positive qualities as human beings that my beliefs either don't bother them, or that they think enough of me to overlook it when it does. And I find that quite a lot of Irish Catholics draw on Pagan sensibilities without any issues. Most of their saints were based on Celtic deities anyway. Quite a lot of overlap and common understanding.
Nevertheless you can imagine my surprise when one Tuesday, out of the blue, she suddenly decided she was Pagan. Just like that. I assure you it was nothing I had done.
I am extremely skeptical of sudden conversions. I have....opinions, on what it really going on, which I won't go off on a tangent over, but let's say, I don't find it very convincing.
She jumped in with both feet, bought herself a pentacle and armfuls of books, started doing candle magic and reading Tarot cards, and was as annoying and over the top as any sudden convert to any religion.
And just when I thought I couldn't stand it anymore, she became Catholic again. Gave all that stuff away, and went back to church. And I never heard any more about it.
Do I believe she was ever sincere about Pagan beliefs? Not a chance.
But more to the point, how sincere are her Catholic beliefs? Only she knows that. Or maybe she doesn't. Maybe she was raised to believe, and it is so much part of who she is, that she has never really examined it. Not even by "leaving" for a short while. Her faith remains based on things unseen and hoped for, and actually, nothing solid at all, except that of comfort and familiarity. Maybe that's enough.
I have met a number of people who have no religious beliefs and claim they want one. It's never quite clear why. It's as if they feel they are missing out. They "want something to believe in". I've had some daft conversations over this. I say "Well, what DO you believe in?" and they say "I don't know". Pretty dangerous stuff. These are ripe plums for the picking for whatever cult comes along. They are looking for something unseen to believe in. I advise these people absolutely NOT to join any belief system. They are at risk of buying into anything.
I often suggest they take this quiz. http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Quizzes/BeliefOMatic.aspx
It could be a very useful guide, but it has two huge problems:
1. People who have been raised in a belief system tend to just answer from that experience.
2. Others simply, genuinely, honestly, don't KNOW what they believe because they've never really given it enough thought. And even those who have given it hours and hours of thought can find themselves stuck on some of the questions. Which can lead to more thought. Which is a good thing.
But if you answer that quiz with 100% honesty (remember, if you dont, you're only fooling yourself) it is amazingly accurate. Very nicely done.
So, to decide what you believe, first you have to know what you believe.
I've had some daft conversations about that, too. I have been told by many different people that you choose what you believe.
Choosing a belief is called PRETENCE. It's about as genuine and sincere as choosing to be a Martian.
And undeterred by this criticism, they tell me about the "fake it 'til you make it" process. In this system, if you tell yourself often enough that you believe something, then eventually you do.
Yes, I'm sure you do. You have deluded yourself very thoroughly indeed. Self-brainwashing. Hypnosis works like that, by powerful suggestion.
Is that faith? Then I don't want anything to do with it. Its a scam.
The idea that you can consciously and deliberately decide to believe in the existence of a deity (pick a deity, any deity) that you have never met, on any level, and have only read about in a book, or been told about by another person, is not logical, rational, or sensible. Is it useful? Maybe. But if your guideline is usefulness then you may as well believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, at least there's sustenance there.
I had no choice in my belief system. There's no faith involved, and I like it that way. I had a series of smack in the face experiences which made it very plain and clear to me what I believed in, because I'd been there and done that. I like it this way. I would wish for this for everyone. It doesn't matter what the belief system IS. I have no Catholic beliefs, but if I met the Virgin Mary on a hilltop, I couldn't deny her. I hear some very peculiar examples of religious experiences, some of them sound bogus to me, but they were real to the person experiencing them, and THEIR FAITH MAKES SENSE.
This idea that having faith WITHOUT an experience like that is a GOOD thing just hurts my head. The idea that it shouldn't make sense....in the end it's all doubletalk.
Of course we all have different needs. Maybe you need to believe in somebody watching over you like a cosmic parent. This isn't so hard to understand. We feel small and vulnerable. So you want to believe in that. Want to. So you pretend? And this brings you solace. Then go for it.
Just don't expect me to join in with it. And don't project it onto your kids. Subtle coercion. It works. Phobics often pass on their fears to their kids. Don't do that.
I've been told "You're so lucky, you're so sure in your faith, you don't have doubts". OK, maybe it's luck, or maybe I just refused to have anything to do with a system where doubt was considered a positive? Maybe when I said to the Out There, "I hope you're not expecting me to take you on faith because it won't work", the Out There listened. And many other possibilities. But in the end, what it boils down to, is that I prefer certaintly to faith. For this reason I consder the term "strong faith" to be an oxymoron. Or someone with their fingers crossed. Tight.
I would be much more tolerant of the whole issue of faith if there was a bit more honesty in it. If people would say "I pretend I believe X because it makes me feel safer". And if they'd keep it to themselves.
But what I really wish, is that people would discover what they really believe, past all the doubts, and all the fear, and just search. I wish people would have faith in themselves.