Updated: Sep 6, 2019
Faith is having an identity crisis in the Western world.
Faith doesn’t seem to know what it is anymore. It also seems blissfully unaware of what it isn’t. Faith walks around dressed up as certainty; it has taken on the job of destroying doubt and flattening other perspectives.
‘Having faith’ seems to have become about joining a side, dismissing opposing ideas, and stubbornly insisting on your beliefs against all contradictory evidence.
Since when was this what faith was all about?
I began to come across evidence that convinced me that some of my beliefs were wrong. The first things to go were my belief in a literal six day Creation, the existence of Hell, and the perfect inerrancy (no errors or contradictions) of the Bible.
When I began to discuss these issues with other people, I came across one particular response that deeply bothered me. It was a response that told me to ‘just have faith’. Some people were upset by the contradictions I brought up, and their answer was to let go of the evidence and just keep believing. They thought it was wrong of me to even mention this contradictory evidence, in case it caused other people to stumble in their own faith.
There wasn’t an answer to the specific issues that I was facing, or a willingness to discuss different opinions. There was simply a call to ignore evidence and stubbornly hold on to what we already believed.
When I saw this kind of response, I felt frustrated and disillusioned. It seemed to me like faith had simply become a cover-all answer for doubt, a quick way to avoid reality and reject change. Some of us were simply using faith as a defence against ever having to be wrong.
This attitude eventually helped to push me completely out of my old religion. It was one thing to believe in something without objective evidence, but to continue believing while blindly ignoring the evidence seemed dysfunctional and dangerous.
Many of us in the modern world have placed faith and science on opposing sides. They seem like enemies, unable to cooperate, viewing the world through completely contradictory and exclusive lenses.
By turning them against each other like this, we draw both sides as caricatures: science is a know-it-all who despises faith, and works incessantly to prove it wrong; while faith is stupid, rejecting all evidence and breeding ignorance.
This is such a sad, reductive, and harmful view of both science and faith. It turns people into enemies, builds walls and closes down the possibility of understanding.
Here’s how I think about it: faith and science are simply tools in our mental toolbox. They are two different, specific ways of thinking that we should use in appropriate circumstances. They are not opposites, any more than a hammer and a chainsaw are opposites.
We all have our own mental toolbox: it’s the place where we store all the tools that can help us experience and understand the world around us. Some of us have more available tools than others, depending on our upbringing and life experience. Faith and science are just two of these tools. Each tool has its place, an appropriate context to be used in; and as we acquire more mental tools, we become more flexible and able to interact with a wider world of experience.
The problem arises when we try to use the wrong tool for the job. If I bring a set of paints and brushes to the construction site, I’m going to find it hard to do my job. At the same time, if I turn up to an art workshop brandishing a chainsaw, there may be issues. It doesn’t matter how strongly I insist that my chainsaw is a fantastic piece of equipment; people will become upset, the police will be called, and conflict will ensue.
The same is true of both faith and science.
I don’t need faith to believe in gravity. Gravity lies in the realm of science: there is a massive amount of data, evidence, and research that I can go out and digest right now that will prove to me that gravity is a real force in the Universe. The theory of gravity makes incredibly accurate predictions about reality, and is shown to be correct consistently and to an incredible level of precision. We see the results of this understanding in everyday life: from the bridges we travel across, to the GPS directions we’re following, to the very mechanics of the car we’re driving.
Maybe we don’t have 100% certainty in the theory of gravity, but I could say I have 99.99% confidence in it. Not once have I woken up in the morning with the fear that I will float away into the sky when I leave my bed. I have never had to really convince myself to believe that I will stick to the ground when I walk to work.
A good scientific theory must always have solid evidence to back it up, and that evidence removes the need for faith. The amount of confidence we place in a scientific idea varies directly with the amount of evidence we have for that idea.
Faith, on the other hand, doesn’t have the requirement of evidence. It’s a completely different tool, for a different realm of experience. Faith, by definition, is the tool we use when we don’t have evidence to back us up, or when our only evidence is subjective and personal.
When I think about what happens when I die, or whether there are higher beings in the Universe, or my purpose for being alive, I’m entering areas where faith is an appropriate tool to use. Science simply doesn’t have much to say here, at least for now. In theory, events may come to pass, or new evidence may arise, that has something direct to say about the human soul, or the existence of God/s, or what existed before the Big Bang. Until that time, there’s space for question, thought and discussion.
When science tries to discredit faith for being ‘wishful thinking’ and not based on objective data, it’s correct; but it’s still making a mistake. Those would be valid criticisms towards an attempt at science, but faith is built for exactly those situations. It’s not supposed to be data-based and concrete. It’s based on hope, trust and personal experience, for situations where clear evidence is not available.
Here’s where our faith went wrong: we saw ourselves as the exclusive owners of truth, rather than as believers in one particular worldview among many.
I wish that my old pastor had started every sermon by saying: “I might be completely wrong about this. This is simply what I believe to be true.”
Instead, we went hard on the line that we had the Truth, and we had to stand strong on that Truth no matter what.
We didn’t really have faith. We didn’t even need faith: we just needed stubbornness. We pressured each other to continue on in our stubbornness, and this led to an atmosphere of certainty and exclusivity, two things that I now see as completely antithetical to faith.
Certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith. Where there’s no room for doubt, there’s no need for faith.
In order to hold on to our certainty, we also needed to own exclusivity: if we were completely right, then every contradictory perspective must be wrong. We no longer needed to look outside of ourselves for wisdom and understanding. We no longer needed to equip ourselves with more mental tools: we had the only one we would ever need.
We brought this exclusivity into our whole reason for being. We taught about a literal place called Hell, where anybody who didn’t believe like we did would be punished eternally after they died. Our entire purpose was to try and convince people to come over to our side, so they could be saved from this torture.
Now, I see Hell as the peak expression of our need for certainty and exclusivity. To be honest, I found Hell kind of embarrassing. I think that all of us did to some extent. If we really believed in it, we would have been preaching non-stop to every person we could get our hands on. I think that on some level we understood how gross that belief was; but the weight of it was so heavy, and so embedded in our worldview, that we could never fully let it go.