When Faith Becomes Fatal

Photo Credit: fabiogis50 +2000k Thank you!!!! via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: fabiogis50 +2000k Thank you!!!! via Compfight cc

Last week, I wrote about why faith is not a virtue and that generated some interesting discussions from people I know, both online and offline. Aside from the usual threats of hellfire and damnation (which is getting boring, really), I got some objections that I defined or understood “faith” wrongly, that life is basically uncertain and that we still need faith in some circumstances.

A certain Alfred Fajardo posted a comment on my blog and said:

Mr. Andy, I’ve been reading your blog for a long time, and I often find good insights and new questions to ponder on from it. But for tonight, I hope you won’t mind a little dissonance as it hopefully will provide a new kind of resonance.

How about interpreting Jesus’ words of providing for us not as literal protection from natural and man made phenomena like failing a test or germs getting to us but rather as pointers to the natural, as figurative language? When he says he provides for the birds and trees, I see it as him talking about how they don’t “worry” the way humans do. How all these organisms, as they live and die, form the biogeochemical cycle which will sustain the earth until the earth itself is destroyed.

As a whole, perhaps faith is something transcendent beyond our daily worries, not faith in certainties, but faith in uncertainty, that at the end of it all, we’ll become a better race.

Thanks Alfred, I don’t mind dissonance (I seem to be creating a lot of it anyway). Yes, we can reinterpret the word “faith” as you suggested, just as people reinterpret the word “God” in different ways. However, I think you would agree with me that most people do not think that way. The common usage of the word “faith” in the Philippine context is not figurative but literal, just as the word “God” is synonymous to “Jesus” for around 80% of Filipinos. For brevity and quick comprehension, I chose to use those words in the way they are most commonly understood.

Like you, I am all for humanity becoming a better race. However, I would suggest a better word to express your desire — not “faith” in uncertainty, but “hope” that things will be better in the future.

Faith is not the same as hope although a lot of people tend to confuse the two. Faith is a false sense of certainty of something you have no idea about. Hope allows for uncertainty but wishes for the best. Faith makes people do irrational acts. Hope allows for more rationality, second-guessing, and planning for the worst even while expecting the best.

For the faithful who are unconvinced of how I define faith, let me point out how the Bible talks about it. Hebrews 11 is well-known as the Bible’s Who’s Who of faith. The chapter begins with the grandiose statement: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.”

A popular Christian song echoes this sentiment with the lines, “to hear with my heart, to see with my soul; to be guided by a hand I cannot hold; to trust in a way that I cannot see, that’s what faith must be.”

Hebrews 11 then proceeds to commend certain individuals who “lived by faith” such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses and other Israelite heroes.Their stories involve hearing a command or receiving a vision from God, and acting on it even without proof or evidence of its reality, even if the act is absurd (building a huge boat on dry land) or downright abominable (killing one’s own son).

Those are not figurative but literal and concrete acts that seem to defy reason and the Bible upholds these actions as commendable and these characters as worthy examples to be emulated. How does that translate to modern times?

How about the story of Madeline Kara Neumann, age 11 (reported in ABC News last March 27, 2008)? When Madeline became severely sick, her parents didn’t take her to the doctor because they had faith that God would heal her through their prayers. She died soon thereafter and the parents were eventually convicted of reckless homicide. But these were not evil parents. I believe they loved their daughter with all their hearts and wanted her to get well. They were just following what their preacher preached: “We are not commanded in scripture to send people to the doctor but to meet their needs through prayer and faith.”

Or how about the story of Mark Randall Wolford, a pastor from West Virginia (reported in NBC News last May 30, 2012), who believed that in order to prove their faith, Christians should handle snakes, and he didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the talk as well and handled snakes himself. He died, unsurprisingly, from a snake bite. What is surprising is that he persisted in this belief even when as a teenager, he himself saw his father, also a pastor with the same snake-handling belief, die of a snake bite. But they were not insane, they were holding on, by faith, to what was proclaimed in Mark 16:17-18: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

These are not isolated incidents. There are many similar stories such as these. The Huffington Post reports that “At least 303 children have died since 1975 after medical care was withheld on religious grounds.” That’s only the reported cases in the United States. How about those that go on in other countries?

However, whatever else you may say about these people, you cannot argue that they did not have faith. They did. In fact, they had more faith than most people. They had conviction to follow through on their beliefs. They were willing to put their lives and the lives of those they loved on the line, very much like Abraham or Noah. But their faith went unrewarded and proved both fatal and tragic in the end.

That is why I do not believe that faith is a valid way to look at or interpret truth or reality. Faith is pretense and false assurance. Nothing more.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

This article also appears in Filipino Freethinkers.

Andy Uyboco is the Meetup Director of Filipino Freethinkers Davao Chapter and is inviting Davao residents to join their next meetup on January 25, 2014 (Saturday) at 7:30 PM Cafe Demitasse, F. Torres St., Davao City. You may email him at andy@freethinking.me.

Why Faith Is Not A Virtue

Brick-Trinity

This article is for those who think that faith is a virtue. I would like to propose that it is not.

Over the centuries, the religious have extolled faith as a virtue, as a valid method of seeing reality, and that idea has taken such a deep root in our culture. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life declares that faith is “trusting God in spite of unanswered questions and unresolved doubts” and this sounds so deep and comforting but it’s really just a another way of saying, “I don’t understand anything that’s happening and I can’t do anything about it but I’m hoping for the best.” What does “trusting God” even mean when people can’t even agree what “God” means?

Peter Boghossian, author of A Manual for Creating Atheists, defines faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know” and that seems like a very flippant way to put it. But if you happen to be a person of faith and are offended by that, my request is that you forgive the offense for a couple of minutes (forgiveness is also a virtue) and think about it.

In all those instances that you claim faith, isn’t it true that those are instances that you don’t really know but instead simply choose to believe? Because if there were proof and evidence in the first place, then you wouldn’t need to invoke faith. You simply point to the evidence. Take gravity, for example. It would be absurd to talk about having faith in gravity because there is overwhelming evidence for it. In other words we know gravity.

However, when we talk about something like Noah’s Ark and the global flood story – even amidst all the evidence and experts’ opinions pointing out its improbability – a sizeable number of people still choose “by faith” to believe that it’s true, even if they don’t really know whether it happened or not. In fact, they refuse to know. They rarely have the drive to do research and read contrary opinions – perhaps they are afraid that their faith may be shaken and they will no longer be on the list of “good and faithful servants” who never gave up their beliefs, who were foolish enough to test their faith. After all, didn’t God say, “Do not put the Lord God to the test (Leviticus 6:16)?”

So think of all the things you accept “by faith” (like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity) and honestly see if it isn’t true that you are simply pretending to know things you don’t really know.

Faith is not a very good way to live. It kills wonder, inquiry and research. It is not a virtue. And nobody really lives by faith all the time in all aspects of life.

Think about this:

If faith is so commendable, why don’t you simply have faith and pray when you get sick? Why do you go to the doctor? Why do you take medicine?

Why do you work hard to earn money to survive and feed your family? Why not have faith that God will provide? Didn’t Jesus say that all you have to do is to “seek his kingdom” and he will provide food, drink and clothing just as he provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:25-33)?

For students, why do you study hard for exams? Why not have enough faith that God will provide the right answers at the right time?

Why do you wash your hands before you eat? Or brush your teeth before you sleep? Why not have faith that God will kill those pesky germs and protect you from disease?

Now, I’m sure you have rational and sensible answers for each of these questions and that’s just the point. If you apply reason and rationality to these aspects of your life, doesn’t it make sense to apply it to ALL aspects of your life?

Why do you use reason for practical living yet cling to faith for aspects of your life that are unsure and unknown? If faith were such a virtue, then you would apply it to every facet of your life, not just as a stopgap to fill in the holes in your knowledge and understanding, which is exactly what primitive people did. When they encountered something they did not understand, they would attribute it to either a god or goddess, spirits, angels or demons.

But it is now the 21st century. Reason, science, and logic have been proven to work time and again. When you build an airplane based on scientific principles, it flies. When you use mathematics to put a satellite in orbit, it stays there. When you put medicine through double-blind placebo-controlled tests, you have better assurance that it will cure what it needs to cure.

Now I will admit that there are still many things we do not understand and many things we do not know – but the proven and tested way to gain more knowledge and understanding is not faith, but by applying reason, science and logic.

That is my Holy Trinity.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

This article also appears in Filipino Freethinkers.

Andy Uyboco is the Meetup Director of Filipino Freethinkers Davao Chapter and is inviting Davao residents to join their next meetup on January 25, 2014 (Saturday) at 7:30 PM Cafe Demitasse, F. Torres St., Davao City. You may email him at andy@freethinking.me.

The Beauty of Doubt

Photo by Michael Caven

I grew up in a Christian environment where doubt was hardly encouraged. Faith was a virtue. Doubt was not. The foremost illustration of this is the biblical story of Jesus’ disciple Thomas who claimed not to believe in his resurrection unless he saw his risen body and touched his wounds. When Jesus did appear to him and erase his doubts, Jesus said, “Blessed are you because you see and believe, but more blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.” And from those words sprung up an entire culture of faith, of not seeing yet fervently believing.

The first thirty something years of my life were spent aiming for this kind of faith. The urge to doubt would always be attributed to my human weakness or even to the wiles of the devil. But the deeper I went inside Christianity, the more discordant I would feel. Yes, there was always the heat of the moment in worship, and there were days when I felt that I was indeed in god’s loving arms. But these were also peppered by moments of doubt. I would always wonder if answered prayers weren’t just coincidences; if the faith I felt wasn’t just leveled up wishful thinking; or if the feelings I had for god’s presence weren’t just that — feelings.

Then a thought came to me: if I believe that god created me, then he must also be responsible for creating this machinery in me that makes me doubt and think and reason. And since this is so, why should I not then trust this thinking and reasoning of mine? What if all I ever believed in was just other people’s beliefs imposed upon society for generations? What if my doubts were the way to truth even if a lot of people (at least in my circles) didn’t seem to share them? Didn’t Jesus say that the gate was narrow and only a few people ever find it?

Ultimately, I was confronted with this question — would I be willing to let go of all I ever believed in my search for truth — yes, even Christianity, the bible and the concept of god that Christianity has imposed upon me? And for me, this was harder than it sounded. It was like being in the middle of the ocean hanging on to a piece of wood, without any land in sight, and deciding whether or not to let it go so I could swim faster to where I wanted to be. I also realized the irony of it — that it takes so much more faith to doubt than to believe. So I took a leap of faith and began my journey of doubt.

In that journey, I went to church less and less because church for me had just been a meaningless habit and the sermons were just rehashed ideas that I heard over and over throughout the years. Even the idea that “we go to church not to receive from god but to give him our worship” seemed stale because if god were everywhere, then I could most certainly worship him anywhere, even in the toilet. Conversely, I could be in church every Sunday with my mind wandering elsewhere and it wouldn’t amount to an iota of worship. So I decided to give up this false pretension and would not go to church unless I really wanted to, but not for reasons of appearances or habit or to “be a good influence” to my kids. (Yes, I got flak for this when my eldest daughter decided she didn’t want to go to sunday school also, but that’s another story).

I began to read books and listen to other teachings that were outside the norm of Christian propriety, and my horizons were widened and I realized that there were also a lot of people like me — much more than I thought there would be — and in the midst of my doubts, it was a reassuring thought.

Of course, I could not avoid the whispers going on behind me — Christian friends, relatives and acquaintances talking about me, reading my blogs and saying that I was going astray — but I got most of this information third-hand. These people I heard about never approached me and asked me head-on what was going on with me — except for a couple of them — and I appreciated their willingness to listen and their acceptance (of me, not my way of thinking). Although hearing the words, “I’ll just pray for you,” is grating to my ears. I know they mean well but it just sounds so condescending — like “I know something you don’t. I’m someplace better than you, so I’ll just pray for you until you realize that.” I know they don’t mean it that way, but still, it does sound that way.

In the tail end of this journey (which means just about over a year ago), I discovered freethinking and a group called Filipino Freethinkers through a close friend of mine. And when I read about it, realized that this was me (I just didn’t know what it was called). Though this group has been closely linked to atheism, it actually isn’t and its members are a mixed bag of different believers and unbelievers. The basic creed of a freethinker is that you may have your own set of personal beliefs but you don’t go around imposing them on others as if it were THE truth. “To a freethinker, no idea is sacred; all truth claims are subject to skepticism, rational inquiry, and empirical testing.”

A freethinker embraces doubt as a way of life, for it is through doubt that one gets to really dig in and think about what one believes in — not just to swallow everything the church, priest, imam or rabbi says. One of my favorite quotes comes from Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, who says “to doubt is infinitely more important than to adore. To question is infinitely more important than to believe.”

Some time ago I took a step of faith into doubt, and have never regretted it since. I feel more spiritually and holistically in tune with myself, my thoughts and my emotions than I have ever been before. There is less fear and guilt, and more love and compassion for me and for everyone around me.

Such is the beauty of doubt.

Edit 2012-04-12: Here’s my friend Matt’s take on doubt: http://ragingrev.com/2012/04/an-insurance-policy-against-doubt/

 

Theology

A theologian came to see the master.

“Why is it that you are so against theology?” he asked.

“It is not really theology that I am against, but what it has become, and how it is now being used and understood,” said the master.

“What do you mean?” said the theologian.

photo courtesy of Susan WD, Flickr
photo courtesy of Susan WD, Flickr

“Well, theology first came into being because man was interested to explore and know more about the truth. But theology today is very different. It is no longer a search for truth,” said the master.

“What is it now then?” said the theologian.

“A maintenance of a belief system,” replied the master.

Be a Mirror

The preacher said, “The best thing that we can do is to leave everything in God’s hands. Realize that only he knows what is best for us. Don’t insist on your way but let God decide your path.”

photo courtesy of aloshbennet, Flickr
photo courtesy of aloshbennet, Flickr

Replied the master, “If I followed your advice, I would wake up everyday and do nothing. What you are seemingly advocating as courageous faith is really a cowardly act of avoiding responsibility. What your God would probably want you to do is to have some spine and own up to the decisions you make. Realize that whatever happens to you is no one’s fault but your own (yes, it’s not even God’s fault even though you’re too afraid to admit that you blame him). Realize too, that nothing is ever good or bad. It is only within a particular situation or frame of reference that they are good or bad for you.”

“This is the key to wisdom: Be a mirror. A mirror reflects but never judges whether what is reflected is beautiful or ugly. It simply shows reality as it is. Be a mirror. Be silent. Judge not.”

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