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The Idea That Faith Is Stupid

“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.” ~ Bill Maher, Religulous

The idea that faith is stupid is a close cousin of the idea that atheism is rational; and, accordingly, that theism is irrational.

Don’t get me wrong, I know why it looks this way: an immaculate conception, a talking snake, a jealous God – believe me, I get it. The unfortunate thing is that we, as Maher does, so often look for help in coming to understand scripture from people who don’t ‘get it’. If we want to make sense of spiritual or religious texts, it’s not the merely obedient follower, the person who has simply put faith in them, that we should be seeking out for guidance. If help in understanding is what we want, we must look to someone who has understanding; and if it is help in understanding the meaning of wisdom, our only hope is the (a) sage.

The simple reason that atheists are more perplexed post-conversation with a religious man is that the atheist tries to make sense of the religious man’s belief in some doctrine taken literally. The religious man also takes his doctrine quite literally – which leaves everyone, except the devout believer himself somehow, confused. On the other hand, the simple reason there is hope for enlightenment (i.e. understanding) post-conversation with the wise (spiritual) man or woman is because they understand both your mind and their own. They understand that you attempt to take literally what cannot but be symbolic.

The wisdom of a doctrine, of a holy book or story or edict, is its meaning, and its meaning is not its literal content. Its literal content is a pointer, and if you keep looking and inquiring into this content, the words, the facts (i.e. the finger) – you entirely miss the point. You miss what it is pointing to, which is precisely the point of the words and the content. (Yes, this means that religious men, if taking the doctrine literally only, miss the point too.)

I’m not going to pretend to have looked into it very much, but then, case-in-point, I didn’t need to in order to know that any apocalyptic narratives around the Mayan calendar ‘predictions’ were most likely misinterpretations. Why does the ‘end of the world’ – much less the end of a calendar wheel – mean an apocalypse?  Even ‘the end of the world as we know it’ doesn’t mean, necessarily, the final destruction of the world, the universe, and everything in it. A world in which there were no poor, no destitute, and no ill-will amongst men would seem to qualify.

It’s like your kid getting scared as New Year’s approaches that his world is coming to an end: ‘No honey, it’s cool – the calendar year just starts over again. And yeah maybe, just maybe, the upcoming year might have a “theme”. Say last year was about puberty, and all it brings in its wake; this year might be about heartache and learning about your heart – like, that you have one.’ There are ‘themes’ that extend over a yearly, or 8-yearly, or even perhaps yes, a 5,000-yearly cycle – so what? The important question is what theme am I in? ;) If it’s a good one, I say bring it. If it’s reported not to be, I say the report is wrong.

We do know that mankind, in addition to all of life on this planet and in the universe has been through some-such ‘themes’ right? Like, say, from matter to organic matter to conscious organic matter to self-conscious organic matter to … that’s the question: what’s next? The Mayan calendar ‘predicts’, (I prefer ‘heralds’), we’re moving into the next evolution of consciousness. If you can imagine the transformation from living matter to conscious living matter, or from consciousness to self-consciousness, you can understand why one might use the description, ‘a new world’ or, ‘the end’ of the existing one. You’d also avoid thinking the prediction is about a single cataclysmic moment in time, but more likely about a transformation that will occur over the course of time – much like all the other ones that have gone before.

The hoopla, anxiety and stress surrounding the Mayan calendar ‘prediction’ is a good example of what happens when we interpret literally what is meant to be symbolic – and then the media takes it and runs with it. In this case the consequence of taking religious or spiritual texts literally, hopefully, went no further than confusion, anxiety, and increased consumption (yay for more reasons to buy!). But way too often, as Maher addresses in the quote above, the consequence is self-righteous brutality, genocide and mass destruction.

That is all the more that we, when looking to understand a spiritual tenet or percept, do so with discernment. That we look to someone who can make sense of it; who does, or has, or is at least capable of, relating their intellect to the meaning of the words. Still, you, me, we, will then have to decide whether we see what they are pointing to, or whether we’ve gotten lost and mesmerized, still staring at their finger. But remember, we have to get what the words are pointing to in order to make an intelligent decision about them.

There is a difference between religion and spirituality, between dogma and faith. Faith proper does not mean making a virtue of not thinking, but of going past thought. It means sanctioning and standing behind a belief where, technically speaking, going on thought alone – you would have to say ‘I can’t prove it.’ Where you would otherwise have to stop, where you would have to stop if you stopped at the limits of logic, reason and language itself – here, it is precisely faith that allows you to keep going. To keep thinking, and conversing.

Logic, reason, and rationality would not sanction your belief that the sun will come up tomorrow – for in their well-defined eyes this belief is based on induction (on the fact that it came up yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, even on every other day you’ve ever experienced), and induction is not a sound principle by which to draw logical conclusions about the future. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use or believe in induction; I’m simply pointing out that it’s a faith- not logic- based belief.

As Wittgenstein noted, there are limits to thought and language, and faith is what happens, it is what you must rely on, and what you put to use, in going beyond this boundary. Living our human existences inherently involves – day in and day out – going beyond this boundary; whether you recognize and engage with it consciously and deliberately or not. The appeal to faith is not an effort to be thoughtless, but – and again I am referring to faith proper here not to dogma – a highly aware or mindful motion to continue beyond the ordinary bounds of thought.

Let’s continue to go consciously, and deliberately, beyond the ordinary bounds of thought together. Read more from On Faith. Or Why You Don’t Live Without It. released today! Click here to preview and purchase.