Monthly Archives: March 2013

Disambiguating ‘faith’

The word ‘faith’ often trips up people who are outside Christianity (and, indeed, some inside of it), because it is a word with multiple meanings. What are some of those?

1. Faith as in a spiritual life. ‘My faith life …’ = ‘My spiritual life …’

2. Faith as in a religion. ‘My faith teaches that …’ = ‘My religion teaches that …’

3. Faith as in conditional belief, which will become warranted upon confirmation. ‘First, have faith in God, then …’ This is typically used when talking about developing a relationship with God, and so refers to having faith in the character of God. God seems to be saying you should do x, but is x really going to have good results? So, conditionally, act on x, and then see what the result is. If the result is good, your faith will be confirmed. You have reason to act because many others have, and testify to the results, say.

However, it can also be used when talking about faith in the existence of God, and proceeds in a similar way. How do I know there is a God? Well, listen to Him and act on his advice. Judge by the results you get. And so on.

4. Faith as in knowledge, obtained often through religious experience. ‘I know there is a God by faith …’, as in the ‘light’ of the ‘Holy Spirit’ which enters ones and gives (say) a direct knowledge of God and the existence of ‘Heaven’, typically in a dramatic experience of ‘conversion’. (This sort of experience happens to many Christians.)

Similar to 3., this can also apply not only to the existence of God, but his character, as typically an experience of this sort involves that there is a God and something about what kind of God He is (a God of ‘light’, or goodness, and so on – these are attributes perceived in the experience, and they are perceived as belonging to something, i.e., ‘God’).

As mentioned above, however, some Christians misunderstand the proper use of this word (as also happens in regular language, where people use a word mistakenly). For example, they will (perhaps lazily) invoke it to ward off criticism, saying they know something simply by faith, where it is construed by the would-be critic as blind faith – simply believing something without any (epistemological) reason for doing so. A similar situation might apply to, say, 3. above, where a person thinks the Christian is advocating blind ‘faith’ in God, without an appeal to any consequent empirical verification! Of course, that doesn’t make any sense, and so the Christian is disregarded.

How does God ‘speak’?

When I was growing up, I thought God ‘speaking’ meant he literally spoke – one could hear His voice, like any other, although perhaps only oneself could hear it (it was ‘subvocal’). I never heard any such voice, however, and so concluded this was a useless idea, and nonsense.

Old idea: God speaks to people in a way such that they hear Him as a human voice, which clearly almost never happens, and so is useless.

It turns out that Christians don’t mean this when they talk about God ‘speaking’ to one. A different take is:

New idea: God speaks through a specific kind of intuition, or through events that occur which point (are signs) to something.

So, for a Christian, developing a ‘relationship’ with God often involves developing an ability to sift through their intuitions, note which ones probably come from God, and then what they mean. They become good at this by noting whether the intuitions turn out to be good ones or not, and then refining their perception of their intuitions (intuitions that come from God, so the idea goes, will be of a certain sort, or have a certain kind of feel to them).

It also involves seeing ‘signs’ in the natural world – through people or events – that point towards God’s intentions for something one should do. For example, they will repeatedly run into an image where it seems unlikely for them to have done so. (Similarly, the word ‘miracle’ in the English version of the New Testament is often translated from a word that means ‘sign’.)

The intuitions and signs often come in consequence to ‘prayer’, itself a vague word that contains many practices in Christianity. The basic notion, though, is that Christians can develop certain practices for increasing communication with God, and in particular practices for listening so one can understand what God is ‘saying’.

This makes a little more sense, and seems more plausible in that people do have intuitions that occur in response to prayer or what have you and that they attribute to God (whatever their source), and which turn out to be useful, and that there are various events in Christians lives that they could interpret as having more significance than is typically given to such events from a secular framework, and which, similarly, upon following up turn out to be useful.

Why tithe?

Tithing is a practice that is common in Christianity. The word ‘tithe’ comes from an Old English word meaning ‘tenth’, and refers to a spiritual practice of giving a tenth of one’s income to God. Nowadays, this typically translates into giving a tenth of one’s income (i.e., 10%) to an organization of some kind that one feels ‘called’ (an intuition in Christianity, which supposedly comes from God) to give to. (This doesn’t include taxation, which is relevantly different, for reasons that will become clear.)

Why tithe, though?

On the surface, tithing seems like just giving something up. However, the idea in Christianity is that tithing actually adds to your life. How?

1. Tithing can create a sense of abundance. I.e., it sends a signal to your brain that there is more than enough. This is useful for a couple reasons. The first is that it feels good to have a sense of abundance in one’s life, decreases stress, and so on. Tithing causes us to realize that (at least most of the time) there is in fact an abundance of this sort. Of course, we wouldn’t want this if it were a delusion. This leads to the second reason, that, whatever the psychological mechanisms, when we consistently feel a sense of abundance, that tends to create abundance of various kinds.

2. Tithing also creates a good concept associated to money or material goods. I.e., we lessen our attachment to money, which is probably a good thing, as money isn’t the basis of excellence. This idea is captured in Christianity in the First Commandment (or what you could call the First Sensible Suggestion), to put God first place (“though shalt have no other gods before me”), i.e., don’t value things like money above things that tend to be more important and fundamental to success.

3. Tithing can help out a cause you believe in. This also moves one outside oneself, which tends to be a good thing psychologically to an extent.

Why a tenth (10%)? I think the important part from an individual perspective is that it’s a number that seems significant, and so creates a sense of abundance (and so on). (The psychological difference between 9% and 10% in a base-10 counting system (such as we have) is also significant.)

Reasons 2 and 3 make some sense of the idea attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, that those who give publicly already have gotten their reward. If you tithe without most people in society knowing, you lessen the motivation of doing it so that it will make you look good, and so increase the chances of creating a good association towards money (putting God first place), and of getting oneself outside of oneself (while giving to show off tends to do the reverse).

These 3 things, so the idea goes, can also increase the chances of alignment or connection with God, where being in such a state is a good thing. (Also see here.)

The point of free will

Humility keeps us cognizant of where we have power, and where we don’t – and why it’s useful to align ourselves with God’s will, according to Christianity.

On the other hand, Christianity emphasizes that we have free will, and therefore ultimate responsibility over our own actions.

The key here is that we have ultimate responsibility over our own actions. It also (correctly) notes that we have little ability to control anything beyond that. Instead, by choosing to do so, Christians can align themselves with God, who can then pull off amazing (‘miraculous‘) things beyond the power of any given human (or so the idea goes).

So there is an interesting balance, between us not being in control (God is) and us having¬†ultimate control over our own actions. ‘Ultimate’ means that there is, in a moment, an ability to be self-conscious and control our action. However, in many cases we simply decide to do something (eat food that isn’t good for us long-term) because we decide to prioritize the moment, for whatever reason. What’s important to note here is that we can also begin to work toward changing the circumstances, such that some context doesn’t occur as much, or at all, say.

The goal in Christianity is to align ourselves with God’s will, but Christianity recognizes that free will isn’t sufficient. As noted, often we will prioritize short-term over long-term. This is where the development of will-power comes into play. There are various Christian practices aimed at increasing one’s will-power, and these are often called ‘ascetic‘ practices. The word ‘ascetic’ originally was applied to bodily training (for example, going to the gym). In the Christian tradition, it has come to be applied to spiritual training, and in particular to spiritual training aimed at increasing will-power.

Why is will-power important? You can think of the equation as free will x will-power = practical freedom. So, although we have ultimate freedom, often our will-power is so weak that we constantly make short-term decisions. It’s not that we don’t have the ability to decide, but that we haven’t trained our ‘spirit’ to make decisions that tend to benefit us long-term instead of short-term.

The first step in claiming the implicit power of free will is to simply be aware that it exists. Once one remembers one can choose, one can begin to put into place the actions which lead to things like increased will-power (through various spiritual practices, such as certain Christian ascetic practices).

(In this sense, the awareness of free will is the basis of all virtues, which are more or less habits of the mind, because free will ultimately is what allows us to make the decisions which might lead to the creation of those habits of the mind.)

The point of humility

I used to think of the Christian notion of humility as misplaced. It seemed like a good way to avoid responsibility.

Old idea: ‘humility’ is at best false modesty, at worst a way to avoid responsibility, and so tends to make people’s lives worse.

I think this is actually true in some (many?) cases. However, humility can also be very useful:

New idea: humility, as far as it is useful, is a proper understanding of one’s knowledge and ability to influence various things in the world.

That is to say, in reality, it is far easier to over-estimate our knowledge or power than to under-estimate it. In this sense, having a kind of ‘humility’ becomes useful. It’s not something to limit you, but to expand your ability to act, by accurately seeing where the current limits of your ability to influence a situation are. (Similarly, often when one gets frustrated, say, it’s because one thinks that one’s ability to control things extends beyond what it actually does.)

A further benefit of humility in this sense of¬†proper understanding of one’s knowledge and influence on various things in the world is that, in Christianity, this thought process can also remind us about God’s acting. God is much, much more powerful than any given human according to Christianity, and so it makes sense to ground oneself (conceptually) in God and align oneself with God’s will. It makes sense to align oneself because God, who is goodness, also wants what is good – abundance, joy, and so on – for us, according to Christianity.

Christianity also tends to emphasize free will, and so there is an interesting balancing act between free will (one can do something) and humility (proper understanding of one’s knowledge and ability to influence things). In a sense, though, they are complementary notions properly understood, but that deserves a separate post!

The Christian angle on New Year’s Resolutions

Currently in the Christian calendar, it is the time of ‘Lent’.

When I was growing up, I had no idea where the word ‘Lent’ actually came from. It was just another boring, stultifying, stuffy word associated with Christianity. It was about taking things out of one’s life that were good in order to suffer unnecessarily (as I was given to understand that Lent was about ‘giving up’ something one liked).

Old idea: Lent is about lack, about irrationally removing good things in one’s life.

This was basically the notion I associated with ‘Lent’ (‘zzzz …’) for almost my entire life.

What is interesting, however, is that Lent is actually an Old English word for Spring, and furthermore that Spring is in a way a more natural (literally!) time for the start of a new year. In a sense, then, ‘Lent’ can be thought to bring in the new year in another (natural) sense in addition to the tradition of the New Year beginning on January 1st.

But what of the odd, backwards Christian notion of ‘giving something up’ for Lent? If you think of Lent as the start of a new year, then consider the popular tradition for the secular New Year which is in some ways similar to the idea of giving something up – we call them ‘New Year’s Resolutions’.

Yet, no one thinks that New Year’s Resolutions are about lack – rather, they are about making our lives better, often by reducing our consumption of certain things or starting new patterns of activity such as certain kinds of exercise.

New idea: Similarly in Christian society, at the ‘beginning’ of the year it is a time for renewal, for launching out on practices in order to increase abundance in our lives. In particular it is a period for starting new spiritual practices.

There is a strong tradition in Christianity of ‘asceticism’. I used to think of asceticism similarly to how I conceive of Lent – a giving up of things irrationally. Here’s what’s interesting about ‘asceticism’, though: it comes from an ancient Greek word, meaning ‘bodily training’. Asceticism was originally about bodily training, i.e., the common New Year’s Resolution!

The whole idea with asceticism (both in the original etymological sense and what is probably a more accurate Christian sense) is that any lack is done in order to have abundance. Christians go beyond bodily training, to spiritual training (which has as one goal to increase our will-power, so as to increase our freedom). When training, one doesn’t focus on lack but rather has a vision of an abundance of health, vitality, strength, that presumably might occur because of the ascetic practice. Similarly, one point of ascetic practices in Christianity is to increase the abundance of joy, love, will power (and therefore freedom), and so on, in one’s life.

(The period of Lent in the Christian calendar is approximately 40 days long, which is also probably a good duration to create a new habit which is then fairly strong in many cases.)

The Third Sensible Suggestion

The Third Commandment in Christianity is (Book of Exodus, Chapter 20, Verses 8-10):

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work.”

Initially, this seemed like a very negative sort of idea. I paraphrased it roughly as:

Old idea: On Sunday you should do nothing, except worship God so He feels better. He’s vain and self-centred.

Indeed, that was the significance of this idea to me almost my whole life. It ran together with the rest of Christianity – boring, strange, lacking.

However, that’s not the only way to understand this.

New idea: it’s a good idea to take one day a week to focus on spiritual development, because spirituality is one of the bases for excellence.

Consider the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Understood in the first idea’s sense, the First Commandment also could be interpreted as a self-centred edict from God.

Understood along the second idea’s lines, however, the First Commandment is reflecting that spiritual development, and in particular developing a relationship with God, is really important for people, and once you do that your life becomes much better.

I.e., that they’re commandments not for God’s sake but for ours is the basic notion. I.e., God is a good God, who wants us to have love, joy, abundance, and so on.

It seems like this is a plausible interpretation of a least one dimension of the meaning of the first and third commandments (and is more in line with the idea attributed to Jesus of Nazareth that “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”).

What is Hell?

In some popular characterizations, Hell is a punishment by God where the primary analogy used is eternal suffering in fire, for transgression of certain rules He sets down. This discussion by Robert Barron gives a different possible characterization.

That is, it is possibly more usefully described not as a fire but as entombment in ice.

Furthermore, it might be more useful to consider Hell to be not punishment, but a consequence of self-isolation – a result of ‘spiritual physics’, as Barron puts it. So sin – which can lead to Hell – isn’t something which leads God to punish one but rather, in Dante’s phrase, being ‘caved in on oneself’, as opposed to connected. (Another way to consider sin is as a non-alignment.)

Under this way of understanding things, to sin is to voluntarily turn away from the connection that is available to God (which is Goodness, i.e., in Christianity God is something that is good to be connected to), and to ‘reign as the sovereign of one’s own little kingdom’. To use the analogy of ice, it is an icy self-absorption, a spiritual ‘frozen-ness’. (And so, according to the Christian notion, it is then possible for one to enter a Hell where one is frozen irrevocably.)

I think this makes a little more sense of Hell and what it is supposed to be according to Christianity. It is not a punishment by God (who according to Christianity is a kind of love), but a logical result of a choice (or series of choices) to isolate oneself from the love, joy, abundance, and so on, that is or comes from God.

Are miracles unlikely events?

Richard Dawkins quotes David Hume (the 18th century Scottish philosopher) in The God Delusion (2006, p. 91) concerning the likelihood of miracles:

“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”

As Dawkins goes on to argue in reference to an event at Fatima in 1917, where thousands of pilgrims supposedly saw the sun ‘crashing down’:

“It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. […] Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage [. …] But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. I mean, Portugal is not that isolated.”

This argument (and David Hume’s) seems to rest on a misunderstanding of what a miracle is. A miracle is not a highly unlikely event. Rather, a miracle is an event that seems highly unlikely if certain conventional methods of explanation are used. In the case of Fatima above, the obvious answer to Dawkins’ response is: there is probably something else going on, which is likely. For example, when thousands of people saw the sun ‘crashing down’, it did not involve a literal movement of the sun as Dawkins interprets any ‘miracle’ to have to involve. There is some other explanation, which does not involve very low probabilities.

Indeed, this sort of explanation is probably the explanation that people would accept once it is pointed out (whatever it might be).

For more on a way to define what miracles are, see here.

Dawkins and the ‘argument from experience’

One of the common arguments for the existence of God is the ‘argument from experience’.

As Richard Dawkins says in The God Delusion (2006, p. 87)

“Many people believe in God because they believe they have seen a vision of him – or of an angel or a virgin in blue – with their own eyes. Or he speaks to them inside their heads.”

These are exceptional forms of experience. More commonly, people have intuitions that they ascribe to God, similar to various other intuitions we have on a daily basis. Dawkins continues (p. 88):

“You say you have experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant, but that probably doesn’t impress you. [Dawkins then cites a couple examples of people who have mistaken beliefs of a religious sort.] Religious beliefs are different only in that the people who claim them are numerous.

To the extent one can find an argument in this paragraph of his book, Dawkins’ seems to be roughly as follows:

  1. Some people have experiences that they believe originate in God.
  2. Some of these people are obviously mistaken.
  3. Therefore, there are no experiences that originate in God.

Consider an analogous argument:

  1. Some people believe they have seen a tiger.
  2. Some of these people are obviously mistaken.
  3. Therefore, there is no such thing as tigers.

Obviously, some people have mistaken intuitions or beliefs about a wide range of subjects. Someone being mistaken about something (whether they’ve seen a tiger, the proper answer to a mathematical equation, God, and so on) does not mean that everyone is mistaken about those things.

Any arguments from ‘religious experience’, which itself is a diverse class of experiences about a diverse range of subjects, can’t be resolved at this level of argument. Rather, one must look at the swath of specific experiences in order to evaluate whether they or some of them, indeed, constitute good evidence (or part of a larger picture of good evidence) for whatever they may supposedly be about.

Dawkins does not do this in The God Delusion.