I’m often asked, generally by myself, “What’s wrong with faith? Doesn’t faith help us get through tough times and feel positive about the future?” Here’s how I answer, generally to myself: “Faith is fine when it points toward objective reality. But when faith keeps us revolving in the merry-go-round of subjective conceptions, it’s dangerous and should be discarded."
Never passing up an opportunity to quote myself, this is how I discussed the issue in my book, “Return to the One”:
The scientific method, by and large, is founded on the first assumption [“I’ll believe it when I see it”]: what we experience is an objective reality that is independent of human beliefs or cognition. If observation, either perceptual or mathematical, proves the scientist wrong, then his beliefs change to match the actual observational experience.
Observations, of course, are not made in a conceptual vacuum, so there is a continual interplay between believing and observing in both everyday life and scientific inquiry. At the most basic level, a belief that there is something real to be observed lies at the root of every act of observation. Physicist Shimon Malin suggests this is one implication of Einstein’s statement ‘it is the theory which decides what we can observe.’
But this is a far cry from the more extreme position that theories, or beliefs, actually bring into being the object of observation. If I’m on a sinking ship, my belief that there may be lifejackets aboard will lead me to look for one in the storage locker. However, that belief won’t produce a life jacket if none are on the ship. When I open the locker, what I see doesn’t depend on what I subjectively believe is inside; it depends on what is objectively there.
By contrast, most religions assume a person comes to be saved spiritually after believing in salvation. Thus, to experience salvation one has to have a firm faith in the possibility of salvation. This is the flip side of a null hypothesis, which helps explain why science and religion are so frequently at odds. Science sees religion blindly accepting unproven beliefs as true whereas religion sees science as shutting its eyes to truths proven only to those who believe.
Now, if salvation could occur during a person’s earthly life, we would not have such a great conflict between science and religion. For even if salvation was a personal affair, unobservable (and hence unconfirmable) by others, at least the person who had been saved would have convincing proof, the goal of science, that the theological tenets of his or her chosen religion were true. The problem, though, is that religions traditionally teach salvation occurs only after physical death, not before. [Return to the One, pp. 17-18]
So, on an individual level faith is dangerous when it lulls us into a complacent attitude of “everything is going to work out fine.” The ship is sinking but I have faith that I’ll be rescued, so I don’t need to look for a life jacket. I’m going to die one day but I have faith that I’ll be saved, so I don’t need to seek a direct experience of non-bodily life. In either case, I’m putting my hope in something that may happen in the future rather than taking action to solve my problem now.
But what if a situation is hopeless? The ship is sinking and there are no life jackets on board. Standing at the rail, watching the ocean grow nearer, won’t believing in a miraculous rescue make my last moments more bearable? Or similarly, my body is dying and there is no possibility of recovery. Laying in bed, aware of death coming closer, won’t believing in a miraculous salvation make my last moments more bearable?
I’m sympathetic with those who emphatically answer “Yes!” to these questions. For I used to feel the same way. And if I found myself at death’s door in the next moment, I might rapidly convert to faith in…whatever. Jesus’ saving grace, Buddha’s boundless compassion, Guru’s mystic power, Tao’s natural way—if I could cling to a hope that something would support me when everything else was gone, you might see me undergoing a proverbial deathbed conversion.
Hope, though, is a flimsy raft. Faced with a flood of monstrous proportions, I’d rather find the sturdy ship Reality at my beck and call. And who knows? Perhaps it is, right here, right now. More than that: Almost certainly it is, right here, right now. Reality, by definition, isn’t distant, insubstantial, untrustworthy, shaky. If I’m not in touch with what is real, the fault doesn’t lie with reality, but with my ability to embrace it.
Thus there is indeed a problem with having too much faith in faith: our trust should rest in reality, not in beliefs, hypotheses, or conjectures about reality. Alan Watts puts it nicely in “The Way of Zen”: Our problem is that the power of thought enables us to construct symbols of things apart from the things themselves. This includes the ability to make a symbol, an idea of ourselves apart from ourselves. Because the idea is so much more comprehensible than the reality, the symbol so much more stable than the fact, we learn to identify ourselves with our idea of ourselves.
And, to identify many other things with our idea of those things, instead of with the reality of what they are in themselves. God. Soul. Death. Heaven. Hell. Salvation. Damnation. These are just words. The realities they point to—assuming the pointing is anywhere near the right direction—are entirely different from the words. Watts shares this anecdote:
“Professor Irving Lee, of Northwestern University, used to hold up a matchbox before his class, asking ‘What’s this?’ The students would usually drop squarely into the trap and say, ‘A matchbox!’ At this Professor Lee would say, ‘No, no! It’s this-’ throwing the matchbox at the class, and adding, ‘Matchbox is a noise. Is this a noise?”
I’m tired of noises. I want the real thing. I like to think that if I’ve got any chance of trading faith in a concept for contact with substantial reality, I’ll take the deal. Even right up to my last breath. If I’m clutching onto an idea of something with all my might, I don’t see how I can grasp the thing itself. So long as I sit here staring at the computer screen, saying to myself, “You know you can type!”, I’m not typing. My faith that I can type has to dissolve so I can actually move my fingers and make letters appear.
This is the way of science: moving from what might be to what actually is. The goal is to move from uncertain faith to more certain knowledge. I have to say “more certain” because knowledge always is provisional in science. A conviction that absolute truth has been reached freezes the truth-seeker in place, forestalling the possibility of discovering more reality over the horizon.
I’ve focused on the individual in this post, but will close with the observation that excessive faith is dangerous for the collective pursuit of reality also. Elevating subjective beliefs over objective observations causes religious fanatics to deny evident facts. I’ve got no problem with them pursuing their own personal delusions, but when fundamentalists try to twist scientific findings to mesh with preconceived articles of faith, they have to be vigorously fought on the societal level.
For example, I recently wrote about how the discovery of feathered dinosaur fossils confirms evolutionary theory. Yet Christian creationists, amazingly, have no problem saying, “Scripture teaches us that birds had a separate origin from other animals. We are on firmer ground if we build our scientific hypotheses on biblical revelation rather than ‘shoe-horning’ the data to fit evolution.” This is insane. Solid factual data are to be cast aside in favor of words from a holy book.
Of course, it isn’t only Christians who do this. I’ve spoken approvingly about the theory of evolution to members of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, a group with which I’ve been associated for many years, and have been told “No, evolution can’t be true. Haven’t you read what Master Charan Singh said about creation?”
Well, yes, I have. In a book called “The Master Answers” this twentieth-century Indian guru was asked, “Does all human life start in lower forms and evolve upwards? I mean, in animal forms, or even lower?” And Charan Singh replied, “When He [God] created the whole thing, He just created. The creation did not just develop slowly from one thing…The whole world and everything in it was just created at once.”
Now, clearly this conception is wrong. Science knows that the universe is fourteen billion years old and that life gradually evolved on earth over the course of several billion years. I have much more confidence that science is right about this than that the words of Charan Singh represent reality. Yet just as fundamentalist Christians are willing to elevate a Biblical passage over scientific facts, so are fundamentalist followers of Radha Soami Satsang Beas willing to do the same with this quotation. Bizarre.
And again, dangerous. For this mentality allows evident threats to humankind to be interpreted as the divine will. Read Glenn Scherer’s excellent article, “The Godly Must Be Crazy,” to learn how Christian right views are swaying politicians and threatening the environment.