Faith Breaks the Golden Rule
Mini-epiphany time! (Macro-explanation time!) I think I just put my finger on why I’ve become more and more repelled by the concept of faith. For years I’ve been thinking this was because of the strictly interior rational deconstruction of my own reasoning faculties. I’ve said many times now that I believe my epistemology is broken. Not in the sense that it must be wrong. But in the sense that it puts me out of phase with society. As a social animal, any anomalous behavior, beliefs, attractions, etc. are little ‘breaks’ from social cohesion and acceptance. So the fact that I can’t ‘sign on the dotted line’ for practically ANY belief structure makes me an outsider to everyone. (at least on some level) My failure to be able to put my stamp of belief-approval on anything is not from lack of trying. Being raised a Christian and having very close ties in that institution, and nothing but positive experiences from it, meant that I naturally tried as hard as I could to keep believing all the doctrines that would maintain my social cohesion and acceptance in that group. My drifting away from it/them was never a case of finding some “more real” Truth with a capital T out there that defied or contradicted those doctrines. The drifting away from my faith was strictly driven by the slow revelation that I’m a terrible machine for interpreting reality.
Cognitive biases, brain sciences, education about other religions and philosophies, all chipped away at my epistemological bedrock. The one MOST people still have intact. It’s the one where you can say you “just know that’s true” like a political ideal, an economic principal, an educational maxim; a personal gut instinct telling you not to back down no matter what others say. It’s the thing that propels passionate people to do powerful things. I broke that mechanism. I’m now mostly powerless.
This is not say that I don’t hold convictions. I do. But they are ephemeral. Contingent on new facts, interpretations and analysis.
Which is what all educated people are trained to say about themselves. But their manner of conduct when it comes to confrontations with opposing beliefs reveal just how true or false the claim is. Do they Strawman or Ironman their interlocutor’s argument? Do they sincerely research the opposing side’s material? Do they ever back down to say: “I could be wrong. Let me do more research.”? It’s easy to count cognitive biases and logical fallacies when you’re removed from an argument. And it’s such a delightful feeling to Monday Morning Quarterback someone else’s exchange, pointing out how *I* would never make this or that mistake because I’m so well read on the subject of cognitive biases and logical fallacies. I’m sure you can find plenty of those in this blog. My point is not that my broken epistemology frees me from cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Only that it removes the incentive to convert anyone to my ideas. I don’t get those dopamine infusions when someone relents to my impeccable logic and yells “I WAS WRONG! TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR BRILLIANT IDEAS!” You know, that thing that constantly happens in internet debates.
Ok, so that never happens, but in that hypothetical scenario, I don’t ‘win’ anything. No good feeling. No vindication. Why? Because for all I know I just convinced someone of something that’s totally wrong and is going to negatively impact their lives and society around them. I don’t think I’ve recently ‘converted’ anyone from one position to another, but I’ve had plenty of exchanges where they have softened their position and acknowledged that there may be some merit to parts of my argument. Back in the day that was a huge rush. Back in the day that was me saving a soul from hell or helping to make our country great again. Now I don’t even know what those words are SUPPOSED to mean, let alone what they actually mean.
Which leads me (a little closer) to my point. The word “faith” means so many things to so many people it would be a fool’s errand to try to define it here. But I can simply use the word according to the way *I* have used it and how it impacted me throughout my life. For me it meant accepting the validity of doctrine that had been handed down to me, without recourse to falsification, logical consistency, or definitional variation. Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are, in fact, strongly encouraged -to a degree- in my religious tradition. But the degree to pursue these projects have fairly strict boundaries that, once one crosses, sets one squarely outside of “the faith”. Which is precisely what happened to me. I witnessed first-hand the post-hoc rationalization for why my autistic sister was never un-autisticafied, why my missionary/pastor church member died of cancer despite many churches in many countries praying against, thus negating any attempt at falsification of claims. One must simply have faith that the lack of healing had a higher purpose. (Could be. It’s not even worth the dispute to me.) I witnessed the parsing of texts in order to fully accept a God who ordered multiple genocides and the rape of girls with the God who IS Love. The God who loves the smell of burnt sacrifices and the eternal torment of the wicked with the God who forgives 70x7. When un-contradicting these apparent contradictions is the bread and butter of theology, it sends a pretty strong message that no amount of apparent contradiction is enough to breach the dam of determination to stay faithful to the doctrines. I witnessed the public shaming of any evangelical leaders who dared to point to variant readings and interpretive frameworks that might ameliorate these apparent contradictions in heterodox or heretical way. (e.g. God doesn’t know the future, eternal hell is not real, etc.) People who pointed out the etymology for the Latin word that got used to render a Hebrew word that clearly doesn’t always mean ‘eternal’. The people who think Paul’s admonition about the evils of homosexuality are closer to his opinion that long hair is “unnatural” on a man, than the admonition of perfect commands handed down by a God who is super upset by unusual sex. (Again, I’m not ARGUING for the validity of any of the “orthodox” or “heretical” positions here. I have NO IDEA which is right or wrong or some other intermediate state, or completely invalidated by some OTHER truth.)
The need to stay within the boundaries set by my inherited doctrine is how I interpret “faith”. How do I, after years of intense and sincere research, come to a place where I’m on the wrong side of that belief divide, and still claim to “have faith”? Simple. I don’t. I still have many of the same hopes that Christians do. I still feel and call myself a follower of Christ. (I don’t care whether my positions place me inside or outside of anyone’s particular definition of Christianity.) But I don’t BELIEVE those things anymore. Not because I discovered anything BETTER. But, as described above, my epistemology broke and I lack the engine to continue to sign on the dotted line.
Since I lost the ability to order my life around a set of religious doctrines, I had to find a substitute. Not because I need a crutch, but because all human activity requires a set of values in order to arrange and enact literally any activity. Once religious doctrine fell away, I was left with the underlying values. And the primary value under all that turned out to be Love. My Christian heritage has taught me that absent from the Christian doctrines, any attempt to promote or embody Love is doomed to failure. Oh well. That’s still my life’s goal and organizing principal value. God is free to use me or not. As broken as I am, and disconnected from the human zeitgeist. But God will have to use a different handle than faith if I am still to be an instrument.
And now my small epiphany. I’ve explained how I’m broken. I’ve explained how I lost the ability to faith. Now I’m realizing that it’s not the broken epistemology that is actually at the emotional core of my resistance to faith. It’s actually the Golden Rule. Is it irony that one of Jesus’ central messages undermines one of His other central messages for me? I don’t know, but it sure did, and here’s why. The Golden Rule of doing unto others what you would have them do unto you is -as far as I can make out- based on Love. Having faith in a proposition is not. As far as I can tell, having faith in a proposition is self-oriented. It’s an internal process of deliberation where you determine that your interpretation of a thing is so infallible that no other data is needed or wanted. I was taught all my life that faith is accepting what God tells you. What that glosses over is both the delivery mechanisms (Bible, prayer, prophecy of others who share your faith, preaching, etc.) and the person they are delivered to. (my brain/soul/heart/spirit/whatever you want to call it) In order to accept a proposition “on faith” one has to believe that all those delivery mechanisms AND the self that interprets them, are all infallible. I can’t see a way around this problem. I’ve never heard a solution to this problem.
This applies to the Golden Rule thusly: In an ideal world, every person I share my ideas and experiences with would try their best to understand me and what I’m saying. They would not have a partition where literally nothing I say could change their mind on a given topic. They would not have faith that this or that proposition is off-limits to new ideas. Faith that democrats are always virtuous warriors of light. Faith that Keynesian economics are the best model for interpreting that field. Faith that vaccines cause autism. Faith that democrats entire platform is based on being lazy and selfish, Faith that genetically modified foods are poison. Faith the republicans are all motivated by greed and hate, Faith that unborn babies are only tissue. Faith that anarchy would usher in a utopia. Faith that working hard guarantees success. Faith that eating animals has zero moral implications. Faith that there is one God and Muhammad is His prophet. Faith that banning guns is impossible. And on and on and on. Faith is exactly what keeps us from actually hearing each other. The Sacred is what builds echo chambers and in/out groups. Faith is the substance of not hearing.
As a social animal I don’t just WANT to be heard. I literally NEED it. Humans actually go insane without some amount of human interaction and love. We get by -get our bare minimum of being heard- within our family and our tribal communities. I think we can do better. I want to LOVE all people. That means I want to HEAR all people. And I simply can’t do that if large portions of my belief landscape are quarantined by faith, effectively blocking billions of ideas. Can I ever have a 100% “open mind” where literally ANY idea has an equal and fair hearing in my head? I don’t think so. I think our mind requires some amount of restricted space in order to operate coherently. (For instance, I still can’t really HEAR most conspiracy theories.) The question I have been asking, and answering, over the past decade has been: Do I increase or decrease that restricted space that faith creates and occupies? And my project of opening up space in order to Love/hear others required that I bulldoze large patches of terrain that were formerly occupied by faith. Not because I want an open mind for open mindedness’ sake, or for self-improvement. But because I want to Love better. And yes, this proposition that “The best way to love people is to hear them as well as I can”, is a faith statement. Again, this is not a binary state of pure closed or open mindedness. It’s an ongoing project of experimenting to try to find the best way for my actions and attitudes to match my values. I want to be loved via being heard. Therefore, per the Golden Rule, I must love others by hearing as well as I can, which requires losing a lot of faith.