A Re-framing of Faith

After my previous post about faith, which led to a fruitful discussion, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of faith to humans and how it might be framed in a more useful way.  A couple summers ago I presented a series of posts about 8 virtues or qualities that make a good human, and faith was the last one I discussed.  I think that if I were to do that series again today I might change the word faith to “prediction”.

In the discussion we had on my most recent post about faith, we talked about the difference between religious faith, and the sort of everyday way we might use the word faith.  One of the things that I talked about as a difference between how a scientist might use faith, and what a religious person might call faith are two different things.  The most important difference being that a scientist would be willing to change what he has faith in, based on evidence.  I have always argue that while faith is important we should be willing to change what we have faith as we learn.  The other thing that I argued was that faith is built on evidence and there is a very big difference in having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, and faith that there is a supernatural divine being.  The difference there being the weight of evidence, and the quality of evidence used in building those two types of“faith”.

But I started to think about it at a deeper level and it seems to me that at the heart of faith is really something else when I started to ask, “Why do we have faith at all?”  Faith is a representation of our desire to predict an uncertain future.  When I had my son, I wrote a post called Love and the Future, about how when we love we start painting pictures of the future in our mind.  It happens in romantic relationships too.  According to a friend of mine who is a counselor, one of the hardest parts of counseling someone after a difficult breakup is for them to let go of those “future plans”.  I have also written a post before about “expectations”.  In the post, I talked about the benefits of expectations in that we rise to meet them.  By having a future goal in mind, we make better progress than none at all.  Of course, there are many who would say you shouldn’t have expectations, because they will only lead to disappointment, but I am not sure it’s possible to live a life without any expectations.  It’s natural that we’d have some, but I think that it’s true we might have limits into how many failed expectations we can shoulder.  Either way it seems to me that expectations are also a type of “faith”.  A desire to place some certainty in the future based on our desires and wants.  It is something we expect to come true, even if it doesn’t.

For the past few months I have been practicing mindfulness meditation, and it has been an enjoyable experience.  I’ve been using an app called Headspace.  It avoids a lot of the new age type stuff and really focuses on the philosophy of meditation and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in getting into it.  The goal is to be more focused on the present, to be mindful of what we are doing in the moment.  A thought struck me yesterday when I was practicing it, as that one of the things they tell you in the guided meditation is that you want to think about “what are your goals with the meditation” and after it’s over they suggest you think about what is going to the very next thing you do.  So even in something that is supposed to be about the present, we cannot help but look forward at least a little bit in our thinking.

I have come to the conclusion that it is natural in humans to be forward thinkers.  I have had the thought before that one of the things that makes humans more intelligent is our ability to project further into the future than other species.  Now one could argue that we are also still pretty awful at it, but the fact that we try is actually impressive.  We look for patterns in the universe and we try to project those patterns into the future so that we can be less uncertain and fearful about it.  While Farmer’s almanacs would like us to believe that squirrels can predict months in advance about the severity of the winter, it is clear in an evolutionary sense life on average are poor forward thinkers.  If they were good at it, I’m not sure extinctions would happen as often as they do.  For instance, an animal can only assume a winter will lie between certain climatic norms.  Some portion of the population will develop mutations better equipped for let’s say surviving a larger range of conditions, but when change becomes to extreme large proportions of a population if not all, cannot adapt and die out.  Humans are better at it, unfortunately we are also deeply conceited and that leads to problems.  So given this human propensity to want to predict, the best thing we can do is to build value systems that allow us to be successful more often.

When we say we have faith in our partner, our ourselves, we are making a statement that there is an expectation that based on existing evidence that we will continue to handle some future situation in the same way we have before.  Making a statement like, “I have faith I will do well on my exams”.  Presumably you have taken enough exams to presume a similar outcome.  More than that, to make sure it isn’t blind faith, you have examined the patterns to your success through various study methods, getting a certain amount sleep, etc to make sure your faith is not misplaced.  Your faith is a type of prediction.  A value system that aids in this faith is your ability to be introspective and also perhaps learn from others as to how they study and learn what are good and bad practices.

So where does religious faith fit into all of this?  Hopefully by now it is pretty clear, but let’s look a little closer.  I have read several atheist and agnostic scholars speak about religion as a type of model.  This is how religion has always made the most sense to me. What is the purpose of models?  In science models are things that model scientific processes that give us more predictive capabilities.  The better we understand a process, on average, the more predictive we will be.  This is why a scientist’s ‘faith’ might be quite different than a religious person’s faith because the success of a scientific theory is its predictive capability.  The poorer it is at prediction the less certain we are about our understanding.  In my field of meteorology one of the main reasons we try to model atmospheric processes is to become better at prediction.  It is helpful to be more aware of what weather and climatic patterns are coming in the future.

Religious faith, at its root, is a kind model.  One constructed a long time ago, built largely on false patternicity errors, but given how little we understood about the universe its weak predictive capabilities (in line with empirical evidence) is hardly surprising.  Nevertheless it is an attempt to know the future.  It’s full of prophet predictions, it speaks of what happens to you when you die, how the world will end, what consequences your actions might have.  People pray or plead for diving intervention for their future endeavors.  ‘Please get me this job, please make it rain so our crops come in, please don’t let my mother die of cancer.’  These are all  attempts to give us certainty in an ever changing universe in which are predictive capabilities, especially at an individual level, are extremely limited.  The statement “God has a plan for you” is a prime example of how religion has the course of your life worked out already.  There is no need to worry about it.  Just have faith.  People find it soothing to pray, people find it peaceful to know the purpose of the universe, to know what will happen to them when they die.  In fact, on the whole, religion gives far more certainty than science, which is why I expect it is much more popular.  Science rarely claims 100% predictive capability, but religion does, and to this end religion can be easily used to exploit people.  It is a panacea to all the uncertainty in the world.  Religion pushes people to have more and more faith in times of doubt and confusion.  What they are really saying is “Be more and more certain that (religious claim x) is the truth.”  And if you’re successful, not surprisingly, you feel better.  With mental effort we can convince ourselves to be more certain of things whose outcome is uncertain.  Human history is rife with such examples.  There is no doubt in my mind that we have better models for how humans can live their lives now.  Nevertheless, we have maintained these old models, trying to ignore the worst bits of them, and developed an entire field of apologetics whose main purpose is to try to convince people that these old models still not only have value, but that they are actually superior to other models out there.

Now just because prediction is something humans do, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a virtue.  I guess I see it as a raw instinct that needs to be tamed, which is how I have approached all beneficial human qualities.  I think it’s clear that while much happiness can be found in getting lost in the moment, we need some sort of value system that gives us a direction.  We might get there and find we have to go somewhere else, but it seems beneficial to always have some sort of idea of where we might go next.  In my life it seems that the people I have admired most are the ones who can take pleasure in the moment, but also keep their eyes ahead of them as well.  It’s dangerous to get lost in times that have not occurred, just as it is unhealthy to dwell in the past.   So if I were to choose this 8th value that makes a good human, perhaps the word “prediction” doesn’t quite do it justice, but until I come up with a better word it will have to do.  There is, however, no question in my mind that a defining quality for our species is our ability think about the future.   It encapsulates our dreams for a better future and if there is any escape from the fate of extinction that most life on this planet has faced, it will be through our ability to predict, if we can remember to be humble enough to remember we aren’t perfect.

Additional reading:

Is It All A Matter of Faith?

Recently in a debate with Scientific Christian over on Nan’s blog he presented a clip that I don’t know was supposed to represent game, set, and match about something, but I’m not sure what yet.  It seems that he was claiming that we all use faith and so any form of faith is just as valuable as the next.  In the clip, you see Dawkins debating with Dr. John Lennox.  Lennox is big into using this argument against people he debates with so let’s investigate this a bit more carefully.

I have argued before that I think faith is an important part of who we are as humans, and an important one at that.  I have not changed my view as faith being a fundamental human quality.  But so is curiosity and so is reason.  If faith alone were the only way determine reality it simply would be insufficient.

First things first, let’s assume that Lennox’s argument is a good one.  Even if that were true, and he caught Dawkins, it still isn’t proof of God.  It is only proof that faith sometimes works or that we all utilize faith to some degree.  It certainly doesn’t always work.

Now Dr. Lennox himself warns against the dangers of blind faith.  He would argue that no Christian (and I am sure follower of any religion) would say that they don’t have blind faith in their religion.  There is at least some evidence.  But if we, just for arguments sake, take blind faith as the extreme at one end (and I would say people who think God is just going to heal their child and they don’t give them medicine is close to that end) and that something like having faith that the sun will come up tomorrow is being at the other extreme, we can easily see that there is a world of difference between those two extremes.  So, at the outset, it is intellectually dishonest for anybody to make claims that just because you use faith and I use faith makes what we have faith in as equally valid.  As Dawkins points out in the clip and addresses in more detail in the full debate, is that the key is in the evidence.

So why do the two points of view not work out to be equivalent?  As I have argued before (here and here) and will not go into detail here, it’s because of what we consider valid evidence.  If parents who let their children die on the hopes that prayer would save them were using the same evidence as Dawkins’ uses in having faith that his wife still loves him, then both would have equal predictive capability.  And this is an important point that Dawkins tries to make is that even if we are all using faith to some extent the degree to which the work model we have of how any phenomena works must be predictive.  Given our model of the solar system, each time the sun does come up it is further reassurance that are model, which would predict the sun would come up (really the sun doesn’t come up of course we rotate on our axis), is in fact verified.  So while one could argue that it is a matter of faith that I think the sun would come up tomorrow, the evidence to which I have built that faith, is far different than those who would use faith that God will intervene on their behalf through prayer.

Of course, one might ask, “Why do people think prayer works at all?”  If that evidence is so untenable why build any faith on such things?  The answer to that questions requires a greater delving into human cognitive biases but largely it is due to our propensity to make Type I errors (false patternicity) and our cognitive bias to remember ‘hits’ and disregard misses.  And this speaks to why the scientific method is so important because it requires careful methodology, it requires replication, it requires that we be able to build off of older principles to new ones reliably.

One then often argues, well clearly you have faith in the scientific method.  And I do, but this again is because the scientific method works.  If were to use the scientific method to uncover some knowledge of the world and at every turn I was not getting reliable results, then this would be cause for me to question the very way I was trying to discover how things work.  We’ve seen the scientific method be effective so many times, that we can therefore have faith that it will be reliable again.  Once again we see how being predictive plays a role in how faith in the scientific method is different than a faith in a personal God.

Finally for as important as I think faith is to our lives, we also must be willing to change the things we have faith about.  If I do have faith that my wife loves me based on a certain set of evidence.  Even if I’m convinced that evidence is good, should that evidence change, or it’s pointed out to me that I’m not using reliable markers of one person showing love to me, then there is no reason for me to continue to have faith along that avenue.  What we have faith in, is not set in stone.  What an unsuccessful species we would be if that were the case.

The Bible Could Use Some Updating

During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumb-screws, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood.
Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry…..There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.
“Bible Teaching and Religious Practice,” Europe and Elsewhere

I’ve used this quote often in debating and discussing religion with people. And I’d like to pose the question, why can’t we edit the Bible? Now of course I have a general problem with any book that is 2000 years old being a meaningful guide about how to live life now, but get to know any Christian and you’ll find that the amount of principles in the Bible they actually live by are a small portion of them. More importantly, the Bible is filled with so many contradictory verses that people can literally pick and choose the bible-based philosophy that suits them. Of course if we are going to edit the Bible who gets to decide what goes in and what goes out? Perhaps a committee should be formed. It doesn’t seem like that should be too hard to do considering that is how the Bible was originally formed about half millennia after Jesus Christ was supposed to have lived.

Now we all know that there are some really great Christian people out there. And these great Christian people would like you to know:

  • We support gay people
  • We support evolution
  • We support science
  • We support education
  • We would rather avoid war
  • We know the Bible isn’t meant to be taken literally
  • We think helping those that are less fortunate is important
  • We know it’s our belief and we don’t need proselytize
  • While we might not choose to have abortions ourselves we support a woman’s right to choose
  • We think birth control is an important part of health care
  • We think separation of church and state is important
  • We are comfortable with other people’s religious beliefs even if we don’t agree
  • We think taking care of the Earth is part of our responsibility as God’s children
  • We live our life as close to being like Jesus as possible

Let’s face it, such Christians are great.  They are enjoyable people to be around.  They don’t like those other extreme groups that call themselves Christians, but clearly aren’t.  All their fire and brimstone talk, their eye for an eye mentality, their inability to adapt to the times, their wanting to pass laws that are prejudicial and not pluralistic.  They would also like you to know that though there were dark times in Christianities past, those people were not the true Christians.  No matter how mainstream it was.  Good Christian congregations existed even in the darkest of times and those are the people that truly understood the Bible.  And by the way, the Bible has so many positive verses in it.  Things about loving your neighbors, not judging others, helping the poor, being compassionate, loving your family.  The list goes on.

So this is brilliant.  Such Christians truly help to make the world a better place and if there are right about it all, then we probably should have paid more attention to these models of morality.  I’m not being sarcastic in the least.  However….

We have to ask ourselves then, where did these less than savory Christians come from?  Who are these people who are divisive and judgmental?  Who are these people that would rather force their religious beliefs down our throats rather than allow us to exercise the free will that God so desperately wanted us to have so we could choose to love Him?  Why do they so pedantically want to take a book that is supposed to be word of God literally.  Why do they insist on taking some verses that are prejudicial and hateful instead of verses that are peaceful, tolerant and compassionate?  Why do they focus on instill fear instead of love?  Why aren’t they turning the other cheek? Why aren’t they interpreting the Bible correctly?Why aren’t all Christians the good people they are supposed to be?

Well maybe it’s because they had bad teachers of their faith.  Maybe it’s because they have low levels of education.  Maybe it’s because their parents were judgmental, strict people who never gave their children the freedom to ask questions and really explore their faith.  Maybe they grew up in an intolerant environment.  And all these things are possible, but wouldn’t anybody turn out to be a rather less than good person in such an environment?  And maybe the reason you are a good person is because you were raised in a good and loving environment and wouldn’t anybody turn out the same way regardless of their religion?  And why should the word of God Himself, the perfection of perfection, the only omniscient presence in the universe depend  so much on someone’s level of education, how they were raised?  Why is it so easy to get it wrong and misinterpret it?

But what if there is a much more insidious possibility?  What if those “bad” Christians actually think they are good Christians.  What if they think Christians like you are the problem?  What if they have as much biblical support for their way of thinking as you do for yours?  What if there are actually more lines in the bible that promote violence, oppression of women, and persecution of non-Christians than ones that actually are against these behaviors?  What if all those lines about there being witches and making slaves out of people are still in there even though we, as a society, no longer promote such ideas?  (By the way witch accusations may be making a comeback!) What if they are ignoring just as many verses that disagree with their worldview, as you are ignoring to support your worldview?

The Christian bible has been translated from language after language, and is already different from the original due to the difficulties in translating the Bible.  Many of the books of the Bible cannot be verified to have been written by the author that is claimed.  The Bible is certainly not in the same form always and the books of the Bible have been put together well after Jesus’ death.  So what would be so bad about editing the Bible.  Because if there are people out there who are actually using bad parts of the bible and as a result are not good Christians, wouldn’t it be worth removing those parts? Wouldn’t it be worth including some extra stuff that wasn’t in the Bible because it was not known then, but it is known now?  I mean if the word of God as described in the Bible is outdated and not even used by good Christians, why have it in there?  Why no just leave it on the shelf in libraries so people can see what the Bible used to be like?  Have it simply as a historical reference to what life was like 2000 years ago.  Because it seems to me that the word of God is confusing a lot of people.  So maybe it’s time to separate the wheat from chaff in the Bible so that God is a little more justified in separating the wheat from the chaff after we die.  And if you are worried about the morality of editing an original historical work, then also consider the morality of leaving a whole lot of archaic and horrible practices in the Bible and selling it as the word of God.  And if you are worried about where to start, George Carlin has risen from the dead to help you with a few suggestion on amending the 10 commandments.

Without an update, the Bible is really just a string of stories, laws, and lessons that range from violently psychopathic to ultra loving and compassionate in which we are all just picking and choosing the things we want to support the type of person we already are.

 

What Makes A Good Human?: Final Thoughts

I will try not to make this too lengthy, but this series has been a journey writing it and I felt a more holistic summation was in order.

One of the things that occurred to me that I was writing it was that was I sounding too much of a person of privilege in my posts.  I certainly felt like that at times.  If I could say one more thing about what makes a good human might also be luck.  The country I was born in, the parents I got, the extended family, that were very loving, and of course my wife and friends all played a role in making me what I am, and for giving me the time and freedom to ruminate, contemplate, learn the right lessons from my experiences for me to even be able to write this.  Of course luck isn’t really in our control, and perhaps it is who we are that draw at least some of the people into our life and keep them there.  But there are those who are born to parents who stifle their curiosity. When does the parent or parents who work long hours to provide for their children find the time for curiosity themselves or get a chance to play?  There are those who spoil their children rotten and make them prideful and without humility.  What of those who struggle about even what to put their faith in, fearing a repetition of past mistakes?  I was thinking about how would a person who lived in the inner city slums of Mumbai, or Rio find solitude?  And then of course what about those who have clinical psychological conditions like narcissism and thus are excessively self-centered?  How does the psychopath learn empathy when physically incapable of it?  While there may be some solutions to this, early recognition and special nurturing techniques are often necessary and so my words in this series may be nothing more than the words of someone who has, overall, had it pretty good.

One positive thing I have noticed in my life is that none of these qualities however belong to any one specific class, race, culture or region.  I have seen the poorest with the least reason to be generous and compassionate be more so than those with the means to bring more good into this world than they do.  And I have seen the busiest parents with little time for play themselves, make those sacrifices simply so that their children have that advantage.  Life is dynamic, and always changing.  Some qualities we may have to put to the side to move past a certain point where we can bring them back.  It would be idealistic to say we can have these qualities at all times, and in all places.  And while it would be nice if it were so, such utopian fantasies should never occupy our thoughts for too long.

If asked who I wrote this all for, I would say firstly for me.  That in itself may sound self-centered, but I desire to become more than I am always, and this journey has helped me greatly in recognize the areas in my life where I might know how I should be in theory, but haven’t been in practice.  It has helped me look at areas where I want to grow also.  But I think that I also wrote this series for those of you who do such a wonderful job exemplifying these qualities as well.  It is those who have been the fortunate in this world who, like rocks striking the surface of the pond can send ripples into the world to try and make it a better place.  And when I say fortunate I don’t mean that your life has all been a “walk in the park” (and certainly mine hasn’t always been either) but have overcome great adversity to be where you are now.  I also don’t list these qualities to emphasize that we should all be the same. As I have tried to make clear along the way we all exemplify different levels of these qualities, and as I mentioned above, sometimes we may suppress these qualities in ourselves to be able to foster it others, like our children.  I think a good human exemplifies these qualities, but our individuality is what decides which of these qualities drives us most strongly.  Some people may strive for more balance, others may selflessly always give their time to others, some may love learning and sharing that knowledge, others display great acts of courage that inspire.  I do think that all these qualities, should always exist as sparks within ourselves, and we should never let them go out.

I was talking to a friend yesterday and she asked me why I even blog.  And I guess central to who I am is that I believe that we are a lot more similar than we are different, and I want to always try to look at things that bring us together rather than those things that drive us apart.  So I guess in looking at things that make a good human, I wanted to try to see if I could come up with what I felt was a comprehensive but simple list of things that I’ve seen in my life that make the world a better place for all.  I am sure there are other things that might be added, and as I continue to grow and learn perhaps I would add things to this series.  But if we can all agree on at least 8 things, that then I think that is a good start. 🙂

Peace.

Swarn

What Makes A Good Human?: Faith

Well, if you know me, you might be surprised at this quality.  And to be honest this is one that I wasn’t sure I was going to include but could not really make it fit as part of any of the other ones and so have put it here. This one is 6th in the series and so if you were keeping count there will still be two more to come for a total of 8 (as opposed to the 7 I thought I was going to blog about in my intro to this series).  Hey I did say that this list was not set in stone, and my final quality justifies this change quite well so stay tuned. 🙂

So let me be clear here that when I say faith, I do not mean religious faith, nor do I mean blind faith.  The first definition of faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”, and this is the faith I am talking about. Perhaps I place too much importance on stress and too much importance on living in the present moment, but one of my reason for including faith is borne out of the fact that we are exceptionally good future thinkers. It might be somewhat natural to think about the past, and of course we live in the present, but what value is thinking about the future, when the future is uncertain. Of course we can see the value in thinking about the future from simple mechanical movements like anticipating the trajectory of a ball as we reach out to catch it, to having grand visions of the future that we work to make a reality. Our imaginations and our ability to envision a path to turn what is in our minds into a reality is a great strength, and it’s safe to say our ability to think about the future is greater than any other creature. There is a double edge to this sword and that is worry. We worry about that uncertain future at times, and we worry that what we want to happen will not come to pass. Much of the grief we often feel when we lose somebody important (whether from death or breaking up our relationships) comes from a loss of a future that will now no longer exist with that person. Our ability to imagine the future is so strong that it can feel as real as any present moment. In a previous post in this series I talked about the value of play for helping us be in the moment, so too does faith. Whereas play helps us become lost in the moment, faith can help us focus on the present by making us feel like “everything will be alright”. Faith can give us hope and keep us steady.

One of the reasons that the future is so uncertain is that we can’t account for all the variables in any particular problem. And even if we could, there would be several that are simply not in our control. Wanting to fix things that are beyond our control is one big source of worry and stress whether it is a personal situation or the larger sadness we might feel over big problems like world hunger, gender inequality, or racism as individuals most of us can only do so much. The weight and burden of the future can drag us down and we need something to ease the mind and focus on the present. It is not surprising that faith is always used in the context of something that we feel is good. Whether it is a supernatural being who we believe is watching out for us, loves us, and protects us, to more tangible things like faith that a good friend will come through for us, a general optimism about the improvement of society, and perhaps most importantly a faith in ourselves that we can overcome challenges in our way. In reality none of these things are sure things despite what past experience might tell you. You may actually fail at what you are attempting, even if you’ve handled similar or even the same situations before. Society may get worse. Your friend may not come through despite how often they might have come through for you before.  The world is dynamic and constantly changing. Your friend is changing, you are changing, and society is changing and so there will always be some unknown variables. We can also be wrong that we understood a past experience properly to ensure similar results in the future. Humans are prone to Type I errors (seeing patterns or connections where none exist) and quite often we don’t understand our experiences fully. However, without some faith we’d always be questioning and doubting and while there may be a time for questions and doubt, to dwell on such things constantly can also be equally wasteful. Doubting your friend all the time may actually strain your relationship. Doubting yourself all the time may make you actually more prone to making mistakes. Being pessimistic about the world may actually make you less happy and less able to make a positive impact, which is the only way the world is going to get better, if we do something about it.

Richard Dawkins and others are often quoted as saying that faith and science are not compatible because science makes conclusions based on evidence, where as faith makes conclusions despite evidence. I tend to disagree with this notion, because I feel that to develop faith it cannot be built on nothing. In my experience what people disagree on is what people consider evidence. I wrote about this previously here and here. A large of the aim of religious institutions in keeping members of their faith is to discredit contrary evidence. If the evidence against what you have faith in seems faulty you are less likely to let it change your mind. But we’ve all had changes of faith as evidence is presented to us. What happens if that friend lets us down a few times? Chances are, our faith in them will be lessened. What happens if we start getting inundated with all the evil that happens in the world? We start to lose our faith and optimism in humanity. What can happen when let ourself down? We start to lose faith in ourself, which is often a scary place emotionally to be at. I think faith is born honestly in most cases, and I think if left unhindered we would adjust the things we have faith in over time as we continue to question, experience and learn. The important part is that faith should be changeable and it should be personal. When we indoctrinate children about what they should have faith in this is from a developmental context abusive, because the stronger our faith becomes in something, the less likely we are able to adjust it over time because of how beliefs work in our brain. The inability to change what we have faith in as we experience and learn new things leads to an unhealthy conflict: the struggle to remain static in a dynamic world. I think some people might wonder, what is the point of having faith if it may change some time in the future? Because the world may seem chaotic, painful and beyond comprehension at times, it makes some sense to have faith in an order, an intention, or a purpose that is forever and unchangeable. However, it’s only a convenient illusion that will become harder and harder to maintain with time without willfully ignoring contrary evidence.

There are no guarantees in life and it’s okay to be wrong about what you put your faith in. Everybody has been wrong about things before. Being wrong is one of the greatest shared human experiences. I do understand, however, that it can be distressing to admit when we are wrong about things, even more so when we invest a lot of time into having faith about someone or something. Faith as a result is perhaps the trickiest of all the qualities I’ve discussed so far because it can cause us to double down even when the odds are against us. In my opinion the thing to keep in mind is to let your faith work for you, and to not let your faith gain mastery over you. And don’t expect others to share your faith. That’s simply not realistic. But if I were to pick some basic things to have faith in, it would be this:

  1. Change is inevitable
  2. You have it in you to deal with that change
  3. Everything will be alright because changing what you have faith in is not a loss, it’s a gain – for you must have learned something new in order to get to where you are now.

More than Words

The discussion of free speech has once again risen up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  For some interesting reads please take a look at this article on the Ethics of Free Speech and this article that presents a Muslim’s perspective on the situation.  Many of the ideas in these articles are important and so I wanted to throw them out first so that I don’t repeat their points too much.  If you’re too lazy to read them (I barely had time to write blog posts anymore so I understand)though I’ll list some important points that are guiding my thoughts right now:

  • How do we decide what freedom actually means?

    From http://bearingdrift.com
  • The argument for freedom of speech often gets turned into a “Those who want that freedom” and “those that don’t”. This is a false dichotomy because generally the disagreement lies where along a spectrum of “Freedom” we must draw the line on free speech.
  • Is freedom of speech always a good thing?
  • Words have power

When the news broke about what happened in France on January 7th, I have to say my reaction was not one of surprise.  Muslim extremists are nothing new, and given the anger that was sparked when Danish cartoonists depicted the prophet Mohammed in their publication, I just wasn’t surprised.

Now this not to say that I didn’t think it was a terrible tragedy.  Of course it is.  I don’t want anyone to think that my position is that those at Charlie Hebdo got what was coming to them. There is a difference between not being surprised and thinking such an act of violence against them was deserved.  There is no question that these Islamic extremists have got it wrong.  They don’t understand their faith, they will fail in achieving whatever dream world they want to live in, and they will simply cause more harm to others and themselves with time.   I can say that with certainty, in the long run, they will fail to get what they want and it is clear that all good people should and do oppose their aims.

Before looking at Charlie Hebdo let’s take a closer look at this whole cartoon depiction of Mohammed stuff.   Perhaps by putting things into context you will understand why I was not shocked to find that this happened.  First, we can agree that killing somebody over such a thing as a cartoon, no matter how offensive,

From the South Park Wiki. The picture of Mohamed was available, but I chose to show Buddha instead. I’m okay with that. 🙂

is ridiculous.  That being said it is not unreasonable for someone to be offended when their religion is ridiculed.  People do it all the time, they just don’t go all the way to killing somebody.  I am sure there are many other moderate and peaceful Muslims who were offended by Charlie Hebdo or the Danish cartoons previously.  And of course some number close to 100% of them never killed anybody over it.  Satire, comedy and comic depictions of religious figures is not new, but it is relatively new.  Such things quickly got you killed in Europe not so long ago if you tried to ridicule Christianity or religious leaders.  And while I believe the world as a whole, on average, progresses forward in terms of morality and reason, there are pockets of people going in reverse. As an example, I find it interesting that prior to 9/11 there was no outcry about a South Park season 5 episode in which various deities from other religions banded together to save the day.  I guess Mohammed was not ridiculed but still a cartoon is a cartoon.  This episode was even available after 9/11 for a number of years and has only recently been pulled.  I guess it was off the radar for awhile and perhaps South Park Studios didn’t want to take the chance anymore.  The point is that the backlash against Islam post 9/11 seems to have had a more polarizing impact on Islam and the west, such that those who wish to do us harm have looked for more reasons to do so.  Therefore, it seems to me, those who perpetrated the attack on Charlie Hebdo would have likely found another target had they not been drawing cartoons, but their doing so simply added them to a list of possible targets.  Crazy people generally don’t have good reasons to cause such harm, so should we be surprised that in a country with a lot of Islam vs French tension, where a magazine is ridiculing Islam that this simply puts them on the radar of the crazy people?  Personally I don’t think so.

Now let’s get back to freedom of speech.  We can also agree that it’s important, but just because you have the freedom to say something that doesn’t mean you should.  If you’re wife asked you if she looked fat in something, then you would have the freedom to tell her the honest truth, but I think you know how well that will work out for you.  Also having freedom doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t consequences for exercising that freedom, and law may have very little to do with it.  In truth, I have the freedom to go and kill somebody.  But there are consequences to that action.  Those consequences may simply be a fear of getting caught, more often than not though it is our own moral center that prevents us from doing such a thing.  We may even have a good reason to do so, but I also think about what my friends and family would think about me, how I would provide for my child, the times I would miss with my family, etc.  We are free to do a lot of things when you think about it, but our choice to act on those freedoms must be weighed against the consequences of our actions.

One of the Charlie Hebdo satirists said “We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat” in regards to whether he was

From http://www.beheadingboredom.com

worried about angering Muslim extremists.  While I can feel a certain amount of respect for someone who lives by their convictions, I do wonder about the value of that conviction.  Of course, the chance of dying from a terrorist attack in the west is extremely small, and perhaps if he knew that there was even a 10% chance of being a target of Muslim extremists, he might not have been so sure of himself.  I am also opposed to religious extremism (or really any kind of extremism) but if I am going to have convictions on the matter that are worth dying for, satirical cartoons seem like a strange way for me to take a stand.  If we want to defeat extremism, are satirical cartoons helping the situation?  I doubt if any extremist has looked at one of their cartoons and said to his fellow crazy Jihadists “Hey guys…you know what…I didn’t get it before but this cartoon has really shown me we’re being ridiculous.  Let’s just relax and maybe talk to some more moderate imams about interpreting the scripture in the Koran more carefully”.  Furthermore it seems one of the best way to quash Islamic extremists is actually by having most of the Muslims who are more moderate on your side.  Doing something that most Muslims find offensive, might not anger them into attacking you, but it doesn’t exactly win their hearts.  Therefore if anybody thinks that drawing satirical cartoons of Mohammed is in any way taking a stand against Islamic extremists then you are quite simply wrong.  It does nothing but divide people.  At best, those who appreciate the cartoons are a group of secular intellectuals who appreciate the wit and who already agree with the points you are making.  At worst, those who appreciate the cartoons are bigots wishing to eradicate all Muslims from their country.  The point is, such cartoons aren’t helping and are most likely making things worse.

What people seem to forget is that 1) being right isn’t always the most important thing, and that 2) even if you want to be right there are multiple ways to make your point.  Richard Dawkins is right about a lot of things, and yet many people, even humanists, atheists, and agnostics think he’s an asshole.  In thinking about these cartoons, I was reminded about my confrontation with the gay bashing fundamentalist Christians who came to our campus.  I asked the main guy point blank “Even if you are absolutely 100% right do you think that your offending and insulting them is going to convince them to your point of view?”  He was sure that they were going to hell and so he felt that what he was doing was the strongest most direct way to get them to change their sinful ways.  Anybody else of course can see that such anger and unkindness would never win the hearts of those they intend to save.  The only people who are supporting them are those who already agree with them.  So even though Islamic extremists are crazy, they don’t understand their faith, they cause harm, and their actions will ultimately cause them to fail to achieve their over arching aim, how we expose the extremists for what they are is just as important.  Being martyrs is one of those possibilities, but the freedom to draw cartoons of the prophet Mohamed just seems like a silly way to make that stand.

From http://thebilzerianreport.com

Freedom of speech is an extremely important one to a free society.  Speech has the power to sway.  As it sways it can raise the consciousness, inspire, and lift men and women to more.  However, speech also has the power to divide, misinform, offend, anger, and mislead.  To quote Uncle Ben Parker “With great power, comes great responsibility”.   I don’t wish for any government to censor publications like Charlie Hebdo.  Taking away freedoms doesn’t help the situation either, and is never an answer to terrorism (i.e. The Patriot Act). Nevertheless, no matter how “in the right” we think we might be, let us also think about how we communicate our message.  Freedom of speech is an important one to fight for, but there are many other good things to fight for and so it’s important to not get so lost in one fight that we start to lose the others.

Evidently it’s Evidence Part II

Part I, probably doesn’t provide too much pause for thought, but hopefully this one will.  I’ve been told my posts are long, so I’m trying to shorten things up. 🙂

Perhaps I should also preface before I begin that almost anything can count as evidence.  However it seems that people with little understanding of scientific investigation often make the mistake of delineating good evidence from bad.  Or being able to determine why one source of evidence is weaker than another.  Because after all I could argue that it is faith that I believe the sun will come up tomorrow, when the truth is I don’t really know for sure.  The fact that it has come up all the days of my life, is some pretty good evidence.  It’s even better evidence that it has come up for others.  And it seems as I look through historical evidence from before I was born it has been coming up pretty regularly.  And then there is the evidence that the Earth is rotating and that we are revolving around the sun.  It may be that all that changes tomorrow, but it seems unlikely. So at the very least, I can say that my faith has some pretty solid substance to it. (Also please be aware that I do know that the sun actually doesn’t come up, it is the Earth’s rotation that gives it the appearance of rising. lol)

Here are some of the things that many people seem to think of as evidence:

  • anecdotal evidence
  • a contrary opinion
  • a book
  • a “gut feeling”
  • a low probability event (a coincidence)
  • celebrities or other famous people
  • a documentary
  • a movie
  • media
  • even worse  – social media
  • the number of hits you search for something on the internet

There are probably more things that could be added but these are some of my favorite.  Part of the problem is that any one of these could be right.  I am not going to address each one, but there are times when your “gut” tells you, you are in danger and you are right.

From hm.dinofly.com

Anecdotal evidence can also be correct.  I could say “In my experience the sun comes up every morning” and I would be right.  Sometimes celebrities are correct, and documentaries are accurate.  Someone who is disagreeing with you may actually be doing so for good reason.  Because he/she knows more than you do. And occasionally a news story might even report actual information. 🙂

I am a fairly big food snob.  I’ll admit it.  I’m probably even more proud of that fact than I should, but tasty food is an important pleasure in life to me.  Not to mention sitting down to a good meal, can be romantic, social, and/or cultural.  One of my favorite things is to

Pad thai from myrecipes.com

introduce people to new food and new culinary experiences.  It has often been the case that someone will say they really don’t like a certain food.  Upon further investigation you find that the one time they tried it, the person didn’t know how to cook it properly so they had a bad experience, and then never tried it again.  Often if I get them to give what I have prepared a try, they find that they actually like it.  The point is that our own experiences are often flawed.  I am sure the person when they first tried badly cooked spinach they had no intentions on hating spinach, they simply didn’t like what they had, and assumed it was the fault of the spinach and not the cook.

While it is not surprising from an evolutionary standpoint why we would take our own experiences as truth, it is clear that as individuals we are prone to many biases.  If you know nothing about snakes, it is ALWAYS safer to stay away from snakes since a few can be deadly.  Surviving and being safe represents 99% of our evolution as a species, but if civilization has any true advantages, it is the ability to break free from the fearful uncertainty of the wild and to give us time for reflection and thought.  The lack of detailed knowledge about something is the birthplace of beliefs that are based on little or poor evidence.  This is why education is so important.  This is why understanding of science is important.  This is why critical thinking is important.

More importantly this is why humility is important.  One lifetime, at the very least in the length it is now, is never enough time to know all there is to know (if that is even possible).  But when you have true humility, not just humility before God, but humility before all existence, you accept that you don’t have all the answers.  You accept that there is still more for you to know, and to learn.  You can accept that you can be mistaken.  When you accept this, then you can delve into the next set of questions.  How is it that we can come to know things?  What are different ways of knowing?  How do they work?  What is their reliability?

from http://www.jasonwhowe.com

How boring would life be if you just decided on how everything works at the age of 30 and then just criticized everyone else the rest of your days? Keep asking yourself questions, and enjoy the experience of enlightenment that comes from a lifetime of learning.  The feeling of enlightenment is euphoric and is an edge that never dulls, no matter the age.