Thoughts on Religion: The Lousy Equation of Faith and Proof

Religion is about faith, not proof. There is a fundamental difference between believing in something based on an invisible/unknown/indeterminate quality and trusting in something because it underwent multiple testing in a lab.

The Puritans in Salem learned the hard way that accusing people of a crime based on nothing more than "my personal deep feelings"--not matter how spiritually described or felt--is a terrible idea. And it was Puritan ministers who questioned the validity of the accusations: without tangible proof, how do we know what really happened?

On the other hand, a smart, questioning atheist like Camille Paglia extols the power of religion to stave off the dark, arguing that a positive affirmation in deity, art, and the value of life far outstretches--transcends--the most stringent, academic theorizing. Humans are drawn to religion and art and non-provable experiences because they speak to something "other" within us and, possibly, outside of us. 

Yet people on both sides of the faith/science equation continue to insist on "proving" or "disproving" religious truths; "proving" or "disproving" doubt--sometimes to bizarre extremes. And it almost always backfires into disillusionment.

"Proving" or "disproving" the religious perspective has nothing to do with faith. It almost always results in reliance on "points" that are largely immaterial. Getting defensive in the face of scholarship or archaeology or theories like evolution does not strengthen the religious mind; it hampers it. Likewise, feeling threatened by beliefs in deity creates scientists and academics who develop odd blind spots and consequently end up missing the larger context of many issues. 

Case in point: every year or so, the History channel or National Geographic or Time magazine will present historical/environmental explanations for events in the Bible. For example, some archaeologists/historians hypothesize that Moses arrived at the Red Sea during a particular season when strong winds blew a path through the connected Sea of Reeds, allowing the Israelites to safely cross. Inevitably, some (not all) skeptics will use the opportunity to crow about the invalidity of religion. Equally inevitably, some (not all) religious people will feel it necessary to wall themselves behind a protective bulwark, claiming that scholarship is specious, anti-religious, and denigrating.

And the rather pointless argument continues.  

From a faith-based perspective, it is entirely unnecessary and peremptory to pooh-pooh the "Sea of Reeds" explanation. I suppose Charlton Heston tends to stick in the brain, but a faith-based belief in a safe crossing across muddy, reedy waters at just the right time of year strikes me as equally miraculous, if not more so.

From a historian's perspective, Bible scholarship is a legitimate discipline. It admittedly contains its own degrees of defensiveness. But it is neither intrinsically atheistic nor intrinsically evil. It relies on a different methodology than faith--and must if historians are going to be trusted within their own discipline: reliance on sources is the point.

I often find such scholarship cool, interesting, even fascinating if one will allow a Spock moment. I don't start questioning everything I've ever thought because everything I ever thought doesn't ride on the scholars being right--or wrong.

Keep in mind, I am not arguing that faith means, "I believe this no matter what anyone says!" I am arguing something more basic: the disciplines of faith and scholarship do not need to be treated as either/ors. Believing everything people say is a logical fallacy (ad populum) and not a terribly intelligent way to deal with data. Along the same lines, disbelieving whatever people say is simply a variation on that theme.

In a future post, I will address the extraordinary capacity of humans to problem-solve by not confusing "feeling" with "method." Suffice to say for now, one type of understanding does not automatically cancel out the other, no matter what academics steeped in theories about dominant this-and-that try to tell you. It is possible to see the world as more complicated than one-winner-takes-all (i.e., one should only think like this).

I sometimes find scholarship (on any topic) woefully inadequate according to its own standards. I have also often found it helpful to my faith. Several decent scholars have recently written about Paul. They have taken issue with some of the letters (as being authored by him) and with the relation of events in Acts. In keeping with their methodology as honest historians, they utilize the primary texts/letters they are sure of to reconstruct their understanding of Paul's personality, journeys, and relationships. They carefully show that this man did exist, did write letters, and did extensively journey while making great sacrifices of time and energy. They also place a large amount of his commentary in context.

I come away enlarged: Paul is no longer a symbolic scriptural character or an untouchable commodity. He is a person who truly lived: flawed, passionate, committed, erudite, faithful, and--here's that word again!--fascinating.

If I turned my reaction into a defense-against-a-threat, I would miss out. Consequently, in my thesis, I mention that I can appreciate the Nativity Story for its literary appeal; I also can wrap my faith around it; I also can acknowledge that there is no proof for the story in any empirical sense. Along the same lines, the story of Exodus as detailed in the Old Testament (I am using Christian terminology); archaeologists' and historians' theory of the Sea of Reeds; even Prince of Egypt--easily and successfully reside in my brain next to each other.

Unfortunately, doing this--or admitting to doing this (allowing different methodologies/understandings to exist next to each other)--upsets a surprising number of people on both sides of the religion/science equation. There is this insistence that a person *must* choose. And that failure to choose puts someone like myself irrevocably in one camp or the other (depending on to whom I am speaking) or "outside the pale" entirely. But to choose is to instantly confuse faith with data. To throw out one or the other almost always results in ideology, rather than theology or science. Bad theology and corrupted science are the inevitable results.

Faith has its own role: it is belief, hope, trust, a gleeful acceptance of transcendence, wonder, even doubt and questioning--without descent into ridicule, cynicism, disillusionment, or dogma. Research has its own role and when done properly is held to fierce standards of honesty, propriety, and big-picture understanding. 

War from either side results is nothing constructive. 

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