Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Faith vs. Religion (If not the same thing)



Many people do not make a distinction between faith and religion. Millions of Muslims, for example, believe that Faith is the submission to the will of God. In other words, it is obedience to the religion of Islam. Other people to make a distinction. Numerous Christians, for example, claim they dislike organized religion but practice faith.


But for me faith and religion are inseparably wed together.


One might object that I have simply defined faith and religion differently than they have--and all are valid descriptions of the same sort of spiritual experience, more or less. I am going to argue that semantics, although highly important to clarify our subject matter, is besides the point in this case. Allow me to explain.


Logically speaking, faith is the byproduct of religion. It's not a semantics issue so much as a pragmatic issue. Without any religious beliefs there simply could be no faith to be had in these beliefs to begin with.


A reader recently asked me, "Faith is religion enacted? Hmmm.... I've always thought of it as the reverse. Faith is what's in the head, religion is the outward behaviours associated with it, isn't it?"


She's not wrong, mind you, but she is only seeing half of the picture.


I find this to be a really good question, because it highlights the confusion many people have with regard to faith. Lots of people are confusing generic faith, i.e. the faith that I will wake up in the morning, or that the sun will continue to rise, or that the weather forecast will be accurate with the more specialized form of religious faith.


The thing about generic faith is that, on occasion, you can be mistaken. Perhaps you will have a heart attack in your sleep, or you wake up to a rare instance of a solar eclipse, or the weather forecast turns out to be wrong--as it so often does. This sort of faith is *not the kind of Faith religious people are prescribing to when they claim to have faith in some supernatural entity, such as God, or some religious claim. 


For the religious person, Faith is more of a profession of piety, the loyal unquestioning devotional acceptance of a religious proposition, ideology, creed, practice, or tenet. 


Needless to say, religious Faith is not the same as every day mundane faith. I am not implying that's what our reader meant. She merely assumed that faith was the belief (or sum of beliefs) one holds, and religion is the behavior compelled by the total framework of that belief system. I would say, yes, this is accurate. But there is another aspect to faith we can't ignore. Faith based acts are predicated on religious propositions as much as holding the religious beliefs in the first place is predicated on one's willingness to accept them as true.


I guess the way I go about it is by asking the question how, in the first place, could one possibly have faith in something if there were not prior beliefs about that something to believe in? 

In otherwords, what is it one is professing faith in, if not specific beliefs based on the claims of their particular religion? Basically, beliefs about one's religion equate to religious faith. But I do not think we can say that faith is simply believing; it is also doing

For example, Christians profess faith in the belief that Jesus is the begotten Son of God, that he came to earth to atone for the sins of mankind, that he was sentenced to death upon the cross, and that three days after his death he rose again in a glorious resurrection. These are the basic beliefs one must prescribe to, and believe as true, in order to accurately call oneself a believer in Christ. 



This helps paint the picture of what Christians are actually professing faith in. They are professing faith in the acceptance of the premise that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died and resurrected, and that through his sacrifice and shedding of blood he washed away the sins of mankind. Moreover, they are accepting the belief that the religion requires them to think, act, and behave in a certain way. In other words, we discover that faith is the unquestioning acceptance of these beliefs.

But then the question becomes, where do we get these beliefs from in the first place? After all, you don't start with faith and then generate beliefs. You first need the belief to have faith in. 

Well, it seems to me these beliefs are found in the tenets, creeds, principles, and practices of religion. Religion is a complex human construct. It involves philosophical ideas, various traditions, and highly ritualized practices which are all inseparably tied to human culture, psychology, and experience. Many people form their very identities based on their religions. Many more choose to live their lives according to their religious beliefs. This is what I call Faith. It is religion followed out in devotional acts of faithful adherence to the aforesaid tenets, creeds, principles, and practices contained within religion.  

Therefore, it stems to reason that the religion is the bedrock for faith. Religion has to exist before it can give rise to faith based beliefs and rituals. Just as you cannot have belief in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior without the Bible, without the tenets, creeds, and established traditions of Christianity as a guideline of what to believe and what manner to conduct oneself as Christian, so too must faith come out of religion. 

But to call oneself a Christian one must accept certain claims about moral conduct, follow certain practices such as baptism, and must live life according to the teachings of Christ. A person could believe in Christ all they wanted to, but believing alone isn't enough, you have to follow the teachings as well. 

Genuine faith asks you to accept a specific set of beliefs derived from the religious realm. Many of these beliefs are supernatural propositions. That is, in the absence of any evidence to support the religious claim, you have to take it on faith that these supernatural claims are true. 


When a believer prays to God, they are practicing a religious act based on the religious claim that God hears, and occasionally, answers their prayers. If you believed in prayer, however, but never prayed--then could you really say with honesty that you thought prayer was valid? How would you separate your faith from atheism? An atheist doesn't believe in prayer so that's why they refrain from the practice. No, I think it is rather quite clear why people pray. Life sucks. God, according to their religion, promises them a little something better if only they pray hard enough and believe deeply enough. Therefore the believer is called upon to put their religious beliefs, their faith, into practice.


So you see, faith is religion enacted.

Here we discover an important chronological order we must take into consideration when discussing the issue of religious faith. To picture it another way, religion is like a tree, and faith is like a branch on that tree. Many religions spawn numerous faiths, but the faiths might differ slightly in what religious propositions they accept as true and which religious doctrines they emphasize as most important to abide by and obey. A Calvinist believes something slightly different than a Lutheran and a Catholic believes in a slightly different variation of the religion still. But these various branches of faith all sprout from the same tree. 


***


I'd like to note, as an aside, that religion, indeed all religions, are derived from the human tendency to formulate supernatural explanations/beliefs for that which we don't fully understand. 


This is in part due to how human brains are wired and how our basic psychology causes us to be pattern seekers. So to be entirely pedantic, religion requires one to be prone to a certain level of supernatural thinking before religious beliefs can be properly generated and, likewise, faith can come out of the religion. 


As such, I view religious faith as a type of supernatural belief, not a rational or pragmatic one. Many theologians claim that faith can be had rationally, but I do not see how this is possible, unless one relinquishes all faith in supernatural claims in the first place. But if one did this, then religion couldn't arise and there would be no faith. 


Rational inquiry and skepticism seem to kill off the tendency we have to take supernatural claims for granted--because it asks us to be critical of anything that is lacking in evidence or doesn't line up with the facts. Since religion relies on the supernatural, so too faith. A supernatural claim cannot be entertained rationally apart from any valid support to establish the belief as reliable. This usually requires evidence, and supernatural claims usually fail to support themselves with evidence. So faith, in my opinion, will always suffer from a certain level of irrationality which is built into it due to its reliance on supernatural religious propositions which ask you to believe minus any trustworthy empirical understanding.


I only mention this as an aside, since it goes a long way to help explain why so many religious beliefs and practices are bat-shit insane. If religion relies on the supernatural, and the supernatural cannot be completely rational, then faith is bound to be irrational more often than not. Thus all the practices and customs derived from religious faith risk suffering from the same sort of irrationality.


It's was makes people entertain the absurd notion that God cares whether or not they masturbate, whether or not they take birth control, whether or not they eat pork, whether or not women may attend religious service when they are menstruation, whether or not one covers their head or takes of their shoes in church, whether or not one prays kneeling toward the East or with palms pressed together and heads bowed slightly, it is what makes people think Holy Communion is real and that circumcision is a good idea. It is why so many believers write horribly stupid things on Facebook--such as the endless thanks and praise of God for, you know, curing their cancer, or not getting cancer, or getting an A on a report card, or scoring the winning touch down. 


Yet all of these religious practices and beliefs prove to be entirely irrational in response to events which can all be understood rationally. There is not a single shred of evidence, apart from the sheer willingness to accept these fantastic religious claims unconditionally, that they constitute any sort of supernatural intervention on the believer's behalf.  They are merely the peculiar, irrational, religious beliefs leading to peculiar, often irrational, demonstrations of faith.


Although people aren't fully rational all of the time, I think the case can be made that religion often asks highly rational people to be less than rational in favor of slightly irrational supernatural propositions. 








Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist