Sunday, November 26, 2017

Faith in Belief, but Unfaithful to Faith, Baby You Can Drive My Car

I often jest that I was born without the God-gene. I say this because as I have told that story a million times, no one I know has tried to _believe_ in God more than I. I study believers now for a living likely because I'm still working out my own failure to have faith as faith or belief-as-faith. Is this just a deficiency _in me_? That was how one professor explained me to others. I was "tone deaf to religion," he said. I replied that I didn't much like to sing from the Protestant hymnal anymore. All I refused to do was believe his thesis, not the one about me but about faith.

Now, I never discount the importance or the power of belief, including my belief in that power or its importance. The distinction I will focus on here is between belief-as-faith and faith-in-belief. This one will take a minute. Take a seat, you're in for it a bit.

Briefly, belief _as_ faith reduces matters to assertion, opinion, and is at the heart of confirmation bias, which means that evidence, reasoning, and _changing_ one's mind have little efficacy in the processes of creating convictions. This is faith as such, faith in having faith, faith because you have it. I would contend that I just don't, so if it only takes one counter example to upset a monism, a one truth for all claim, then I offer myself as that example. I did this in the first important graduate seminar at Harvard and my rejection of the faith thesis has always left me uninvited to the next faith-fest. What happened was I was the only one who wholly rejected the thesis of the professor, the Chair of the Study of Religion at the Veritas-U, who wrote the book called "Faith and Belief." He happened to be teaching that seminar and he held my future in his faithful little hands. I was not being petulant (only), I was being honest. He almost got me thrown out, in fact, he tried and I refused to leave. He also wore his pants up near his chest. I could not believe anyone who looked like that. But that's another story. I'm probably still working out that wound too, but I would contend that in the spirit of the black swan, I was the exception that defeated his thesis. Allow me more.

Belief-as-faith is really the claim that faith is not belief at all but a kind of quality of feeling. Again, I lack that feeling having spent a lifetime looking for it and trying to believe this argument for faith as some sort of positive we _need_. This same professor told me ---and my doctoral committee--- that it would be better if i just went over to comparative linguistics where clearly I had a future. Religion, not so much, he said. I replied that I loved studying religion not because there is such a thing as faith but because people believe there is. Faith is just belief of another kind, not another kind of thing or feeling. And if it is that special feeling, I ain't got it, so how's dem'apples about it being universal to all humans. I'm not so stupid as to think that I don't get it, I believe not all of us have faith. But all of us have beliefs.

Now, I also knew somehow that I eventually needed a job in academia or I would be playing for short change at the Ramada Lounge on Friday nights forever. I couldn't take the hours. Not that there is anything wrong with that. So I maintain there is still room for faith, so long as it's faith in beliefs. We gots (not really) to have some of that, though I would contend we can almost live without that too. Problem is, it's just too dry to take that more purist path of fact, you end up with only Quine and maybe Putnam as your philosopher friend and everything is nothing but an equation. One and one needs to make three if you're after more poetry, as the Boss reminds us.

Faith in belief, I would argue, is when the evidence leads you to put your heart in a fact, an idea or value, or a person who you have good reason to believe. Since people have a need, likely an evolutionary need to believe, we can expect that they will believe _something_.

Hitchens argued, rightly I think, that the qualify of belief needs to be commensurate to the quality of critical thinking. That is, that what we believe must be alchemized in the crucible of more than personal experience and opinion but also of public learning and standards of verifiability. The problem, such as it is with this kind of distinction, is that a belief valuable enough to earn our public trust requires not only skills in methods of critical thinking, but is by definition subversive of belief itself. I'm not even talking about the innumerable perils and idiocies that follow from monisms ---truths that claimed to be one, and so incontrovertible because there is no second option. I'm merely pointing out that the best quality beliefs ---the ones that warrant our faith--- must leave room for being replaced, undermined, questioned, and subject to eradication when necessary. A belief you can't reject at some point isn't worth having. A faith that commends belief you can't reject just won't do, no matter who tells you.

Put another way, unless the equation of belief is allowed to be provisional, in some important way _incomplete_, and so subject to reevaluation, it is reduced to belief as faith. You can believe because you want to, need to, are told to, because the consequence of being different is painful or disorienting. All of these emotional components of belief are soundly rejected in the Gita, which is a book about having belief. It's not like you need good reasons to believe, that is not Krishna's point (or usually). Rather it is about the way the credibility of a belief, faith -in- belief is a helpful feature of learning because it fosters the necessary experimentation with belief _and_ gives you something you can say honestly you believe is _true_.

Part of Trumpism is that it is prays upon the emotional manipulation that clouds belief and so turns almost entirely to belief as faith when it believes at all. This makes all news "fake" that does not meet with approval or affirmation in the moment, suited entirely to whatever is being projected as satisfying. Krishna again has some sound advice about not allowing your beliefs to be a matter of meeting your immediate desires but this is impenetrable to those who _need_ to believe more than they are willing to _work for_ a belief. Never underestimate how folks would prefer things to be easy, how little they will work for their beliefs. Belief is hard-won content and that's not the same as feeling good. Krishna really hammers you on this one.

The truth of a belief doesn't depend on your believing it. I could believe, for example, that the nominative and accusative neuter singular in Sanskrit takes the same endings in both cases. This is true whether or not I know that fact, or _even understand that sentence_. Others know it and I could know it too, so I could believe it only if I knew what that sentence meant. But when I can believe that to be true it is because I worked for that knowledge, one way or another. _How_ you believe is matter not only of what you know but of what you are willing to work to achieve. Everyone hates work. Believe me. That's why we need to think about this distinction between belief-as-faith and the harder work of faith-in-belief.

So lemme repeat to see if the point is clear enough. Faith in belief is work, it's the opposite, if you will, of just believing, Some things you don't want to work too hard for. I'm okay with that. I didn't need to go to St John's College to do the "Is the earth really round?" experiment because I believed Mrs Robinson, my second grade teacher. She was belief worthy but not only because she was a sweetheart. I was convinced that _she'd_ done the work and I was blessed merely to believe. Faith in belief is belief earned through an honest, complex effort of examination and cool-minded assessment. We assess the facts for ourselves, but in fact we also assess _people_. We think, "I believe her and I don't believe him." Those assessments, as we have also recently learned quite explicitly, are tests of one's own character. People like the current Governor of Alabama are failing those tests right before our eyes. Now how does that affect your faith in people?

The more cool-minded a belief becomes, the more passionately one believes it because you think you have reason, that you _know_. THIS is the key to "bhakti", at least in the Rajanaka use of the term. A cool mind --- like beliveving the redoubtable second grade teacher that the world is round---brings a passion for the belief and for the person, the group, the institution, the fact you are believing.

Bhakti is feeling the truth of a belief not because you believe it but because you have faith that your belief is worthy of belief. It needs to be worthy of _you_, of the tests of your own heart and the candor that can only come from a cool mind hot on the trail of that belief. That belief could be wrong, so figuring out how you would know _that_ is more important than believing itself

Throw all of that worth and "worthy of" away and you have Trump and by that I mean one has to forsake every intellectual skill along with the content of belief for the sake merely of believing. Put another way, more scary indeed, you want to believe someone who wants to _use_ your belief rather than ask you to_ test his_. This can feel satisfying only if you never learned the difference between belief +as+ faith and the kind of belief that _makes you_ have faith. We test not our faith but our beliefs. This means we have to _learn_ to test beliefs and be invited to do that, no matter how heartfelt the conviction or who we are being asked to believe. People may certainly disappoint, even shock you because they do things that rattle your faith in them, and that's because you had reasons for that faith, you _believed_ stuff that you thought you had assessed correctly, or you now have new information or are willing to face the information.

So I guess I don't really jest, I mean it when I say I don't have the God-gene. I cannot manage any degree of belief-as-faith, much less have faith without belief that is not hard work. My faith is never hard work because that's work I did when I was asked to believe. I am relieved to discover that my belief that every argument I have ever heard for believing in God is far less believable than those that reject those claims. Not believing is faith in belief because faith as belief only tells you that you have faith, _and nothing else_. Faith as faith is then another monism, another utterly useless oneness that bears only on how it makes you feel because thinking becomes secondary. I am faithful to the beliefs that I have _worked hard_ to arrive at, not because those beliefs _must_ be true, but because truth is more than what we want to believe or are told to believe. Truth is earned the hard way: by learning, testing, revising, sometimes rejecting, repeat.

Bhakti traditions are complex because it's natural and easy to reduce belief to faith. But there is such a thing as Rajanaka bhakti, and that is faith in beliefs that, however they may be revised or even disappoint, you have to work some to believe at all.