Y’all might be forgiven for expecting my answer to be an automatic and emphatic “Yes!” but the truth is more complex, I think; fuck, the truth is always more complex. Faith is one of those words that signifies a whole host of related notions of what might be, how they might be, what might be done and how that might be done. It gathers to it a scrapbook lexicon of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, scribbles them all on one blank page of vellum; it draws a black ink sigil at the centre of it all, with arrows and loops linking that glyph to all these beings and qualities of beings, doings and qualities of doings; it sketches a crude circle that encompasses all these scattered significances. In that act of encircling we encapsulate a whole system of behaviour that should really be parsed — to borrow programmer’s parlance — into classes and their attributes, methods and their parameters. Nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. We imagine faith as a thing in its own right (a belief that we can have as we have family and friends), but also as a quantifiable quality of our sapient selves (the degree of our belief, as measurable as our height or weight), as an activity (as the feeling of believing, the existential experience, the inner action), and as a variable that affects activity (its positive or negative value deciding whether we act "on faith" or without it.)
Let’s break open the black box of the system then, and see if we can’t make some sense of it.
In its broad informal usage, what we mean by faith may be little more than a belief, a trust, a hope. Faith in a black, Democratic president to be marginally better than a fascist fuckwit is not the same thing as faith in YHWH, Jesus Christ or Allah, but what they share makes for a good base line. Along with faith in friends, faith in yourself, faith in the general benevolence of human beings, what they share is an independence from proof, maybe even from evidence. In the absence of certain knowledge we take it on faith that Obama won’t be quite the cunt that Bush is, that our friends will stick by us when the shit hits the fan, that we’ll be able to deal with the crap life throws at us, that humans aren’t so fucked up that they’ll turn this world into a living Hell twenty minutes into the future. (Or we don’t, of course.) Whether faith is or is not incompatible with the specific detail of established fact, it certainly does not require the specific detail of established fact. This seems like a fair starting point.
Here we get a branching though, in the answer to the obvious question(s): if it doesn’t require such specific detail, is it nevertheless informed by it? if certainty is unnecessary, isn’t much of our faith in this or that specific object shaped (inspired, bolstered, cemented) by specific validating experiences — not proof but evidence?
With religious faith the answer depends largely on the individual. There are a fair number of religious believers who will argue that “true” faith is not a matter of evidence at all, that we’re given an essential but simple choice, to believe or not, and that any concern with evidence constitutes a deficit of faith. In this argument, God could prove his own existence to us all individually, or at least provide some fairly persuasive evidence; that he does not, that he leaves the decision in our hands, signifies that he wants us to exercise our own free will, accept what is offered without any leverage being applied; he wants faith from us, and if he does then faith must have a value in its own right, one that would be devalued by evidence. In this argument, faith is invalidated by evidence because it is the essential basis of a state of grace, a grace which would be nullified were we to act on the base motive of self-preservation, or even on a purely intellectual judgement of plausibility. There is a neat recursion at play here; since there can be no proof or evidence of God, there can be no proof or evidence that this is his plan, that he values faith in this way; we must simply take it on faith. The result is a religious faith that is essentially a faith in faith itself, a Möebius loop of self-sustaining illogic… and one we’ll come back to.
But there are plenty of believers who will happily admit to a personal religious experience as the basis for their faith, or who will point to the complex wonders of the world as inspirations for, and validations of, their belief in a benevolent creator. There are many who will argue, actually, that such things are not simply subjectively significant, as specific details of established fact which they respond to with faith, but in fact constitute hard evidence. The very nature of the world, they’ll say, is that it’s constructed from specific details of established fact which render faith in God the only rational response. To the Creationist these things do constitute proof; their faith is absolutely certain, their conviction of God’s existence considered incontrovertibly proven. Others still could be said to go a step further, basing their faith in ontological arguments for the a priori truth of God’s existence. It’s not just evidence, not just proof; it’s necessity.
This makes faith something of a double-headed beast, it has to be said. Never mind the specific details of established fact; the whole notion of faith may be entirely incompatible with itself, that conceptual encircling of a system of beliefs attempting to lump together two entirely contradictory outlooks, one asserting that proof is antithetical to faith, the other that faith not only can be but is proven.
The two extremes are both, I’d have to say, positions of dubious mental stability, never mind rationality. An unshakeable conviction that the more unshakeable one’s conviction is the better? That’s not just illogical; it’s the basic emotional feedback loop underlying the schizophrenic experience of apophenia or the drug-fuelled satori of an acid-head, the point where that Eureka Moment sense that it’s right! bootstraps itself into a sense that it’s right that it’s right!, a sense that IT’S RIGHT that it’s right that it’s right! and so on. And while an appreciation of the sublime in nature is at least a vaguely comprehensible motive for a faith that “it’s all there for a reason”, this too smacks of the apophenic state that sees signs in coincidence, patterns where they don’t exist, hidden order, profound meaning and grand design in the banal interconnectedness of chaos. If these two extremes offer antithetical notions of what faith is, in fact, there is an underlying commonality to their enraptured illogic that points to another quality definitive of faith; whether evidence is denied or asserted, the type of belief we label faith is not just intellectual but sensational.
But is it always quite so sensational? How profound does a sense of conviction have to be in order to be faith rather than mere belief? Rationalism might be understood as a form of faith if our answer to that question above is “yes, evidence informs our faith in this or that” if we are willing to accept that we know little about this world with any true certainty and so must take base of our understanding of it “on faith”. This is part of the (generally dubiously motivated) argument that science is based on faith, and (as irrationalist a tactic as it is) it’s not entirely invalid. The scientific method admits of no proof. A formal model of how reality might work can be shown to be airtight in terms of validity, but there is no way to be certain that such a model has relevance — i.e. that it is a true model of how things actually work. So instead, the cunning trick of the scientific method is to look for disproof, to demand that any theory be falsifiable. We advance by seeking evidence that will rule out such models, force us to revise them, refine them. We examine the specific details of established fact and we find that they blow this or that model apart, send us back to the drawing board. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they match up pretty damn well and bring us just that little bit closer to understanding the world. Maybe there’s nothing in that empirical data that contradicts our model… yet. The point is, that empirical data is never proof, and so when we accept whatever the current model is (assuming we do accept it), this is an act of faith. We believe in the model. We trust in it. We have faith, and by the principles of inductive logic we’re not unjustified in doing so. Its not an unreasonable assumption… as long as we accept that it is an assumption, that our faith in any formal model may well be misplaced.
The tendency of a scientistic (rather than scientific) mindset to forget this basic suppositionality however reveals another facet of faith. Just as every model is built from the ruins of those made obsolete (disproven, shown to be not completely relevant) by the specific details of established fact, each becomes in turn a suppositional orthodoxy held to by the conservative. Established fact must be established, and where it conflicts with an aesthetically pleasing model there are always those who will argue its established status. Witness the entirely unscientific challenge for “proof” of psychic phenomena set by the James Randi Educational Foundation, premised on the theory that such activity is impossible in a rational universe. Now, personally I consider most spiritualist mumbo jumbo so deeply implausible as to be risible, but the point is that what I consider is irrelevant. If I hold to the same model of how reality works as Randi, I can still recognise the old switcheroo when I see it in the shifting of responsibility that is going on here. There can be no proof of psychic phenomena, only disproof of a model which predicts the complete absence of certain specific details. So it’s Randi’s (and my) assumption that is being put forward for testing, this model that is inviting falsification. Or would be if that model consisted of more than a skeptical reaction to the Babel of spiritualist models which fail utterly to construct a coherent theoretical foundation. Such skepticism is, I think, entirely rational, but the scientific response is not to demand “proof” but to demand a coherent formulation of the spiritualist model.
Imagine that hundreds, thousands of musicians around the world all assert that they have a natural ability based on an innate understanding of an algorithm. They know and can implement, so they claim, a simple programmatic procedure by which if you give them a person’s name they can develop this simplest of acoustic patterns into a symphony that person will invariably love. It’s something they don’t understand, and it seems implausible, but while others may or may not like the resulting symphony, that individual is guaranteed to adore it. Guaranteed. Now, the scientific response here is not to say “prove it”. No matter if the link between an individual and their name is so arbitrary that the ability to guarantee a positive response by that individual (but not by everyone) seems an absurd claim. No matter if the business of personal symphonies is clearly an open invitation to any musical charlatan with an ability to please a crowd. No matter how easily they might glean enough of that individual’s tastes by other means entirely. The scientific response is not to demand that they carry this out in laboratory conditions in order to provide us with a satisfying sense of certainty that they’re not just performing some subtle sleight-of-Handel. The scientific response is to ask for the bloody algorithm. How does it work? How specifically do you generate a personal symphony from an arbitrary name? What is the theory here? What are the underlying ramifications? What testable results can we predict? Ultimately, it’s conceivable (if completely fanciful) that the acoustic pattern of an individual’s name has an emotional resonance for them that could be exploited programmatically. Ultimately that algorithm might offer testable hypotheses, predictions of responses to symphonies based on nicknames or maiden names, responses by amnesiacs or sufferers from multiple personality disorder; in any number of ramifications we might find the potential to falsify the theory. Laboratory conditions? Repeatability? No amount of scientific rigmarole will result in proof that these personalised symphonies are actually personalised without a theory of how that process works. And “it just can’t be done” is no more scientifically formulated than the black box of “it just can” that surrounds our unexplicated algorithm.
My point? The real debate with “psychic phenomena” is over the “established fact” status of those specific details, whether or not they count as evidence that would disprove a materialist model so loosely articulated as to be little more than a bold assertion that such things aren’t possible, the informality a response to the equally badly-formulated spiritualist assertions as to how they are. While the scientific method does require a degree of rigour in the construction of experiments by which such facts may be established, the focus on repeatability in a controlled environment becomes, in effect, a distraction from the inadequacies of both materialist and spiritualist models, a smokescreen for the fact that neither model is even remotely valid. That argument over whether or not this or that anecdotal anomaly constitutes evidence is the pretense of science as cover for an argument which has nothing to do with evidence at all and everything to do with loyalty to a particular model. Where the challenge is “prove it,” in fact, rather than “how does it work?” one detects a lack of objectivity in the resistance, a skepticism which takes the impossibility of psychic phenomena rather than the efficacy of doubt as its key article of faith. The skeptic has become entrenched, a defender of the orthodoxy rather than a doubter of it.
Which is to say that faith involves not just belief but commitment to belief — fidelity.
This is the linguistic root of the term — faith coming from the Latin fide — so it’s not really surprising, but essentially what we’re dealing with in faith is not simply belief, but belief bound to loyalty, perhaps even belief bound by loyalty. We do not just have faith; we hold it or hold to it; we keep it; we maintain it. This is why we talk of being faithful to a spouse, why the faithful service of nuns makes them metaphorical “brides of God”. It is why one view of religious faith celebrates faith in the absence of proof, faith in the absence of evidence, faith as a decision disregarding all self-interest… faith as a marker of unquestioning loyalty. It is why the creationists who take an entirely contradictory view of their beliefs as proven are so utterly unwavering in their opposition to all that challenges this assumption. It is why the faith of Islam takes its name from the Arabic word for submission. It is why the truly, deeply, madly faithful (and I do mean madly) see themselves as in the service of God. More than just a belief in some perhaps uncertain possibility, a trust in some potentially unreliable being, a hope for some possibly unpredictable outcome, faith is a dedicated devotion, a concerted effort, a promise and the keeping of that promise.
From the same root, you know, we get the term fealty.
So, is faith incompatible with the specific detail of established fact? Of course it fucking is. Or at least it is and must be so wherever “faith” is more than just a vague synonym for belief, for trust, for hope held on to but understood to be quite possibly vain, an assumption that will be dispensed with whenever the specific detail of established fact proves us wrong. We can be objective about our beliefs, wary even as we exercise trust, doubtful even as we hope. But faith is, by definition, about as far from objective as its possible to get. Peel it back to the fidelity at its root, trace its intertwinings with ideas of fealty, and what we find is a willing subjugation of objectivity, because the bond of loyalty at the heart of faith is a silently sworn oath to maintain belief and, implicitly, to maintain it against opposition. To dispense with an assumption held as an article of faith is a breaking of the faith to be condemned. To accept a fact as established when to do so requires abandoning such an assumption — this is a loss of faith to be lamented.
Such things happen, of course, and in the modern world of liberalised religions, faith may be more malleable, less averse to the inevitable adaptation of its articles in light of experience. As secular society has fought for its freedoms to eat, drink, dance, fuck and generally enjoy the cool shit around us without jumping through mad hoops of ritual purity in order to prove our undying fealty, many religious faiths have been forced either to admit that their premodern morality is out-of-date or to at least shut the fuck up. No, we’re not going to eat kosher. No, we’re not going to be teetotal. No, we’re not going to stop the ceilidh regardless of what you say. And, no, I’m not going to stop fucking guys. Shut the fuck up. Some cling to their articles and oppose all argument, like Pope Benny the Rat with his recent rejection of gender theory, but others have retreated into vague assertions of solace and eternity, held with the firmest of convictions perhaps but so nebulous and irrelevant as to be unworthy of challenge. In the discourse that such faiths construct, many have even been instrumental in pushing society towards that liberalism (c.f. the faith-based opposition to slavery on the part of the Quakers.) But this history of sloughed or redefined beliefs is, as the fundamentalists understand, a corrosion of faith-as-fidelity.
Ain’t that a shame?
The point is, there’s a third answer to the question above as to whether faith, if it doesn’t require proof, might at least be informed by evidence: that faith isn’t just a belief that requires neither proof nor evidence; it’s a belief that denies all evidence to the contrary. Faith that survives the testing is solid, and that tenacity is held, generally speaking, as a measure of its worth. A belief, a trust, a hope that persists even when everyone around you is telling you to give it up — that’s faith. When you haven’t sold a story in ten years, and you’re still sure you can be a writer? That’s faith. When the Babylonians want you to bow before graven idols, and you tell them to go fuck themselves? That’s faith. When the Romans are throwing you to the lions, and you sing as you’re being eaten? That’s faith. When the Great Satan is selling its fornicating, blaspheming, secular culture to every whore and faggot in the world, and you fly a plane into a building to murder thousands of innocent people? That’s faith. As a wise man once said: so it goes. In some cases that faith is going to be admirable, in some it’s going to be crazy, in some it’s going to be both and in some it’s going to be neither. When the world-at-large is telling you about evolution, and you think it’s all a crock of shit because you’ve been force-fed creationism by your home-schooling fundamentalist parents since you were knee-high to a velociraptor? That’s faith. It’s not admirable and it’s not crazy (just ignorant), but it is incompatible with the specific detail of established fact.
But there’s one last aspect of faith I haven’t touched on yet however, one that is, I think, as intrinsic to the whole notion of faith as belief and loyalty. Because where a belief may be value-neutral, a trust is implicitly positive and a hope is explicitly so. Faith in YHWH, Jesus Christ or Allah, faith in Obama or Bush (as absurd as that may sound), faith in friends, faith in yourself, faith in the general benevolence of human beings — these are not just intellectual judgements of a deity’s existence, a president’s competence and integrity, a mate’s dependability, one’s own ability, the altruism of people in general. Rather they’re distinctly positive investments of confidence, beliefs in principles and people that one rather distinctly desires to be true, beliefs in ideas that hold a certain appeal, beliefs that are therefore immensely reassuring if not actually uplifting, as convictions that what we want to be true is true.
This is where we come back to that neat little Möebius loop of faith-in-faith. Because we’re not just talking about an intellectual conviction that to have this intellectual conviction is right, a sense of certainty in the rightness of certainty as a sense in and of itself, a faith in faith. We’re talking about a feedback loop of certainty motivated by desire and reinforced by the sense of reassurance which that certainty affords. In fact, if faith offers a sense of solace, of consolation, of comfort, of satisfaction in that reassurance, then we’re talking about a blinding double-whammy of a feedback-loop in the form of a belief that brings us joy and a joy that validates that belief: it’s right that it’s right; I’m happy that it’s right; it’s right that I’m happy; I’m happy that I’m happy. Now throw in the imperative of loyalty — it’s wrong to not believe — and we have a bootstrapped and barricaded system of belief that would make Big Brother envious, one that might well be not just incompatible with the specific detail of established fact but actively engaged in opposing it at every possible opportunity. Hell, poke that system with a specific detail and its response is that it’s wrong for you not to believe. You don’t have faith? What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know you could be happy? and right? and happy that you’re right? And it’d be right that you were happy? You’d be happy to be right to be happy to be right! Just think how I think, join the wires, connect the loop, have faith, have faith above all else, praise God, and sing halle-fucking-lujah! Let me convert you. I want to convert you. I’ll be happier if I convert you. I’ll feel more right if I convert you. It’s wrong to not believe.
That’s faith and I can’t help but think it reminds me of a fucking virus. Sure, sure, it comes in different strains, some more virulent than others, and if you’ve got yer Spanish Flu it’s probably fair to say the average faith is more like the common cold; but it’s probably also fair to say, I think, in the words of another wise man: I am not innarested in your condition.
But, hey, Merry Christmas, y’all! Good tidings of comfort and joy and all that… if you believe in all that. And whether you do or not…