Sunday, February 28, 2010

Keeping the Faith

Keep the faith. That is something many of us are encouraged to do. It is part of the general well-wishing that often comes with saying goodbye to a friend. “See you later, my friend. Keep the faith!”

Keeping the Faith was the title of a movie about two good friends, a Catholic priest and a rabbi, and a childhood friend who came back into their lives as a beautiful woman and shook things up between them.

The priest, played by Edward Norton, fell in love with the woman after becoming reacquainted with her. He then, of course, had a crisis of faith during which he decided to leave the priesthood so that he could marry this friend from his childhood. The woman, played by Jenna Elfman, had no romantic feelings for the priest. She still thought of him as just a good friend. So when the priest embarrassed himself by admitting his love for her, he started drinking and became a derelict for awhile.

The Catholic Church frowns on priests falling in love and prohibits them from getting married. So you can see his dilemma.

The rabbi, played by Ben Stiller, loved her too, and she loved him. But because he was Jewish, he couldn’t get away with marrying this gentile woman. He kept his relationship with her a secret from his parents and his congregation.

Unlike Catholic priests, Jewish Rabbis are allowed, even encouraged, to get married. Jews seem to be more concerned with whether or not you eat the right brand of wiener or the right species of seafood. Marrying is ok, but only if it is to a Jewish woman. Of course, being a romantic comedy, things worked out just fine in the end for everyone concerned. And, of course, both the rabbi and the priest got to keep their faith.

In America at least, it would not have been appropriate for a comedy about love to end up with someone losing his faith in the Lord. After all, more than 80 percent of the population claims to have faith.

But just what does it mean to have faith? Faith simply means a very strong belief in something despite absence of proof or even strong evidence that what you believe in actually exists.

When you admonish someone to “keep the faith,” what you’re really saying is something like this: “Make sure you keep believing in spite of the lack of evidence,” or “Don’t worry about the facts; just believe it in your heart,” or maybe “Remember, it’s not necessary to know something is true as long as you believe it is and live your life accordingly.”

Anyone who can pretend that they don’t believe for 10 seconds, pretend that they have never heard of their religion or have never given God a second thought, and then exam the command to “Keep the faith,” they may see it from a different light.

Keep the faith? Really? I generally require some kind of evidence before I believe other things that I’m told. If someone tries to sell me a bottle of miracle medicine for $50, I’m hanging on to my money until I see some proof that this stuff works. But I’m supposed to have faith that a magical man in the sky is watching my every move and judging me accordingly? No thank you.

Keeping the faith is a routine part of being Christian in America, and elsewhere but to a lesser degree. The concept has been with us so long that it doesn’t seem at all silly or nonsensical to have faith. In fact, having great faith is often viewed as a virtue.

But strip away its religious shield and look at it from a perspective of a religiously-naïve person and keeping the faith does sound kind of naïve in its own right.

But so what? Is there really anything wrong with keeping some faith in your life? I mean, it doesn’t really hurt anything, right? Well, yes and no. It depends on what you have faith in. If you have faith in yourself it can provide encouragement for success. If you realize that your success depends mostly on you, then having faith in yourself and your own abilities presents a positive mental attitude that will help you through the day and your life. Having faith in those closest to you to come through for you when you need help is also a virtue.

But if your faith is in some unseen supernatural force, then you have misplaced your faith. If you waste your time waiting for guidance from a hypothetical omniscient force then you're really just being lazy. It can hold you back.

Even if you are not one of the religious fanatics who want to force your faith down my throat by lobbying to have creation nonsense taught in science class or who advocate violence against abortion doctors or who fly airplanes into skyscrapers in the name of God, you are spending vast amounts of your time, and presumably your money, focusing on a non-existent personal deity who is promising you an eternal life after this one instead of focusing on the one life you really do have. If we get to live forever after we die, then of what value is our earthly existence? This is your life; live it to its fullest and stop worrying about what some "sky daddy" thinks.

Oh, but what if I’m wrong? I hear that a lot. Well, maybe I am wrong, but I guarantee that whatever you believe is not closer to the truth than what I believe. What if there is a god but you chose the wrong religion? What if you are Catholic but God still chooses the Jews? What if you’re Baptist but God likes the Catholics best? What if the real god is Vishnu or Allah? You’re still just as condemned as I am. Without proof, or at least hard evidence, you have no justification for your faith, whatever it is.

“But I have faith because the bible….” Oh, so now you’re going to tell me that your faith in God is concordant with your faith in the bible. You believe in God because the bible tells you to. You believe in the bible because God tells you it is his word. Where else in your life do you allow such circular logic to predominate? Never mind that the bible is simply a collection of stories brought together in modern form by a conclave of Catholic bishop lawyers working on a deadline from a ruthless dictator. What’s that you say? It might have been written by men but it was under God’s guidance? And yes, that also requires a great amount of circular-reasoning faith. I hope you can see that faith is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Keep the faith? No thank you. An exceptional claim requires exceptional evidence, and I require a healthy dose of that evidence, real scientific evidence, not anecdotes, before I brush aside reason in favor of blind faith.

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