19 Nov 2008

What does it feel like to have faith?

This question was posed on the Richard Dawkins forum and so far only one real reply of merit as been posted. However, it was interesting enough to warrant a few comments. People who claim to have faith in their religious doctrine exist in a particular state of mind. There is no way for them to step outside their faith and look back at themselves in the knowledge that they can then step back inside. It is therefore the kind of question that only makes sense to someone who was once a believer but who then "lost" their faith - or, of course, possibly a shift in the opposite direction.

One of the defining characteristics of a believer is their absolute certainty in the truth of their object of belief, whatever the lack of evidence. It may seem like the person's rational faculties have been unplugged, but I suspect this merely shows that the condition takes place at an unconscious level. There is one other state of mind which is very similar and which directs its affections to a real object rather than a fantasy - being in love. And being in faith feels very much like being both loved and in love. It is like the whole universe is perfumed with this love. It doesn't even enter into one's mind that this is all purely self-generated. Like many other forms of religious experience, as it feels like it comes from outside, then it is ascribed to an outside influence; in this case, the love of one's God. It is also the case of many psychiatric disorders that manifestations of the mind appear to be externally created.

But just as the love for another person can sometimes evaporate, so can the love for one's God. As quickly as the mist descends so too can it clear, leaving behind a feeling of... possession, dare one say. The feeling of human love as well as cosmic all-pervading love are associated in the chakra system with, fairly obviously, the heart chakra. I don't want to dwell on this particular theory too long but is interesting to note that in many meditational systems the opening of the chakra centres should be done in a particular order and with a certain care and guidance. The obsession in some new age groups to focus on the heart chakra does indeed lead to a feeling of benevolence to the universe but at the expense of foregoing all the other experiences associated with the other chakras. Thus opening only one chakra leads to a one-sided view of our human nature. It is just partial knowledge, and no knowledge at all if done as part of the religious indoctrination without a conscious sense of what one is activating.

Apart from the feeling of unconditional love, the other aspect of faith is the rituals associated with maintaining and strengthening that faith. One may think that rituals are not really part of the feeling of belief but rituals do serve the purpose of fixing both images and behaviour. Studies of comparative religious
iconography show that beyond culturally local symbols there are similarities in the psychic functions of symbols or, more importantly, a family of symbols that create a meaningful internal myth. The tragedy and ignorance of fideist religions is to believe and preach that these psychodramas are external metaphysical entities rather than mental constructs. Only in eastern religions do we find the acceptance that these are deep mental constructs, including methods to see this clearly so that one is no longer a slave to indoctrination.

One interesting consequence of rituals being the prop of belief is the experience of increasing dependence on rituals in times of a crisis of faith. Somehow, the unconscious mind seems to prepare for what is about to happen, with the conscious mind being totally ignorant of this. The lady who described her experiences said
she went through a period of sudden increase in prayers, in thinking about becoming a nun and a morbid concentration on being with God. These acts of faith rose to a crescendo up until the poit where her belief suddenly collapsed. The fog had lifted, the world looked very different, the love had vanished. The rituals that were once learnt expressions of an underlying faith had become mere gestures - excessive mannerisms as a substitute for genuine belief.

Going back to secular love, we see similar situations arising when one partner is waning in their love for the other. Somehow, making an effort to be loving and caring, buying presents and trying to please your partner eventually reveal themselves as empty gestures when the reality dawns that you really don't love that person anymore. We think that repeating the right actions will somehow resurface the original feelings. But feelings, like faith, cannot be manufactured - not if the person is free to develop themselves.

Actions can be difficult to stop. Another commenter mentioned how de-programming from religious mannerisms was similar to remove hypnotic suggestions. The rituals of religions do have many aspects in common with hypnotic suggestions. It does also leave the possibility that many people may survive within their religion purely because of the comfort generated by performing certain rituals. It will need further investigation as to whether there is a neurological difference between the genuine believer acting out of faith and the default believer whose faith is a consequence of their actions.

To sum up, the feeling of faith is an emotional and neurological condition with many similarities with secular love. This love is, however, directed towards a metaphysical entity. To a believer, such an entity feels real. However, it is possible that such religious faith can disappear, just as human love can, and that the person feels freed from the obligation to be faith-full. Much of this appears to happen at an unconscious level, with the conscious reaction to this being to adjust to both states of mind. But one interesting difference is that the non-believer does not perceive to be "in" any particular state. We do not have a special word for somebody who is not in love, as we see that not being in love is the default condition. Rather strangely, many think that being a believer is the natural state, rather than the more obvious situation in which being non-believer is the natural state, just as not being in love, and that both belief and love are altered states. Living in an altered state may have its advantages but it is not clear that it is a good basis on which to claim knowledge of reality.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments to older posts are moderated just so I can keep track so please don't submit multiple copies. Any blatant advertising will be deleted. If you want to promote your site create a link and your page will be visible as a backlink - fair exchange. Thanks.