24 Dec 2009

What is the experience of faith?

Have just read "What is faith?" on Digital Bits Skeptic and have to admit some disappointment. Great title but sadly a rather short article whose focus is on the pronouncements of faith rather than the experience of faith. My feeling is that looking at the ejaculations of the religious faithful under a rational microscope merely defines the linguistic boundaries between faith and reason but tells us little about what it means to actually have faith.

Faith is a state of mind and trying to accurately describe one's own state of mind - never mind trying to comprehend someone else's - is a subtle task. We are, however, fairly good at describing changes of state. If I say "I'm feeling happy" then I think most people will know what I mean. The state of happiness comes and goes and manifests against some background state because of its transience. If I were in a permanent unalloyed state of happiness I would probably cease using that statement or it would take on a different meaning to that in general use.

This seems to me the basis for the fundamental lack of communication and understanding between the faithful and faithless. However, the testimonies of people who have switched sides, or flipped states, are revealing. Taking Christians as our subjects the overwhelming feeling that accompanies this switch is that of falling into, or out of, love. Dropping out of Christianity is uncannily similar to falling out of love. Suddenly the mist has cleared and the object of our affection is revealed as the ordinary, flawed individual that they always were - or the mundane, flawed supernatural construct that it always was.

I think the choice of the word 'love' is not accidental. It feels like love because it is love; in this case the love is directed towards a supernatural construct rather than another human. All the reasons we wish to give for our love are mere excuses, rationalisations for an irrational state. Perhaps arational is a better word as love is neither rational nor antirational but is just an experience that, as aware beings, we seek to justify and accommodate into our personal mental landscape.

This process of accommodation is what we usually refer to as rationalisation. But the problem here is that we are masters at deluding ourselves. We cannot step outside our own state of mind (although it is possible to achieve a high degree of detachment through various meditations) so that our language is itself clouded by the particular state we are in. The way out of this potential self-delusion is through philosophy and science. The sciences we currently have are the consequences of medieval philosophy. The quest of the philosopher is to question everything in order to reach understanding; and even then continue to question our understanding. This can be achieved by the individual to some extent by externalising thoughts by the simple process of writing them down.

It is now time to question faith; not the articles of faith but the experience of faith. It is, after all, one of many human experiences and there is no logical reason why it should be accorded some special treatment. There is already a barrage of propaganda from the fideist religions: the so-called 'God spot' being the most prominent. But so long as there are philosophers in the world then there is a chance we may get to the truth. By adding faith to our list of human emotions means it can be subjected to the same scrutiny as other emotions such as happiness, anger, fear, hatred and love. The aim of the philosopher is to ask the right questions; the aim of the scientist is to answer them. Game on!

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