The Abrahamic religions all have in common that they claim that god actually intervened in human affairs, sometimes in direct historical ways such as winning battles and sometimes fulfilling a theological role such as Jesus dying to forgive sins. All of which makes the notion of “faith” in these religions somewhat unique. I think we all have heard of what Paul said about faith:
Faith is the realization of what is hoped for
and evidence of things not seen.
Because of it the ancients were well attested.
Which actually happens to be the first reading in the Catholic Lectionary® for today. But it was on my mind already before I saw that.
Sometimes Christians will posit that the events of the gospels must be true because if they were not people would have refuted the gospels at the time. Or at least that people were close enough to the events in history that new converts could have been urged to “check it out” and when the evidence was convincing they converted. Richard Carrier, in Not the Impossible Faith argues that everyone who wrote of conversion accounts never did try to check the facts out, they just believed on faith. At this moment it is not my intention to agree or disagree with Dr. Carrier, but rather use that as a jumping off point for faith today among religionists.
I can identify four different faith types, plus a non-faith type. The four faith types are, true believer, semi-empiricist, simpleton and fundamentalist. Of course the non-believer is the full empiricist, often called atheist.
Now, I will take it on faith that there really is such a thing as a true believer. I have not actually met someone like this. Someone who believes every tenet of their faith, see no contradictions, problems and if there are some, they chalk up to god being mysterious and so beyond human consciousness that such things are inevitable. They seem to never, ever look for any kind of evidence other than the feeling in their heart that god has acted in the world in just the way that the scriptures say. God said it (sometimes to them personally) and they believe it. Their faith is just as pure as Paul said above. I have never met such a person, but power to them if they exist.
Some people would say that fundamentalists are true believers, but I would totally disagree. The weakness of fundies is that as soon as one word in the bible is disproved, then their faith falls. It is all the words or nothing. This is why they defend creationism so virulently. I once heard a preacher from Answers in Genesis on the radio say that if the biblical creation account was not true, then none of the bible is true. And then he really astonished me by saying, “And if it is not all true, then it is rather silly, isn’t it?” Indeed. So, if even one small crack appears in the dam, the entire structure falls. But they are not content to take this on faith. They have to find proof in this world. They write long books that “explain’ every apparent contradiction in the bible. The practice “science” that starts at a conclusion and works backward from there. You can almost smell the desperation of someone like Ken Ham. It always feels to me that he feels like that if he can convince even one real scientist, that finally he himself will be convinced.
This is why you often see the flip from fundamentalist to atheist. Their search for evidence eventually fails so they go over to the other side. What is to be made of this kind of faith? It looks strong like cast iron or ceramic, but breaks and shatters easily under the right kind of stress. Ultimately this is not “faith” at all. Hope maybe, but not faith.
The next group is the semi-empiricists. Many catholics fall into this category. Their thinking is more flexible than the fundies, but they really would like to believe it all. They are willing to see Adam and Eve as allegorical, but really deep down inside they would like some evidence. Just to be sure, you know? They don’t stake everything on finding Noah’s ark, but wow, if it were to turn up, that sure would seal the deal. Or maybe a letter from Pilate describing the empty tomb. Something, anything, that will turn the corner from the natural to the supernatural. If we can prove the bible to be reliable history, then the rest must be true, even the really hard to believe parts, right?
They are only semi-empiricists because of course, the evidence doesn’t go both ways. Not finding Noah’s ark is no big deal. Maybe it wasn’t a worldwide flood, just one valley. The point of the story is still the same. Drew Hystriani on his show mentioned that someone found ancient bricks that were so strong that the could have been stacked 2 miles high! Which to him opened the possibility that the Tower of Babel was real. Never mind that the tallest modern building is 2,700 feet tall, the ancients might have build a brick building 11,000 feet high! (Just for grins, a two mile high pyramid, if it could be built with the same dimensions of Giza, would have a base of 10 square miles, now back to the blog post in progress) If we could just find that, it would show the atheists! The bible is true! All of it! I believe — sort of.
There is no word in the English language for someone who really wants to believe, but deep down inside needs some actual evidence. Semi-empiricist is as close as I can come. These people may never leave the faith because while not a true believer they are able to fend off the disconfirmatory evidence for a long time in what they consider to be a “search for the truth.” But really deep down inside, they are “still looking for a reason to believe.”
Finally, we come to the simpletons. There are two species of this group, for lack of betters names, let’s just say liberal and conservative. What the simpletons have done is whittled down the faith through various rationalizations, sometimes with scalpel and sometimes a cleaver, until they are left with just a few core ideas that they “believe.” Liberals of this variety are often, rightly, derided as “Cafeteria Christians.” They have whittled things down to Jesus, who they love, that God is love, heaven is for pretty much everyone, praise and halleluiah. Don’t get me wrong, fundies pick and choose what to believe as well, they just don’t even see themselves that way. The liberal simpletons are completely open and honest about it.
The liberal type might believe Jesus lived and died to open the gates of heaven, but they do not believe in a literal devil. Or Adam and Eve or the battle of Jericho. Nice stories, but most of the bible they see as allegorical and maybe some history encrusted in legend. They no more expect to find Noah’s ark than the expect to find the belt of Hippolyte that Hercules retrieved. Any parts of the bible that seem too contradictory or silly they feel free to ignore. Their faith is the most flexible, but obviously shallow.
The conservative simpletons are similar, just with a different menu in the cafeteria. Jesus they love, heaven is for them, angels surround them, hell is for those who commit the two deadly sins, the bible (which they don’t really read) is the greatest book ever written and Christianity is the basis of all civilization and laws. Hooray for Jesus for creating such a great country where anyone can get rich! Most of that has no biblical backing whatsoever, but they believe it.
Simpletons may look like true believers, but again they are not. They are not true believers because, basically they believe that god said what they already think. When god’s actual words disagree with their thoughts, they simply ignore god’s words. Again in a more open and honest fashion than the fundies, but they pick and choose just the same. Can anyone be said to “believe” in a god that is truly created in their own image?
My journey was from semi-empiricist to liberal simpleton to full empiricist. But then I did not even stay as a full empiricist when it comes to religion.
I have heard many of the famous lights of the New Atheism say that they don’t believe because there is just not enough evidence to do so. Which for the most part I agree with, but I have moved beyond that position.
I find it comforting that there no evidence that the bible is true because I am very glad there is no such god as the one depicted there. Heaven sounds completely boring, which actually makes it a kind of hell. A place of eternal torment and punishment for “sins” (of ever shifting definition)? No chance for parole? That is just immoral and unjust. What kind of god kills himself to forgive us for our sins? Why not just say, “Say three Hail Marys and your sins are forgiven.” And purgatory? Please. Who would want to spend eternity with this guy? Not me.
I couldn’t put it any better than this: