Popular religion is suffering from a severe malady. Symptomatic of its illness is the fact that I, surely agnostic and possibly atheist, find myself defending the integrity of Christianity against the sacrilege of many Christians. I recorded the following thoughts after being the failed conversion attempt of one so-called believer.
A woman approached me today to inform me that Jesus could help me quit smoking, and that God could fix every problem I may have in my life. She was shocked and clearly disgusted to learn that I did not believe in the God of Christianity, and I was equally shocked that my attitude and behavior were much more in line with Christian doctrine than hers. Yes, I out-Christianed her. I did not judge her beliefs or her desire to share them with me. I understand that feeling saved comes with a well-intended urge to help others find such peace. Yet her anger at my inability to believe, which she called my refusal to accept, was no shining example of judging not lest she be judged. Despite her self-righteousness, I tried to humbly articulate my opinion that faith is not chosen, and that belief is a predisposition in one’s heart rather than a choice one makes out of convenience. She closed her ears to my words, and as she walked away, surely shook her head at my prideful heathendom.
Any discussion on the topic of religious faith requires that we ask: What is faith? Do authentic and inauthentic versions of faith exist? The latter is easier to answer affirmatively than the former is to answer at all. Yet we cannot argue against inauthentic faith if we are unable to say what makes it so. I advance the following definition of faith: A solid conviction held with no empirical proof of its truth. Though this description may sound condescending, it is not. Human experience admits of much beyond the realm of scientific understanding. Convictions pertaining to such unchartered territories can not be proved or disproved. This is essential to faith: its contents have no sound basis OR refutation through sense perception or mental feats.
Though there is no way to disprove what one has faith in, it is generally much easier to give arguments against it than for it. As the subject matter of faithful convictions lies beyond the scope of empirical experience, the contents of faith often defy reason. It is all too often, therefore, that people argue against faith by stating the physical impossibility of its contents. However, this is not entirely valid. The impossibility spoken of applies only in the scope of our experienced physical reality. Surely one can say that he doesn’t believe in something beyond what he can see and prove scientifically, but belief is not knowledge; he cannot prove the invalidity of any such beyond (and therefore has faith that there is none).
Yet there is more to the definition of faith. If its contents, those solid convictions, are based on truth or error with no verification, it would seem that we could make a choice between whether to have faith or not. No choice can be made arbitrarily, as Buridan’s ass portrays. If faith is a choice, upon what would it be based? Upon one thing alone: Whether it made my life better, whether it made me happier. How cheap faith becomes if we can base its acquisition on instrumental reasoning. If I choose to love God and believe his son died for my sins out of love, this will make me feel special. This will paint my world with divine intent and good will. How could I not will this? Yet it would not be God or his son that I truly loved; it would be the happiness such an idea bestows upon my life. It would be the convenience of the belief that I loved, not the contents of the belief itself. Surely this is not what we mean by belief, conviction or faith. If an authentic version thereof exists, it thrives independent of practical implications. Those with true faith believe wholly in the contents of their faith without regard to convenience. It is not an experienced based on reason.
With that in mind, I assert that conviction – authentic conviction – is not chosen, but is experienced. Determining what predisposes one to this experience is guesswork; some will say other life experiences, some upbringing, still others a gene. Perhaps a combination is responsible. The point is that believing as well as not believing are inherent. The experiences I’ve had and the way I naturally interpret them do not lead me to God. I did not choose my interpretation. Those who are led to God did not choose to be so led. If they bear the full weight of that path, they walk it with dignity. Those who choose to seek it out for the pomp and fanfare haven’t found it. For this kind to speak in the name of Christianity is an insult. My would-be converter, by referring to my lack of faith as a refusal, degraded the meaning of faith that I esteem very highly. I cannot decide to accept something I do not believe. Yet she decided to believe. I may not have faith in Christian doctrine, but I have experienced more of faith than she.
For an example of true faith, refer to Kierkegaard and Augustine. For these believers, faith was a struggle. It is not easy to truly believe in Christianity. Though it offers certain comforts, the paradoxes and shortcomings of the understanding, the humility and genuineness of altruism required are a constant trial. Those who would grasp at the consolations without steadfast involvement in the plight do the faith no justice. True Christianity is a total experience and a challenge of perseverance for oneself, against oneself and with all humanity. What audacity I have to speak so certainly of an experience and a faith that I do not have! Everyone has faith in something, though. Everyone has convictions, whether implicit or conscious. Having acknowledged my own convictions I understand the turmoil involved with the inability to found them on something externally verifiable. Having taken the time to familiarize myself with Christian doctrine and that faith’s history, I have an immense appreciation for the struggle of that experience when it is genuine.
What is authentic faith? It is a solid conviction or set of convictions whose content is unverifiable and unchosen. Its spontaneous nature proves a dead end to further definition. Having faith and facing its full weight are not easy things. This, in my opinion, bestows a certain dignity upon it. I hope that those who defile its name will reassess their motives. The path to God can honestly start from need and emptiness, but if it does not end beyond convenience, you have not found God, only an empty label for yourself. Today we encounter far more Sunday Christians than Augustines. I think it is still important to remember that the former do not speak for the latter.