How can one choose what to believe? In the course of thinking about the concept of faith, I've met many people who've converted from/to some religious belief. A few have described seeking and then finding the truth. Many others have described choosing to believe something, but how can you choose what to believe? I've always believed what can be proven (in the framework within which it can be proven), and while I might welcome the comfort faith seems to provide many people, I can't seem to find it.
-- S, via email
For me, faith is more an act of receiving than an act of choosing. Faith is not so much an answer as it is a response. For some, faith is a receiving of the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors and our family's religious traditions. It is a choice to become the newest link in an ancestral and communal chain of sacred traditions.
For me, faith is also -- and I think, primarily -- a personal act, as much or more than an act of family solidarity. This is why some people leave their past faith and find a new path up the same mountain to the same God.
For me, faith is a response to the following questions about the central mysteries of the human condition:
Am I alone in the universe? If you believe there is a God who created the universe and in some deep yet mysterious way loves you, instructs you morally and sustains you in times of despair, then faith is the natural response to having a shepherd leading you beside still waters. Believing that we are alone is a reasonable belief, but believing that we are loved is an essential belief.
Is death the end of us? If you believe that after you die, the worms eat you and that's all she wrote, then faith is impossible. However, if you believe that after death your soul, the immortal spark of God within you, lives on into some new and extraordinary existence, then faith is the natural and thankful response to the life of your soul.
Or perhaps, I should have just quoted the best short definition of faith I know: "To choose what is difficult all one's days as if it were easy, that is faith." (W.H. Auden) The rest is up to you.
As an atheist, let me tell you what I do not believe:
1. Carefully worded requests for assistance will be thoughtfully considered by an all-powerful, all knowing deity who floats above us and watches everything.
2. The deity must be told as often as possible how great the deity is.
3. Believing in this deity will guarantee an eternal life and good fortune here on Earth.
4. The Bible is literally true.
Do you believe in all of the above?
-- L, via email
My faith and my rational mind lead me to believe with certain faith that:
1. God does hear and does respond to prayers, but not in a simplistic, gumball machine sort of way in which inserting a prayer produces material gifts. I believe prayers give us hope and courage to face life's trials. I believe prayers give us the strength to give and seek forgiveness. I believe prayers help us to deflate selfishness and increase gratitude, and I believe they help us preserve our sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the natural world and the inspiring stories of human sacrifice and kindness that fill our lives.
2. God could care less about our praise of God. We need to praise God in order to remind ourselves that there is something greater than us and greater than nations, and that something is attuned to rational moral virtue, the natural law. Praise of God does not remind us that we are small, but it does remind us that we are smaller than our egos lead us to believe.
3. Eternal life for the soul is a rational correlate of the rational belief that we're not merely material beings, and that certain obvious traits we possess, like consciousness and moral virtue, are not material or merely genetic traits.
4. The Bible is true, but it is not literally true. Some stories in the Bible are allegorically true, which means that their message is true but their mode of conveying the message is historically and sometimes mythically influenced.
Of course, I could be wrong, so when we're both dead, look me up and you can apologize. If you're right, let me apologize now because there's going to be a whole lot of nothing awaiting us.