Some thoughts on the words “Faith” and “Religion”

I recently saw an article that claimed Islam wasn’t a religion. There have been high-profile debates between religious leaders and scientists about which perspective contains more truth. There have even been debates within faith communities, as between Christian sects who acknowledge gay marriage, and those who don’t. It seems that somewhere in the diatribes we’ve collectively lost an understanding of what it means to have “faith” or how to define a “religion.”

Religion indeed seems a difficult thing to define. Christians, by and large, regard it as a free exercise of will to believe. No matter where you come from, if you believe what’s written in the Gospels regarding Jesus Christ, you are a Christian. Certain more conservative groupings, however, treat Christianity as a sort of ‘social contract,’ binding those within the group to act and value certain things. My extremely limited experience with Judaism indicates that certain conservative Jews have exclusionary believes about their religion–namely, that it accrues only to the children of Jewish mothers. Less conservative Jewish sects appear to regard Judaism as more of an ethnic identity than a belief system, happily accepting agnosticism or downright atheism among their peers as long as the overarching identity remains.

If my understanding of Judaism is “extremely limited,” then my understanding of Islam is not even worth mentioning. The so-called “fundamentalists” (a charged word, in that it implies that the fundamental tenets of a religion are bad, instead of perhaps a tangential tenet of the religion) treat Islam as a socio-political system, in which laws protecting the status quo are given legitimacy by (it is believed) divine approbation. The status quo in many Islamic countries in the Middle East is, at least regarding the dignity and attendant rights of women and children, oppressive and even barbaric in light of our liberal ideals. Opposition to that system strikes me as more akin to opposing Communism or Fascism insofar as it’s a political system. Islam in that sense is very different than Christianity and Judaism, and rightly condemned.

In the sense of religion, on the other hand, the issue is murky precisely because we use the word “religion” to describe different things. There are Muslims who practice Islam as a free exercise of the will to believe in Allah and the teachings of the Koran. I’ve never read the Koran, so I don’t know if it is filled to the brim with hateful writings, loving writings, or (as is the case with the Jewish and Christian scriptures) a mixture of both. There are other Muslims who probably practice Islam as a social contract, a way of distinguishing their group from others. But using religion to describe the entire practice of Islam, Judaism, or Christianity confuses things, and probably lets unlawful behavior proceed under the First Amendment while simultaneously restricting legitimate religious practice.

By and large, the test for “freedom of religion” ought be simple. If a behavior is lawful in a non-religious context, then it should be permitted as a religious practice. If I may display statues on my lawn, then I may display a Nativity scene at Christmas. If I may wear as much clothing as I’d like, as long as I’m not indecent, then I may wear a hijab or burkha. As a side note, Middle Eastern Christian (some of which who subordinate themselves to either the Pope or the Patriarch) and Jewish sects direct that female adherents wear hijabs. If assaulting someone is illegal, then I should not be able to stone or otherwise injure a person for engaging in lawful sexual behavior. It’s more difficult when trying to decide whether a person should be forced into religious participation, even tangentially. But that sort of question is why we have legislatures and courts.

The word “faith” seems misused as well. The dictionary defines faith as, “1) confidence or trust in a person or thing; 2) belief that is not based on truth; 3) belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion; 4) belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards, or merit.” I think the first definition hits closest to the mark on the intent of the word. A religious person, you might say, has confidence and trust in the tenets of his/her religion. The thing is, that attitude seems to apply to a lot of non-religious people too.

There are many voices trying to put faith and/or religion in the same category as ignorance and barbarism. That saddens me because I happen to be religious, of course, but it also strikes me as disingenuous and dishonest. As a Catholic I believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and that He emptied Himself to become like us and share in our struggles on this earth, and that as He was killed He offered Himself as reparation for all our sins (past, present, and future), and that His offer was worthy because of His own perfection, and so I believe that if I follow Him I will be free of this earth and with Him in paradise. In analyzing that long narrative sentence it is immediately obvious that I could offer no empirical evidence of this. Even if I had a time machine and could record video of Jesus becoming incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, then record all of His miracles, then record His crucifixion and leave the camera in the tomb recording the moment of His resurrection, there is still no way to see and record the thoughts of God, nor attach the camera to Jesus during His ascension into heaven and remotely view the video. My senses are unable to even gather that ‘behind the scenes’ evidence, even if I could prove by two chemical tests on controlled samples of water (for example) that it turned into wine. Therefore I must either have confidence that the narrative is true, or not.

This is not all that different, say, than belief in the Theory of Evolution. Nobody has a time machine that would enable them to bring back irrefutable evidence of evolution, perhaps by filming the birth and maturation of the first Cro-Magnon person with two Neanderthal parents (complete with genetic testing to compare to the remains of both species already cataloged). All we do have is snapshots of evidence, which we believe to be of a certain age, based on the belief that we can tell the age by extrapolating chemical deterioration, which only a few of us have ever observed with our eyes in a microscope (and I’m not sure it’s even possible to observe radiation decay). There is a narrative suggested by these snapshots of evidence–the oldest remains being more ape-like, the newer ones more human-like–but it is the invention of scientists and authors. Therefore I must either have confidence that the narrative is true, or not.

We’ve so far ignored the question of the chicken or the egg. Certain scientists, for example, claim that emotion is merely the work of certain hormones in a human brain. Feelings of arousal are due to release of sex hormones, which (it is theorized) are triggered when presented with a set of conditions, like say a procreatively attractive human of the gender which the subject of arousal finds attractive. Feelings of affection are due to the hormone Oxytocin, which is triggered in certain situations as a hardwired social response, which our genes have developed to increase our rate of survival by causing us to work together. But that is a hypothesis. It is plausible, too. But it is also unprovable. It’s equally plausible (and possible) that such hormone activity is the result of emotions–the mechanism or vehicle by which feelings manifest themselves physically (as arousal or tears). None of us can go inside our brains to determine the exact causal order of whether the emotion is received first, or whether the hormones are released first. Therefore I must have confidence that either one narrative is true, or the other.

The scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously noted, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe in it or not.” With respect, I beg to differ. There were a great many scientists who believed in Eugenics between 1880 and 1945 (including Margaret Sanger) along with luminaries like H.G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Bernard Shaw. Eugenic research was funded by the Carnegie Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.* By “believe in Eugenics,” I mean its proponents believed that there was a genetic cause which disposed certain people toward poverty, retardation, sexual deviance (i.e. homosexuality), and antisocial behavior. Science was not true in that case, and we shouldn’t be so quick to conveniently compartmentalize that into the “the funny old days when we had silly theories” and “the evil things Nazis did, from which we saved the world.” Science is only as true as the ethics and character of the people who do it, much like religion. One commonality between the two ‘sides’ is that authority figures in both realms–scientists and priests–are only human, and subject to the same propensity to self-deceive and enjoy attention as the worst Hollywood celebrities or politicians.

Ultimately, faith comes down to what inspires confidence. My experience has taught me confidence both in the religious salvation narrative and in the scientific narrative of the world. As another author pointed out, there is not much difference between the big bang theory and the Christian explanation that God said, “Let there be light.” In both cases, our fantastically complicated universe exploded into something without warning or apparent material cause. What does it matter whether one believes it happened randomly or at the will of an entity too big to imagine?

Understanding and meaningful engagement with others demands a certain rigor of thought. Proponents of rational explanations fall into hypocrisy when they succumb to the “blind faith” that others who disagree with their perspective are somehow less important because they are “religious,” and proponents of religious-faith-based explanations fall into hypocrisy when they fail to acknowledge the faith that rationalists have in science-based narratives. It might advance both sides of this odd little culture struggle if we all recognized our own “religious” and “faith” tendencies, including those with no affinity towards and/or opposition to an established religion.