I was thinking of writing to the Oxford English Dictionary recommending a new definition of the word ‘faith’.
A defective insulator that attempts to shield the human concept of justice from the amoral universe.
I doubt if it would be accepted as it is not a formal denotation, but I do suggest that it lies at the heart of why people believe without proof.
The universe is indeed without morals. In 1994, Jupiter didn’t deserve to be hit by the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, vaporising everything in the impact zones; that’s just the way it is. When a galaxy like NGC 240 runs into another galaxy, destroying everything within it, it is not fair or unfair; that’s just the way it is. This is a very simple process of one reaction leading to another one without any judgement involved. This may seem insultingly obvious but perceptions begin to change when the same kinds of natural phenomena happen closer to home.
Tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanoes are mechanical processes of a planet in flux, but humans have a habit of placing a judgement on these kinds of phenomena. For example, several religious groups claimed that it was the sex industry in Thailand that justified the death of over 225,000 people in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Apparently, the subsurface earthquake in the Indian Ocean had nothing to do with it.
No matter what the scale, from millions of Muslims that perceive a shiny, black meteorite as a gift from Allah to a single person that decides that it will be a bad day because a slice of toast lands butter side down, it is true to say that people personalise natural events. Why do we do this?
As we are a social species, we have developed a detailed understanding of morality. Children learn techniques of sharing and mutual co-operation that lead to empathy and a sense of linked identity. We also practice associated learning. When an action is rewarded, we repeat the action. Over time, we come to expect the reward when we act in the same way. If you then add empathy and linked identity into the mix, you have a potent cocktail of calculated patterns and preferred conclusions.
The expectation of behaviour feeds into all aspects of life. If we plant seeds, we expect them to grow, leading to a harvest. If we work hard and plan ahead, we expect to succeed. And if we are good to the people around us, we expect the same in return.
And this is the problem.
Life isn’t like that. There are no guarantees. This disparity between what we want to happen and what really happens leads to a dissatisfied yearning for fairness. It is this hunger for justice with a small j that religion exploits. Nicky Gumbel, the vicar who developed the Christian Alpha Course, describes it like this. “Until we find a relationship with God there will be something missing in our lives... Nothing will fill this gap except the relationship with God for which we were made.”
Unfortunately, faith does not fill the gap. Whether it is disease or disaster, we are continually reminded of how defective faith is. There are countless examples of how faith fails to protect us from the harshness of reality, but one of the clearest of these in recent years is the Sago mining disaster in 2006.
Thirteen miners were caught in a collapsed tunnel, 85 metres underground. Because of the difficulties in rescuing them, there was little chance of any of them surviving, but their families had faith. The whole town and Christian communities around the world prayed for the miner’s safety and it appeared that it had worked. News came through that twelve out of the thirteen had survived and this was seen as justification that God had listened to the prayers. However, three hours later, it transpired that there had been a breakdown in communication and the twelve had died. The families were traumatised. Not only had God not listened to them, he was willing to let their hopes be raised only to then have them dashed.
What kind of a god would do that? Anna Casto, a cousin of one of the victims, said that the disaster had shaken the faith of some. “We don’t even know if there is a lord anymore. We had a miracle, and it was taken away from us.”
This kind of failure in faith doesn’t just happen on an individual bases. Nations can lose faith as well.
I apologise in advance for this gross understatement but, South Korea has had a troubled past. The country has worked its way through many faith systems, from Cheondoism to Won Buddhism. At the moment, Christianity is in favour because of the support from America, and Seoul has the largest mega church in the world, The Yiodo Full Gospel Church, seating up to 12,000 followers at a time. A devotee of the Pentecostal Church justified the transient faith thus; “our country was invaded so many times that the traditional heroes we believed in were lost. We had no figureheads to rely on... Koreans love the Christian God so much because we didn’t have anything left to believe in, so we gave our faith and love to God." We’ll see what happens if Kim Jong-Il decides to test his new toys on South Korean soil. I’ve heard that the ‘Way of the Jedi’ is on the increase.
So why do people continually turn to this defective concept with such delusional phrases as, “we are part of a bigger plan” and “God has his reasons”? I would suggest that it is because most people aren’t aware of an alternative to these religious fabrications. But there is one, and, ironically, the religions have known it for millennia. The clues are hidden in their doctrines and some even have the answer as a core principle.
Amen means ‘so be it’ and Islam originally meant ‘acceptance’ before it was perverted into ‘submission’. In Buddhism, the Eightfold Path is a technique for accepting everything as it is, and both Taoism and Confucianism teach us to “bend like a bamboo with the wind”. Even modern therapies are catching up with the answer. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is centred upon changing the person's view of an event rather than the event itself, and part of the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra is “to accept the things we cannot change.”
It is, of course, easier said than done, but accepting that ‘even the best-laid plans succeed by accident’ gives a person a balanced outlook on life. It allows them to cope with perceived bad times and to overcome this negative by-product of our concept of fairness, eliminating the aforementioned hunger.