Thursday, August 26, 2010

1. Faith


The battle to own our minds 

The word "faith" is often associated with religion and mystic beliefs. It generally implies a blind acceptance or unquestioning belief of an idea or a set of ideas and therefore the opposite of 'skepticism' and 'doubt'. Faith forms the link between what we perceive to be 'known', and that which we admit as "unknown". The word itself is often used synonymously with "religion", but that has been primarily because religion has always been the exclusive domain of everything that we did not or could not know; and therefore required "blind acceptance" or "unquestioning belief" to subscribe to. Our conscience however, is a complex web of beliefs that are continuously changed and enhanced by the thoughts we bear and ideas we entertain. As much as humanity is characterised by our curiosity, skepticism and ability to doubt even what seems apparent, there are two distinct forces raging deep underneath our questioning skepticism; one a rational desire to know and the other an irrational need to believe.

Each of us have a varying capacity to distinguish between what we know and what we do not know. It is the ability to identify what we do not know, combined with the curiosity to discover that drives us to acquire new knowledge; to make the unknown; known. Sometimes we feel threatened when an idea we hold to be 'true' is challenged by evidence to the contrary. At one extreme, we are be driven to feel insecure when certain beliefs we hold close to our hearts are challenged, while at other times taking much delight in being presented with new discoveries that may revolutionise our understanding of certain matters. Either way, our 'faith' is defined both by what we have chosen to believe as much as that which we have chosen not to believe; both without the support of reason or logic. Our faith either directly or indirectly becomes the dominant influence on all our preferences, choices and decisions. Therefore, the unique make up of each individual is defined more by their faith than perhaps any other factor.

Our irrational need to believe, has conjured divine forces with promises of heavenly rewards or threats of eternal suffering to make those beliefs compelling. Much of our behaviour and judgements are influenced by our conception of heaven or nirvana or hell - entities we believe to exist even when there is no logic or reason to support such beliefs. But faith drives our secular lives as well. Because of the dominant influence that faith has on our commercial decisions and political preferences, it has always been coveted by those who have any political or commercial interest in us. It is only natural therefore that commercial product advertisers seek to brand their products and link those brand images, not directly with the needs that would require us to buy them (because need would compel us to buy the product anyway), but with our beliefs which in turn influence our preference for one brand over another.

The authority to govern people is always derived from the ability to control their beliefs. Organised religion has not only given structure to our irrational beliefs, but also a sense of security in holding on to them by assembling a vast community that would share those beliefs with us because holding on to irrational beliefs in isolation would make us seem delusional. By virtue of having such an emotional hold on us, religion has been able to dictate how we should behave and sometimes even what we are allowed to eat and the way we ought to groom ourselves. Therefore it is equally unsurprising that those who assumed religious leadership throughout the ages has always been courted and pandered to, or have been in conflict with, those who assumed political leadership. The unmistakable evidence lies in the history of the Papacy and the mistrust between Protestants and Catholics that has been transmuted for centuries stemming from a chiefly political conflict that was triggered by the protestant revolution. The protestant revolution itself, though inspired by religion, has had far more political rather than religious repercussions on societies all over the world. Similar trends can be identified in the conflicts between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists sects which competed for political patronage for centuries in Sri Lanka and the influence that unelected religious leaders still exercise over democratically elected secular states in all parts of the world. The desire of those who assume political power to monitor the ideas and thoughts of their subjects is fuelled merely by their concern about how those thoughts and ideas may ultimately influence or change their subjects' beliefs.

Our curiosity and the rational desire to know has, in the meantime, driven us to explore and discover reasons to justify our beliefs. The word we use to describe this exercise is "science". There would have been a time when a vast majority of humanity would have depended on their religious faith to answer their most fundamental questions about how things are and how they came to be the way they are, including questions about life and death. Indeed there would have always been skeptics too.

Yet the fact remains that religion espouses 'faith' or actively demands it, while science has despised it and sometimes ridiculed those who gave priority to their faith over reason. It was perhaps an inevitable coincidence that the foundations for the glorification of 'reason' and the vilification of 'blind faith' were laid down in the religious reformation which was set off by the devout German monk - Martin Luther. But why would our desire to know and the need to believe - both of which spring from the same deep cognitive recesses of the human mind - be in conflict and fighting one another to prove the other wrong or typecast them as inferior? If the domain of religion is 'faith' and the domain of science is 'reason', how can there be a conflict between the two since they are totally independent of each other?

Some may argue that the conflict between science and religion is actually a battle to establish which is more superior between 'faith' and 'reason', but that would be to unfavorably compare 'faith and reason' as well as misunderstand the nature of 'science and religion'. As pointed out earlier, authority to govern is derived from an ability to control people's beliefs. The relationship between religion and science does not have many parallels with the previously discussed uneasy relationship between religion and the State, because this is a more fundamental battle. The interests of those who seek authority to governs and those who define and interpret religious doctrine are often complementary, because they often have to work together to gain political authority by manipulating peoples beliefs. Science and religion on the other hand are fighting a more fundamental battle - to actually posses faith itself and gain outright ownership of our most basic and fundamental beliefs. It should be an even battle, but science is currently doing considerably better - but that is because it is cheating!

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