Saturday, November 3, 2007

Help Thou Mine Unbelief?

One of the things that often puzzles me in conversations with theists (which, given my location, mostly means Christians) is their insistence that they can choose to believe in the face of all logic and evidence. Is that really possible?

A person can choose to profess a belief, and act on a presumption that something is true, and even predicate upon such an assumption a line of thought or an entire philosophy. Is that really belief, though, or only the trappings of it?

I thought at first that the answer was obviously the latter, but I'm no longer so sure. I think I have been misled by a quirk of my own personality, one which I seem to share with an inordinate percentage of my fellow nonbelievers; I place an immensely high relative value on factual truth and on the mental processes which reveal it. Applying logical analysis to statements, parsing out chains of inference, meting out and continually revising estimates of reliability to putative facts - these habits of mind are so deeply ingrained and of such long standing that I'm scarcely aware of using them anymore, unless I make a special effort.

Most people simply don't have those priorities built into the way they look at the world. If an idea is rewarding emotionally, that is more important than its truth value. Even people who are well trained in the threshing out of data from anecdota and sound argument from sophistry will simply refuse to apply such methods to the claims they are determined to believe. Such fundamental dishonesty toward one's own self seems to me to be nothing short of a mental illness. Fellow proponents of irrational beliefs will often try to use the legitimate authority which such split minds have earned in one field (by applying sound methods of thinking) to lend a spurious legitimacy to another field (to which they have not applied those methods). It is a signature thinking flaw of irrationality, of course, to think that the legitimacy derives from the person rather than the methodology.

That isn't to say that truth has no value to them, but that value seems to lie more in the perception than in the reality - naming it truth rather than proving it true. I often pass a church sign that says "Avoid Truth Decay - Read your Bible" and have to add mentally "But for God's Sake Don't Think About It." The Christian bible does in fact have a story which is directly on point, a quote from which forms the title of this essay.

The story in Mark 9:14-30 tells of a man who is filled with desperation over his son, a boy subject to seizures, and begs Jesus to heal the boy with his magic powers. Jesus responds with the standard faith healer's escape clause, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth." (To those of us with a skeptical cast of mind it's a very neat way to make sure it's the victim's fault if the healing doesn't take.) The desperate parent cries through his tears "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!"

Jesus does see the boy through a seizure, of course, and some Christians are wont to take this and only this as the point of the story. More sophisticated Christian readers generally focus more on the same factor that commends the story to my attention; the fact that the father despite his declaration quite obviously wasn't really able to believe, but in his desperation was willing to try to believe, and asked Jesus to help him do so. He was basically begging Jesus, if belief was necessary to save his son, to help him believe.

Most Christians I've discussed this story with tend to take this in some mystical fashion, as asking for Jesus to use his Godly power to infuse the man with faith - a mystical brainwashing,if you will. I'm reminded of Winston Smith's exchange with his torturer in the novel 1984, when told that he must see that 2+2=5:
"Do you want to convince me that you see five fingers, or to see them?"
"To see them! Really to see them!"

One can certainly empathize with a parent willing to compromise the integrity of his thought, if the alternative is the continued torment of his child. It seems to me at least an equally compelling interpretation, though, that the man was expressing more a willingness to accept a hypothesis (that Jesus could help him) provided that a cure was actually forthcoming, in order to help his unbelief. It's notable, though, that like many a modern-day faith healer Jesus and his crew quickly and quietly departed the area. There is absolutely no indication that the boy was actually permanently healed, and one may certainly doubt that the father's 'belief' long survived the departure of Jesus if the boy subsequently continued to have seizures!

Given how many and deep are the contradictions between the claims of the bible and the observable evidentiary facts of the universe around us, not to mention the internal inconsistencies in the collection itself, I most certainly am not willing to accept the claims of Christianity at face value and without evidence. (Just to pre-empt, yes, Zombie Jesus supposedly said to Doubting Thomas Didymus, "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." Well, that doesn't say that Thomas wasn't blessed as well, now does it?) If my belief that God is other than imaginary is important, I'm going to need some serious help for my unbelief; given my firmly entrenched habits of thought, I'd humbly suggest that providing some evidence would be a simpler route than a mystical brainwashing. I'm unlikely to ask for the latter out of my free will.

I value my mind too much to willingly maim it by holding beliefs I can't honestly examine.

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