Though we may not realise it, we are all of us born into a world dominated by faith. Our early environment as children is structured according to the faith of our parents and this is true even if that ‘faith’ is materialism or atheism rather than any recognised religion. Faith is a fact of life for everyone and not just born-again-Christians. So what, then, is faith and what does this mean for us in practical terms? A faith is fundamentally a set of beliefs that we adopt, not because of firm, empirical evidence but because we’ve been told to. Usually (though not always) we inherit our beliefs from our parents or some other respected authority. Because they hold to the faith in question and for us they represent authority, we adopt it as our own.
Now of course our parents — and later other authority figures such as school teachers and clergymen — teach us many things that are provably true: e.g. the sun rises in the east and sets in the west; if you mix certain ingredients and bake them in an oven for an hour, they will turn into a cake; if you don’t clean your teeth you will get cavities etcetera etcetera. It requires no faith to believe in these things for we can prove the truth of such propositions for ourselves.
Faith, however, is different from belief in the provable and it often requires an acceptance of what on the face of it is irrational: that Jesus rose from the Dead, that Mohammed flew to heaven on the back of a mysterious bird or Moses met with God, in the form of a burning bush, on top of Mount Sinai. Such propositions cannot be proved using science and often they fly in the face of reason. In these cases you either have faith—making you a believer—or you don’t.
The diversity of religions, both those practised now and extinct ones (e.g. the Egyptian and Mayan religions that we only know about from ancient records), reveals that human beings are quite capable of believing almost anything. To bring about some semblance of order most societies, even those we consider today to be primitive, have a shared basis of belief. Dogmas, that is to say more or less fixed doctrines that believers are expected to adhere to, are developed. Codified and written in book-form, these become the bench-mark by which believers are judged and separated out from ‘un-believers’. To question or move away too far from such dogmas is to risk the charge of heresy. This can lead to exclusion from the ‘faithful’ or, worse still, expulsion from the community. In extreme cases such heretics may be physically persecuted or even put to death—all because they didn’t share their community’s faith in a set of unproven dogmas.
There is a further dimension to this which is that almost by definition, people of one faith believe that people who hold to another are .in error and therefore in opposition to the Will of God. The ideal, from their point of view, would be for all of humanity to convert to their own way of thinking. Alternatively, as this is almost certainly unachievable, they may believe that they have the right—and even the duty— to make war on such ‘infidels’ in the name of God.
Such fixed, narrow-minded attitudes are behind some of the most devastating events in history. During the 16th and 17th centuries, wars of religion blighted Europe. During the 20th century Communism, the politics of revolution turned into a fixed dogma of class-hatred, and Nazism, an irrational cult of supposed racial superiority, led directly to the deaths of millions of people. Today, in the 21st century, it is the turn of militant Islamism to unsettle the world.
Given the limitations of faith, where does this leave the individual ‘seeker after truth’? How, or even should, he or she step outside of the circle of their own faith? And if they do, how can they protect themselves from the inevitable repercussions, not least accusations of betrayal from family and friends? These are questions we need to address if entering the way is to be anything more than the empty words.
A way around this dilemma and one that takes the heat out of faith issues is to replace ‘blind faith’ (the acceptance of dogmas based only on hearsay) with ‘conditional faith’. In the faith model that we looked at in the first section of this paper, ‘Faith’ is a given which you either have or you don’t: e,g, faith that Jesus rose from the dead, faith that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. Faith that Moses received the Ten Commandments directly from the hand of God. I propose that we substitute this kind of ‘hard’ faith for a ‘softer’ kind based on hypothesis. Let me explain what I mean.
Under the old model, if someone comes to me and says ‘if you want to avoid hell you’ve got to believe this: that Mohammed flew to heaven on the back of a mysterious, human-headed flying beast called al-Burak’ I am immediately put on the spot. Not having grown up with this story as part of my ancestral inheritance, the proposition sounds ridiculous. To believe such a thing means that I must abandon reason and accept blindly what I am now being told. The alternative is to deny what the other person holds to be an inalienable truth and thereby increase the likelihood of conflict between us.
A different approach is to say to them ‘Well that is interesting what you are telling me. Out of respect for you I will take this new piece of information as a faith hypothesis. Without further evidence I can’t adopt it as my faith but at the same time I won’t dismiss your faith out of hand. After all there could be some other explanation for what you are telling me that transcends the known laws of physics that would provide me with the explanation that I require’.
By adopting this approach we not only take the heat out of a lot of religious arguments but allow ourselves room to grow. We are also making the subject (in this case Mohammed’s flight to heaven) an object of study rather than a highly charged dogma. Yet for this approach to work, we must also allow that our own faith must also be a subject for study and if necessary change. For if we ourselves hold dogmatically to the ‘Faith or our Fathers’ we are closed to new knowledge that was not available in their times. By freeing ourselves from all dogmas, we are also giving ourselves permission to be open-minded.
This, actually, is a pre-requisite for entering ‘The Way’. For Jesus himself is reported as saying ‘you cannot put new wine into old wine-skins. If you do the skins will split and the wine will be lost.’ This can be interpreted as a reference to traditional dogmas (old wine-skins). In our work we are looking for new understanding, new ways of seeing the world and ourselves that are appropriate for the 21st century. The ‘Faith Hypothesis’ approach to religion is the new, expandable wine-skin that we need in order to contain the new knowledge of our times. I recommend it to you.
Copyright © Adrian G. Gilbert August 2009