Saturday, June 27, 2009

Folly is manifest

manifest: clear or obvious to the eye or mind
     I am embarrassed and troubled to admit that most people mystify me. For instance, I seem to be surrounded by people who view the having of religious “faith” as some sort of virtue.
     But, on its face, faith looks like a vice.
     My Merriam-Webster dictionary offers several definitions of faith, including this one: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” That’s the sense of the word that interests me. Many people seem to think that it is good and meritorious to have faith in God and God’s big project: to believe in this stuff despite the absence of proof or even strong evidence that any of this stuff is real.
     Now, most of the time, we are inclined to ridicule people who believe in this way. A dozen years ago, those Heaven’s Gate people believed that the time had come to leave Earth, since it was about to be “recycled.” They left Earth by killing themselves, taking drugs and putting plastic bags over their heads. As near as I can tell, they are now just plain dead and the Earth is just plain unrecycled.
     Why did the Heaven’s Gateians hold those beliefs? Not sure, but the zany convictions of HG leader Marshall Applewhite had something to do with his alleged near-death experience after a heart attack.

     “That’s silly,” we say. “You’re bound to be a bit addled while recovering from a heart attack!”

     But when more ordinary people explain their religious beliefs—e.g., belief in Christ as our Lord and savior—they don’t seem to have anything better to offer. They’ll refer to feeling transported while singing hymns at church or experiencing some kind of transcendent moment whilst looking into the night sky. (I can relate to that one.) Stuff like that.
   “Well, why then (I ask the Christian) should you feel any more confident in your beliefs than that Applewhite guy? How are you different from him?”

   “Shut up. Applewhite was a nut. HG was a cult.”

   “Yeah, but that’s just about membership size, right? There are lots of people like you and there are few people like Apple Boy.”
     These conversations never seem to get me anywhere.

     Yesterday’s Schott’s Vocab (Weekend Competition) is soliciting definitions of the word “faith.”
     But wait. Words mean what speakers mean by them—a meaning that survives (for as long as it survives) because it is useful to us. And if there weren’t general agreement about word meanings, language wouldn’t work.
     So what’s this business about asking people for “their” definitions? That’s like asking a guy how he uses his chair or his comb. I don’t ask such questions.
     It would make more sense to me to ask whether the meaning of a word is such that we ought to have some important belief that uses that word. Thus, for instance, given that “faith” is believing without evidence, we can ask: should one ever have beliefs based on faith?
     Maybe some who answer the “what’s your definition?” question really mean to answer the latter question. Dunno.

     Here are some entries to Schott’s solicitation:
• The suspension of reason and rationality for a dream.

• Faith is knowing something should be true, being certain it is, and having no insight into one’s collisions with reality.
• Faith: Security in numbers.
• Faith is the tenacity with which a belief or myth is adhered to, regardless of any proof for its veracity.
• Faith is a socially acceptable insanity in the same way that alcohol is a socially acceptable drug.

     Since Schott’s readers are ipso facto New York Times readers, you’ve gotta expect entries that are witty or that are show-offy or that are snidely opinionated (I skipped over some of the worst offenders in this regard).
     So most of these definitions are just what we’d expect, I suppose.
     The stuff about a “collision with reality” is funny, I guess. (To me, that phrase is always funny.) Most of the rest strike me as little more than variations on the dictionary definition, plus some 'tude.

     For me, two of these stand out a little bit. “Faith,” says one wag, is “security in numbers.” I suppose the point is that most people manage to avoid being embarrassed by their failure to apply minimum standards of rationality to their religious beliefs because such beliefs are so “normal” and time-honored and thus they must be true--or at least it wouldn't be too embarrassing if they turned out to be false.
     My own view is that human beings are capable of almost anything (i.e., any atrocity or idiocy), as long as it can be said that “we’ve always done things like this.” Even now, tradition and normalcy are much more powerful than reason. It's pretty disheartening.
     The last definition is somewhat interesting: “Faith is a socially acceptable insanity in the same way that alcohol is a socially acceptable drug.” This definition strikes me as more earnest than clever.
     I guess it’s pretty obvious what the definer means by calling faith “insanity.” Faith is some sort of extreme rational error or failing. I get it.
     But it’s one that is somehow acceptable. Yes, I get that too.

     Like drinking alcohol? Here, I get lost. I suppose the obvious points to make about alcohol are that (1) you shouldn’t drink too much of it too often and that (2) it is silly to prohibit other drugs but not alcohol.
     But our definer seems to be thinking (am I wrong?) that drinking alcohol per se is some sort of madness, one that is tolerated.
     –A teetotaler, I guess. I’ve known people who seem unwilling to recognize that one can enjoy alcohol without abusing it. Is that who we’re dealing with here? Wadda nut.
     I’m sympathetic to this “definition,” but I suppose I’d prefer to use another example: “Faith is a socially acceptable insanity in the same way that the notion that we have a right to bear arms is socially acceptable [insanity].”
     The problem here is that one is trying to make a somewhat controversial point by relying on another controversial point.
     Probably, the core of the point is just that, if one steps back to take a clear and objective look at “us,” one cannot avoid noticing that this “faith” thing that we do, like a few other things that we do, is plain hogwash. It's indefensible.
     Aha! Like many insights, this one turns out just to be a variation of the Emperor’s new clothes allegory.

     If I were to write a book (don’t worry, I won’t) that captures Roy’s wisdom, it would include a handful of propositions, one of which would be: most folly is manifest.
     (But how can that be, Master?!)
     Yes, yes, exactly. Now run along and think about that, Grasshopper (and stay out of that damned closet!).


da5id said...

Personally, I'd treasure Roy's Book of Wisdom :)

Anonymous said...

"So what’s this business about asking people for “their” definitions? That’s like asking a guy how he uses his chair or his comb. I don’t ask such questions."

I, too, would be thrilled to see a book of Roy's Wisdom out there. Comments like that above are a soothing balm to my soul, and make me smile even on a bad day. "THANK YOU, Roy," I think to myself, "for being so damned sane--and funny."