Why do believers make such a big deal of faith?

Mark Twain on faithLet me state a few obvious things, and then I’ll explain why I bothered spelling them out:

When we talk about religion or spirituality, we always talk about faith. A particular religion is called a faith and its adherents are called believers. Religions are divided from each other on the basis of what their adherents do and do not believe. Joining a religion usually involves demonstrating your assent to a set of propositions that aren’t proved but are held by faith. Religious gatherings serve mostly to re-affirm group beliefs, and within these groups wisdom and maturity are defined largely in terms of having a deep and abiding faith.

Like I said: obvious. But it’s all so common that it can be hard to see how utterly weird it is—especially for those of us who grew up in a faith community. Suppose there’s a god. Of all the things that God could care about (assuming that God worries about humans at all), why would the most important thing be belief in things that are unseen and unproven? Why would this—and not empathy, mercy, justice, kindness, or generosity—be the chief measure of human goodness?

The Bible, among other holy books, portrays lack of faith as an insult to God. The same goes for faith directed at the wrong god (and in fact, the Bible’s bloodthirsty rants are more often directed at rival faiths rather than the absence of any faith). The idea is that the truth is so obvious that failure to believe properly can only be an act of willful disobedience, as Paul writes in Romans 1:20 (NIV): “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

Again, I grew up taking this for granted. But now whenever I hear or read religious speech, I’m struck by what seems like a bizarre and relentless emphasis on belief.

I’m struck by what seems like a bizarre and relentless emphasis on belief.

And for all the emphasis, the belief doesn’t even seem genuine. We know what belief looks like in a non-religious or non-ideological context. Normally when you say that you believe something, you’re describing a mental state that seems to arise spontaneously. You think something sounds truthful and accurate, you have confidence in it, and you say that you believe such-and-such, or that you think it’s right, or even that you “know” it. Once the evidence seems clear one way or the other, you don’t have to work at it.

When I was a Christian, pastors and other spiritual leaders always placed great emphasis on regular church attendance and regular devotions and “fellowship” with other believers. Neglecting these things, they warned, would result in a weakening of faith, backsliding, falling away.

They were right.

But the in the years that I’ve been an unbeliever, I find that disbelief maintains itself quite naturally and without any effort on my part. The Bible isn’t becoming any more plausible; the case for evolution by natural selection (a world without a designer) isn’t becoming weaker; and human history keeps rolling along without any evidence of divine intervention. And I’ve found that I often go for long periods without giving these things a thought (at least this was so before I started blogging!), and yet belief never starts creeping back like dandelions in my lawn.

The Christian explanation for this is the “sinful nature,” the idea that we’re prone to sin and disbelief, and are in fact so corrupt that saving faith can only come through a reception of divine grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). This sounds like an awfully convenient explanation, a neat way of shielding religious dogma by reframing reasonable skepticism as some sort of character flaw.

Listen carefully to the words of religious books and sermons, and “belief” sounds less like an opinion held with confidence, and more like an act of stubborn will.

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