Sunday, May 13, 2012

Emuna Peshuta - The Misuse of "Faith"

I frequently encounter people who claim that their basis for belief in God is "faith" or, if they are religious Jews, "emuna peshuta" - "simple faith". You're most likely to hear this when a religious person is confronted with a challenge to his belief in God by modern atheists, who claim that modern science and philosophy have eliminated any basis for belief in God. (This is not true, but that is a topic for another time.) To this, the response of many religious people is that they believe out of simple "faith"

I recently received an example of this kind of reasoning in an e-mail, which presents a fictional dialogue between an atheist professor and his religious Christian student:
Professor : You are a Christian, aren’t you, son ?
Student : Yes, sir.
Professor: So, you believe in GOD ?
Student : Absolutely, sir.
Professor : Is GOD good ?
Student : Sure.
Professor: Is GOD all powerful ?
Student : Yes.
Professor: My brother died of cancer even though he prayed to GOD to heal him. Most of us would attempt to help others who are ill. But GOD didn’t. How is this GOD good then? Hmm?
(Student was silent.)
Professor: You can’t answer, can you ? Let’s start again, young fella. Is GOD good?
Student : Yes.
Professor: Is satan good ?
Student : No.
Professor: Where does satan come from ?
Student : From … GOD …
Professor: That’s right. Tell me son, is there evil in this world?
Student : Yes.
Professor: Evil is everywhere, isn’t it ? And GOD did make everything. Correct?
Student : Yes.
Professor: So who created evil ?
(Student did not answer.)
Professor: Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things exist in the world, don’t they?
Student : Yes, sir.
Professor: So, who created them ?
(Student had no answer.)
Professor: Science says you have 5 Senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Tell me, son, have you ever seen GOD?
Student : No, sir.
Professor: Tell us if you have ever heard GOD?
Student : No , sir.
Professor: Have you ever felt GOD, tasted GOD, smelled GOD? Have you ever had any sensory perception of GOD for that matter?
Student : No, sir. I’m afraid I haven’t.
Professor: Yet, you still believe in Him?
Student : Yes.
Professor : According to Empirical, Testable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says your GOD doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?
Student : Nothing. I only have my faith.
Professor: Yes, faith. And that is the problem Science has.
Student : Professor, is there such a thing as heat?
Professor: Yes.
Student : And is there such a thing as cold?
Professor: Yes.
Student : No, sir. There isn’t.
(The lecture theater became very quiet with this turn of events.)
Student : Sir, you can have lots of heat, even more heat, superheat, mega heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat. But we don’t have anything called cold. We can hit 458 degrees below zero which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold. Cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.
(There was pin-drop silence in the lecture theater.)
Student : What about darkness, Professor? Is there such a thing as darkness?
Professor: Yes. What is night if there isn’t darkness?
Student : You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light. But if you have no light constantly, you have nothing and its called darkness, isn’t it? In reality, darkness isn’t. If it is, well you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?
Professor: So what is the point you are making, young man ?
Student : Sir, my point is your philosophical premise is flawed.
Professor: Flawed ? Can you explain how?
Student : Sir, you are working on the premise of duality. You argue there is life and then there is death, a good GOD and a bad GOD. You are viewing the concept of GOD as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, Science can’t even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing.
Death is not the opposite of life: just the absence of it. Now tell me, Professor, do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?
Professor: If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, yes, of course, I do.
Student : Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?
(The Professor shook his head with a smile, beginning to realize where the argument was going.)
Student : Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor. Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher?
(The class was in uproar.)
Student : Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the Professor’s brain?
(The class broke out into laughter. )
Student : Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s brain, felt it, touched or smelled it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established Rules of Empirical, Stable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?
(The room was silent. The Professor stared at the student, his face unfathomable.)
Professor: I guess you’ll have to take them on faith, son.
Student : That is it sir … Exactly ! The link between man & GOD is FAITH. That is all that keeps things alive and moving.
This little "dialogue" is a good example of what is, in my opinion, a fundamentally erroneous approach to religious belief. While the "student" makes a one or two minor points that are valid (or at least defensible), his core argument is simply absurd.

The essential problem here is that the word "faith" is used to mean different things, and the essay improperly lumps them together. The primary definition of "faith" is trust, in that we take something "on faith" from a person or authority that we trust. (This is the definition of faith being used by the professor, towards the end of the dialogue, when he says that we should accept what he teaches in his lectures on faith, even if we have not (yet) confirmed them with our own senses.) Of course, such faith has to be earned, in that there must be a reason why we trust a given authority figure sufficiently to take his statements on faith. Assuming that we have good reason for trusting the authority, then such faith is perfectly rational.

However, there is another, deeply problematic, understanding of faith, which is to believe something without any rational basis. This is the definition being used by the student, when, in response to his professor's challenge that there is no rational basis for belief in God responds that he has no answer, "...I only have my faith." Fundamentally, what this means is that the "student" acknowledges that the argument against his belief in God is valid, yet he believes in God anyways, simply because he wants to (which actually means that he doesn't really believe in God at all, since, in principle, he acknowledges that he could just as easily choose not to believe in God). This kind of faith has become increasingly popular amongst religious people in the modern world, who see it as the only answer they can give to the arguments made against religion by atheist "professors", but the answer is self-defeating because it is essentially a concession to the intellectual superiority of atheism. By claiming that their belief in God is based on nothing but "faith", they have openly surrendered the intellectual battlefield to the atheists.

If you only believe in God because of
your "faith", then your God is nothing
more than a figment of your imagination.
This mentality may be understandable with Christians (such as the author of the dialogue printed above) because many core elements of Christianity are, in any case, fundamentally irrational. However, this is not an acceptable approach within Judaism. Our belief in God is not based upon an irrational "faith"; rather it is based upon the objective historical experiences of the Jewish people. When the Jewish people stood at Mt. Sinai, they didn't believe in God just because they had "faith", their belief was based upon direct, objective knowledge. While we, today, no longer have that degree of direct knowledge, we do have the historical tradition of that experience, which (among other things) provides a rational basis for our belief in God and the Divine origin of the Torah. With that basis, we can then have faith, of the rational kind, that even when we do not understand why God does something, there must be a good reason for it.

It is only in this context that the concept of emuna peshuta - simple faith - comes into play. We trust God because we have simple faith in Him. But before we can trust him, we must first know that He exists. That initial knowledge cannot be based upon "simple faith."

This distinction is not always made clear in many seforim (classical Torah works) when they discuss emuna (belief), and in some cases, as when one comes across sources that are critical of philosophy (of which there are many), one might come away with the impression that the author is arguing in favor of an irrational faith. However (while there may be some exceptions), in almost all cases, these sources are only talking about using philosophy as a means to reinforce one's belief, and are not addressing the core basis for belief in God (a distinction which I discussed in the previous post). To my knowledge, almost all of these sources would acknowledge that, when it comes to one's basic belief in  the existence of God, this must be based upon an actual rational conviction that God exists, and not simply on an irrational "faith."


Unknown said...

Our belief in God is not based upon an irrational "faith"; rather it is based upon the objective historical experiences of the Jewish people.

This is the exact same reason why I'm pretty confident that David Blaine is capable of levitation. Myself and many other people observed this taking place not too long ago, and since miraculous events are impossible to fake, mistake or lie about, this is clearly a real phenomenon.

LazerA said...

Unknown said:
"This is the exact same reason why I'm pretty confident that David Blaine is capable of levitation. Myself and many other people observed this taking place not too long ago, and since miraculous events are impossible to fake, mistake or lie about, this is clearly a real phenomenon."

While obviously facetious, I assume that your comment is intended to bring out a serious point. It is unfortunate that you did not clearly state your objection, as that leaves me at the disadvantage of having to guess at your exact intent.

I would assume that you are *not* arguing that since most rational people do not accept that David Blaine actually has the power to levitate, even after observing him appear to levitate first hand, that therefore we should never accept the evidence of our own senses, and certainly not the word of other people about events. Obviously, such an argument would make it impossible for us to function in the world, and would make it impossible for us to even know what is, and what is not, supernatural or miraculous in the first place.

Clearly then, the fact that we may occasionally witness an event that we cannot readily explain (unlike David Blaine's levitation, which is fairly easy to explain) does not mean that we have to discount our ability to interpret the world around us entirely. All it means is that we need to be aware of the possibility of error, and of the possibility that what appears miraculous may not be. When confronted by an apparent miracle, a certain degree of skepticism is certainly called for.

This very point is made by Maimonides (and many other traditional Jewish sources) in reference to the Sinai Revelation. Briefly stated (I hope to have a post up on this topic in the near future), Maimonides writes that even after all the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt (10 plagues, splitting the sea, etc. - all far more impressive than anything you will find in repertoire of even the best stage magicians or faith healers), the Jewish people were still uncertain about the validity of Moses as a prophet. Sure, things looked good, but maybe they were all tricks of some kind? It was only after they experienced a direct revelation from God, in which God clearly indicated that Moses was His prophet, that they could be certain (and even then they had periods of doubt). The Jewish people were not quick to accept Moses as a prophet, and this was entirely to their credit! Such things are not to be taken on without serious consideration and investigation.

Yirmiahu said...

Very, very nice post! I was especially pleasantly surprised to see you take such a forceful stance against the claim of belief in something while denying evidence of it, a notion that has always struck me as nonsense.

Yisroel said...

Thanks! Definitely thought-provoking!
I also liked your answer to "Unknown" - Imagine a courtroom that would disallow visual evidence because it may be an illusion. Though I wouldn't expect one where questions that cast doubt on that visual evidence are eschewed, either.
I always found interesting (though I'm not sure how to process it fully) the argument that if something was able to be done through illusion, it would've surely have been done multiple times - or at least more than once. Hence, if a staged G-dly revelation to an entire tribe or nation was doable, where is the second time that ever happened?