Faith, Religion, and Critical Reason

It seems as though traveling chronologically would make sense when it comes to belief. Seeing as it takes time to form thoughts, first typically adopted, then slowly edited. I always wonder if an original thought is even possible, or if our thoughts are simply a combination of what we’ve taken in. Is it possible to formulate something truly original? In my opinion that directly correlates to one’s perception of knowledge, how it is acquired, and whether one can transcend knowledge. After a lot of thought, I have come to the conclusion that transcended thought is very similar to imagination. Affected by prior information, yes, but original in some ways. It is imagination that creates progress and change in the human world. Some imagination does not work. In fact, I’d say that most imagination does not work, which is why we need erasers on pencils, 10 years of clinical trials, and skydiving equipment when testing new jets. Nevertheless, it is when imagination passes empirical tests of validity that progress occurs. But just like in quantum physics, chance is a very real concept.

My thoughts about faith, religion, and critical reason began as a child. My father is a born German Jew, and my mother was raised Catholic, but converted to Judaism before I was born. My father never really cared too much for synagogue, but he went on high holidays because it’s the thing to do. My mother very much enjoyed the Jewish community and was heavily involved. Ironic how that goes; the converts are often better members. Growing up, I was the only Jewish kid at Saint Francis Elementary School, so it became almost a challenge to maintain my religious identity; I was “different.” I had to be at chapel 3 days a week (it was mandatory for all students), but I didn’t have to believe what they were saying because I was Jewish – that is what I was told; “You have to go to chapel, but you’re Jewish so you believe different things.” I was never really sure what that all meant at the time, but I remember sitting in the pews thinking, “This all sounds nice, but it’s ‘a bunch of bull’ according to my father.” Naturally I became a skeptic, but my skepticism didn’t stop with Christianity; it continued into my Jewish beliefs. If what the priest was saying was “BS,” why couldn’t what the Rabbi was saying be “BS” as well? Anyways, I continued my journey through Hebrew school, Bar Mitzvah, and Confirmation all with a subtle and growing skepticism. I adopted the title of an “Agnostic Reform Jew,” basically meaning I was liberal, not sure about God, but I wanted to retain my Jewish Identity. I found myself often wavering between atheism and a strong belief in God. The oscillation was entirely correlated to my mental state as I moved between normality and depression. I grappled with the idea of God; on the one hand it’s ridiculous to conceive of such a being, on the other hand, what if he/she does exist and my not believing puts me in a terrible light. Superstition was instilled by my mother, so I definitely didn’t want to generate any sort of bad luck. If God did exist, I wanted him/her on my side.

As I developed into a young man my thoughts pertaining to God shifted. However, right when I began to think critically I hit some rough patches in life, and God became my saving grace. I took the responsibility out of life, made my existence God’s problem, and put all my faith into him/her. I couldn’t muster up the power to think because my mind went into survival mode seeking a concept that would let me live. My faith saved me, so I understand the need. Nevertheless, this period of my life ended, and a new era of cognitive development occurred. I stopped my superstitious fears and began to critically reason with the idea of God and faith. I put every concept on an even playing field. Yes the idea of God is ridiculous, but what if our conception is just wrong. Maybe God is some unquantifiable power without form that gives us consciousness, or maybe God is simply the prime mover but is now gone. I started studying Cosmology (very broad science, includes physics) and Psychology with two primary objectives: how do we think and what is all of this? Psychology seemed to be easy because people are all around us giving off cues into the depth of human cognition, and Cosmology left most of the concepts up to theories and models – all seemingly based off imagination, but empirically validated. Both topics are very ambiguous in their own nature, so I continued down my path of objective skepticism.

Atheism is too easy. It’s just another heuristic to make our lives easier. People love to classify. They have a favorite song, artist, director, country, color, etc. They put themselves in a box because it’s like checking off a to-do list. Accomplishment and closure are great feelings, but I stopped doing that. I opened up the flood gates of thought and allowed myself to really think about topics while removing my greatest fear: “That if I didn’t come to a conclusion I was stupid.” It’s ironic when I say that I did find a conclusion, and that it’s similar to my fear but applied to all of humanity: I do not believe the human mind has the capacity to understand any reality in totality. God is a concept that cannot be determined, but faith is both objective and subjective.

It seems odd to think of faith as objective and subjective, but it is indeed both. Faith is subjective in the sense that there is not a lot of data backing it, and people usually have faith where critical reason falls off. It is almost just a “gut feeling” for some people. One cannot prove that God exists or that miracles have happened, but one can have faith that it is the truth. This faith likely has a positive outcome on the person; it makes them feel good and whole – a feeling that I believe is wrong, but I admire. I think it says a lot about a person’s psychological profile when they say something like: “I wish I could believe in God; it would make my life so much easier.” Not to say that people who have faith don’t take responsibility for their own lives, but I have experienced and can say that putting one’s faith in God does take a load off. Now, how can faith be viewed as objective? Well, it all depends on how one views truth. Humans do not even know what gravity is, but people talk about it like it’s a well-known fact. The same goes with God and religion, but people are more skeptical because there is no empirical evidence. Well, if a person feels God’s presence and is convinced of his/her existence through various mental exercises either imposed or more innate, God can be just as real and factual as gravity.

The objective view of faith is critically reasoned. Following my belief that the human mind is incapable of truly processing and understanding any reality in totality, it makes sense that faith and critical reasoning are intertwined. Nevertheless, pure critical reasoning is more based off of psychology and cosmology, whereas faith is more concrete imagination. The typical view of critical reasoning is logical in nature, where there is typically a cosmological and psychological test. Why people do things falls under psychology, and why/how matter and all its interactions occur falls under cosmology. Every topic starts off with imagination, and that’s why I’ve been stressing these specific sciences and thoughts. Specifically put, I believe critical reasoning with regard to religion involves taking apart imagination and testing it with either psychology or cosmology. I use the term imagination very broadly, for example, the bible is considered imagination. It becomes valid through the use of critical reason, and if the imagination doesn’t pass muster with critical reasoning, faith is the bottom line. If it passes through faith, the concept is considered false in the mind of the analyst (any person).

Now we will try to put all the pieces together in a way that can be more easily understood. Imagination is where one begins. This imagination is tested with critical reasoning. In most cases, and in the case of religion, this means some sort of logical test. This can be done using mathematics, experiment, observation, etc. all essentially tied to either psychology or cosmology. If the thought passes the logical test, then it is considered a truth/fact. If this thought does not pass a logic test, but is still held to be true for a reason that extends further than logic, it is considered faith. Religion attempts to prove faith through critical reason. If one declares stories and ideas to be fact, and convinces others of the validity using faith, it is faith that is being created through critical reasoning. An interesting thought indeed. Create faith to critically reason something, and once the critical reasoning is done the faith remains. If one adds culture and community, then one has a full-fledged religion.

To finish off I will add my emotional opinions on each topic. In the case of faith and critical reasoning I think they are heavily intertwined and both valid and truthful in their own right. I tend to lean more toward atheism, but like I said, I don’t believe the human mind has the capacity to comprehend any reality in totality. I think critical reasoning will achieve a conclusion that will be more testable and correct, but I do not dismiss the possible truthfulness of faith. Faith and critical reasoning are emotionally neutral in my mind. When it comes to religion I like the idea of community and ideals. I think a sense of community is always important, but the ideals must be positive: charity, etc. – absolutely no prejudices. I cannot stand religions negatively affecting people’s happiness (ex. anti-gay marriage). In addition, I do not like formalized thought at all, let people think, so with all this in mind I would say I’m neutral/negative. I think religion brings a lot of good into people’s lives, but it also has some distinct downsides. For me, the most important capacity we have is to be and promote the happiness of all.