Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010

Faith is Flawed

H. L. Mencken wrote, "It is not materialism that is the chief curse of the world, as pastors teach, but idealism. Men get into trouble by taking their visions and hallucinations too seriously."

When 11-year-old Madeline Neumann began suffering acutely from runaway ketoacidosis as a result of untreated diabetes, her parents, devout followers of the Bible, did what they thought was right. They prayed. Ultimately, Madeline died a painful, miserable death. This poor child suffered for over thirty days with extreme thirst, nausea, and weakness, all caused by an easily treatable condition.

David Koresh, the late leader of the Branch Davidians, claimed he not only possessed the gift of prophecy, but also claimed to have a vision that he was Cyrus, a reincarnation of the first Zoroastrian Persian emperor and founder of the Persian Empire. Ultimately Koresh and many of his followers perished in flame following the tragic Waco siege, paying the ultimate price for their deep commitment to their beliefs.

These people all share a common thread, they believed in what they were doing. The Neumann parents, fervent believers in the Scripture, convinced themselves that prayer would bring their daughter free and clear of suffering, and indeed following Madeline's death they dejectedly claimed that it was their own lack of faith which failed to bring their daughter back from the brink. Koresh, a fanatical believer in prophecy and his place as a new messiah appointed by God, led himself and dozens of devoted followers willingly into the sights of brutally effective government firepower.

William James, the pioneering psychologist and philosopher, defined true beliefs as those that prove useful to the believer. Certainly, believing that prayer will heal and that prophecy is truth served the people described above who embraced these beliefs. It gave them a sense of power, a sense of purpose, reassurance that they could apply the force of faith to their respective situations and prevail against evil.

The problem, however, is that beliefs do not counteract brutal reality. I don't claim knowledge of a "soul" or any intangible, nebulous definition of human existence that persists beyond the physical realm, but at the same time I do not discount this possibility.

I simply refuse to define and decide, within the confines of my merely human mind, that spectacularly serendipitous events like an ailing child healing or a band of followers providing the boon of their fealty to me are realistic expectations of fervent belief in a thing which, for all intents and purposes, is a product of my own imagination.

God exists in countless forms to countless people. Mencken, in his Treatise on the Gods, suggested that mysticism is the purest form of religion because it demands no tithe, no steeple, no trappings of religious doctrine, but merely an intimate, personal relationship of devotion and contemplation. This seems to me a more sensible system of belief than almost any form of organized religion in existence today, since God is not presented like some new car, a flagship ride to salvation, by bands of Its followers. Rather, God makes Itself known to the believer in a manner It deems fit, without outside influence and without mindlessly embracing scriptural doctrine maintained by human beings.

The aforementioned danger, of course, exists in the faith of mystic as well as maniac believer in religion, that they will be compelled to transform visions and compulsions into reality, in their mind purely for their God, but in essence either good or evil depending upon the impact to themselves or others.

Perhaps, in the end, it is safer and wiser to simply adhere to the New Commandment of Jesus Christ, "A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another." Love is simple and true and in its purest forms leads to happiness for all involved. Better yet, love among creatures with intelligence, like dogs, is reciprocated in ways that are clear and meaningful, though they, like faith, are ultimately intangible.


Constructive commentary is always welcome!