Welcome to the Faith, Fully project. If you’re new to the project, you can read more about it and join us if it strikes your fancy. And you can follow us here or on the Faith, Fully Facebook page. You can read every Letter 1, or follow all the letters.
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
My name is Wade Roush. I’m a journalist who’s done a lot of print and online writing about science and technology. I’ve worked at Science, Technology Review, and Xconomy, and recently I spent a year directing the Knight Science Journalism fellowship program at MIT, my alma mater. Now I’ve returned to freelancing, this time as an aspiring radio reporter and podcaster.
As such, I listen to a lot of public radio and podcasts, and one of my favorite shows is “On Being.” Krista Tippett, the host, always begins by asking her guests whether there was a spiritual background to their childhood. I’ve wondered how I would answer, if I were ever lucky enough to be on Krista’s show. I guess the answer would be “not really.”
My mother is from a not-particularly-observant Episcopal family. My father is from a somewhat more observant Methodist one. My parents had me baptized at the United Methodist Church in a small farm town in Michigan. I think they did it mostly out of respect for my grandmother, who was devout (though never in a pushy or proselytizing way).
As a young child I was sent to Sunday School, which I remember mostly for the craft projects (Dixie cup Christmas ornaments!) and the games of duck-duck-goose on the church lawn. If any religious instruction was provided, I absorbed very little.
My closest brush with the Bible came each Christmas Eve. Before we could open presents, my grandmother would always appoint someone to read the Nativity story aloud. I don’t remember if it was the Luke version or the Matthew version. I do remember wanting to get through the religious part of the holiday as quickly as possible, but without betraying any impatience.
I will tell you when I decided that the Bible is not to be taken a serious description of the world. When I was in first grade I got a bad case of mastoiditis — an infection of the bone around the ear. A tube was surgically inserted through my eardrum to drain the fluid. While I was in the hospital, some kind church member stopped by to loan me a cassette deck and a few tapes narrating stories from Genesis.
I remember listening to the part about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and thinking to myself, “That’s a nice story. But clearly, just a story.” I was six.
I put much more stock in my mom. I hated the hospital food, and in my desperation I drew a picture of a tuna fish sandwich. This prompted her to drive all the way home, make me an identical sandwich, complete with celery, and bring it back to the hospital. It was the best tuna fish sandwich I have ever tasted.
I have never really understood, on a visceral level, what other people mean by “faith.” I’ve listened to many people talk about their faith, but I don’t think I’ve felt anything resembling what they describe. Does that mean I’ve closed my heart to some fundamental aspect of being human? Maybe. But I think it means I want different kinds of evidence.
When my mom said she was going to go home and make me a tuna fish sandwich, I believed that she would actually come back with the sandwich. That’s another way of saying: I trusted that she loved me. Why wouldn’t I? By that time she’d spent years demonstrating a pattern of motherly behavior.
Maybe some people have a similar trust that God exists and that he/she/it loves them, and that is their faith. If so, they must have an ability I lack—an ability to accept untestable kinds of evidence, such as the word of the Bible.
Mind you, I don’t have any problem accepting other kinds of “invisible” evidence, such as the traditions of my elders. The United States Constitution seems like a pretty good document to me, and it was adopted 227 years ago. But the Constitution is not an oracle, it is an agreement about the best way to organize human affairs on a national scale in the face of human nature. It is testable, and in practice it has turned out to be a pretty good rulebook, with periodic amendments.
The Bible, on top of its deep and affecting accounts of human nature, offers an account of the origins and structure of all nature. But it is not open to amendment—in fact it is antithetical to amendment. And in practice it turns out to be wrong. So it must be laid aside as a source of explanations. (Though obviously it remains deeply valuable as an artifact of culture, like other foundational texts.)
To live without faith means to live in the world as we perceive it, and to test our ideas according to logic and the data we can gather through perception. Our animal senses and our raw faculties for reason and debate were a good start. In the West, they got us as far as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Now science has given us many new forms of perception, computing technology has extended our faculties of reason, and communications technology has magnified our faculty for debate.
If we have “lost” faith in the process, I am not sure that we are poorer for it. It seems to me that our progress as a species over the last half-millennium—in numbers, in longevity, in prosperity—has come about mainly through a process of observation, testing, experiment, and calculated investment. In other words, through a transcending of faith.
All that said, I hesitate to dismiss faith, since I’ve never had first-hand access to the feeling. If you told me you would feel bereft without it, it would not be my place to argue.
Perhaps, in a paradoxical way, the still-primitive state of neuroscience and cognitive science provides some territory for faith’s last stand. I don’t have access to your feeling states, so I must take your reports of faith…on faith.
I look forward to hearing from other participants in Brad’s project.