Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Power of Faith

Whether faith is a legitimate tool for understanding the divine or an excuse to believe whatever one wants and justify all sorts of heinous actions, one thing is certain: faith is powerful. The power of faith isn't in any ability to move mountains or heal the sick, but in its ability to seduce. The very nature of faith itself, especially as it is contrasted with its archnemesis skepticism, compels people. Of course it does. "Believe" sounds quite positive. We put it right up there with "hope" and "persevere." No one likes the skeptic who rains on our parade. I'm a huge fan of horror films, even though the skeptic character never survives. The skeptic tends to get cast in a negative light - perhaps not always intentionally - because it just feels really good to accept something as true, especially if that something is really really awesome.

Look at our movies and television shows. How many times have we, the audience, been privy to knowledge that the lead character has, and we get upset when the lead character tries to tell her best friend or her parent this knowledge, and the friend can't accept it at first? I've caught myself in the movie theatre wishing that Lucy could just get her siblings to believe and accept that Narnia is real. In such a moment, Sagan's reminder that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" gets thrown out the window. We want the characters in the movies we watch to just accept that, say, the mind of a young girl somehow found itself in the body of Rob Schneider.

Watching a movie and suspending disbelief in order to enjoy the story is fine, but way too many people carry that attitude out of the theatre when the movie's over and into the real world. "Belief good. Skepticism bad." No one holds that attitude consistently, of course. Who would believe me if I said that I'm a teenage girl whose mind got trapped in a man's body? I may have a deep love for unicorns, but such a claim would still require extraordinary evidence.

[via Tristan Vick]

Besides, not all girls like unicorns. Don't force your gender stereotypes on me.

This is why our "rockstars" of science are important. People like Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, Eugenie Scott - intellectuals and skeptics who not only represent critical thinking, but inspire our imaginations and our sense of awe and wonder as well. Too many people think "skeptic" is synomymous with "pessimist" or "killjoy." I empathize with such people. Faith is powerfully enticing; moreover, achieving the balance between, as Sagan said, "the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas," is a fine line to walk. The path of a critical thinker isn't always easy, but it is the most rewarding.


"Tell people there's an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure." - George Carlin

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