In the aftermath of the sickening events of the last few weeks I have given a good deal of thought to the idea of religion and whether it is ever justifiable to feel so strongly about something as to let it drive you to murder. There are things that I would kill for certainly; if I, or someone I love, was threatened then I am sure that I would have it in me to kill. But to kill an unarmed man in the street in cold blood is something different, something terrifying and unholy. That kind of violence only happens when a person’s identity becomes so enmeshed with an object of worship or desire that an insult to the latter becomes a direct attack on the former.
It’s scary to think about, but the appeal of such a way of life is obvious when I think about it. To have an immanent and tangible locus of Being, in light of which I become real and meaningful, would be to know for certain who and what I am. That is why the most devout religious believers do not care that their behaviour does not conform to social or political norms, because their self is not the instatiation of their regional culture or the bland and empty arguments of legislators but the total devotion to something infinitely larger.
As much as I am terrified at the lengths to which such self-abandonment sometimes leads, It certainly does offer one solution to the eternal despair of humanity’s lonely existence. To be beyond the judgement of the committee of ‘They’ and to hope for transcendence from the here and now – that’s what we most search for as a species. I’ve heard it said that the two most googled words are ‘sex’ and ‘god’; whether that’s true or not, it illustrates the point. In sex we quite literally become one-with another human being and achieve that transcendence in a physical way. In god we have faith in something more, something beyond, something greater and so we escape from the abandonment of the world.
If this sounds somewhat familiar then you may have heard of Pascal’s Wager. The French mathematician and philosopher (and inventor of the roulette wheel) who famously described faith in God as a gamble with an obvious winning strategy – faith. If we believe in God we have everything to gain and nothing to lose, if we don’t then the opposite is true. Of course this kind of philosophizing devalues real faith by turning it into the self promotion of a narcissist, but I think that I understand what he meant. He meant that faith makes a real and measurable difference to the phenomenology of living and being. Faith is not simply an inferior kind of science or knowledge but actually changes something in the believer to connect them to the divine. Whether or not such a connection is “real” in the crude metaphysical sense is somewhat beside the point. It is real in the same way that anything is real to a subjective individual – it is real to them because they make it so. But the point about Pascal is simply this: if there is a god, and if this god can be known by faith, and only by faith, then faith becomes above the reproach of such devices as rationality, science, society, etc. Faith offers something which those can only pretend at, faith offers truth.
Is there a way to know if one’s faith is true or if it merely appears to be so?