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DEPARTMENT: Headquarters

Homo Credens

Everybody Has Faith Even After They Lose It

by Regis Nicoll

It's a familiar story, so there's nothing especially new in Margaret Wheeler Johnson's account of losing her faith. As Johnson tells it, the personal integrity that religion instilled in her "made it impossible to maintain faith" in religion.1

A while back, Columbia University professor Mark Lilla made a similar disclosure; namely, that the truth that led him to faith was the very thing that led him "out of faith."2

In Johnson's case, the turn was sparked by doubts concerning her denomination's teaching about the sacrament of Communion; in Lilla's case, it had to do with the interpretation of a particular Bible passage that he found disagreeable. (The scriptural text in question, and its reading, Lilla does not disclose.)

Margaret Johnson and Mark Lilla are in the growing company of individuals who have left Christianity not because of core doctrines—like the Nicene Creed—but because of a sectarian peculiarity, a disagreeable scriptural interpretation, or what they deem to be hypocritical practices. Yet they wouldn't think of abandoning their pet political party over an isolated plank in the platform, a questionable policy proposal, or the misdeeds of a member in the ranks.

What folks like Johnson and Lilla often don't realize (or admit) is that they haven't lost their faith; they have merely shifted its object from one thing to another. Otherwise, they would quickly learn that without faith in something, life itself would become impossible.

What We Don't "Know"

Faith is the bridge between what is known and what remains unknown; and that, it so happens, is a gap of cosmic proportions.

Although the scientific enterprise has led to discoveries that have enabled phenomenal successes in man's manipulation of nature, it has done little to advance our understanding of nature. In some ways we are like the car owner who believes he really knows how cars work, because when he turns the ignition key and presses the gas pedal, his car moves. The truth is, very few owners know how a car works; even among trained mechanics, few understand, much less could explain, all of the underlying physics.

And while the physics of auto mechanics could be learned, albeit with a great deal of effort, a comprehensive understanding of nature is unlikely ever to be attained, and may well be impossible.

That's because only four percent of the universe is made up of things that we can see, probe, and measure. The rest (96 percent) consists of dark matter and dark energy that remain hidden from our investigative tools. What's more, even what we know about the accessible four percent is precious little.

For example, what we "know" about matter is that it is made up of atoms, which consist of fermions, which are composed of quarks, which are (take your pick) either localized excitations in the ubiquitous quantum field or Planck-sized "strings" of energy whose "vibration patterns" produce the sensations of mass associated with matter.

But whether they are quantum blips or vibrating strings, the inescapable conclusion is that there is no "there" there—at least, any "there" that we could recognize as such.

Quantum theory pioneer Werner Heisenberg once wrote that those blips—uh, elementary particles—"form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things and facts." As for "strings," some physicists believe that they have more to do with metaphysics (or philosophy) than physics—like Harvard researchers Paul Ginsparg and Sheldon Glashow, who have called string theory an activity "to be conducted at schools of divinity by the future equivalents of medieval theologians."3

In short, the sum-total of our knowledge is infinitesimal compared to our ignorance, making some kind of faith an indispensible part of human existence. So the question is not whether we base our convictions and actions on faith, but what faith we base them on.

Bad Faith, Good Faith

For example, Margaret Johnson, in eulogizing her loss of religious faith, expresses a faith that is every bit as doctrinal as the one she left behind:

I could no longer honestly claim that the marvels I had always named as proof of the existence of a benevolent, omniscient creator—the human body, spring—are examples of anything but the order into which, marvelously indeed but following to no master plan, evolution channels entropy. (My emphasis)

Evolution channels entropy? You mean that the mind-numbing marvel of the human body—from its complex organization of the DNA macromolecule to the integrated functionality of its physiological systems—is the end product of a trial-and-error process of chance and adaptation?

Accepting that proposition requires faith of a high order—so high, that everything known about the origin of functionally complex systems must be discarded for a process that is unproven and, indeed, has been repeatedly shown to exceed the creative resources of the entire universe.4

This is faith derived not from reason but rather as an "escape from reason" (as the late Francis Schaeffer might have put it), leaving belief to the whims of non-rational influences (e.g., personal desire, popular opinion, or emotional affinities or aversions). It is faith that is blind to facts, like that of a mother who believes her child will become a nuclear physicist despite his difficulty in mastering the multiplication tables. Such is bad faith.

On the other hand, to accept that the highly organized structure of living things (even the simplest organisms display a complexity that far exceeds that of the most advanced machines man has made) derives from an intelligent source—even one beyond our understanding—is to stand upon what is known to be possible. It is to follow the trajectory of the evidence wherever it leads, weighing all explanations in the light of reason and accepting the one that best fits the facts. Based on established knowledge and the exercise of reason, this conclusion is the product of good faith.

Parts & Purpose

Bad faith deems the machine-like features of nature to be beneficial, useful, or detrimental, as the case may be, but bereft of any intended purpose. Good faith sees them differently, like Hugo Cabret, the title character in the 2011 Oscar-winning film Hugo.

Hugo, a young mechanical savant, lives alone in a secret hideaway in a train station. There, unbeknownst to anyone save his friend Isabella, he services and maintains the elaborate station clock.

One day, while working on the intricate clockwork, Hugo turns to Isabella and poses,

Did you ever notice that all machines are made for some reason? They make you laugh, like Papa George's toys, or they tell time, like the clocks. . . . Maybe that's why broken machines always make me sad, because they can't do what they're meant to do. . . . Maybe it's the same with people. If you lose your purpose . . . it's like you're broken.

Hugo presses his insight further as he takes Isabella to a majestic overlook of the bejeweled Paris nightscape:

Right after my father died, I would come up here a lot. . . . I would imagine that the whole world was one big machine. Machines never have any extra parts, you know. They always have the exact number they need. So I figured, if the entire world was a big machine, I couldn't be an extra part; I had to be here for some reason. . . . And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.

In two short passages, Hugo turns the tables on materialism.

For the materialist, broken parts (think vestigial organs and junk DNA) are evidence that the "machine," however complex and functional, is merely the unguided, unintentional product of atomic collisions. But for Hugo Cabret, the "machine" is evidence of intention, such that its parts, no matter how deformed or defective, point to purposes that are intrinsic to it, although their purpose may be obscured in the present by their condition.

Heart Matters

With each passing year, the pile of "surplus" parts that used to bolster the claims of Darwinian evolution has been dwindling, as researchers continue to discover functions for them that were previously hidden. For example, inert segments of DNA once dismissed as "junk" are increasingly being found to be essential to gene expression, either through direct action as a chemical "switch" or indirectly as a "space" or "punctuation mark" in a molecular command string. Good faith, in light of nature's architecture, would lead us to expect that trend to continue.

And it has. This past summer, the ENCODE Project, a five-year study involving 30 peer-reviewed papers, concluded that 80 percent of the human genome has a biological function.5 The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, put that number at 2 percent. The "junk" DNA pile is indeed growing quite small.

And yet, there is no denying the brokenness of nature, as evidenced by "parts" that, while not superfluous, cannot, or cannot completely, fulfill their intended purpose: the blighted tree that can't bear fruit; the omega wolf that can't find a mate; the defective appendage or organ inimical to an organism's health and well-being . . . or the collective "we," who, because of varying degrees of bad faith, are hindered from attaining our supreme end: communion with God. And Margaret Johnson seems to know that.

After describing her former life as one of "magical thinking," she closes with some telling disclosures: She describes her current life, committed to reason, as a "wasteland" in comparison to her former life of faith, a mere frolic in the land of false idols," with its upscale bistros, fine cuisine, and a tribe of urban professionals. She admits to a gnawing emptiness that she "can't name and can't begin to fill," and, she confesses, "when I'm at my wits' end, I find myself sending up a plea for help. And afterwards, in the face of all reason, I sometimes feel relief."

Margaret Wheeler Johnson has not lost faith. She is just oscillating between two faith objects: one pulling her further into the wasteland, the other nudging her gently out. One, the surface of reason; the other, reason's Source. And if we would be totally honest, isn't the same true of us? Where are we putting the faith we have? 

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