Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Longest Joke In The World

In high school, I did a lot of work with the Anti-Defamation League, largely around issues of discrimination and prejudice, and they have helped positively shape my view of the world. One project I helped organize with a bunch of other high schoolers was a big Passover Seder for a bunch of other high school students. As a theme, we came up with what we believed to be about a dozen words that best characterized what we saw to be important in the world -- words like strength, understanding, and love. For each word we found corresponding quotes from people like Margaret Mead, Albert Einstein and T.S. Elliot. This was all thrown together for a (really bad) video I had made to introduce the Seder.

I was thinking about all this recently, and I had an odd realization about one of the quotes. The quote in question was for the word "faith," and was written by someone named Ambrose Bierce:
"Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge of things without parallel."
I am not sure why I so clearly remember this one particular quote for "faith," while having to go back and re-watch the video to merely remember some of the other words we came up with. I think this quote was the only one I did not fully comprehend, so I stored it away in my subconscious, slowly toiling over its meaning.

It has been ten years since the Passover Seder, and I think I just figured it out. I think this quote is a joke.

Actually, I am pretty sure it is a joke. The quote is taken from a satirical book published in 1911 called The Devil's Dictionary, a large collection of quirky definitions making fun of the world. For instance, the definition for "congratulations"?
"The civility of envy."
And the definition for "love"?
"A temporary insanity curable by marriage."
See? Really funny stuff. So funny, I think it has taken me a decade to get one of the punch-lines.

When it comes to Bierce's definition of "faith," the joke is the emphasis on ignorance:
"Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge of things without parallel."
The quote sure sounds nice though, doesn't it? The repetition of the word "without", the iambic-ish rhythm to the words. It is not hard to see why some high school junior doing a google search for "faith quote" thought it was a good idea.

But take away the poetics, and the definition says that faith is the belief of someone trying to deal with shit way above their pay grade.

If that is true, should we really consider faith to be a virtue? I do not mean "faith" as a synonym for hope or trust (which are two things of which I am a big fan), but "faith" as certainty of the unknowable. The world around us is going to keep going and we are going to keep figuring things out. And uncertainty about the unknowable is our fuel.

I am not saying that having faith is incompatible with intellectual curiosity and progress, but it does not help. That sounds harsh, but think about it.

Faith is a belief that no amount of proof or data or learned knowledge could ever shake. It is a "belief without evidence." So once again I ask, is that really a virtue?

A few days ago, scientists picked up a noise six times louder than any noise they have ever heard from deep space. It is a fascinating story. So far, no one has any idea what it is. They are clueless. And yet, you do not have astrologers and astrophysicists coming up with random ideas about what is this noise, and then when asked for proof, responding with, "I have no proof, I have faith."

But still, the word faith, essentially meaning a lack of a plausible explanation, is revered. Maybe I'm ignorant, but that makes no sense. What is positive in admitting complacency to ignorance?

Maybe this is something I need to accept that I will not understand. Maybe I should just have faith that faith is a good thing. That would solve my problem, wouldn't it?


Noel said...

It's funny because I'm a part of a panel today after the screening of the documentary "For the Bible Tells Me So" that deals with issues of religion, sexuality and of all things, faith.

I mean, what a person believes is beautiful--because that's you and your way of approaching life. What I hate is the organized religion aspect, the doctrine and the dogma.

I mean, you can't tell me how I should feel, so why should you tell me how I should believe or think, right?

I don't know what I think in terms of hope and spirituality. It all seems too much to process at once and part of me wonders if we are ever supposed to process it.

But to have people along the way, I feel that is truly 'god' in all her deepest forms--that like how hell is other people, so is god.

I dunno.

Hi Travis!

Travis Cook said...

This entire topic is so difficult to discuss because all of the words are so loaded with so many different meanings and definitions. The words "belief" and "faith" are so vague.

What a person believes is beautiful? I really want to agree with that, but there is something too simplistically poetic about that sentence for my liking. I can name a lot of beliefs which we would agree are not beautiful. And maybe that is the dogmatic part you mention, but that's the problem. So vague.

I agree no one should dictate anyone else's feelings or beliefs. That's wrong.

But I also have a pet peeve about when people wrap sweeping language about spirituality and wonder around convoluted and vague statements of personal belief. (Not to say this is what you are doing, but it sounds similar). For some reason, the more vague a statement of faith or belief, the less critical you can be of said statement. Which I guess makes sense considering those sorts of statements do not usually make sense, even to the person who says them.

I guess I approach all of this stuff about faith and spirituality in a very stark way, trying to decipher what people are actually saying and what people are actually believing. I think people just want to feel good, and words like faith and spirituality come across so harmless and positive that it seems rude to ask questions or request critical thought. And, to be honest, I am kind of an asshole for writing this blog post and this comment, calling into question something regarded as so pleasant, but I can't get past the fact I think most of it is BS.

Dan said...

Actually, I've read a even longer joke than that. It's called Nate the Snake.

Travis Cook said...

Dan... I can't believe I actually looked up the joke called Nate the Snake... I'll never forgive you for that.