Sunday, May 27, 2012

Politics and Faith

Despite the title, this post is not political.  Rather I am asking the question: what can politics inform us about faith and ourselves.  As I will point out, there are similarities between our political loyalties and our faith or religious loyalties.  By examining peculiarities of political allegiances, I think we will gain insights into how faith and religion operate.

First a background on faith.  There is a big emphasis on having faith all the way back to the gospels.  Jesus told parables about it (faith as small as mustard seed will move mountains), commended people who had it (the centurion), and rebuked those who failed to have it (Capernaum).  His followers asked for it ("I do have faith, help my unbelief").  The current evangelical movement is all about spreading the faith, making believers, and maintaining the faith of believers.

So is having faith easy or hard?  Well billions (or millions depending who you ask) of people have it, so surely it can't be too hard.  And yet there are plenty of people who struggle with it for many years.  Why is it so easy for some and so hard for others?  It is not because unbelievers are weak or smug or want to be immoral or self-centered  or other of the many explanatory aspersions I have heard.  No, I think the answer to why some have it easy and others don't can be observed and found in a related endeavor: politics.

Political affiliations are powerful things.  They affect how we see the world.  We tend to have very strong biases in favor of those we support and against those we don't.  Here is an observation that I have made about myself.  When a politician who I support says or does something a bit suspect, I feel myself giving him the benefit of the doubt.  I start with the assumption that there is probably a valid explanation for why he said or did that.  And I don't really want to dig up the details; rather I want it to go away.  On the other hand, if a politician from a party I dislike says something suspect, I assume the worst about him and that reinforces my negative view of him.

Now I see this bias tendency in myself even though I try and avoid it and attempt to be objective and non-partisan.  I see it even more strongly in others who are partisan and make no such attempts to be objective.  Any failings or evils in their party are minimized while failings or evils in the opposing party are magnified.  The politicians they support can do no wrong (in their eyes) while the opponents can do no right.  The name I want to give this is: attachment politics.

In attachment politics one has chosen a side.  One has a personal stake in one's party doing well.  One is loyal to one's party and party goals.  One believes the good things about one's party and minimizes the negative.  One dismisses the beliefs and goals of the other parties, and doesn't understand why partisans of other parties don't see the errors in their ways.  It takes a awful lot of hard, negative evidence before one would lose trust in the politician or party one supports.

Now religious faith is very similar to attachment politics.  Consider faith in Jesus.  One has a personal stake in following him (it's a relationship, remember).  One is loyal to Jesus and his teachings.  One believes the good things written about him and dismisses the negative.  One dismisses the beliefs of other religious groups and cannot understand why those in other religions don't see the fallacy of their beliefs.  It takes an awful lot of hard, negative evidence before one would lose trust in Jesus.

This attachment is a powerful thing and not easily lost.  In that sense, faith is easy.  I remember feeling that way when I had an attachment.  But some people do lose it, including me.  For me this loss was a long, hard struggle as I sought to resolve evidences and contradictions.  It is not analysis of the evidence that is so hard, it is letting go of the attachment that is hard.

And now that I no longer have this attachment, I believe I can see clearer.  I consider finding truth a higher ideal than achieving or maintaining faith.  I look at the claims followers make about Jesus and compare this to the scholarly evidence, and see a huge conflict.  I look at the reasons followers give for belief in God and see them severely lacking.  And yet the good memories I have of faith are still there.  I still believe in some of the ideals, and that God, if there were a god, would be good.  Perhaps I still have the desire for faith, and yet with the attachment gone I can no longer sustain the faith.