Faith or Brainwashing? Questioning Belief

This month I have decided to go off on a tangent. But then, this is a blog so I guess going off at a tangent is acceptable. Last month I attended a talk at the University Chaplaincy entitled ‘Faith and Reason’ given by Fr Rene Camilleri. It was a very informal talk, just the type I like, with a number of people sitting casually around a room. The topic was introduced and presented and then we had a discussion about the points raised and other related issues.

Many would think the topics of faith and reason to be incompatible; after all faith is generally taken to mean a blind acceptance of stated facts, and reason entails the process of questioning, thought and the final arrival to a rational decision about something or other. I therefore thought it would be intriguing to see how such a topic would be dealt with particularly since I have chosen my faith not blindly, but after thinking at length about it.

At this point I’ll backtrack somewhat to when I was growing up – which, please note, is not all that long ago. Like many local children my age I was brought up in a Catholic household and I was taught to accept the teachings of the Church and the writings of the Bible as the truth. No argument, no discussion, just belief. I don’t remember it ever being plainly stated, but it was understood that one did not question; to question was unacceptable, dangerous, probably evil. Thinking at depth about what you believed in was considered dangerous too, possibly because you could realise that creating a world in 7 days would take some doing! Jumping ahead a few years I decided to study science..

Amongst other things I read about Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution and that definitely rocked my boat. It made perfect sense. It was, and still is, a Theory; and there are some missing links in the chain, but the trends and patterns are all there. It is entirely possible to see how the variety of life in existence could have evolved slowly over many millions of years from a very simple ancestral life-form. Therefore, the world was not created in 7 days; apart from anything else, where would the dinosaurs fit in?.

Discovering the concept of evolution did not turn me into an atheist. Looking back, I think this didn’t happen because I was still too young and did not even know what the word “atheist” meant. But it did get me thinking. I remember, very clearly, long summer evening walks with my father when we would discuss the existence of God. I’m extremely grateful to his open-mindedness and his willingness to let me ramble on and on exploring my ideas and feelings. Eventually I arrived to the conclusion that so many things could have gone wrong during the millennia that the fact that the world has not collapsed on top of itself meant there was something, some force or energy, driving it forward. And I was willing to accept that that force was God and the beginning of Genesis is a simplified recounting of a very long process.

Others might not agree with me, some might even find this conclusion ridiculous; it is very simplistic – but for me, at that age, it worked. And from then onwards I believed, yes, but I also questioned. I thought about and reasoned out things I was expected to believe. I have not rationalised everything yet. I doubt anyone ever will.

Fast forward to the talk I attended last month. I was pleased to hear those same experiences of my childhood (do not question; it is wrong to question) aired and unambiguously shown to be the wrong approach to faith. It is a great pity that the separation between faith and reason which started in the medieval period has persisted to this day. Maybe there was a time where it was necessary to teach people to believe blindly because they could not cope with reasoning things out for themselves and belief gave people hope.

No schooling and being sent to work at age 5 probably did not give people the necessary skills to challenge, question and reason things out. But that outlook needs to change – it started changing a while ago, but possibly not fast enough. I won’t get into the debate of the why and how as I am not well versed enough in the subject to start dishing out opinions on how things should be; but to me it is patently clear that belief without questioning what you believe in, blindly accepting things because you are told to and not reasoning them out for yourself is wrong. Expecting blind belief only cheapens faith and disenchants individuals with the ability to think for themselves; that is, practically everybody in today’s world.

With Christmas fast approaching, thinking about why we celebrate Christmas and what it signifies for each one of us individually would be a worthwhile exercise.

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