“Faith is a placebo,” said the young man, “you’re just experiencing what you expect to experience.” Wow. Hadn’t heard that one before. I must admit, though, that it really got me thinking. A placebo is fake medicine, a sugar pill, which sometimes makes the people who take it feel better even though it has no medicinal value. It’s a mental thing – they expect to feel better, so they do. Does faith do this as well? And if it did, why would this matter?
Here’s why it matters to me. If faith is just a placebo then it means that the beliefs I’ve built my life upon, in my case Christianity, are at best, in themselves, irrelevant and at worst false. My experience of God wouldn’t be God-given – just self-generated. I could experience the same spiritual effects by exercising a sincere faith in paving stones. What Scripture promises in terms of a living, interactive relationship with God becomes a farce. My “walk with God” becomes an extended exercise in wishful thinking.
So is faith a placebo? Let’s begin by defining faith. Faith is believing something to be true even though our belief extends beyond the limit of what we can actually see or prove. It’s not necessarily that there are no good reasons to believe, it’s just that they can only take us so far.
Is faith just a placebo-a sugar pill that makes us feel better because our brains believe it will?
This issue is complex. On the one hand, if God actually exists, then he exists independently of my perception. He’s not just a creation of my mind. My faith, by itself, doesn’t alter the objective reality of God. So what we believe in by faith, especially if it’s also based on good evidence, could well be true.
On the other hand, faith does affect how we interpret our lives. It’s a frame we put around our world; a filter through which we perceive existence.
My friend hesitated to embrace faith (in this case Christian faith) because he feared that the nature of faith would compromise his ability to think clearly and correctly. He wanted to be able to stand outside of Christianity in order to see it more objectively. There is, I suppose, a time for that outside perspective. If we didn’t stand outside of Christianity, or any other belief system for that matter, at some point, then how could we evaluate it properly before embracing it? The question, however, is how long do we do this and how much evidence is enough? Does integrity require that we stay in this mode – holding off a faith commitment indefinitely or even permanently until we get complete certainty? I would argue that the answer is “no”, that at some point it’s appropriate and even wise to make a strong faith commitment; to jump in with both feet. Here are some factors to consider:
1. There is no faith-free way of looking at life
At this point I can hear someone responding. “I don’t have to rely on faith. I build my life around facts! I rely on reason.” Do you? Everyone exercises faith of some sort. That’s because all of us have to presuppose some basic truths as a foundation. Even the anti-supernaturalist skeptic presupposes things like the validity of logic or the accuracy of their perceptions. If we didn’t assume that certain things are true we could never draw confident conclusions about anything. The world we think we see around us could all be merely an imaginary creation of our brains. These presuppositions or assumptions are, in one sense, acts of faith. The atheist has them as well as the Christian. Science has them too. Even the “outside” perspective I just mentioned requires some faith assumptions of its own – like confidence in one’s ability to accurately perceive and evaluate truth in an objective, independent way.
2. Faith and reason are allies, not adversaries
Some imply that we must either choose faith or reason. This is a false either/or setup. These two can and do work together in partnership. As I stated in the first point, there will always be some faith required even in the use of reason. For instance, all of us presuppose the accuracy of rational thinking and perception. Furthermore, reason can also set the stage for faith. The historical fact of Jesus’ existence, death, and resurrection, for example, can be argued convincingly with reason in the same way that we prove any historical account. If that has a strong chance of being true, then it’s more reasonable to believe in Jesus’ teachings as well.
What happens when faith and reason collide? This is bound to happen given that fact that faith often believes beyond what we can adequately explain. We have several options at this point. One choice is to abandon our faith. We can say, “What I’m believing in doesn’t make enough sense. I now reject it.” We allow reason to win the debate. Sometimes this is a wise choice. You may trust a business, for example, and then find out that they’re crooked. At this point it’s prudent to stop trusting them. You may also explore a religion and find just too many incongruencies to keep following it. Another option, however, when faith and reason collide, is to hang on to our faith while continuing to seek rational resolutions. We remain committed to our belief system because it still makes good overall sense and because it’s better, at this point, than our other possible choices. This is not an exercise in irrationality. Any belief system we choose will have its problems and tough to answer questions. This leads to a third point:
3. Faith is a practical necessity to function successfully in life
This insight isn’t a proof of faith’s validity, it’s just a practical observation. On a functional level, if we’re to accomplish anything worthwhile in our lives, we can’t be repeatedly starting from scratch when it comes to our foundational presuppositions. It’s impossible to take a journey if we have no solid ground to stand on. If we expect complete rational satisfaction or proof, then we’ll never have any firm beliefs and will mentally blow about like a loose leaf in a windstorm – constantly exploring and then rejecting the latest belief. This causes us to live in confusion and indecisiveness; a sort of paralyzing agnosticism. This is the formula for a miserable, unproductive life, nor will we be of much use to anyone else either.
Can faith be merely a placebo – mistaken and misguided? It can be. Faith is a tool to be wielded skillfully or carelessly. Yet, faith of some sort is also unavoidable and necessary. For this reason it’s wise to take time and though in evaluating our foundational beliefs, and then, when it’s deemed necessary, in choosing to reject or change them.
What makes faith reasonable? We’ll discuss that next time.