Gotta Have Faith


Do you believe that rain falls down? Now, do you have faith that rain falls down?

If you see someone standing in the street asserting that rain falls down and not up, you might wonder why someone would feel the need to state the obviously true. But if you see the same person standing in a thunderstorm, declaring with conviction that rain falls up as they feel it coming down on them, that's faith.

A statement of faith need not be false, but it must be implausible, and held passionately. The parents of a child who disappeared 20 years ago might cling tight to the belief that their offspring will return some day, and we recognise that it's not impossible that it will indeed happen, while acknowledging it's not at all likely. But if we saw the same parents casually holding the same belief but attaching no importance to it - that would seem profoundly strange.

So, faith must be passionate, and its objects unlikely. We don't even have a special word for beliefs which are mundane and held without intense emotion.

Indeed, the more implausible a belief, the more faith is required to believe it. This is why the most fanatical believers are also the ones with the wackiest beliefs.

But to turn this around, the people with the most faith to give are the ones who seek out the wackiest beliefs to expend their faith on.

How do you contain a fanatic? Give them something trivial or irrelevant to be fanatical about. The Turin Shroud is an obvious forgery, but even if it were genuine, its existence wouldn't support one christology over another. In spite of this, many fanatics come up with labyribthine sophisms trying to prove it genuine, as if that would somehow prove their theology.

If these people's efforts were directed toward catholicism itself, the church would splinter and implode. Churches direct potential heretics toward arcane irrelevancies for the same reason wider cultures direct potential troublemakers to sporting trivia.

But what makes one belief plausible and another not?

If I told you there was a teapot orbiting Neptune, and you had no way of investigating whether or not it were true, you could assign equal probability to truth or falsity, or refuse to assign any probability until some evidence turns up.

But actually you'd assume by default there is no such teapot, being ready to change your mind if evidence emerged that it were there.

If I told you there is a man in Brazil who's married 13 times, each time to a different woman named Maria, then it's rather unlikely - but probably not as unlikely as the neptunian teapot.

But if I told you my parents own a dog, you know that dog ownership is common, and that people seldom have reason to lie about such things, so you'd probably believe me.

So although there may be clear rules for the trained mathematician, in ordinary life we use a dense and inconsistent set of vague notions of plausibility to decide. This plausibility structure has aporias and outright contradictions, but for the most part is self-supporting - so we can generally justify our intuitions with other intuitions, which then justify the first set.

Different domains of life have different plausibility structures. In school, what the teacher says is considered probably true, because the teacher says it. Outside of school, teachers know nothing. In church, the priest is a wise guide. But the priest who visits your home is the happiness police, and must be lied to.

So, within religion and its rituals, the absurd and incoherent beliefs of the church become plausible. Miracles as explanations for natural events become commonplace. Statements which no one understands become obviously true - though still not understood.

So there is at the heart of religious faith a tension. On the one hand, articles of faith need to be wildly implausible to be articles of faith. On the other, they're rendered mundane by societal conditions which make them not just plausible but obvious.

Thus when engaged in acts of worship, believers do not have faith. And it's only when not expressing their faith that they have it.

Epitaphs

Things people don't say on their deathbed:

* I really wish I'd spent more time at work.
* I had too much sex.
* I should have worried more about what other people thought of me.
* Too many new experiences, they weren't good for me.
* Everything my parents taught me was absolutely true.

And of course,

* You can't get into too many arguments with morons.

Cub Club (Part 3)

In Part 1, I joined the cub scouts and learned nothing. In Part 2, I joined again and learned to use a needle and thread. I learned one other thing.

This second time, the nominal leader Mr Moustache (who possibly had a real name which I might even have known) was barely seen. He'd effectively demoted himself to shuffling papers in a small anteroom, while a shifting team of ex-soldiers took care of the boys.

The only time I saw him for more than a minute was while carrying one end of a banner, while he walked in front dressed as Father Christmas, and behind us was a junior marching band and a team of majorettes. This last was two dozen pubescent girls dressed in flesh-coloured lyotards - glaring with hostility at the two boys.

We walked/twirled/blew/beat around the streets for 90 minutes. What were we doing? What was on the banner? I have absolutely no idea.

But the first evening of rejoining. Eighteen boys of around 10, arranged on three sides of a square, while in the middle... ...a tall man with a short crew-cut.

Wearing full camouflage.

Screaming and bellowing about how we lacked "discipline".

Apparently we were a "disgrace", with our little green caps, woggles with neck-kerchiefs, regulation pullovers and grey school shorts.

I almost never questioned or resisted adult imbecility - there was never any point. But on this occasion, for some reason, I decided to try an experiment.

I sneered at him.

I kept the sneer until his gaze reached me...

...and he flinched.

Just momentarily, because he immediately looked far away, and never looked at me again.

I think I attended for two more weeks, and have no recollection of anything about them. Sometimes there's nothing more to habit than momentum.

I never told anyone about this, but the one thing you realise when you reach middle age...is that whatever you think you worked out as an adult...you already knew as a child.

Cub Club (Part 2)

In Part 1, Mr Moustache (who had been something low ranking in the British army) met my father (who had been a corporal in the British army and never fired a gun).

Together they decided the 10 year old Kapitano would love to join the scouts, and discover things like:


  • Communing with nature


  • Learning survival skills in the wild


  • Helping old ladies across the road


  • Doing household chores for strangers in return for pitiful amounts of cash


  • Donating the pitiful cash to never-specified charities


  • Helping old ladies across the road


  • Something about god


  • Promising to serve the queen our entire lives


  • Keeping clean


  • Never telling lies (except when it would hurt someone's feelings or embarrass an adult)


  • Helping old ladies across the...yes, that one came up quite a lot


  • Oh, and:


  • Learning how to tie sailors in knots. I might have misremembered that one.


  • In fact, the budget stretched to one occasion of:


  • Cooking baked beans and sausages by gas in the wild, untamed empty building site next to the scout hall. Except it rained, so we did it in the hall itself.


  • I stopped going pretty quickly.

    But then...it happened again. Once again Father and me bumped into Mr Moustache outside the hall, and once again decided I wanted to join. But this time it would be better, because instead of eight bored boys, there were eighteen.

    I have a few memories of this time. The third is of a plump, red-bearded, red-faced scoutmaster with an abiding passion: Amateur Dramatics.

    Every week or so, he spent an hour bullying the boys into learning everything he knew about one or another aspect of stagecraft.

    Mr Amdram: Can you guess what we're going to learn about today?
    Boys: Is it...Shakespeare?
    Mr Amdram: Um, no.
    Boys: Putting on makeup?
    (Other Boys: Yeah! Cool!)
    Mr Amdram: No.
    Boys: Swordfighing?
    (Other Boys: Swordfighing!)
    Mr Amdram: No.
    Boys: What then?
    Mr Amdram: Guess.
    Boys (after a long pause): Uh, no idea.
    Mr Amdram: DANCING!
    Boys: Oh god no! Dancing's for girls!
    Mr Amdram: We Are Going To Learn Dancing!
    Boys: Ugh! Eurgh! No!
    (Continue arguing until there's no time to learn about dancing.)

    My second memory is of the lady who poured the half-time soft drinks. And did pretty much everything else.

    Someone had noticed that Kapitano avoided playing the games which the adults devised to fill up the empty dismal hours of each meeting.

    One of these was a convoluted game of pure chance, which Kapitano was the last to play...and won. And got a round of applause for doing so.

    I had spent most of my early life being puzzled about what people did and said, so this was just one more way they made no sense. Why were the boys being prodded into congratulating me on being lucky? I shrugged and went back to my seat, alone.

    I think the adults noticed the shrug.

    They'd also noticed that Kapitano didn't have any badges sewn onto his uniform. Badgelessness and not-being-a-team-player. Two aspects of the same problem perhaps?

    So the lady spent 20 minutes listening to me talk about variables, graphics, conditional branches, and how to program a Sinclair ZX-81 personal home computer. With 16 kilobyte RAM extension.

    I don't think she listened, but she presented me with a "Hobbies" badge. I got Mother to teach me how to sew, so I could attach it to my uniform.

    And that's the story of how I learned to sew.

    But the first memory...that's the formative one. And that's in Part 3.

    Cub Club (Part 1)

    I was a cub scout. Twice.

    The first time, I was walking back from some errand with my father, when we passed a half-derelict community hall - a single-room building, maybe 5x5x20 meters, a relic from a time when the upper middle class went to church in the morning, then chess societies, knitting circles and local choirs in the evening.

    Outside was a short, thin man of about 60, in a beige uniform decorated with scattered sewn-on badges. He smiled cheerfully through a greying moustache, and affected an avuncular, Kris Kringle-like manner, which I thought at the time must be calculated to put young children at their ease.

    It had always puzzled me that adults lied so transparently to children.

    Somehow, he and my father got talking, and it turned out he ran the local cub scout troupe - which met every Thursday evening in the very building behind us.

    He said I should join, my father thought it was an excellent idea, and I tried to be diplomatic about my complete antipathy to the idea.

    He said no I really really should join, because...something something something, it would be fun and jolly good for my character or something somehow. My father said yes I'd definitely be at the next meeting. I stared off into the middle distance, waiting for them to stop.

    And so, after a few days of Mother dragging me round the clothes shops to spend far to much money on a uniform I had no interest in wearing, there came Thursday evening.

    This consisted of:


  • Inspection: I think eight boys standing in a row while Mr Moustache pretended to check our uniforms for creases or stains

  • Pledging: The oldest cub haltingly reciting an archaic promise to serve queen and country, while we all performed an occult-looking three fingered salute.

  • Sport of some kind: Most likely four-a-side soccer, which involved me standing around for half an hour, making sure I was never anywhere near the ball.

  • Break: Orange squash and biscuits, and the only time when the boys showed any sign of animation, chatting about TV shows and the then-new phenomenon of home computer games.

  • No idea: Maybe more sport, or an improvised lecture from an adult. I've a vague feeling there was prayer involved at some point.

  • Some kind of finishing ceremony, then going home.


  • I went a few more times. I don't recall learning the names of anyone there, though I remember a slightly overweight woman who did all the physical work - setting up for soccer or table tennis, making and serving the orange squash drinks...

    ...and on one occasion treating me for an inexplicable nosebleed. She taught me that it was a myth that one should tilt one's head back to stop a nosebleed, and that actually one should tilt forward. I later learned that both are myths.

    I always had the impression that she was constantly telling herself that her duties weren't the boring, demeaning waste of time they seemed, and that she was keeping up a noble tradition of...something something something.

    After six weeks or so, my parents finally realised I was never going to develop an enthusiasm for the scouts - or indeed stop loathing every moment of it. So they stopped trying to persuade me I already loved it.

    But, as with bad marriages and profitable movies, the end wasn't quite the end.

    Can I Get a Witness? (Part 2)


    "It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds. And they'd all arrived at the same place at more or less the same time. And they were all...free. And they were all asking themselves the same question."
     - Laurie Anderson

    On one side of the road, an old, traditional church, with walls of big grey stone, stained glass windows, uncomfortable wooden pews...and no one inside.

    On the other, a squat, white, square, single-storey building that wouldn't be out of place in an army barracks - apart from the signs announcing it was a "Kingdom Hall" - or Jehovah's Witness church.

    Inside, 150 people dressed like they'd designed their wardrobe from descriptions of the most formal attire in the world, but never actually seen it. Small children in immaculate bright white suits and pink bow ties. Elderly women, some in wheelchairs, dressed entirely in shades of mauve. Black men in cream boubous with gold lace and sky blue fezzes. White men with meticulously clipped beards and tweedy suits from the 70s that must get worn once per year.

    And me, in threadbare black teeshirt, baggy jogging bottoms...and running shoes I found thrown in a gutter some years ago.

    Yes, for JWs, the memorial of Jesus' death is the holiest ceremony on the most important day of the year. I did ask why the resurrection wasn't more important than the crucufixion, and apparently it's because the resurrection was just god reanimating his son on a whim, whereas the death...um, is complicated.

    I've been shown a lot of JW videos, and the overall impression is of high production values...and immense cheesiness. Looking around the two prayer rooms, with solid chairs facing a polished lectern on a stepped podium in front of expensively leatherbound books...it's the same impression - expensive opulent taste as imagined by the poor.

    And the singing of hymns...same again. No badly tuned upright piano for accompaniment, and no casio electric organ either. Instead, pre-recorded lush synthesised orchestral strings...with live vocals in the style of a crowd who want to give the impression of joyfully singing the praises of their god, but don't want to do anything so crass as show enjoyment. Very British, very Anglican.

    And on to the first, nervous looking, preacher, who's job was to introduce the second nervous looking preacher, who's job was to make a few admin announcements...and introduce "Brother Piper" to do the actual preaching.

    Brother Piper is about 20 and almost succeeds in sounding confident. He has the kind of over-chiseled good looks and waiflike slimness that come from undernutrition and stress. His suit is of course immaculate, but three sizes too large.

    If you watch enough videos of ordinary people trying to explain quantum mechanics, or trinitarianism, or common core mathematics, you get to notice the little twitches, sideways glances and uncomfortable pauses which show they don't understand what they're saying - or that they don't quite believe it.

    Brother Piper twitched quite a lot. It was a rambling train of disconnected metaphors, but the gist was this:

    The universe is 13 billion years old, and God made Jesus right at the start, so the two must be really great friends to stay together so long. 
    There's also the holy spirit, which isn't a separate entity, but simply the presence of god when he's on earth doing a miracle. Except when it's not. 
    God's plan was that everyone would be immortal with eternal youth, but Adam messed everything up by making a decision for himself, introducing sin and therefore aging, death and suffering into the world. And we're inherited result because sin is genetic. And so is sinlessness, but not yet. 
    But at some indeterminate point in the future, God will finally win the battle with Satan that he could have won at any time, but chose not to for some reason. And after that, everyone will be immortal again. And they'll still have free will, but they won't be able to make the wrong decision. Because that's how "true" free will works. 
    And not only that, but 144,000 extra-special people will be selected by god to be his civil servants in heaven for eternity, functioning as a government for the perfected earthly people who no longer need a government. 
    But amazingly, these 144,000 will not be chosen by religious affilition. And god doesn't need the JWs to win. Making the entire JW church pointless in its own cosmology. 
    Oh, and it caused God so much suffering to kill his son, it would be ungrateful not to obey all his rules.

    Cue more singing, and the ceremony of passing around the unleavened bread but not eating it, and the same for the wine. I liked the way they used stale mouldy pittabread just to make sure no one had a nibble.

    End of ceremony, and much milling about making small talk before going home. I did my routine of chatting with everyone, asking simple, obvious questions and being very understanding when they couldn't answer.

    Why does god need a civil service? Doesn't eternity pushing paper sound like hell? If angels have free will, why can't they sin - except for the one who did, even though the bible doesn't say so? And if free will doesn't entail sin, why did God make humans such that it does? 
    What obscure rules was god bound by when he had no choice but to kill his son to renew a contract he made with humanity? Do immorals make babies? What does "son of god" actually mean? Why are you performing the pagan rite of Dionysus?

    The answer, apparently, is that the bible answers all these questions, but in scrambled order. So to find the answers, pick half a dozen random paragraphs from different books, then pretend they're a connected explanation. With enough wild guessing, you can make it mean something, which you can then pretend was God's intention all along.

    Except it only works at JW prayer meetings, which I got invited to, several times. But I'm neither that much of a masochist, nor that much of a sadist. Fortunately for us all.

    Can I Get a Witness? (Part 1)


    Jehovah's Witnesses. The steampunkers of the christian world. They try to live according to rules actually found in the New Testament, without the interpolations and traditions that grew up around it.

    So whereas the catholics have to retcon 2000 years of contradiction into an enormous wobbly heap of handwaving, the JWs have only the first century of contradiction to worry about.

    They don't believe in a spiritual afterlife, but that after the end of the world, you get a new perfect body on a new perfect earth forever - unless you were evil, in which case you just cease to exist. Because that's what Paul wrote, before Hades got imported from Hellenistic religions and conflated with Tartarus.

    They don't accept blood transfusions, because Leviticus says we mustn't eat blood. Even though (1) transfusion isn't eating (2) they ignore pretty much everything else in Leviticus, and (3) blood transfusions are a jolly good idea.

    Which only leaves the question: Surely you'd drink blood?

    They don't celebrate Christmas, because it's the Roman Festival of Saturn, and therefore pagan. They don't celebrate Easter, because symbolic rabbits and eggs come from fertility cults, and are therefore pagan.

    They don't perform the Eucharist, because eating metaphorical god-flesh and drinking (eating?) metaphorical god-blood is the festival of Dyonisus - god of grain and therefore what you make from grain. So it's pagan.

    What they do instead is...once a year take a sip of wine (representing blood) and a bite of bread (representing flesh) to commemorate the death of Jesus.

    So what's the difference? The difference is: They don't call it the Eucharist. So when they do it, it's not pagan.

    They are also the nicest nutjobs I've ever met. I've chatted and debated with dozens of flavours of christian over the years, and the JWs are the only ones who've never threatened me, lied to me, or assumed I must be an idiot because I didn't agree with them.

    Well, tonight they've invited me to their not-Eucharist. So I'm going, and coming up in Part 2, my impressions.