David Gerrold on Faith and Secularism
Posted: 08 June 2006 08:26 AM   [ Ignore ]
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[b:b1723e79a5]Belief and Knowledge and the US Constitution[/b:b1723e79a5]
David Gerrold

When I studied zen—and I studied it for the better part of a decade, with occasional return trips the following decade, one of the points made was "faith is conviction without evidence, science is evidence without conviction." In fact, one of the courses I took spent one full day on the difference between belief and knowledge.

Belief is the adult version of "magical thinking." Faith isn’t that far removed from wishing. Knowledge, on the other hand, is derived from looking at what’s so.

Faith is an internal knowledge, it’s a subjective experience. As such, it’s stronger than knowledge, which remains external. Knowledge, however, can be measured, tested, repeated, verified, and agreed-upon by others.

Here’s another way to look at it. I can believe that the big blue bus will stop before it hits me. That’s belief. But the bus going ka-thump and rolling on another ten feet—that’s knowledge, that’s evidence, that’s fact.

Most folks can get this. It’s not rocket science. But where things get confused is when folks confuse belief and knowledge, as in: "I believe in the facts." No, dammit, no. That’s turning knowledge into belief—and in the words of one particularly aggressive instructor, "Don’t believe in the facts. Use them, but don’t believe in them. When you believe in the facts, you turn them into the same bullshit as all your other beliefs."


Because belief, by definition, is not knowledge. It is a different domain than knowledge, it is totally detached from knowledge. When you start believing in facts, when you turn facts into belief, you divorce the facts from what’s so. When they become part of the belief system, they become part of the construction of superstition, and they lose their relationship to what’s so in the universe. (I had trouble with that thought for awhile, but eventually after hanging out with it for a while, I got it.)

None of this means that faith is invalid. What it means is that one has to recognize that faith is an internal condition. One can have faith in one’s ability, one can have faith in one’s commitment, one can have faith in the stand he or she has taken in life. That’s where faith carries a person, even when there is no evidence. That’s where faith is not only invaluable, but irreplaceable.

Religious fanatics are folks who insist on confusing the issue, who insist on turning belief into knowledge and vice-versa. These are folks who think the voices in their head are delivering messages for the whole world. "Hey, why should I listen to the voices in your head? I’ve got plenty voices of my own!"

When evangelicals start telling me, "God says…" and "God wants…" I recast the sentence, replacing the word "God" with the word "I" to hear how it sounds. This is one of the sniff tests that help determine the authenticity of any religious assertion. The bottom line, for me, is that religion—any religion—has to be a personal commitment. It cannot be codified, organized, quanitified, or turned into a massive stone edifice. That pointy roofed building is not God’s house. This whole planet is God’s house. You’re already living in God’s house, everywhere you go. Try thinking of the Earth in those terms and you won’t be stubbing out your cigarette in his rug, or tossing your McDonalds wrapper onto his floor, will you?

In recent years, we’ve been hearing a rising chorus of folks who keep confusing "God’s law" with secular law—folks who insist that the Constitution is based on the bible (it isn’t, and don’t write me e-mails telling me it is, not unless you want me to rip off your head and piss down your neck, because that’s one of the pieces of religious propaganda that makes my gorge as buoyant as a cork released at thirty fathoms) or that the laws of this country are based on religious tradition. They’re not. They’re based on the promise of justice inherent in the Constitution.

Okay, yes, to some extent a lot of religious tradition has unfortunately been codified into the annals of American jurisprudence by folks who should have known better, but were caught up in some control-freak, power-trip; but none of those attempts to taint the law with theocratic goals changes the essential charter of this nation. The Constitution is not only secular, it is godless. It is deliberately a godless document. The founding fathers knew what they were doing.

Our Constitution is very simply a social contract, it’s an agreement that all of us have made with each other to treat each other with mutual courtesy and respect. The Constitution very simply lays out the ground rules for that social contract. How we will manage ourselves as a nation—including, most importantly, protecting every minority from "the tyranny of the majority." And yeah, that’s another one that pisses me off.

"Majority rules" has been put forth as the argument why gay people (or any other group) are not entitled to equal protection under the law—the idea that the rights of a minority are dependent on the mood swings of the majority is a fundamental misreading of our national contract.

Try it this way: Whose rights are you willing to stand up for? Imagine the most despicable person you can—imagine the person you hate the most in the world. Imagine the man who raped you, the adult who molested you, the person who murdered your lover, the person who betrayed you, the one who stole your cherished treasure—got that person in mind? Would you argue for his/her right to free speech, right to an attorney, right to due process and the presumption of innocence? Would you argue for that person’s protection from tyranny? The limit of your commitment to the rights of your most hated enemy is the limit of your commitment to the Constitution.

Ugh, I hate that example You’d have to be Atticus Finch just to ask the question in the first place. But that’s the real test of liberty. The same test applies to ideology, religion, and politics. What group do you most want to see hurt, disbanded, punished, destroyed? NAMBLA? The Scientology? The Communist Party? Pat Robertson’s 700 Club? PETA? Planned Parenthood? Would you fight for their freedom of speech, their right to assemble? There’s the measure of your faith in the United States Constitution. (Use of the word "faith" is deliberate here.)

I find it ironic that some black leaders are arguing against the gay civil rights movement, because they are offended that gay people argue equivalency between gay civil rights and black civil rights. I’ve addressed this before. Black and gay are not comparable. But the prejudice against anyone, for any reason, is wrong. And the denial of anyone’s civil rights is a betrayal of the promise of "liberty and justice for all." Perhaps it’s time for certain black leaders to stop playing, "I’ve got mine. Chuck you, Farley," and recognize the debt they owe to Bayard Rustin. (Look him up, I’m not going to do all the work here.) More than ironic, I find it offensive when anyone uses "faith" as a justification for hurting others, for denying others equality.

But you see what I mean about faith? When we claim that it’s evidence, we confuse ourselves, and we end up hurting others. I’m all in favor of faith, it’s the strongest power any human being has at his or her disposal—but let’s recognize that the limit of faith is the boundary of one’s own soul. Faith is a self-help tool, not a bludgeon.

(from www.gerrold.com)


Barry F. Seidman
Exec. Producer of Equal Time for Freethought