On Faith and Fishing

James McGrath recently wrote a short post over at Exploring Our Matrix looking at faith as a human need. Using the movie Salmon Fishing in the Yemen as a jumping off point, McGrath briefly explores faith and ends his post asking, “…do you think that faith of some sort is a necessary component of human life, even for those who may reject religious faith?”

Initial Reactions

The question is undoubtedly interesting. However, answering it is quite difficult. To be completely honest, my knee-jerk reaction is to say “Of course not.” I have been told, countless times by believers, that being an atheist means my life is hollow and empty and nihilistic. They say my being an atheist denies me beauty and meaning and value.

Following from this, when atheists speak of meaning, spirituality, or morality in their own lives, they are met with skepticism from believers. Atheists are accused of being selfish and arrogant–trying to have our cake and eat it, too. We are trying to get the good parts of religion (meaning, purpose, value) while eschewing other responsibilities (subjecting oneself to God).

Regarding this take on atheists lives, I am willing to grant a generous reading. I think that religious individuals who say such things do so because they get a lot out their religious experiences. In combining their personal experiences with theological messages, they see life without God as dim and meaningless. It just strikes me interesting that such a view dehumanizes anyone who does not agree that all is meaningless without this specific god.

The relationships, goals, and passions in my life are said to be hollow because they do not involve God. Or, I am said to be arrogantly and knowingly taking credit when it should go to God. Again, I can grant the best of intentions, but when they dehumanize, I am reminded of an aphorism about paved roads to hell.

Breeding Caution

The above section was a long winded way of saying that I am (and atheists, in general are) cautious in consenting to use language typically reserved for the realm of religion. I don’t want to be led into a trap so that my atheism can be thrown in my face. But, this is not the only reason an atheist may want to avoid religious language.

Many atheists have deconverted from a religion, and they try to abandon religious language as they reinvent themselves after apostasy. Likewise, some atheists refuse to use it on principle. They will actively use a different vocabulary to avoid religious or quasi-religious language. At times I find this admirable; however, it gets difficult when trying to express concepts that can be ambiguous, like ‘spiritual.’ Also, at times, I wonder if this runs into a problem akin to Wittgenstein’s private language argument.

Getting Back to the Question

Setting aside my initial, knee-jerk reaction, a more fundamental concern arises. The term ‘faith’ is ambiguous. When McGrath asks if humans need “faith of some sort,” my largest hurdle to answering the question is what he means by ‘faith’. For the question to have any meaning, we must be able to define faith in a way that does not appeal to religiosity.

Starting with the dictionary, Oxford Dictionaries Online, gives us the following definitions:

1. complete trust in someone or something
this restores one’s faith in politicians

2. a strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof
-a system of religious belief
the Christian faith
a strongly held belief or theory
the faith that life will expand until it fills the universe

Merriem-Webster provides an expanded definition of faith:

1 (a): allegiance to duty or a person: Loyalty
(b): 1. fidelity to one’s promises; 2. sincerity of intentions

2 (a): 1. belief and trust in and loyalty to God; 2. belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
(b): 1. firm belief in something for which there is no proof; 2. complete trust

3    : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially: a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>.

Already, you can begin to see the trouble in McGrath’s question. By definition, ‘faith’ implies religion in most of its dictionary definitions. For the visual learners out there, here’s a mapping of connected words from the visual thesaurus:

This point gets driven home when you look at the antonyms provided by Merriam-Webster: atheism, godlessness.

Dictionary Answers

When faith is defined as “religious belief,” it becomes nonsensical to ask: “…do you think that [religious belief] of some sort is a necessary component of human life, even for those who may reject religious [religious belief]?” It is pretty clear that this cannot be the definition of faith McGrath intends to use. It is like asking for a non-religious, religious creed. The question is incoherent.

Per the dictionaries, this leaves us with definitions like trust, allegiance, loyalty, and dedication. The problem with these words is that they obviously have secular forms. So, McGrath would not need to ask if non-religious forms are needed by humans. He simply needs to ask if they are needed at all.

Per his question: “…do you think that [trust, allegiance, loyalty, and dedication] of some sort is a necessary component of human life, even for those who may reject religious [trust, allegiance, loyalty, and dedication]?” McGrath assumes there is already a ‘religious’ faith. What he is wondering is if there is a ‘non-religious’ faith; thus, making faith a human need. Because we already know there are non-religious trusts, allegiances, loyalties, and dedications; it would make no sense for McGrath to ask about them. He has no reason to doubt if they exist.

On Fishing

According to McGrath, the film compares faith to fishing. As he explains, the Sheikh (a character in the film) “not[es] that fishing is all about faith, about patient waiting despite the often slim odds that one will catch anything.” Here, faith becomes patiently waiting for an outcome despite the odds. I have a few problems with this metaphor, however.

First, fishing is more than patience and waiting. A long history of observation and experimentation have improved the likelihood of catching a fish. It is estimated that over 77 million fish are caught, annually. That is quite a lot of fish caught for something that has such slim odds.

Moreover, fish make up an important part of the diets of many coastal societies. In fact, we have created techniques to virtually guarantee catching fish. We call them fisheries. The reason being, if there is one thing humans go out of their way to avoid, it is “patiently waiting to eat despite the odds.” In fact, we call such situations mass starvations. We consider them tragedies and invest a lot of money and resources to alleviate these occurrences.

When the Shiekh appeals to fishing, as a metaphor for faith, he seems to be referring to a single outing of fishing for leisure. In this case, we can understand the appeal of patiently waiting for an outcome against the odds. However, I do not think McGrath means to imply that religious faith is a leisure activity. In fact, we can assume this since he asks about need. While leisure may be a human need, needs are not leisure activities.

This is, ultimately, the weakness in the comparison of fishing to religious faith. If you walk up to a river, empty handed, with a goal of catching a fish, you will undoubtedly need to “patiently wait for an outcome against the (sizable) odds.” But, with fishing, we can apply science and critical thinking to understand what goes into catching a fish, improving the odds of catching a fish. Moreover, we can control the environment  and tools of fishing such that we can virtually guarantee a catch. To what extent is this the same with religious faith? Are we able to manipulate whatever outcome we seek through religious faith? Can we study the activity of religious faith, scientifically, such that we can control the environment of faith and virtually guarantee the outcomes of faith? If not, I wonder how well fishing serves as a metaphor for faith. To what extent have we gained any understanding of what ‘faith’ is, be it religious or not?

What Others are Saying

In the comments section of McGrath’s post, an individual acknowledges some of the same concerns about the term ‘faith’ as I do. However, the poster does provided something we can use as a definition of faith: “…in order to live we must all…put our hope and trust in some system larger than ourselves.” This definition, in essence, combines the two variations of definitions provided by the dictionary. To be fair, the dictionary options account for this. Earlier, I just wanted to drive home the point that ‘faith,’ as a term, implies religion.

This definition, I believe, allows us to begin answering the question. If I can put words in the mouth of the commentor, this definition of faith can be understood as a ‘worldview.’ The article from Wikipedia starts by defining ‘worldview‘ as:

the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the entirety of the individual’s or society’s knowledge and point-of-view, including natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.

McGrath’s question, with this definition of faith, goes as follows: “…do you think that [a worldview] of some sort is a necessary component of human life, even for those who may reject religious [worldviews]?” This is a fair and understandable question. The comment poster provides an answer by linking this definition with Terror Management Theory — that our worldviews provide us existential comfort from the fear of mortality and are, therefore, necessary.

Fishing Without God

In using worldview as a synonym for faith, I would answer McGrath’s question in the affirmative. I do, in fact, believe worldviews are necessary for human life. I do not know if their value can be reduced down to providing existential comfort from the fear of mortality; however, I do find them necessary. This should come as no surprise, as one of the aims of this blog is to help me better understand and define my worldview as an atheist.

There is an important caveat I would make, however. I would argue that, to some degree, it is impossible to not have a worldview. Assuming this is the case, it obviates McGrath’s question. Basically, he would be asking if there is a non-religious version of something everyone has.

Instead of drawing the line on grounds of religious versus non-religious, I would differentiate on levels of engagement with one’s worldview. So, whatever benefits we extract by having them, we can engage our worldviews to vastly different degrees. On the one hand, some people pay very little attention to their personal and cultural worldviews. They engage them shallowly, asking few questions and making little attempt to adjust them. Others deeply engage their worldviews, trying to tease out as much nuance and depth as possible.

Or, to return to our metaphor of fishing, let’s consider someone who wants to have a nice cooked salmon for dinner. This individual can drive to their local store and purchase a fresh cut of salmon. Alternatively, this person can get up early in the morning, load up their vehicle with fishing gear, and head out to the local river. In either case, this person will enjoy a cooked salmon dinner. But, how this person enjoys his dinner will differ based on how he attained it.

The store-bought approach is convenient and can fulfill a fleeting concern with mild effort. However, it does little to build character or appreciation for satisfaction. The fishing approach allows for a deep appreciation of all that goes into eating a cooked salmon dinner. However, it may be a lot of effort with little return.

Instead of asking about religion, as McGrath does, I would ask a different question:

Can one live a truly fulfilling life, even if one never deeply questions or explores what defines fulfillment in one’s life?


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