31 May 2009

The Power of Faith

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Several years ago–when I was still an atheist–I wrote an article called “Believing Is Seeing.” My point was that even something as apparently “objective” as sensory perceptions can differ, based on the mindset of the person interpreting them. For example, in college I had a t-shirt business with my friend, and one of our first major orders for a fraternity got screwed up. We had made t-shirts for their “Delta Tau Delta Ski Weekend” trip, and when the guys were having a snowball fight a bunch of the ink on the shirts started bleeding.

So obviously we hadn’t properly “cured” the shirts with the heating element, and of course we went to talk to the guy who handled the activities for the Delts. I was mortified, thinking, “Where did we ever get the idea we could start our own business like this?”, and at the end of the conversation I was dead certain the Delt guy said, “We can’t do business again with you guys.”

In the car ride, my partner said, “Well I’m glad they weren’t p*ssed. Assuming we fix all these and there’s no more bleeding, we’ll get the next order.” It soon became clear that he had heard the Delt say, “We CAN do business again with you guys.” (He was right.)

I have had tons of experiences like this, and what’s really amazing is when I see other people misinterpreting something that is “obvious” to me.

So it is clear that even an atheist who is “rational” and “scientific” (in quotation marks because I’m talking about the atheist who proudly trumpets these terms about himself) can acknowledge somewhat corny things like, “You are your biggest critic” or “You can achieve if you believe.”

I’m not going to relay the whole story now, but part of what happened when I went from being a “devout atheist” (the actual term I used) into a born-again Christian, was that at some point when I was still an atheist, I realized just how powerful the power of suggestion was. For the first time, I understood how faith healings “worked.” I didn’t attribute anything supernatural to it, of course; I thought medical doctors could give a perfectly satisfactory explanation (at least in principle), but that the ignorant rubes would view it as “a miracle.”

In particular, at that point I thought the most rational explanation for everything I knew about Jesus of Nazareth–which included the undeniable dedication of his followers–was that he really did heal people, because they actually believed he had that power. (Note that Jesus Himself often acknowledges this when He says, “Your faith has healed you.”)

Think of it like this: There are apparently studies showing that if you want to predict which patients will survive a particular surgery, and which won’t, what you do isn’t to check the medical histories etc. Instead, you ask the people why they are getting the surgery. If someone says, “Because the doctor says I should” or “I want to resolve this one way or the other,” then that person is probably not going to make it. But if the person says, “The doctor says if it works, I can golf again” or “I want to see my daughter get her diploma,” then those people are much more likely to enjoy a full recovery.

Now then, even a perfectly rational atheist can understand why the above is true. Someone’s attitude makes a heck of a lot of difference in what he or she can accomplish. Now: Who is going to be more of an unstoppable force? The person who says, “There is no purpose to evolution, and there is no non-arbitrary sense in which homo sapiens are a ‘higher’ life form than a bacterium,” or the person who says, “The LORD who created the heavens and the earth is about to work a miracle through me”?

Last point: I can imagine all sorts of obvious retorts from my friendly atheist readers. (Remember, I used to think like you, and I would have had a field day with this post too.) But there is a huge difference between someone saying “God told me I needed $6 million in donations or else I was going to die,” versus someone actually believing that God had given him instructions. There are plenty of scientists who have falsified their lab reports etc. too; obviously they don’t pose any problem for the legitimacy of the scientific method.

Just because there are charlatans who take advantage of naive theists, doesn’t (by itself) discredit theism. It is undeniable that some of the most incredible artwork, and even some of the most incredible scientific discoveries, were achieved by people who have been devout believers in God and in fact would attribute their successes to divine inspiration.

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