Faith vs Religion

Related: Secular Faith & Scientific Zeal

Yesterday I related a story in which my father admitted his own occasional doubts about God.  Some might think it sacrilege to doubt God, particularly for a man of the cloth.  I also noted in my opening post that there seems to be a lack of faith from certain political elements, a lack of faith in God, in democracy, and in other people.  We’re going to start with religion, but I will get to science as well.

Many people equate faith and religion, and I think that’s a mistake.  I tease a good friend of mine, the federal judge who married my wife and me, with the following joke:

Q:  What’s the difference between a federal judge and Jesus Christ?
A:  Jesus had moments of doubt.

Which Jesus did.  So if some Christians insist that they know, absolutely know, that God exists and claim they never doubt Him or Scripture, does that imply that their belief is stronger than Jesus’s, stronger than God’s?  It’s not a trivial question.

It turns out that the word ‘religion’ has nothing to do with theology, nor spirituality. The stem re- means ‘back’, or ‘behind’; and the stem lig- refers to binding, as in a ‘ligature’ or ‘ligament”. So ‘religion’ means to be ‘tied back’; or, to use the English idiom, to be ‘tied up’.

Faith, on the other hand, implies a lack of certainty and knowledge, which in turn implies doubt; and those, in turn, imply freedom.  Which presents another interesting theological problem:  if we never question what we believe, are we refusing free will?

Faith appears to be a harder pilgrimage than religion.  Working from religion, from a viewpoint that one need not question – one is not allowed to question – would seem to be easier than working from faith, where doubt and questioning are constant.  It would seem easier to go through life with blinders on, not only rejecting what you can’t understand, but insisting that it can’t be understood at all.

Faith vs religion is also a problem in science.  I practice medicine, where science meets reality, and science frequently doesn’t come off all that well in the exchange.  I am constantly confronted with things that don’t make sense, with patterns that seem to suggest something else may be going on beyond science-as-we-understand-it, and occasionally I even see what seem to be small miracles.  My medical colleagues often dismiss these things.  Perhaps I am gullible, or maybe even crazy.

Or perhaps they are tied up.

Medicine is fundamentally a biological discipline, and biology considers extraordinarily complex systems.  I am often surprised at the ability of my biological colleagues to ignore contradicting realities right in front of them.  And when I attempt to discuss these unorthodox (note the word) anomalies, their arguments sometimes resemble, in structure and approach, the arguments that I hear from the inflexibly religious.

It’s the messiness of reality.  We don’t like mess.  We want neat & clean, we want a philosophical, a metaphysical, ideal.  The stridently religious, the garden-variety physician or scientist, we all prefer some orderly dogma to messy reality.

These insights are important to all of us who struggle to remove our own blinders.  Because the problems I see in religion, and in medical practice and scientific research, seem to mirror problems I see in business and government, and even problems in families and communities.

In every freshmen science class college students are taught that a single experiment can cause scientists to completely change their minds.  Scientists insist that they are unprejudiced, completely open-minded, impartial, logical.

Which is exactly what dogmatic religious adherents argue, while explaining away anything that challenges their world view.

I am certainly not the first to suggest that science is a religion.  I hope, however, to make that argument stronger as we go.

But first, we have some other topics to cover.

Tomorrow: A Scientific Defense of Creationism

After that:  A Theological Defense of Darwinism

Picture, Iris nelsonii. Common in south Louisiana, the iris is the symbol of faith, hope & wisdom; note all three suggest doubt and open-mindedness. Iris nelsonii was first described near Abbeville LA, and named by famed botanist Lowell Randolph for his friend and associate, Ira Nelson, a former UL faculty member, and the namesake of the UL Horticulture Center on Johnston St. next to Blackham Coliseum.
Photo by R.J. Sloan, via SIGNA.


  1. Michael Young

    I wanted to say that I’m enjoying these and hope they continue with some regularity.

    Otherwise, it’s A Tale of Two Cities.

    I grew up near you, went to SHS with you, rode the bus with you but, in reality, was light years removed in religious/spiritual terms.

    The idea, for instance, that it would be permissible for me to broach the topic of God’s existence, as you did with your father, or question it in a serious way would have been dealt with immediately and with profound consequences: severance of all family and extended social contacts. In fact, that’s exactly what happened in my mid 20’s.

    Experiences such as that lead to, as you can imagine, a different perspective moving forward, one best described with adjectives such as “hostile” or “acidic.”

    “We don’t like mess.” (smiling here) No, we certainly don’t — and we don’t like voids, uncertainty.

    Thus, I’ve become a congregation of one (as far as I know) that hangs my beliefs on a strange mix of Abraham Maslow’s immediately accessible “pyramid” (Science) and Aurelius’ (considerably more involved) 14 virtues and something I describe as being 99.9% atheist, the remaining 0.01% being a nod to the idea that it’s ridiculous to presume to “Know” with any degree of confidence.

    Abraham. Father Abraham. The Abrahamic religions. And, now, Abraham Maslow. There’s some kind of pattern here but I can’t quite put my finger on it —- 🙂

    • Bookscrounger

      Michael, good to hear from you and thanks for sharing this. Faith is what we believe may be true, hope is true, perhaps even need to be true but still question. Religion, unfortunately, is what you went through, and what we all experience in some areas of our lives though fortunately it is not as traumatic as your experience was. Uncertainty, and the value of it, are one of the places I want to go. Please keep coming by and sharing your thoughts. Thanks again.

  2. Durl

    Politics, organized religion, and science (both commercial and academic) have the issue that you mentioned: “leaders” who are threatened by an idea or fact that challenges their standing.

    I was fortunate to work for a company that is totally reliant on good science for its day-to-day success. I worked with world class scientists who were not afraid to have their science challenged. In fact, they encouraged it. Because science does not advance unless new ideas are tested and new technology is brought to fruition.

    At the same time, there were managers, at times, who were very opposed to ideas that might affect the budget of the area they stewarded. I saw active efforts to discredit something that might have an impact on the size of their “fiefdom”.

    I took an early retirement because of a similar situation. One area of the corporation did not have experience in an area that I and several long term co-workers had. Three of us were transferred to that area to help them get up to speed. I spent 2-1/2 years trying to do this. But, at every turn, I was stopped and given this statement: “That’s not how we do business.”. Yes, I know that. That’s why you had a problem, and that’s why you got me to come here … to teach you a new way. My stress level was becoming unmanageable, so I started looking for a way out. Fortunately, early retirement was affordable, so I left. A year and a half later, things are still the same … they still do business the same way, and have the same problems. Before I left, I predicted a major issue within 5 years due to their inability to learn. I hope that I was wrong. Time will tell.

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