17 November 2005

I watched a movie called "Birth" Sunday night that would have been better titled "Belief" for its insights into psychology and religion. Here are a couple things this movie helps us understand, but first a brief plot outline, no spoilers.


Nicole Kidman plays Anna; her husband has been dead 10 years, and the movie opens with her engagement party to a new fiance. But the next day a 10-year-old shows up saying he is the reincarnation of the dead husband, and he doesn't want Anna to get married.

Everyone is quite amused by his insane claim, and he's sent home -- from a luxury upper East Side duplex to his crappy house and boring life in Brooklyn (or someplace equally dreary). But he persists. After all, his name is Sean and that was the dead husband's name, too. Also he knows many details that only the real Sean could have known (we find out how this happens in the course of the movie).

You may have guessed by now that the still heart-broken Anna comes to believe the kid is really her long-lost Sean. And that's all I will say about the plot so as not to ruin things in case you want to view the movie, which is a fascinating character study. Rest assured, it's not a movie about reincarnation!


The first thing the movie helps us understand is the difference between belief and knowledge. Let's say Anna and little Sean run away together, wait a while, get married and live happily ever after; would she ever "know" he was really her dead husband reincarnated? She might believe it with all her heart and have a thousand solid reasons to back up her belief, but would she ever know?

Where do you go to verify reincarnation? Is there a list somewhere, a who's who? Is there a DNA test? Fingerprints? Can you ask god for the answer? Point being, it's not something we can check (nor is reincarnation something we believe in Western Judeo-Christian society), so it seems the wise person -- who carefully discriminates between knowledge and belief -- would have to say, "I am personally sure this is my dead husband, but I don't know it for a fact. How could I?" It would remain a belief.


Along this line, where do we go to check up on the right religion? The answer is not "The Bible!" or some other holy scripture, for they are all self-authenticating documents that have validity only for those who believe in them. And no one is forced to believe in any of them! There's no place to go outside of those holy books and scriptures to verify the right religion, to verify that god exists and determine what he, she or it wants from people. God is like a reincarnated husband: He can be believed but not verified.

What seems to occur, psychologically, is that an overabundance of faith starts to feel like knowledge and leads some people to make fact claims that are really faith claims. It's as if there's a faulty relay in the brain that overloads and sends the wrong signal; this overload situation is built into almost each religion, which forgets it's a faith and pretends to be a repository of historical facts. This is nothing new, nor is my reaction to it: Devout belief has been seen as a problem since the pre-Socratics. Those not susceptible to absolutism are always waving red flags at believers. This is my red flag for November.


Second, let's say Anna found that her dead husband was having an affair. Even though she made the leap of faith to believe in Sean, she now finds herself saying, heartbroken and enraged: "Yes, I believe you're Sean, but I am through with you!" (It would be nice to see her go from engaged to enraged but we don't. Something better happens! Or worse?) In short, the fact of his existence and her desire for a relationship are two different things!

This calls to mind Kant's idea that even if we were to meet god face-to-face, and that it was truly god, without any room for error or doubt, we would still have the choice of whether we could -- upon consulting our own moral and ethical values -- be a supporter or advocate for that deity and the rules and practices he, she or it required of us. Would we want -- or could we morally accept -- the rules and the relationship?

So believers not only get mixed up in regards belief and knowledge, they also think that if god exists they must fall in line with the practices, when it actually is very much their own ethical choice; indeed, we all know that "god" does not force people to believe; it must be one's free choice to accept a moral authority, in consultation with one's conscience and one's deepest values -- or perhaps one's hopes and fears enter too much into the picture, as happens with children, who simply bow to authority because grownups have the power.*


Putting these two points together, we come up with this: The answer to the questions, "Is this my dead husband?" and "Does god exist?" and "Which religion is the correct one?" cannot be answered factually or known certainly but only believed. Perhaps the good news for believers is that something does not have to be a fact of life to be a guide for life. Kant thought he was deflating the pretensions of knowledge to expand the realm of faith. If he's reincarnated and with us now -- and reading the newspapers -- he must be one very depressed dude!

Second, whatever facts you may have discovered in regards a deity -- if that were even possible -- they would still not determine your choice of how to conduct yourself towards that deity: you may decline to accept anything, a deity included, that goes against your ethical and moral standards ... which may turn out to be a big factor if you study religion or listen to what some believers proclaim: For example, according to Pat Robertson, god will turn his back on the town that voted out a school board that favored teaching intelligent design. Now, we all know that Pat Robertson is an absurd individual who makes ridiculous statements that his followers adore, but many of us are a lot closer to his mentality than we'd like to admit.

So I would, just once in my life, like to hear someone say, "I don't believe in god but love the church and follow all the rules as best I can," or, "I believe there is a god, yes, but cannot in good conscience accept him as any sort of moral authority."

"Birth" not only helps us better understand what we can know, it also helps us see that god is more like a reincarnated husband then we had hitherto believed ... and that Hollywood can still make movies that reach right down to our ethical and moral foundations, if we only look past the surface of those flickering images on the screen. (You know I had to get Flickr in here someplace!)



Here is a passage from Karl Popper that transitions into a quote from Kant, from “Kant’s Critique and Cosmology,” an essay in “Conjectures and Refutations.”

Kant’s Copernican Revolution in the field of ethics is contained in his doctrine of autonomy — the doctrine that we cannot accept the command of an authority, however exalted, as the ultimate basis for ethics. For whenever we are faced by a command from an authority, it is our responsibility to judge whether this command is moral or immoral. The authority may have the power to enforce its commands, and we may be powerless to resist. But unless we physically prevented from choosing, the responsibility remains ours. It is our decision to obey a command, whether to accept an authority.
Kant boldly carries this revolution into the field of religion. Here is a striking passage:

“Much as my words may startle you, you must not condemn me for saying: every man creates his God. From the moral point of view … you even have to create your God in order to worship in Him your creator. For in whatever way … the Deity should be made known to you, and even … if he should reveal Himself to you: it is you … who must judge whether you are permitted [by your conscience] to believe in Him and to worship him.”

Kant’s ethical theory is not confined to the statement that a man’s conscience is his moral authority. He also tries to tell us what our conscience may demand from us. Of this, the moral law, he gives several formulations. One of them is, “Always regard every man as an end in himself and never use him merely as a means to your ends.” The spirit of Kant’s ethics may well be summed up in these words: dare to be free, and respect the freedom of others.

*And since we're citing Kant, he believed in The Enlightenment. He was its last great defender and wrote:

“Enlightenment is the emancipation of man from a state of self-imposed tutelage … of incapacity to use his own intelligence without external guidance. Such a state of tutelage I call ‘self-imposed’ if it is due, not to lack of intelligence, but to lack of courage or determination to use one’s own intelligence without the help of a leader. Sapere aude! Dare to use your own intelligence. This is the battle-cry of The Enlightenment.”



©jonfobes 2005