After the scene of the mystical transfiguration, Mark 9 continues with another exorcism scene. This same scene is duplicated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but there are some striking differences. For one things, the authors of Matthew and Luke do not include the father's famous quip, "I believe; help my unbelief." Perhaps an even more obvious omission is the apparent disagreement between authors about why Jesus was able to do something that his disciples were unable to do. The author of Mark has Jesus say that the kind of demon he exorcised from the boy can only be cast out by prayer (even though the story doesn't say anything about Jesus praying in this scene). The scene is truncated a bit in the gospel of Matthew, but when it comes to this question of why the disciples were unable to help the boy, the author takes the opportunity to have Jesus criticize the disciples' lack of faith. It is such an obviously different answer than the original version of the story recorded in the gospel of Mark that some scribe(s) at some point inserted the bit about prayer and fasting into the Matthew version. (In most translations, this inserted verse is omitted and relegated to a footnote). The author of Luke leaves out the question altogether, choosing not to include anything about the disciples' inability to help the epileptic boy, which makes it a bit awkward when the Jesus character bemoans putting up with the "faithless and perverse generation."
Some "perverse" people in the twenty-first century still consider demonic possession to be an actual thing. Considering the vast amount of research and evidence on the subject, as well as our previous critique on the abusive and manipulative practice of exorcism, we can leave that aside. It is reasonable for us to forgive people living so many centuries ago for thinking that some neurological disorders were caused by supernatural forces. Instead, there is a theme that emerges from the versions of this story in the gospels of Mark and Matthew that seems worthy of a bit of attention, namely the father's plea, "I believe; help my unbelief," and the line about a mustard seed of faith being enough to make a mountain move (which is also duplicated in Luke 17:5-6, just not in connection to this exorcism scene).
Faith is a tricky subject. It essentially means believing something that cannot be proven by available data. Faith isn't intelligent, but that doesn't mean it isn't useful. It's important to realize that a statement of faith is necessarily a claim without any empirical foundation. This trips some people up. They want to believe that their statement of faith is absolutely true, that they can prove it to other people, that they can make other people agree with them, even though there is no actual evidence for the claim. If there were ample evidence to demonstrate the validity of a claim, it wouldn't need to be taken on faith.
Faith can work for us or against us. Some people flatly reject cold, hard data in order to maintain a faith-based perspective; other people manage to incorporate the available facts into a fluid faith that grows and changes as their knowledge grows and changes. There are people in the Creationist (or Intelligent Design) camp that fall into the first category, blatantly disagreeing with scientific evidence in favor of the text of an ancient religious document. Others revise their version of faith in a creator so that it remains compatible with scientific conclusions.
It isn't so dangerous when people are just engaging in fruitless arguments about the age of the planet (although it is dangerous to teach children that they can ignore actual facts in order to keep believing what they want to believe). Thoughtless faith can put people in serious danger, though. Some people have faith that their supernatural will protect them from the venom of poisonous snakes, even if they antagonize said snakes. Some people have faith that their supernatural will heal their child, provided they don't give in and seek competent medical assistance. A recent outbreak of measles within a religious community in Texas that opposes vaccination in favor of "faith healing" is just one more senseless piece of evidence that it's dangerous to rely on a supernatural to do the work of a doctor. Faith that refuses to incorporate verifiable evidence is, frankly, abusive and evil.
Blaming faith isn't really helpful. Intelligent faith helps us create meaningful lives. Insightful faith helps us connect with people and build incredible communities. Faith isn't the problem. Human egoism is. Why in the world would a spiritual leader advise his flock not to get vaccinations or professional medical attention? My guess would be either hubris or stupidity. What do you say to the parents of a 4-month-old infant who contracts measles because a spiritual community refused to take appropriate health precautions? Was the faith of the parents faulty? Or perhaps the 4-month-old had faith that was too weak? I try not to be critical of other people's beliefs, but I get angry about children suffering needlessly because of adults with nonsensical religious convictions.
Still, it's the people who are responsible for the consequences of their actions, not whatever they had faith in. The father who brought his son to Jesus' disciples in the story was looking for a solution. He wasn't committed to pursuing some tenacious assertion about the supernatural, he was trying to get help for his son wherever it might be found. By the time Jesus questioned the father's faith, the poor man was probably exasperated from trying to find someone who could do some genuine good for his boy. And yet, he couldn't just confess blind faith. Even Jesus' disciples had failed him. He had hope, but he wasn't an idiot. His son was seriously afflicted. He believed in the possibility of his son's healing enough to get him to a healer. Whatever he lacked in faith, he certainly expressed a willingness to be persuaded.
We can approach faith like that. We can stake our claim and say, "based on available evidence right now, I believe this." When further evidence presents itself, we have the freedom to adapt our statements of faith. By "evidence," I mean falsifiable data, information that can be verified by outside sources, not just another person's opinion or a slippery thread of logic. For instance, believe in God if you like, but don't ignore scientific data about vaccinations or geology in order to cling to a primitive version of that belief in God. We can allow our God to be as vast or impressive or intelligent or insightful or loving as s/he needs to be in order to accommodate the actual knowledge we have about our natural world. We cannot restrict verifiable data based on our personal beliefs. If we try to do so, we wind up with things like measles outbreaks that could easily have been prevented.
So, since our beliefs don't have the power to modify actual scientific evidence, it only makes sense to allow actual scientific evidence to modify our beliefs. This doesn't diminish our faith in any way; it makes our faith more credible. This doesn't weaken our faith; it strengthens our connection to reality, and thus increases the value of our faith. Digging in our heels and refusing to reconcile our beliefs with cold, hard facts is just another way of refusing to grow. When we refuse to grow, we stagnate. Life is not stagnant. If we are going to have faith, doesn't it make sense to have faith that is alive and able to grow?