Recently I listened to a woman who makes soap talk about the process and demonstrate it. What I learned was that she had only a rudimentary understanding of the actual chemistry, and had some almost religious beliefs about the addition of aromatic materials to the product. She was opposed to essential oils and in favor of fragrance soaps. She thought that essential oils could be dangerous. In the next few days I talked with a woman whose daughter sells essential oils. My friend's belief in the value of essential oils is likewise rooted in what she believe about their value.
Also, in the last few days I attended a Humanist group's discussion of Elaine Pagels’ new book, “Why Religion”. Some humanists could entertain the notion that religion might play some valuable role in understanding and dealing with the universe, while others felt that there is no role for religion anywhere. Period.
Elaine Pagels has written a number of books, and one, The Gnostic Gospels, interested me. I found an excerpt from that book online and discovered that when I read that book years ago I missed a key point; a point that explains the degree of hatred that the priestly sect of Christianity had for Gnosticism.
During our discussion of Why Religion there was a long discussion of Faith and Belief, and how and whether they are different.
Those are the background discussions that led me to this little bit of exploration.
One retired neuroscientist regards Faith and Belief thusly. Every day of your life the sun has come up. Furthermore, you know that that has been happening for millions of years. The chance that the sun won’t come up is there, but it would require some rare, cataclysmic, natural event in order for that to happen. So you have belief that the sun will come up based on evidence; a great deal of evidence.
If you believe a supernatural being makes the sun come up every morning, and that being might stop that from happening on a whim, that is an understanding without basis in reality, and that belief is based on faith.
Another felt that belief was externally directed and faith internally derived, as in, “I have faith in myself and my ability to do that.”
The New Testament isn’t much help: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). I, personally, find that statement completely opaque.
A website that deals with ethics defines belief as knowledge supported by evidence; that is, it is knowledge that can be backed up by testing. Faith is defined as knowledge ‘verified’ by faith.. I did not misquote. They used a circular definition. Faith is unverified and unverifiable knowledge.
What can we say about any of the conversations I was part of?
First, saponification, the process of making soap, is a well understood chemical process. A long chain fatty acid is exposed to an aqueous solution of sodium or potassium hydroxide (NaOH, KOH). This converts the mixture to a sodium or potassium salt of a fatty acid ester.
("R" is short hand for a carbon chain of any determined length)
The Na+ is loosely associated with the O- in the
Carboxylate molecule producing "soap"
The reason soaps work is that the long chain molecule is water soluble on one end and fat soluble on the other. They literally make oil and water mix.
Essential oils are also known as volatile oils because they tend to vaporize. They are sometimes referred to as an oil of the plant they come from as in, “oil of cloves”. Essential oils may be irritating to the skin as well. An entire mythology has grown up around the benefits, real and imagined, of essential oils. The woman whose daughter sells them wears a small dispenser around her neck with an essential oil vaporizing out of it. At the very least many are very pleasant to the nose. It is also held that they have health benefits as aromatherapy.
A review of eighteen studies looking at physiological effects and effects on mood from aromatherapy revealed that it actually works. There were some methodological issues with some of the studies, and there were “mediating variables of culture, experience, sex differences, and personality”, but the conclusion was affirmative.
In one study that looked at anxiety scores prior to aromatherapy massage the scores dropped from about 41 to 34 following aromatherapy massage, however, the drop was essentially the same for massage alone suggesting that it was the massage that relieved the anxiety. On the other hand, changes in numbers of white blood cells changed with aromatherapy massage, but not by massage alone, taken as an indication of immunological benefit of aromatherapy.
Fragrance oils are synthetically produced and are typically used in scenting candles rather than soap because they are very strong and may contain contaminants from the synthetic process. However, commercial soap uses fragrance oils because they are cheaper, and they do not evaporate from soap or candles at the rate that essential oils do.
So, it turns out the advocates of essential oils may be right, but they think they are right, not from evidence, but because they believe anything natural is better than anything that is “chemical”.
When I went back to Elaine Pagels’ “The Gnostic Gospels” I picked up on something that I had missed years ago. The Gnostics were condemned as heretics by the “priestly” group of early Christians. The scrolls found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt were Gnostic texts that in some cases were copies of the texts that were canonized in the New Testament. Others, such as the Gospel of Thomas, were not. The “heresy” lay in the belief, asserted repeatedly, that followers of Jesus should examine themselves because by understanding themselves completely, they would know the divine. In other words they believed that the divine lay in them. The Priestly Sect held that the Divine was something wholly “other”, completely unlike humans.
Only intermediaries could tell ordinary mortals about the divine in the priestly view. The hierarchical group won out. Not only did they win out; they persecuted anyone who held another view.
Neither group relied on evidence based knowledge. In fact, the words for that kind of knowledge are different in Greek from knowledge gained through faith: gnosis. The various words for knowledge; gnosis, episteme, techne, and phronesis are difficult to translate because they had different meanings in ancient times, and because they had multiple connotations depending on usage.
The knowledge of soap making would be techne; a knowledge related to making or doing and sometimes defined as craft, or the knowledge of craft.
My friend, then, who thought that faith was inward-looking, was right in the Gnostic view of knowing the divine. When I told him the Gnostic view of self-knowledge leading one to an understanding of the divined he remarked that this is a very Buddhist view of the divine. He worked for years with an NGO in Tibet and knows a little about how Buddhism is practiced and understood. He did not mean faith in that way, however, he was using it to describe his experience with himself and his confidence that he could accomplish something. He was using faith to mean belief.
The Apostle Paul’s statement “faith is the substance of things hoped for” takes on a very Zen quality when faith is viewed as separate from belief.