What is Faith?
Faith is something one “believes in”. It serves a major evolutionary purpose and has been an essential part of human nature since time immemorial. When shared by members of a group, faith strongly supports that group’s internal cohesion. It strengthens the group’s capacity to to cope with the challenges of a hostile environment. It adds to the group’s capacity to compete successfully with other groups animated by different faiths.
There are many demonstrations in the historical record of how this principle has worked in practice. Look, for example, at the efflorescence of human society in the Middle East in the several centuries after the beginning of Islam. Islam’s sytem of beliefs provided a unifying force that permitted large numbers of converts to work together to accomplish historical achievements that would not have happened if Islam had never begun. Faith, when shared by large numbers of people, turns a group of aimless, discontented individuals into a purposeful, powerful force.
From the outside, as a cynical observer might see it, faith is an undertaking to suspend one’s critical faculties as far as certain specified basic propositions are concerned; it is a kind of voluntary, self-imposed frontal lobotomy. If you are a good Catholic and “believe in” the notion of the Trinity, you are not going to let yourself dwell on the inherent irrationality of Godhead being divided into not one or four or four hundred pieces, but just exactly and precisely three. If you are a good Muslim you will regard every last word in the Koran as issuing straight from Allah, with Mohammed as the vehicle through which the message was transmitted. You are not going to sit around and let some infidel draw you into a rational discussion of bits and pieces of the Koran, especially when your interlocutor is trying to rub your nose in that document’s many inconsistencies, irrationalities, and anachronisms. And so forth. The true believer will never let himself admit, even to himself, that he has been beaten in an argument about the propositions he believes in. He is stubborn to the point of total irrationality. There really is no point in trying to talk him out of his beliefs, because all you are likely to get from the effort is a punch in the nose.
From the inside, when you have faith you have moorings, direction, purpose that other people, the ones who do not have faith, lack. If you believe in nothing, you question everything, and where are you? You are like a ship adrift, without a destination. You have a crew but no captain, no pilot, no compass, no charts. You may end up in different waters than where you began, but to what purpose? What was the voyage for? The matter of faith changes all that. You know where you are going. If you die before you get there, at least you were going in the right direction–and your faith may give you the assurance that somehow, the voyage isn’t over, you’ll continue in some other form. Faith lends meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence. It makes the whole matter of life worth while.
Those of us who are getting a little long in the tooth can remember back to an earlier part of the twentieth century, when faith was much more common than it is now. The epoch that I have personally experienced has been extraordinary and probably unique in human history, in terms of the proliferation of rational thinking at the expense of faith. And the material rewards have been enormous: during my lifetime the amount we have learned about our own selves and our physical environment, and the degree of control we have gained over both, has exceeded everything we had learned earlier about either, in the ten thousand generations of humans that lived before I was born.
But this simply demonstrates the superior functionality of modern scientific thinking over religious doctrines that originated in the distant past, when people simply didn’t know very much about the world they lived in. It does not mean that humans have outgrown their need to believe in something, to accept as given certain basic axioms. People still need that sense of rootedness and direction and purpose. Where are they to find it? Is it possible to have faith without being religious in the conventional, old-fashioned sense? Can we find or define something in which we have faith, which is consistent with humanity’s present condition, and does not stand in the way of further progress? Can we expect to make further progress without such faith?
Faith vs. Religion:
All religion is based on faith, but not all faith needs to be religious, at least in the sense of requiring adherence to a recognized religious persuasion.
Religion teaches one to be altruistic, but traditionally that spirit of altruism has applied primarily to members of one’s own group. All too often, true believers have chosen to show their enthusiasm for their chosen faith by fighting other groups. Our tolerance for this kind of religious zeal is diminishing. Behavior that was admired when the Crusaders went off to fight the infidels and recover the Holy Land is now regarded with suspicion to say the least.
We are entering a period when the panhumanist view is increasingly becoming the preferred view of thoughtful and well-informed people all over the world. Most of us look at sectarian killing in Lebanon, Bosnia, or Bombay, for example, with the same sense of “this is very wrong” that we have for similar killings in places like Burundi that arise from ethnic or linguistic differences rather than religious ones. All this mayhem is wrong, we conclude, even when some of the killers are motivated to a large degree by their faith in the Almighty as their particular group defines it. A terrorist is still a terrorist, even when he invokes God to justify his actions.
The Golden Rule is basically a humanist precept. It resides comfortably at the heart of the panhumanist perception; anywhere else, inside any old-fashioned belief in a God that favors some group over others, it is an alien element, troubling the true believer with contradictions between tribal suspicion of outsiders, and the gnawing thought that maybe that outsider is a human being too. Like the sand in a pearl-bearing oyster, such a doubt can irritate the ranks of the faithful into gradually, over many generations perhaps, expanding the ambit of their faith in a pan-humanist direction, to include all humanity.
Now that humanism is becoming ever more widely accepted, the Golden Rule is finally coming of age. And no proper humanist need feel bothered when asked whether he believes in God. Nor need he feel at all belligerent or defensive. He can simply say, “Yes, I believe in humanity, which is the modern equivalent”.
The Limits of Faith:
As a humanist, I am skeptical about the old-fashioned faiths that require uncritical acceptance of the doctrines and dogmas of the major established religions. I have a lot of sympathy for the hard-nosed insistence of some modern humanists, like Richard Dawkins, that nothing be accepted “on faith”, that before you accept any idea you should turn it inside out, look it over very carefully, and verify it through the scientific method.
I agree with Dawkins that “faith…is a state of mind that leads people to believe something–it doesn’t matter what–in the total absence of supporting evidence.” And most of the time I agree with him that “…it is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness”.
But again, as a humanist, I insist that there needs to be some bedrock point of departure, some base point, if we are to establish direction and purpose to our lives. And accepting this has to be a matter of faith. You cannot go back and back indefinitely, asking “why” to every preceding answer like a curious but annoying child. You have to stop somewhere. For me the base point is that all humanity is our home team; I am a pan-humanist as a matter of faith.
Some of my philosophically inclined pen-pals on the e-mail network were arguing recently about whether there was a God. A couple of them were using Aristotelian logic and employing the trick holds, the verbal hammerlocks and leg throws that philosophers have been deploying in their verbal chess games ever since the time of Aristotle and probably long before that. A young friend of mine, who has made philosophy his career, came up with a modern answer that I think puts the old argument in a useful perspective: “…both theism and atheism rest on some kind of faith…because everything we believe rests on some kind of faith…the question is not ‘what can I show’ but ‘how will I live?’…because we are existing particular human beings and not abstract theoretical entities!”
As an “existing particular human being” I accept the need for some kind of faith, but I want as little as possible. (That is “how I want to live”). I will follow Dawkins’ ascetic rationality as far as I can, before succumbing to the corporal limitations of my essential humanity and defining those bedrock assumptions I am willing to take on faith. As with some computer games, I arrive on the scene facing a blank map of my universe. I spend my life traveling in as many parts of that universe as possible, conducting my explorations rationally and even, when possible, scientifically, to make sure I illuminate them as accurately as possible. Thus I do away with the darkness wherever I go; the islands and seas and continents are revealed, one by one. The longer I live and explore the greater the revealed area. Meanwhile the areas that are still dark recede. But they never go away entirely, I can never see the totality. I have to assume certain things about those dark areas that persist outside the range of my experience. I draw on what I have learned, so that I can make these assumptions as plausible and credible as I can, aiming to maximize the likelihood that they will prove accurate. The more I learn the better I become at this kind of probability assessment. But I seldom can be totally certain of anything, and I never can be even reasonably certain of everything.
My explorations are partly personal and involve my direct experience with the world around me. These are the best kind. But I also rely on the explorations of others, otherwise I wouldn’t get very far. Throughout my life I have been adding not only to my store of vicariously acquired knowledge, but to my skill at separating data that has been acquired through verifiable means from that which has not. It is all part of the overarching process of developing a comprehensive world view that adds to the functionality of my group.
And what is my group? On the basis of everything I have learned in my life, I will declare that my group is humanity. I say this as a matter of faith, but I have not made that leap of faith carelessly, or simply because I was told to by some external authority. I worked it out for myself. If you can think of a better place to establish your base point, one that suits you better, take it.
Faith in humanity is not a bad place to drop your anchor in this day and age. Most of the essays I have written in the last several years support this assertion, and I shall not try to repeat the arguments here. Basically, faith in humanity as a whole is the starting point for the progressive humanist world view.