To have faith, or not to have faith. This is a big question.
I was pleased to see a thoughtful comment interchange between Spence Tepper and Appreciative Reader on a recent post of mine, "The most amazing thing about religions is that everybody believes they're right."
Here's how Spence Tepper views faith: quite positively.
And here's how Appreciative Reader views faith: mostly negatively.
Hello, Spence. I too have come across that particular argument IRL [In Real Life].
That faith is an end in itself, and that faith in the face of situations where faith appears insupportable and fantastic, is an even greater virtue than when faith is ‘easy’. Which, when you stop a minute to think about it, is a fascinating piece of sophistry (or rationalization, depending on who is making the argument, the exploiter or the exploited, the priest or the “flock”).
I realize that you made that point in a specific context, one particular example of how one does one’s best to bear with situations and circumstances that appear to be unbearable. Specifically, the death of one’s child. And perhaps no one who has not actually experienced that is really qualified to speak of it! I myself haven’t, so perhaps I amn’t qualified either, but still, to complete what I was saying:
You know, it occurs to me that to use faith to tide over such difficult times is exactly akin to using drink or even stronger narcotics to get over some difficult situation. Using narcotics works in the short run, no doubt about it. And when nothing else seems to work, using narcotics may seem like a good idea. Especially when the use of narcotics is already accepted by society.
(Here’s what I meant to convey by that last sentence: When someone is faced with some tragedy, we would probably still not support their use of hard drugs in order to cope, because the use of such drugs is not sanctioned by our society ; however, since the use of one particular narcotic, alcohol, happens to be freely accepted by our society, therefore we would probably ‘understand’ if someone who’s received difficult news turned to hard drink in order to cope.)
Thus, perhaps, with faith?
(That is, perhaps we’re pre-programmed to look at conventional faith with a benign eye, much as we do with alcohol, simply because faith in established religions is so ubiquitous, so “accepted”? We may not have been as supportive if they had turned to, say, a faith healer who took their money to perform rituals under a full moon, while assuring them that their child would be benefited and even happy in some other world as a result, or pretended to speak with their dead child’s soul in exchange for money paid, yet the solace offered and received might have been just as real, given faith.)
Using faith (faith in things that don’t exist) in order to cope, which is what you’re referring to, appears to me exactly similar to using narcotics.
Sure, it works in the short run. But, just like narcotics, it soon becomes the proverbial monkey on one’s back. For one thing, it is addictive. For another, it eventually shows negative effects that cumulatively end up far exceeding the effects of the original ill that one believed it would help assuage. Of course, when something truly horrific, like losing one’s child, befalls someone, then if they decide to turn to hard drink or to hard drugs in order to cope, perhaps we have no right to judge them.
(Not that one is ever really justified in presuming to “judge” someone else, ever, but you know what I mean.)
And who knows, perhaps some strong-willed individual may indeed end up using narcotics wisely, using it to dull the edge of their anguish in the face of unspeakable tragedy, and then after a while weaning themselves off it. If used thus, one can hardly fault them. But how many are actually that ‘wise’, and how many are able to use their particular poison (drink, or narcotics, or faith) as judiciously?
(And also: if someone were indeed that strong-willed and wise and self-controlled, might they not perhaps be able to try to cope with their misfortune without the use of narcotics in the first place?)
I realize even as I type this, now, that I’m not saying anything at all new. Still, the fact that this equating of religious faith with opiates is a cliché fully a century old, does not take away from the aptness of the comparison. Faith and religion are exactly like opiates and narcotics. Like narcotics, they do soothe and offer comfort, and that comfort may seem welcome when times are trying. But they carry their own cost. Cost to the individual, as well as cost to society as a whole.
From your many comments on this site, I do know your own personal ideas about faith (as it applies to yourself). You use faith as an instrument to aid you to “go inside” and explore, yourself, what there is to explore. I am in full agreement with that approach. That isn’t blind faith, that is only conditional trust, in fact not even that, it is merely, well, using a crutch in order to see if the crutch does help one walk better, carefully and gingerly at first, and with greater confidence as you find, first-hand, that the crutch does help to hold you up.
(And I suppose that, if you found from your personal first-hand subjective experiments that the crutch did not in fact hold you up, you’d then be open to giving it up.)
I wouldn’t argue with that kind of a watered-down version of faith (as long as that faith did not lead you to do things that are, in themselves, objectionable). As you’ve often pointed out on this site, that kind of t hing is very similar to the methods of science. But I’d say that your kind of faith is very very rare : perhaps one in a thousand … no, one in ten thousand … not even that, probably an even smaller fraction of those who have faith, actually see faith in that light, the way you see it.
For most others (including, probably, the Pentecostal Christians in your particular example, so bravely battling their horrific situation), faith equals blind faith, and is no better than some deadly narcotic that momentarily dulls the pain but can -- and often does -- end up consuming their whole life.
(Sorry, that turned out to be a very long-winded comment. Thing is, you’d made an excellent point, and my first reaction was to agree with what you’d said, about faith being ‘acceptable’ in the particular situation you spoke of. But then I thought I could see what appeared to me to be the flaw in your reasoning. Not that I’d ever presume to judge someone who tried to cope with the loss of their child in whatever way they saw fit, with drink or drugs or faith, but I’m afraid this does not really work as an argument in favor of faith per se. And I wanted to present my thoughts here, for what they’re worth, without sacrificing nuance for brevity.)
Posted by: Appreciative Reader
Hi Appreciative Reader!
Great comments. Thank you for posting a moment of rational thought here.
I suggest that everyone, Atheist, blind adherent, "Faithful", or Mystic, has a built in psychological tendency to believe they are generally right.
Who doesn't think they are right?
And if we are wrong, we want to get to the right, right away. Because error costs us personally, and others around us.
I work in organizational change, and the most difficult enemy to helping people see that there is indeed error or waste, is the status quo. The daily habits of people reinforce their entire system of belief, and disbelief, whatever that is.
A few very intelligent people can look at data showing a problem and respond constructively.
For most, the data has to be built and rebuilt. And if they can convince their collegues not to look at it, or if they do, to say "well, the timing isn't right."...any number of excuses, they won't make progress.
If this is how the world responds to hard data, obviously, the chances for "belief" are nearly non-existent.
People are often driven to a system of belief by great hardship, or by pure desire to do or be something other than what they are. They are pushed internally into it.
And that makes for an audience ripe for exploitation.
But if we are built for some system of belief, and if, in some cases, like Meditation, it is clinically good for so many, then perhaps system of belief, system of faith isn't wrong at all. It just depends on what you choose to believe, what you choose to hold faith in.
A town of Pentacostal Christians I knew for many years held that faith was more important than evidence. Faith was a sign of character. Faith in the midst of doubt.
When a child died in a tragic auto accident, the desire to question "why" or to claim the world was not worth living in, arbitrary and cruel, to stop functioning, stop living is strong. The capacity to have faith that somehow life was worth continuing, that we should all be kind to one another and move forward, that there was a greater power watching over even the child who died, their soul, were powerful psychological tools that kept these people moving forward in difficult, horrific circumstances.
That was when I stopped criticizing them for being ignorant.