Tags: secularism


Gotta have faith

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, a young George Michael would rise to fame by telling us why he had faith. The inimitable Immanuel Kant also believed we needed faith in the fruition of our moral efforts. George needed faith to get over heartbreak, Kant needed it to give a foundation to ethics, and it seems like we too need at least a little faith to get on with our lives. Yes, I said it: we need faith.

Faith is useful when it is justified. But there are different ways to justify faith. Let's consider some here.

For one, we can probably agree that faith in a doctor is useful. It is useful because it allows us to heal without needing to understand every detail of the medicine or treatment we are prescribed. Of course, we should have an idea of what the medicine we take does and how the treatment is helpful, but we don't need to know every detail. That's the doctor's job.

Now, this kind of faith is justified because doctors are accredited by the state. Thus, this faith is ultimately a trust in society, which results from living under a working and relatively efficient government. Economists have noted for years how credit loans can only be given in societies that have effective enforcement of legal contracts. In such a society, creditors can trust those they lend money to, because they can trust that the state will recompense for those who don't repay the loans. People living in developing nations cannot always afford to have this faith. In their case, faith in the state sponsored health system would not be justified, for example. That is part of the reason why traditional medicines thrive in such places. That is not to say that traditional medicine works, but in such places, it works just as well! When there are no good options, all options are thereby equally good.

Faith is also justified when believing something is true will help make it true. In other words, in the case of "self-fulfilling prophecies." For example, even if you cannot move fast, merely believing that you can out-run a chasing dog might be justified if it helps you actually escape the dog.

So we must have a certain level of faith in our fellow humans, because otherwise we will live in constant paranoia and fear. We must trust that our neighbours are not scheming to kill us when we're not looking. We must trust that the government is generally concerned for the common good, and that it will preserve that good. We must trust that people will come through on their promises. This faith is not unconditional, but neither is it so easily shaken.

In the case of the chasing dog, we should never give up hope because our faith-in-ourselves will actually help us escape the dog (even if experience has taught us that we probably cannot outrun the dog). In this case, our faith is a wilful "deceiving" of ourselves that we can outrun the dog (whereas, perhaps if we considered experience alone, we might doubt that we could outrun the dog). We're not really deceiving ourselves, of course, since we don't yet know whether we can get away from the dog. Who knows? This might be the one time we outrun it! Notice, however, that the faith here is not justified on the grounds that the dog's bite will hurt (as in Pascal's Wager), but rather because having faith in yourself will actually help you escape! In other contexts, it's called "confidence."

As we seen then, there is room for belief without evidence. This is what William James calls "The Will to Believe." We must employ the will to believe when that belief will actually make it more probable that our beliefs will be true. Consider another case: suppose we suspect that someone may be secretly admiring us. Let's say I think there is a girl that likes me. If I just will to believe that she likes me (i.e., have faith), then I will be nicer and more flirty toward her. As a result, she will be more likely to actually like me than if I had believed she didn't like me or had just stayed agnostic.

But what about faith in God? Don't we need some faith in the spiritual guidance of prophets? I think not. Religious people often speak of "faith" as though it was a panacea for all kinds of dogmatic beliefs, or some kind of excuse for doing things without good reason. This is not the kind of faith I think is useful. Why not? Because this kind of faith cannot be justified, I think.

Unjustified faith is responding, "Faith!" to escape criticism of one's beliefs. Religious faith is almost always of this more lazy variety. The kind of faith I think we need is more like hope than some kind of free pass for holding unwarranted beliefs. When religious people use the word, they more often intend it as a way of avoiding having to give good reasons for their beliefs. That is not the kind of faith I have in mind.

Ultimately, we must have faith in ourselves, our fellow man and woman. That is why I think Kant and George would have been good buddies if they were alive today (George Michael is dead, right?). We need to have this kind of faith to function well and live a happy life among society. This is a secular faith that does not depend on believing anything about supernatural forces. Thus, while we do need faith in humanity, there is no need for faith in spiritual guidance from "on high," for this is not a path to anything useful.