Sunday, August 20, 2006

Faith In A Godless World

Say the word faith and what usually comes to mind is God, or something relating to deity. But faith doesn’t just deal with religion in this world of ours. It deals with everything and everybody. I take it on faith that my foot will hit the floor when I get out of bed in the morning. I take it on faith that my bank isn’t robbing me blind. I take it on faith that my wife is, well, faithful. And that’s a lot of trust, if you think about it. Let’s take them in reverse order, and examine them a bit.

My wife is a wonderful human being, and without her I wouldn’t be half the man I am. But I work long hours at odd times. It would be easy enough for her to get a little side action without me ever knowing about it. But even if I was a nine-to-five kind of guy, it still wouldn’t be that hard.

However, I trust her. I have faith that she would leave me before cheating on me. I have faith that she would talk to me about a problem before it got to the point of damaging our marriage. I have her. And that’s something every marriage should have: mutual trust that grows out of self-knowledge and knowledge of your spouse. I have to trust my wife, but I also have to trust myself, and my own understanding of her.

What I don’t need is faith in a 3000 year old set of tribal laws that strictly determines who I can love and who I can’t. Perhaps those rules were necessary when a lion could eat you at a moment’s notice. Maybe strict rules needed to be in place to ensure the safety, security and, above all, the stability of the tribe. After all, in a tribal society, protection meant a strong male to look after you. If two men struck up a relationship, that was two women who were out of luck. Two women together were, in the eyes of tribal societies, essentially helpless. But we’re not tribal anymore. Women don't need men to take care of them anymore, and haven't for quite some time. The industrial revolution, and the wealth it brought about, saw to that.

The greatest thing about our modern world is its wealth. As strange as it may seem, a cold Coca-Cola is more than enough guarantee of our safety and security. As long as we can get a cold Coke, we’re not in much danger of being eaten by lions. So, our safety and security are established without ever needing to resort to strict tribal rules. We have new rules that take their place. Rules like “Pay the electric bill on time.”

But cold Coke doesn’t guarantee our society’s stability. No, what does that these days is two-fold: its sheer size and its institutions. There are so many people in the Western world that we can easily accommodate just about any kind of relationship. Any kind of grouping. Any kind of six-lobed, 12-armed, who’s-sleeping-where-tonight kind of arrangement. Or a good old-fashioned couple, snuggling in their flannels on a cool autumn evening, be they gay, straight or what-have-you. It’s a bell curve, and with the number of people we’re talking about, you have to be a serious outlier before you run out of people who share your proclivities.

But as I said, the other thing that ensures stability is our institutions. In other words, I have faith that my bank isn’t robbing me blind. Oh, I know they’re taking their cut, and it’s a significant cut, but that’s just the price of doing business. When it comes right down to it, in a capitalist society, a lot of our institutions are going to be money-making concerns. A bank has to make a buck, too. So, why do I trust my bank? Simple, I don’t.

Or rather, I only trust them to handle my money ethically. I trust other institutions, like the police to ensure that ethical treatment. I have faith in the police because I know some cops, and they’re good people who try to do a good job. Mostly. But institutions are like society in miniature. They have rules of behavior, populations that grow and shrink accordingly to various pressures, and so on and so forth. And that’s because these institutions, banks and police, town councils and large corporations, are made up of the members of the society they are embedded in.

So, if I trust society as a whole, then I trust its institutions. If I lose faith in society, then I lose faith in its institutions. Every time you find a corrupt policeman or an overly greedy businessman, it represents a failure on society’s part to rein him in, to put the brakes on a stupid rule-breaker that doesn’t deserve the responsibility that’s been bestowed on him. So, it’s a feedback loop. Good institutions breed a better society, but good society breeds good institutions. Bolster one and you bolster the other. Tear one down and you ultimately rip out the roots of the other.

And yes, this applies to local churches and other religious organizations, too. Churches serve more social and psychological functions than most people realize. I’m not saying that they have to be the ones to serve those functions, but the truth of the matter is that they do, for many. They just package the feelings of belonging, social circles and dating opportunities in a large, foggy wrapping of woo. It’s a free-market world out there. You want churches gone? Find a way to fulfill the needs they fulfill faster, cheaper or with better quality. Camp Quest is a wonderful example of this. I trust you can think of others.

But trust doesn’t just apply to people, institutions and societies as a whole. Trust also applies to knowledge. And ultimately, that means you have to trust yourself. I believe that when I crawl out of bed in the morning, or afternoon, or evening, I’m going to put some appendage on the floor, and it’s going to stay there. In other words, I trust that gravity will continue to work reliably for a long while to come. I trust a lot of my knowledge about nature. Things like “The sun will come out tomorrow” and “Man and squid evolved from a common ancestor.”

Those things are pretty solidly entrenched in my “Correct” category. My belief in the sun’s regularity comes from a lifetime of observation. In other words, I trust my own experience. My belief in evolution is a bit trickier, though, at least on the surface. I trust Science. I trust the scientific method. I have faith in the bulk of scientists who are out there expanding human knowledge, because I have faith that they’re doing it for the right reasons: fortune and glory. Oh, and the sheer joy of learning something new.

Of course, the godridden like to point to this faith and compare science to religion. And my typical response to that is, “Bushwah!” I have faith in science for the same reason I have faith in my wife and my bank. I understand it, at least to a point. And just like my wife and my bank, I don’t know every detail, every jot and tittle. I wasn’t there for my best girl’s third birthday. I don’t know if she had a pony at her party. I don’t even know if she had a party. I don’t know the name of the manager of my bank branch. I don’t know if it’s a man or woman, if they’re married, single, gay or straight. And most importantly, I don’t need to know those things. Although it would be nice to know if there are any ponies involved. I like ponies.

But no, I don’t need to know the intricate details of how my wife’s mind works. I just need to know enough about her to trust her. I don’t need to know the background information of every teller that’s ever worked in my bank. I just need to know enough about how banks work to have faith in the system. And I don’t have to learn the sum total of human knowledge just to say that science, unlike deity worship of any kind, works consistently and, yes, faithfully, to better mankind and expand our understanding of the world we live in. I also have faith that science, unlike mainstream American religion, will catch its fakers and flim-flam artists and expose them for the frauds that they are.

I have faith in science because I’m an active participant, in a small way, in the process of science itself. Every godless child, woman and man is a participant, because one of the goals of the godless is to understand the world we live in, to expand our knowledge of the universe and the human heart, to reject the inscrutable and ineffable in favor of something solid. Something definite. Something we can have true faith in.

I trust you agree.

Other entries in the Godless World series: Purpose and Reason, Flexibility and Loss


Blogger King Aardvark said...

Ah, the old "religious faith vs. faith which is more like trust" thing. I've had one pastor use that on me in the past. His example was a chair holding me up, though.

Argumentatively, it's a simple bait and switch: use two different nuances of the same word to make scientific (or experiential) trust seem no more founded in reality than wholly irrational religious faith.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Coralius said...

Well, my attempt was the exact opposite, really. I was trying to show how the word faith has been hijacked by the religious, by showing a few real-world examples.

Negotiating "in good faith" means you're negotiating in a trustworthy manner, and not just stalling, or fishing for information, for example.

Faith isn't a dirty word, but it's not a religious word, either. At least, not necessarily.

1:59 PM  

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Nor the wind for the moon, to be cool.

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