August 18, 2008

Faith as a Virtue

Blind faith
The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not 'cowards,' as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith - perfect faith, as it turns out - and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.
- Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason  

Faith, in the religious sense of the word, refers to maintaining belief in something for which there is insufficient evidence to justify holding the belief. Were we to have sufficient evidence to support the belief, there would be no need for faith. In fact, there would not be room for faith to be relevant in such a scenario. But when we want to believe something for reasons other than because the evidence warrants our doing so, faith enters the equation. And yet, none of this explains why faith is commonly regarded as a virtue, a form of strength, and something for which individuals are praised. In this series, I'd like to explore the "virtuous" nature of faith and see how we nonbelievers can better understand it.

The Unlikely Hero

Doing something which others regard as easy seldom brings admiration, respect, or reward. If I were to tell you that I, as a reasonably intelligent and physically able adult, can tie my own shoes, it is unlikely that you would be too impressed. You might be somewhat more impressed if I told you that I was a young child. But you'd likely be far more impressed if I told you that I had been raised by wolves until age 4 and had sustained serious brain damage, leading many doctors to abandon hope that I would survive at all.

We tend to reserve our deepest admiration for those who have overcome the odds to accomplish great things. You have all read the books, seen the movies, and watched the TV shows depicting underdogs triumphing in this way. This is ingrained in our collective consciousness. The unlikely hero is the one from whom nobody expects success. He or she must overcome the challenges and limitations to succeed in spite of the overwhelming odds against him or her. We like to identify with the unlikely hero. We are thrilled when David beats Goliath, finding it far more appealing than the other way around.

Overcoming Obstacles Through Faith

There is an important and extremely common variant on the theme of the unlikely hero which involves religious faith. It is so common as to be cliche in entertainment media. The hero always begins as a skeptic. Sometimes the hero is some sort of scientist, usually depicted as being overly cold, analytic, and rigid in his or her thinking. But most of the time the hero is one who walked away from religion after a traumatic experience leading to a loss of faith. That's not to say that the hero is necessarily presented as an atheist. After all, the producers of such programing probably want the audience to be able to relate to their hero rather than despise him or her. The arc of the story involves exposing the hero to increasing trials and insurmountable obstacles. At the darkest hour when things appear their bleakest, the hero finds religion, adopts or rediscovers faith, and ultimately triumphs.

Undoubtedly, some of these tales are intentionally designed to push religious belief. However, this is not the only reason they are popular. They tap into our shared obsession with the unlikely hero and offer a more cerebral alternative to the physically challenged hero. We can all relate because we have all had transformative experiences through learning, changing our minds, being exposed to new experiences, etc. Faith fits this bill perfectly because it is commonly regarded as the most transformative sort of belief one can have.

How Faith Became Virtuous

From a evolutionary-developmental perspective, it makes sense that faith would be encouraged. In many ways, unwavering trust of the primary caregiver is adaptive for young children. This sort of faith (i.e., complete trust on the caregiver regardless of whether it is warranted) helps to create a bond and facilitates survival.

As we move beyond the parent-child bond, we see religious belief conferring many benefits early in human history. It provided a means of grouping beyond the family structure, the appearance of shared morality, comfort, explanations for what are now recognized (at least by the reality-based community) as natural phenomena.

Raising children in early faith traditions was likely accomplished through indoctrination rather than education. We see this even today in fundamentalist communities. Asking questions was discouraged, as faith was not to be challenged. Those who maintained steady faith in the face of challenges were rewarded and admired. They became teaching models, and the lesson grew to include the notion that true faith requires challenge and perseverance.

As we enter the modern era, we find that faith is inextricably associated with challenge, hardship, and despair. We hear about the "trials and tribulations" of the faithful, and the message is quite clear: faith is difficult.

But is faith really that difficult for those subjected to religious indoctrination? And why is faith still considered a virtue today when it seems to provide so little of value in our modern world? These are some of the questions I will address in the second part of this series.