Friday, May 7, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Ten

Problems With Faith:

One of the more popular definitions of “faith” comes from George Seaton who said “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to”. Of course, the point of disagreement over the ages has tended to be what particular things a person should faithfully believing in. From time to time the details have changed. But if you ask most people the response would suggest some sort of literal belief in God or Gods and some promise of life after death. This is the “consolation of religion” that lightens the burdens of life. Even religions that in essence do not offer these specific consolations have eventually ended-up expressing them in their more popular varients. This is why the Buddhism and Daoism of ordinary people (whose core texts do not really support the concepts of life after death or divine beings), have a rich cosmology complete with Heaven, Hell; and, Saints and Gods who offer divine intervention in exchange for prayer. Many people who believe that they will end up in heaven, or at least be reincarnated, are more sanguine about either their own or their loved one's death, and all the other travails of existence.

There are people who still literally believe this sort of thing, but since the Enlightenment the spread of rationalism and science has managed to dramatically reduce their numbers. This decline has taken two forms. First of all, the number of people who make any pretence of there being a life after death or any supernatural beings who directly intervene in public affairs has declined dramatically----especially amongst our educated classes. And amongst those who still espouse some sort of support for these beliefs, many have progressively pared-away the practical elements of them to the point where it is very hard to understand exactly what they might be.

Some people might naively believe that this sort of faith hasn't really declined because they fear the power that fundamentalists believers exert in various societies---especially the USA and Islamic nations. That influence, however, comes more from the intensity of the beliefs that these people hold, not their numbers. That is to say, it only takes a very few people to make a terrorist attack. Even the influence of fundamentalists in democratic states like the USA and Isreal are dramatically magnified by the moribund state of both democracies. If voter turnout increases in America---as during the election when Barak Obama was elected president---their influence declines dramatically. Similarly if the Isreali electoral system was reformed in order to remove the power of the fringe religious parties, then the influence of fundamentalist Judaism would decline with it. The point that cannot be denied, however, is that these fundamentalists are motivated in ways that go beyond those of secular people, which is exactly the power of “faith” that I am suggesting is missing from the rest of society.

The key point to understand about fundamentalism is that in a sense this “ism” is really a “wasm”. That is to say that fundamentalism can only rise up as a distinct and identifiable movement if there is a dominant alternative worldview for it to rebel against. This particular point of view only arose as a specific social movement because people who think this way feel marginalized by the rest of society. In contrast, the faith that the adherents of this worldview hearken back to from ancient times was not one particular viewpoint that someone chose and reinforced by attending a specific type of church or mosque. It was the air almost everyone breathed from cradle to grave. Indeed, contrary to the quote from George Seaton, the real faith of the past, the one that sustained most people was not in conflict with common sense, it was so pervasive that it was common sense itself. Looked at from this point of view, the rise of militant fundamentalism is not an indication of the strength of this worldview but rather evidence of its weakness. And if one really looks into the history of fundamentalism, she will see that the term itself was coined by a group of late 19th Century evangelical Christians who were explicitly reacting to modernist tendencies in well-established mainstream American Protestant denominations. As the same modernist revolution has spread around the world and undermined the old order in other places, so too has reaction against it.

The decline of this olde-tyme faith does leave us with the question of why it withered away only to be kept alive by a rump of “die harders”?

As I see it, “Faith” has suffered for two reasons that while closely allied are best kept separated.

First of all, science has managed to dramatically change the world we inhabit in that there is less and less of it that is “a mystery”. Our ancestors didn't know what the planets, stars and the sun were. They didn't know why the tides come and go, they didn't know why we have summer and winters, they didn't know why children look like their parents, or why the sky is blue. In fact, they knew precious little about just about everything. If you are in the habit of not knowing much of anything at all, then it is a lot easier to accept that there is a hidden world behind it and a lot more mysterious stuff in that too. We inhabit a much different universe than that. Not only do we know a great many things about the world around us, we have gotten into the habit of thinking of mysteries as something that we just haven't figured out yet and which will probably be “more of the same”. Since the religious faith simply doesn't “mesh” with this new “common sense”, it just seems silly to more and more people.

Even worse, at the same time religious faith became harder and harder to accept because it clashed with our scientific worldview; it also began to clash with our politics. Church institutions are often very hierarchical and unresponsive to the wishes of parishioners. But beyond the sheer “bloody-mindedness” of ancient bureaucracies and archaic leadership structures, there are deeper problems. The very idea that ancient, obscure, often badly-translated texts can answer all the questions of the modern era is something that simply jars against the sensibilities of a body politic that believes that society can and should change; and that our sense of “right and wrong” can change as people learn more about themselves. An issue even more at odds with modern sensibilities is the notion of deities altogether. People have given up on believing that we need to have a king on Earth; why would they accept that we still need one in heaven? Again, the key point isn't whether or not people believe in the existence of God, but rather that the whole thing seems rather silly to modern sensibilities. And once a religion appears ridiculous, it is totally moribund.

I believe that there really is no honest answer to the questions modernity has posed to naive religious faith. It may have offered consolation to our ancestors, but it cannot be accepted now except at the price of walling our minds off from everything the Enlightenment has brought us. And at the end of that road lies not paradise but rather people flying airplanes into buildings. Moreover, it is specifically those people who are most aware of modern scientific discoveries and engaged with civil society who understand the problems we face and therefore suffer the most from environmental despair that are least able to accept the olde tyme faith. The poet W. B. Yeats sums up the situation nicely in the lines “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

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