A lying politician yearns for a “culture of faith.” He might claim he’s referring to an individual’s deeply personal religious faith, with its inspiration and consolation, but he clearly uses the term in a different sense. Faith-with-a-capital-F has become a weapon of mass seduction, pandering to our contemporary mix of conservative religion and reactionary politics in order to advance a cynical legislative agenda.
We sometimes err in discussing (religious) faith as though it were monolithic, susceptible to a uniform characterization.
Tain’t always so. To cite one representative example, “Christianity” is a heterogeneous, fragmented, contentious, and highly variable collection of religions that share some elements with other religions and other Christian sects.
Christians can’t agree among themselves, for instance, whether doing good requires opposing capital punishment, or supporting it; whether Jesus was a god, or just a gifted human teacher. Devotees of some faiths, Christianity among them, feel it’s their duty to both aggressively defend their beliefs and to compel others to adhere to their rules.
Some of the major religions are mutually exclusive — that is, they can’t all be right. Yet every culture that harbors a major religious faith has a system of morals, often overlapping with Christian ones. At least one of these cultures, then, has developed a complex morality it attributes to a god who doesn’t exist, who could not have provided the impetus or the details for moral development. If the god Shamash didn’t construct Hammurabi’s groundbreaking Code for him like he claimed, who did?
Without regard for some deity’s rewards or damnations, humans can embrace good, manifesting as compassion, generosity, self-sacrifice, love, service, forgiveness, curiosity, honesty, trustworthiness; they can repudiate theft, lying, murder, fraud, neglect, and cruelty.
These are indeed some of the universal human virtues and vices, identified in various forms by virtually every culture we know. All religions exploit them, but none of the religions invented them.
The faithful could feed the hungry and house the homeless, and sometimes do - with strings attached. But what if every mosque were a school or a library, every ornate cathedral a hospital?
When heretics are burned, wars are waged for supremacy among the fretful faithful themselves, medical research is banned, gay people denied basic rights enjoyed by straights, modern biology and geology derided, and the stewardly use of natural resources demonized, all due primarily to constituencies scattered along the Christian-faith spectrum, being good because of Faith is far from assured.
If a person doesn’t “have faith” in one of the usual gods, he/she is still free to believe anything else that evidence supports. Atheists and agnostics are positioned all over the political spectrum (although they are underrepresented in prison populations). That’s why many choose not to characterize their worldview in terms of what they don’t believe. If I don’t believe in ghosts, does that make me an a-spookist?
If one asserts there is a magnificent something outside our species that somehow gifted us with faith-based morality in its many and diverse forms, the burden of proof is on the claimant. Does the thing interact with the physical world, with us, and if so, how does a creature from “beyond time and space” actually manipulate matter and energy? Why can’t we detect it when it does? Can it appear before a congressional committee to defend or confirm its mandates, or give a sworn deposition in a lawsuit? Or must our courts and legislatures automatically default to selected followers’ interpretations?
How does one decide which faith to endorse? Do we survey all accessible faiths in sufficient detail to compare strengths and weaknesses, then pick the best? What criteria do we use to determine what “best” even means?
Or do we usually adopt a faith because influential people in our culture or family have told us it’s true since we were little? The strongest predictor of a person’s faith is simply the religion of his parents. Shouldn’t that provenance be a little worrisome? Forget intellectual integrity; just eat what your parents serve, swallow whatever comes along first. Subsequent everyday experiences can always be interpreted to render them consistent with any preferred Party Line.
Being “godly” — pick a god, any god — doesn’t make one moral, nor does being nongodly make one immoral.
Don’t mistake (performance-based) confidence for (faith-based) certainty. A preponderance of evidence can serve as a reasonable basis for confidence, but even a vast and consistent body of evidence can’t establish absolute certainty — the next datum to come along might overturn the whole applecart.
That is one way in which science differs from religion. Robust working hypotheses can be developed from systematically collected evidence, sufficient to provide a foundation for definitive action and further inquiry. However, any resulting theory is ultimately provisional, requiring only compelling evidence to discard cherished dictums. It happens often.
In the views of many faithful, attendant dogma cannot conceivably be disproved, and any “evidence” purported to refute dogma can be safely dismissed out of hand. Truth is “revealed” in a supernatural lecture series (albeit often in ambiguous terms), not discovered by study of the observable world.
The Trump administration has renounced — indeed scorned — science when hard evidence contradicts self-serving political doctrines. In today’s culture of willful ignorance, trashing science can be an effective marketing tool, but replacing fact with faith is folly. Except for the pandering politician.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.