30 October 2013
Good faith and bad
The current New Republic features an interview with bestselling atheist author and genetic theorist Richard Dawkins. Early, Dawkins tells the interviewer that faith is "the lack of evidence." In context, Dawkins is talking about religious faith, although he concedes that ideology can be described the same way. There are, obviously, other kinds of faith, but I don't know if Dawkins's definition fits them. During the debt-ceiling crisis we heard a lot about the "full faith and credit" in the country's obligation to pay its debts. According to the 14th Amendment, that faith is not to be questioned. Could such a demand be made in the absence of evidence? That's just one example. As I've written before, once we take all contexts into account "faith" becomes synonymous with "trust." Creditors are supposed to trust that the country will pay its debts. Believers believe because they choose to trust the claims of prophets. A distinction can be made between faith subject to verification (recall Reagan's invocation of the Russian motto, "trust, but verify" in his dealings with Gorbachev) and faith that is unfalsifiable, e.g. on the assumption that God will fulfill prophecy whenever he pleases if not in your lifetime. It could be argued that we should reject appeals to unfalsifiable faith, but it can also be argued that an orderly society depends on some degree of trust or faith in order to function smoothly. That is, in an orderly society we should be able to take for granted that things will work a certain way without demanding proof at any given moment -- even though we should not be complacent about apparent breaches of trust. Some writers have described a secular loss of faith in our own time and country -- a loss of faith in hard work receiving a fair reward, for instance. Fewer people seem to trust "the system" today, whether the principal object of mistrust is the government or the corporation or the conspiracy. What we need isn't necessarily "blind" faith, but it is still a form of faith as opposed to the perpetual doubt and suspicion of insecure times. We seem to be in a faithless age right now, and while we may be better off with fewer people believing outlandish metaphysical claims, it's unclear whether we really benefit otherwise when the alternatives to secular faith are fear and paranoia. Our ideal should be a new age of secular faith -- but let's acknowledge one big difference between secular and religious faith. Secular faith may not require constant verification under ideal circumstances, but it definitely has to be earned in the first place. To restore faith, someone has to do more than say, "Believe me!" Unfortunately, saying "Believe me!" is how people get elected, so don't get your hopes up unless you can think of another way of earning people's faith.