The paradox of faith

The merriness of the Christmas season contrasts sharply with the anger of several prominent atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who attack the belief in God in their recent bestsellers. Is faith a good thing? Psychology Prof. Jonathan Haidt, himself an atheist, observes that “religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.”

In Haidt’s view, secular liberals tend to believe in a “contractual” or “individual rights” model of morality, where the highest end is the fair and mutual satisfaction of autonomous individuals. In contrast, religious conservatives tend to subordinate individuals to the group and to a higher or sacred good. They have a pessimistic view of human nature and freedom. For example, they are more likely to believe that without authority, kids will grow into “shallow, self-centered, undisciplined pleasure seekers.” (And they are right.)

Happiness, or at least the sanguine hope of it, goes together with the belief and devotion to a higher and larger whole, and with some greater acceptance of the limitations of human things. In both respects, faith shores up happiness.

Faith may be defined as the belief in a god, in someone (or something) eternal with whom we can hope for connection or union. The more explicit and aware we are of our need for something deathless and transcendent, the more we are reminded of our inability to satisfy that need on our own, and the more likely to see and accept the sharp limitations of our lives here and now. Therefore religious conservatives demonstrate less utopianism about everything from technological progress to political reform to midlife remarriages.

However, that need for something transcendent is potentially explosive and does not always remain satisfied by other-worldly and distant hopes, but can demand to bring the true or perfect justice of heaven down to earth now, as we see with messianism or jihadism. In a similar but much more confused way, atheists sometimes transfer their most extreme and suppressed hopes to their secular missions. We see the curious spectacle of fanatics denouncing fanaticism, and believing that paradise will come to mankind if only mankind will stop believing in paradise. In his campaign against Christianity, Sam Harris has said that science is not in “the business of nurturing useful delusions.” But does that mean it should be in the business of destroying them? It is hard enough for even the most perceptive to see delusions for what they are, let alone to cure them, so that the expectation of a common cure must itself be ranked a great delusion.

Faith exists even among (so-called) atheists, if we consider the extent to which we act, not for the sake of an actual good, but for the sake of deserving an imaginary or hoped for good that we are not able to acquire or pursue (in a direct or explicit way). The power before which and of which we hope to be deserving is that “higher or larger world” that shores up our happiness. It can take many forms—our parents when we were little and they seemed big, or at the other extreme, the “God of our fathers,” or something intermediate and abstract, like History or mankind, or even a field or career.

The question is how we understand our devotion to this higher or larger world, or the group that represents it. We often speak of the “goodness” of those who give to others, and of the “selfishness” of those who pursue their individual interests. But if it really is good to give to others, then those who give to others are the ones being selfish, that is, pursuing their good, and those being “selfish” are actually hurting themselves and so being selfless. There is an unresolved ambiguity when we speak of the “goodness” of justice or morality: good for whom? In what way is it good?

We believe justice is a sacrifice, doing good for others (or putting others first), but we even more profoundly believe that it is good to be just, I mean good for the one who does justice (and so justice is not a sacrifice, but selfish).  For example, parents teach their children to be just because they think it is good for their children and promotes their happiness, not because they want to sacrifice their children.  Still, what impresses about justice, and what supports the belief in its power and goodness, is precisely the self-sacrificial element of it. We would not be inspired or hope for much from a world in which all people acted in a blatantly selfish manner.  Perhaps that would make it too difficult to continue to hope in the selflessness of the higher powers towards us mere mortals, from whom they have little or nothing to expect.

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