Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On Faith and Values

Faith is not a value.

The reason faith is not a value is that people can have faith in anything they accept without evidence (or in spite of it). Faith can lead people to believe anything that many people would value or few people would. They can believe in peace and love, but they could also believe that homosexuality and adultery should be punishable by death, for example.

Faith has been on all sides of every issue at any given time. During the anti-communist hysteria in the United States of the 1950s, the focus was not on the totalitarianism of the USSR or its forced economic ideology, but on its "godlessness". It was during this period of American history when "In God We Trust" was adopted as the national motto and placed on our currency. It was at this time that the Pledge of Allegiance--already illegal for schools to make children recite because of freedom of speech issues--began to include the words "under God".

During the period of our history when slavery was legal, abolitionists and slaveowners alike used faith to justify their positions. There are rules in the Bible for slavery, and the slaveowners would cite these rules as justification for their practice. The abolitionists would focus on the New Testament, where wealth was condemned, equality encouraged.

The Irish Catholics and the Southern Baptists fought each other for decades, often violently, during the 1800s, all over which version of the Bible to use in a public school setting. It's one of the many reasons both sides began to accept separation of state and church as a good thing, especially in public schools.

Faith can lead to delusion. Some people believe so strongly in their chosen ideology that they will ignore even the strongest evidence against their faith-based convictions. Biblical literalism is one example. No matter how much it is pointed out to biblical literalists that the Earth cannot be six thousand years old, that there was no global flood, or that human beings can't survive in the digestive tracts of sea creatures, based on scientific observations, they will dismiss the science, often demonizing it in the process.

Since faith is subjective, it leads to arbitrary values. Believers will often argue that moral relativity is the hallmark of atheism, and that it's a bad thing, but they never seem to analyze the moral relativism inherent in faith. Here is how religion is divided around the world:
  • Christianity: 35,000 denominations, most under eleven sects
  • Islam: Three major sects; twelve denominations (at least); various schools of thought under each
  • Judaism: At least seven, with various schools of thought under each
  • Hinduism: 3 major sects with several denominations under each
  • Buddhism: 3 major sects with many subdivisions
  • Shintoism: 25 groups
  • Thirty-four other major religions with thousands of subdivisions and cults.

Faith does not lead everyone to the same end; if anything, it divides everyone. It is not the only thing that divides people; economic and political ideologies also make their contribution, but these are also a brand of faith, complete with their own apologists and preachers.

I am not going to tell you that dropping faith will lead to worldwide unity. I doubt that it would. What I would like to explore is what values might be considered universal, and why.

What seems to be almost universal to human beings is empathy. According to research in neuroscience and psychology, empathy is at least partially an automatic response. There are exceptions, such as psychopaths and sociopaths, but empathy does appear to be something that the vast majority of humans the world over seem to have.

To what values can empathy lead? All cultures have laws against homocide; people do not want to have their lives taken from them, so they see it as wrong when someone takes a life from someone else. There are shades of gray here; some people would include termination of pregnancy as the "murder" of the unborn; most people would allow a justification for self-defense; some would justify execution for certain crimes (especially murder). In any case, murder is outlawed universally to some degree.

In light of the universality of the outlaw of murder, how can anyone justify war? My personal take on war is that the instigator must be a sociopath, a psychopath, or paranoid-delusional. That opinion comes only from the idea that in order to send soldiers to kill and to die, a person must not have much empathy, if any, or must be so scared out of his (or her, I guess, but I can't think of a female instigator of war off the top of my head) mind that he imagines threats or creates them, then works very hard to draw everyone into his delusion and paranoia.

The next near-universal value based on empathy is the idea that stealing is wrong. There are shades of gray and different schools of thought here, too, but for the most part, people don't want other people to take their stuff, and most won't take from other people as a result. I think people feel less empathy when shoplifting, because they aren't thinking about their theft in terms of doing harm to another individual; they see a business making profit, and their petty theft isn't going to hurt, they believe. They don't think about how the reduction in profits will cause an increase in prices for honest people; they don't think about how when insurance covers stolen items, premiums go up for everyone contributing to the pool.

Charity comes from empathy. People want to to good for other people, not only because it feels good, but because they would like other people to do good for them.

The willingness to pass knowledge to other people can come from empathy; people who want to learn will share their knowledge in return.

Empathy is not relative like faith. Perhaps if people went with their empathy instead of faith, they would get along to a greater agree.


Paul said...

This is a very interesting and helpful post. Thanks for writing this!

Greg Reich said...

Thanks, Paul. I am glad that you got something out of it. I enjoyed your article on Texas and teen pregnancy.