Tuesday, I began my series of posts attempting first to disambiguate the various senses of the word faith, to explore how the various practices referred to under this one word’s umbrella all relate to each other and how they can be ethically and epistemologically assessed, both as they occur individually and in various combinations with each other. In Tuesday’s inaugural offering, I briefly discussed loyalty (which as faithfulness, is closely related to faith in ways I hope to explore going forward) and its relationship to honesty, as two contrastable ways for someone to be trustworthy. On Wednesday, I devled into faith as a form of trust which does not calibrate itself to objective standards of trustworthiness but trusts people despite their limitations as provably trustworthy people or even despite counter-evidence to the notion that they are worthy of trust at all. Earlier this afternoon, I explored some thoughts on the functions served by traditions and how faith plays a role in aiding traditions in uniting their members and transmitting their forms down through generations.
In this post, I want to explore how faith as tradition helps foster the kind of faith that takes the form of “trust beyond warrant.” Faith confuses these three concepts (honesty, trust, and loyalty) by making trust a condition of loyalty and demanding that one’s honesty be interpreted only as an expression of faith and never as a rejection of it. To take the first issue, the confusion of trust and loyalty, faith traditions transmit themselves through human groups, most basically and powerfully through families and then on up through larger organizations of people.
When someone tells you to have faith, they are not only telling to trust in a proposition’s truth or in a person’s abililties. They are also telling you to be loyal. They are conditioning your loyalty on your willingness to trust. To trust authorities when they tell you to believe something that not only lacks reasons but has clear reasons against it is to express your loyalty to them.
When God tells Abraham to commit a moral atrocity by murdering his son as a sign of his faith, God wants to see whether Abraham will be loyal to Him and trust Him directly against his reason, his morality, and his emotional connection to his son. Abraham is being conditioned to subordinate his demands for reasons and to trust.
What is most troubling about this story is that were Abraham to have insisted on rational moral justifications from God, he would have been religiously judged harshly for his lack of faith rather than for his moral principledness. This story conveys to the member of a belief community that there might come a time when the religious authorities will ask you to think and do things that will go against your reason and your conscience and that in these times you are to see your loyalty as being tested and you will prove your loyalty by your willingness to trust nonetheless. And since our loyalties to our families and (for most humans) our religion are deep parts of our identities, most people throughout history will accept this dichotomy and put their conscience second to their tradition when the two conflict. Or at least, they will assent to this possibility in the abstract, even if when push comes to shove, perhaps they might not.
By equating loyalty with trust beyond rational warrants, faith traditions bind their members beyond rational reasons. Our strongest attachments in life are not strictly based on reason but on emotional attachment. When faith attaches people to a group in such a way as to make them willing to suspend reason for the group, it can guarantee their fidelity even when they lack reasons to stay.
Ironically, it is as though human beings, being rational, for purposes of natural selection needed to be emotionally bound to groups with a super-glue that prevented their individual capabilities for reason from letting them constantly splinter off from each other. Keeping everyone loyal, even where there are rational disagreements or causes for doubt, might historically have been integral to group survival. These are, of course, simply speculations and I would welcome criticisms from historians, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, biologists, economists, game theorists, other philosophers, and whomever else might have specialized insight into these dynamics as they have played out in reality or as they would work out on theoretical models.
My hunch, however, is that there is something like a dialectical tension between our reason’s desire to probe for the truth and our biological need to live in groups with strong allegiances to each other. Rational investigation is beneficial to the group insofar as it helps us discern nature’s workings and then master them for our purposes. But reason also works through trial and error and can risk dangerous experiments which backfire for the whole community. Free thinking also has the potential drawback of opening the door to intractable, alienating disagreements and social strife. To prevent reason’s disruptive, disorienting, and destructive powers from hurting the community, the human default is to defer to tradition whenever new ideas arise, until the new ideas can prove themselves incrementally not to be dangerous. Even though the irraionalism of faith has historically been a barrier to finding agreement between traditions through appeals to universal reason (since each tradition won’t let such public reasons trump its traditional teachings where they conflict), within communities, faith helps minimize disagreements for as long as it can hold together people who don’t have reasons to stay together. Problems of course start when disagreements over the faith itself prove intractable since they are not rationally coherent in the first place and then unbreachable schism becomes even more likely because the one faith essentially splits into two and public reason is rejected as a bridge back to concord.
Back to the main thesis of this post: I think it is because tradition (as the preserver of received wisdom) needs leverage against independent reason, that tests of faithfulness are devised. Will the individual reasoner demonstrate a willingness to defer to tradition when it demands she surrender her reason and show primary loyalty to the community and its traditions?
The tradition, as received judgments, whose rational justifications are often no longer understood completely (or in some cases, understood well at all) cannot always compete with new ideas. Sometimes this is because the tradition has lost track of all the particular experiences through which its wisdom and practices were acquired and given their clarity. At other times this is because the tradition has never seen the new competitor ideas before and therefore never built into itself adequate contrasting considerations which would show why it was superior.
The new ideas may in time actually prove superior and rightly deserving of incorporation into the tradition going forward. But tradition’s first priority is to make sure that any changes to received ways of doing things genuinely cause the tradition to progress rather than regress. And tradition needs to inculcate deference to itself in individual thinkers while it tries to assess and then reject or incorporate their novelties into itself. By promulgating a faith, a tradition secures both a trust in tradition and loyalty to it which people are conditioned to let supersede their reason whenever the tradition demands that inquiry be stopped or that a belief statement or practice be maintained even though it lacks adequate rational justification. Faith, within larger traditions, is tradition’s way of implanting into the brains of its members a shut-down device for whenever social cohesion is threatened by loss of rational reasons to trust authorities or ideas taken to be received wisdom.
In the meantime—
For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above. It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.