Humanists don’t have Faith – We Got Hope!

I’m sitting in the lecture theatre at the Harvard Kennedy School, at the opening session of Faith and Leadership in a Fragmented World. We’re here for a week-long interfaith workshop on the role of faith in leadership, and we’re being addressed by world-renowned experts in religious pluralism and political organizing. And everyone is talking about “faith backgrounds”, “faith traditions”, “faith-based values”. I’ve been invited to attend to represent Secular Humanism, and I’m feeling a little left out. So I raise my hand, and ask whether, together, as a group, we can come up with language that is inclusive of those, like myself, who do not have faith.

And one of our esteemed workshop leaders replies “Everyone has faith. Atheism is a faith! It requires just as much faith to be a Humanist as anything else!”

And I have to resist my immediate instinct to facepalm.

***

We’ve all been there. You’re having a discussion with a religious person, and you’re outlining one of your main critiques religion: that it’s a bad idea to make decisions or take positions on the basis of “faith”. And before you’ve finished your sentence, your interlocutor jumps in:

“But atheists have faith! Everyone has faith in something!”

It’s a common move, designed, presumably, to make religious faith seem more legitimate by showing that everyone believes some things without (or without sufficient) evidence. And it might seem reasonable: some Humanists, like Robert Ingersoll, actually use the term “faith” in certain contexts (Ingersoll said he had “faith in facts”). But it is not a sustainable move, or a fair one.

Here’s an example. I recently met and spoke with Chris LaTondresse (fabulous name!), founder and CEO of Recovering Evangelical, a site attempting to bring younger people back to the Christian faith. He’s a smart and passionate guy with a real vision for the future, but he didn’t seem to see the problem with pulling the “faith trick”. After he suggested that even Humanists and Atheists have faith in something, I asked him what he meant by the word “faith”. He had two definitions:

  1. Faith is when you choose to believe something.
  2. Faith is the decision to continue to work for a cause (like Civil Rights, for example) even though the evidence suggests you will not achieve your aims.

 

The problem with the first definition is obvious: it makes no distinction between a “belief” and “faith”. Literally any conclusion, no matter how good he evidence is, becomes “faith” by this definition. Thus, the term loses it’s power to draw distinctions between one type of thought and another, and becomes completely useless. Think your wife just got home because you saw her walk through the door? That’s a “faith”. Think you just dropped an anvil on your foot because, well, you did and it hurts like hell? That’s a faith. “Faith” comes to mean everything, and therefore nothing.

The problem with the second is more difficult to pinpoint. Certainly, it seems that people, including people with no religious faith, often decide to press on with difficult endeavors even though all winds seem to blow against them. Our world is much the better place for such pioneers – if Gandhi had given up attempting to liberate India because of the overwhelming relative strength of the British Empire, where would we be now? If Martin Luther King, as he sometimes considered, had decided his struggle was hopeless and stopped fighting for equal rights, the world would be a worse place for it. But is this really faith?

No. Medieval philosopher Maimonedes famously said “Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.” Hope. That’s the word we’re looking for. The idea that a possible outcome is plausible, even though it is not probable. That’s all we need to keep working in the face of tremendous trials. Hope is central to the Humanist enterprise: the hope for a better world, despite all the evidence that suggests this is going to be damn hard to achieve. But that hope is based on a belief in the plausibility of the possible, not a faith in the existence of the impossible.

The photo that accompanies this piece is an example of the human capacity for hope against the odds. On a service trip to New Orleans – the first such trip organized by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard – we visited the places closest to where the levees broke. We saw whole blocks of houses which had been swept away by the rushing tide, smashed and ground to pieces, crunching underfoot. The only sign of former human habitation was row upon row of front steps leading forlornly up to houses that were no longer there, stairways to destruction.

And then we encountered this makeshift sculpture in the ruins.

Laid-out carefully amidst the devastation, this artwork of cracked brick and worn woodwork stood out against the blocks and blocks of rubble. Three small pieces of flotsam, organized on the ground, and inscribed with three simple words: I GOT HOPE.

I have never encountered a better example of the human ability to imagine a better future, and of the human desire to share that possible future with others than that sculpture amidst the wreckage of New Orleans. The human ability. The human desire. It doesn’t come from religion, and it doesn’t stem from faith. So next time someone tells you that Humanism is just another “faith position”, or that it takes just as much faith to be a Humanist as to be a believer, you know just what to say:

I got hope!

Emily Dikinson – Poem 254 – Hope

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • http://independent.academia.edu/JimFarmelant Jim Farmelant

    According to Paul Edwards in his book, “God and the Philosophers,” the philosopher W. V. Quine was once told by Tillich that he was not an atheist since logic and philosophy were objects of his ultimate concern, to which Quine replied, “I protest against conversion by definition.”

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Quine was a super-genius, and this story makes me love him even more!

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ LucienBlack

    Another misuse of the word “faith” I’ve observed is something along the lines of “well, how do you know your wife loves you? that’s something that requires faith as you can’t possibly *know* that!” No, the word we want here is “trust.” I’ve observed her behaviors and choices, and I’ve heard her say the words. I only require trust, not “faith.”

    Hope, trust . . . of what need have we of “faith?”

    • TempleoftheFuture

      This is a great point – thanks for reminding me of that possible move. I’d forgotten that one!

  • http://thepracticalhumanist.blogspot.com Paul Creeden

    Perhaps we could define ourselves by our focus, our actions and our values, as opposed to our assumptions about how the Universe works (beliefs).

    • TempleoftheFuture

      This was essentially Felix Adler’s position: “Deed before Creed”. I think it is basically what I subscribe to as well, but I do think that at some level it is important to investigate what people actually believe, if only because epistemic security is a good in itself.

      I also feel like it’s difficult to talk about values without engaging our commitments regarding the metaphysical. They seem strongly linked to me.

      What do you think?

      • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ LucienBlack

        I realize the question wasn’t directed at me, but do you mind if I take a stab at it anyway?

        Our actions follow our beliefs, as do our values. If we believe that it’s going to rain today, we’re more likely to grab an umbrella before leaving the house. If we believe that mankind’s suffering can be traced back to a woman doing something she shouldn’t (eating a fruit, opening a box that releases evil, whatever), then that’s likely to shape how we act toward women. If we believe that only a stable family unit can provide a foundation for a stable society, then we are more likely to value lifelong monogamy with no divorce, and feel threatened by anything that appears to keep people from forming stable family units, such as homosexuality (I said “appears!” Hopefully no one’s going to take that the wrong way).

        It thus seems to me that since action and value follows belief, any attempt to define ourselves by action or value first is not workable. The very action shows a belief about how the universe works.

  • http://www.prayingatheist.wordpress.com Anita

    Being in a Christian seminary, the word “faith” hasn’t bothered me much. When people talk about faith traditions, I guess I was unconsciously substituting “thought process” for “faith.” I can see why religious folk think that atheists have faith. Since they have faith in God, they imagine it takes faith to not believe in God. They miss out on the logical step we all take because it’s just not a part of their spiritual understanding of the world to be logical.

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