Faith is a form of loyalty. But more than that, faith is 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. Even more than that, however, faith helps serve traditions’ tasks of uniting their members and transmitting their values and practices down through generations. One of faith’s distinctive contributions to creating cohesion is its ability to make trust beyond warrant in traditions and their institutions into a condition of loyalty to one’s group–even when the tradition or the institutions seem at odds with reason and conscience.
Faith’s merging of loyalty and trust, which makes trust in tradition the central test of loyalty to the community, explains why my individual decision as a conscientious thinker not to believe in propositions or in people on faith is interpreted not as a virtuous humility in matters of truth but as a vicious betrayal of a community. I think that the reason that many religious people consider atheists more offensive than they consider members of competing religious traditions is that the atheist rejects the very practice of acknowledging that sometimes tradition (code-worded as “God”) can veto our ideas or suggestions for new practices. Atheists, as rejecters of faith itself, are not just members of competing faith traditions submitting obediently to their own groups’ traditions but are, more radically, those who recognize no authority at all in tradition qua tradition.
And so in many religious minds the outspokenly faithless atheist is ethically offensive—not just to the minds of the fundamentalists who fetishize tradition in the most obvious extreme but also in the minds of those religious liberals who fall all over themselves trying to find ways to respect tradition as much as their doubting intellectual conscience can possibly permit them. The atheist is an irreverent, anarchist individualist whose lack of respect for tradition may indicates a dangerous possibility of thinking with no traditional brake on her thinking if it gets out of hand.
The normal human mind is a religious one—at least insofar as it is a tradition-deferrent one. The idea of a God as an invisible authority with absolute veto power over our reason and our will and whose demands can be communicated to us by traditional institutions and texts, is the personification of tradition’s desire for ultimate veto power over our beliefs and practices. God in this way is a codeword and a proxy concept through which tradition erects moral and intellectual fences around the rational individuals that make up human communities. Faith is the practice of deferring to received, traditional texts and institutions. Tests of faith are exercises in which we are expected to prove we will trust when we do not see the reasons to do so. It is assumed that tradition knows better and that we should defer to it even when we cannot confirm tradition’s claims with our own individual, limited rational powers of discernment.
Faith makes our willingness to trust tradition a condition of our being a loyal, morally reliable, and intellectually trustworthy person who exhibits proper limits on our hubris to think we know better than tradition whenever we do not see tradition’s reasons. I see this psycho-social dynamic as the reaons that atheists face such visceral resistance and are so readily feared to be immoral or spreaders of dangerous ideas even when the atheists in question have proposed nothing particularly radical. It is assumed that we will presumptuously think that we know better than tradition’s morality.
And, for people of faith, tradition (usually referred to by its proxy, God, or its representatives, e.g., the Church, etc.) is the source of moral guidance—whether this is their abstract position or their implicit emotional interpretation of their moral upbringing which liberally intermixed language of faith with language of morals until they were practically inseparable subconsciously. Someone who breaks with tradition does not need to go around killing puppies to be morally untrustworthy. She has already, in her refusal to defer to tradition, embodied a rebelliousness against the very source of moral guidance, tradition itself, and therefore, a person without faith is taken to be a threat to moral tradition, morality itself, and moral deference itself. Regardless of whether this faithless person proceeds to commit specific acts of immorality is irrelevant. Their way of thinking opposes faith and tradition themselves and so cannot be allowed to spread.
Of course, the obvious flip-side of the faithful’s visceral fear of the “militant atheist” as representing intellectual and social anarchy is the New Atheist’s visceral fear of the theocrat who represents intellectual and social authoritarianism. Of course anyone even cursorily familiar with this blog knows that I think the New Atheists’ fear is, in the main, rationally justifiable. Nonetheless, it is important that on both sides of the faith fence we recognize that part of what fuels our passions are the complicated dialectics between both reason and tradition and between individual and social order. And it is impossible to resolve the tensions within either of those dialectics. Every healthy socio-political-intellectual arrangement will involve some give and take between these forces. I don’t think that faith in otherwise unjustified propositions makes them rationally acceptable or, worse, tolerable bases for other judgments of fact or norm. Nonetheless, there must be some acknowledgment that tradition tries to warn us of things through its irrational demands. It would do well for reason to inspect possible justifications for traditions as carefully as possible before jettisoning them.
And it would do well for the faithful to recognize just how much respect for defensible tradition that contemporary rationalistic atheists do have even as we decisively reject any authority in religious holy men or texts.
There is much more to say about the meanings and dynamics of faith in future installments of this series. But for now,
For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series. It is unnecessary to read all its posts to understand any given one.