The Charms of Faith: How to Understand Faith-Talk Naturalistically (and Charitably)

Is faith a good thing? In past columns, I have argued that we must outgrow our reliance on faith: that despite its reputation as a virtue, it is actually an obstacle to moral progress. In this and future columns, I hope to elaborate my critique, and shape it into one that the world’s faithful cannot ignore.

Perhaps this is a fool’s errand. Doubts about the wisdom of faith have circulated for thousands of years, and still, billions of our fellow humans take faith to be ethically permissible, even virtuous. There are signs, though, of a new openness to the possibility that faith is morally problematic. The clearest sign is the popular success of Sam Harris’s hard-hitting polemic The End of Faith—a bracingly direct argument that, in a world with weapons of mass destruction, faith is a luxury our species can no longer afford.

While I do not have Mr. Harris’s wit or rhetorical skill, I think I can accomplish something more modest. My aim is to construct a case that is so patently fair-minded that dismissing it as strident or doctrinaire is simply not an option. Where the power and urgency of Mr. Harris’s writing causes many to write him off, a more patient and understanding treatment may prove harder to brush aside.

Let us begin by trying to understand why faith is such an important part of so many lives. We non-believers are often quick to paint faith as one or another kind of cognitive failing: the result of childhood brainwashing or an inability to face facts (such as one’s mortality), a product of willful self-delusion, a deficit of scientific or logical acumen, etc. Accurate or not, such characterizations make believers guarded and defensive, and consequently less willing to rethink their positions. In the interests, then, of respectful and genuinely transformative dialogue, let’s try a different tack. Let’s look at how faith—and faith-talk—actually function in people’s lives, and attempt to understand how it aids and enriches those lives.

Some religions would have us believe that faith triggers a chain of supernatural events: faith pleases God, who reciprocates by stamping the believer’s ticket to heaven. It is hard for us nonbelievers to see how anyone can take such claims seriously, and I am inclined to think that “believers” themselves only half believe them. The religious folk I talk to, at any rate, are better described (as Daniel Dennett has hypothesized) as “believers in belief”—unable to take God-talk both literally and seriously, but able, nonetheless, to believe that the pretense of belief—suitably reinforced by religious pronouncements, practices and communities—helps to uphold moral standards. I suspect that, among relatively well-educated religionists, “believers in belief” outnumber true believers.

In any case, the worldly functioning of faith-talk plays a critical role in reinforcing the beliefs and attitudes of the faithful. Now if you listen to such talk, both sympathetically and intently, you will find that exhortations to “have faith” function in at least three distinct (but often entangled) ways. Faith-talk is used to cultivate psychological health, it’s used to promote social cohesion, and it’s used to exempt certain beliefs from critical scrutiny. We seculars are particularly attuned to the last of these functions, and are rightly concerned about the harms that frequently attend such functioning.

As we shall see, the concept of faith works to immunize certain orthodoxies from scrutiny and humanizing reform, thereby blocking moral progress. We’ll take a closer look at this phenomenon later. The point at present is that believers are more attuned to the first two functions of faith-talk, and more aware than we seculars tend to be of their associated benefits. Frequent exposure to beneficial uses of faith-talk, in other words, can create a deep, visceral impression of faith’s value and importance. It is important for seculars to understand this, for the impression can make it hard for believers to countenance faith’s darker dimensions.

So how, exactly, does faith-talk confer psychological and social benefits? “Have faith!” is used, like “Hang in there,” to comfort the afflicted and forestall crippling despair. It’s used to encourage, shore up confidence, and inspire hope. It’s used to bolster flagging resolve. Comfort, hope, courage, confidence, resolve, avoidance of despair—these are genuine human needs, and important elements of psychological health. Religions have long used faith-talk to nurture positive outlooks and attitudes, and there is evidence that it works. Some studies, for example, have found that religious people tend to be happier than nonreligious people.

It is not clear, however, that supernatural assumptions play any essential role in the mood-boosting power of faith-talk. Could suitably designed secular language, with accompanying rituals, work equally well, or perhaps better, to help people remain resolutely hopeful? Or would subtracting out the supernatural agent drain the exhortations of psychological benefit? It’s worth noting that people sometimes use expressions like “Hang in there” and “Keep hope alive” to comparable effect, but we don’t really know whether naturalizing faith-talk would result in an equally effective mechanism.

The religious also use faith-talk to promote social cohesion. Human beings are social animals, and the fundamental challenge of social existence involves finding a recipe for peaceful coexistence and fruitful collaboration. Key ingredients in any such recipe, of course, are trust and commitment—arguably the most important stabilizers of social contracts. By extolling faith, and urging one another to “keep the faith,” co-religionists seem to induce unusually high levels of interpersonal trust. And this, too, seems to work; in one ingenious study, the mere mention of words with religious overtones was found to “prime” test subjects to be more trusting.

In a related study, religious words primed test subjects to be more generous and observant of shared commitments. Thus, religious communes tend to last twice as long as secular ones, and the most long-lived institutions on the planet are all religious. (Nations, corporations, nonprofits, political parties—none of these secular institutions come close to rivaling the Catholic Church, let alone Judaism, for longevity.) Co-religionists achieve levels of solidarity that nonbelievers rarely match, and researchers are now hypothesizing that our propensity for faith may have evolved because it reinforced the social solidarity our ancestors needed to survive. If, as seems to be the case, a strong need for social cohesion is actually coded into our genes, then reliance on faith could just be the brain executing an ancient evolutionary logic: one more powerful and primordial than conscious reason. If so, the faithful merit sympathetic understanding, and more respect than “strident” atheists often accord them.

Can we naturalize faith-talk without compromising its capacity to function as a social “glue”—as a bonding agent for moral communities? Again, we don’t know. Some religious societies are riven by sectarian tensions, and some secular societies (e.g. the Scandinavian countries) are comparatively cohesive and free of societal dysfunction. The evidence we have, however, remains inconclusive. The matter merits further study.

In the next installment of Brainstormin,’ we’ll look at the third function of faith-talk—its use to suppress doubt and dissent—and examine its perils and seductive allure.