The Humanevangelist: Have a Little Faith

In line with the apocryphal Chinese curse, we live in interesting times. Mutually assured destruction having allowed us to squeak through the Cold War, we now face climate catastrophe‑but with a tragic inversion of incentives.

Rather than any one “side” gaining by restraint, it now pays to get others to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to exploit cheap, reliable fossil fuels. The profit accrues to the polluter; the costs are shared by all.

So, what’s it going to take to meet this challenge? Some people, like The Shock Doctrine’s Naomi Klein, think pulling down capitalism would do the trick. Others, like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), believe God’s got a plan. Both are wrong. What we need is faith.

Perhaps you recoil from that word. No wonder: the fear-merchants of “that Old Time Religion” and the contempt-peddlers of the New Atheism have, between them, bent it badly out of shape.

In his book Reasonable Faith, Christian apologist William Lane Craig contends, “God could not possibly have intended that reason should be the faculty to lead us to faith.”

Biologist and atheist advocate Richard Dawkins fires back with this: “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”

In context, Dawkins is right. In failing to define the context, however, he condemns too much. Faith extends far beyond fundamentalism. Let religion claim faith and secular worldviews are left hopeless by default. Oh, sure, you can try sending in “optimism” for “faith,” but just as swapping “progressive” for “liberal” muddles important distinctions, this substitution comes up short.

Implicit in optimism can be a Panglossian refusal to acknowledge the downside, the danger, the half-empty glass. Faith, by contrast, implies a willingness to accept setbacks, to endure suffering, and to hang onto hope in the darkness before the dawn.

Does that sound religious? It shouldn’t. Faith has long had secular meanings, and most of these endure today. The almighty dollar, for example, is backed by the “full faith and credit” of the United States, as inscribed in our secular constitution. On being fired by Apple in 1984, Steve Jobs—nobody’s idea of a theologian—said, “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.” The rest is history.

Consider Mahatma Gandhi, whose idea of God was truth. Beaten, jailed, and forced to witness thousands of his fellow Indians killed, he never wavered from this creed: “You must not lose faith in humanity.” I like that best of all.

Humanists have every reason to restore faith’s secular sheen. After all, modern humanism was born in a rebellion against the dead weight of dogma. As Timothy Ferris documents in his book, The Science of Liberty, through a systematic investigation of nature, Galileo, Bacon, Newton, and others uprooted the divine rights of kings, the authority of priests, and the glorification of the past.

In their place, they planted the seeds of modern liberal democracy. The discovery that valuable knowledge could be gained through science, and that anyone with gumption and smarts could do it, was positively revolutionary. Methods of induction, experimentation, and criticism gave rise to political claims of liberty, equality, and freedom of expression, which in turn ignited something altogether new: a practical faith in the future.

For nearly all of human history, the idea of progress had drawn disdain. Until the Enlightenment, the best chance of survival generally lay in the unquestioning imitation of elders. Tradition was revered. Novelty carried enormous risks and few rewards. Any sort of experiment was a shot in the dark, and even one that struck a spark might never be known to others.

Innovation was incremental, inconsistent, and often unwelcome. As Jared Diamond famously points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel, the wheel was independently invented in Mesoamerica but never put to use in anything more than toys. Ancient China was home to many inventions, but most were suppressed by autocratic rulers suspicious of change.

Until the Renaissance took hold, feudalism, fatalism, and theocracy were the norm, not just in Europe but in every empire. Then, sparked by the invention of the printing press and the rise of secular literacy, everything changed. Discovery and invention became transmissible, across cultures and down the ages. In 1608, two Dutchmen applied for patents on a telescope; a year later Galileo learned of it by letter and created his own, and soon after that he shattered prevailing dogma by showing that the Sun has spots.

The cultural Renaissance (think Michelangelo) gave way to the scientific and philosophical Enlightenment. As Ferris shows, many of its key figures were both scientists and architects of change: John Locke, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few. Animated by faith in the future, humanity began a never-ending cartwheel of discovery and invention. Science became the engine of change. Humanism challenged the status quo, invoked compassion, and mocked superstition.

Today, headline writers and talking heads routinely use “religion” and “faith” interchangeably. Worse yet, many secularists have adopted a kind of smug climate pessimism. Indeed, just 6 percent of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, think that humans can manage global warming. As Stephen Colbert archly remarked, “It’s high time we stop trying to solve the problem and resign ourselves to each day getting worse.”

If we are to overcome the challenges of our century, neither religious nor secular fatalism will serve. We must rekindle the humanism that brought us out of the Dark Ages and into our astonishing yet incomplete global civilization. Or, putting it another way, we gotta have faith.