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Monday, April 1, 2013

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

Religious faith is nothing more than the will to believe what reason doesn't support. The believer and the skeptic accept this basic definition, but the believer adopts a second line of defense: faith in faith. Using obscurantist language, the believer infuses faith with poetic dignity and valor. Strip away the poetic obscurantism of faith in faith, and you see faith as the nonbeliever does--as the craven, sentimental attachment to an irrational belief with no justification beyond custom.

Secular humanists who assert that we should have no aversion to the word “faith” disregard the fact that the same word can have very different meanings. The way the religious use the word to describe their determined attachment to the improbable is very different from the way humanists use it to describe faith in humanity or the more quotidian usage of taking on faith something that is likely but not absolutely certain—like the next sunrise. 

All of these usages of the word "faith" have the common element of putting disconcerting thoughts out of mind, but they differ wildly in the probability of the predictions that faith can support. Moreover, faith in humanity is an optimism of the will, even if history fails to support an optimism of the intellect. We’re all we have, so we’d better be enough. 

When a friend or spouse asks you to “have a little faith,” they are asking you to suspend your rational doubts for the sake of the relationship. It is special pleading, the province of religion. This kind of faith makes us vulnerable, but vulnerability can payoff in intimacy when not misplaced. When betrayed, misplaced faith can turn to cynicism.

The interfaith movement would do well to disavow the word "faith” if they wish to distance themselves from the coercive message of faith in faith and have us believe that they are not the enemies of reason. To say that your faith is a source of strength and comfort is to romanticize a desperate delusion. Reason and religious faith simply cannot be reconciled. Faith is all the religious have to differentiate itself from non-believers, so they’re unlikely to abandon the word. If they did, they’d be with us.

Supernatural faith is an irredeemable notion and religion is its hiding place. Religious humanists are guilty of obscurantism in their use of the word "religion.” The Dalai Lama says that it doesn’t matter whether you describe Buddhism as a religion or a philosophy; it is what it is. Buddhism’s willingness to abandon elements that don’t square with reason makes it ineligible to call itself a faith, but is it a religion? With religions abandoning supernaturalism but continuing to call themselves religions, we need a new understanding of religion that doesn’t rely on supernaturalism.

Whenever an analogy is made between a non-supernatural doctrine and religion, it is generally to accuse adherents of mindless acquiescence. This mindless acquiescence is a reasonable basis for a definition of religion—supernatural or otherwise. Consider religious humanism. It rejects faith and retains religious heritage. It can be understood as a retrogression to the tribalism that preceded supernatural religion, to a time before tribal symbols were invested with sacred mysticism.

The secular sacred cow of  heritage is a form of special pleading. It demands that a religion survive because the alternative is unthinkable. Uncritical allegiance to heritage is a form of mindless acquiescence that is independent of mysticism. Religious humanism has made a religion of the perpetuation of religion—and developed a secular form of religious obscurantism to support it.

The “spiritual but not religious” are the last holdouts of obscurantism. The idea that there is something “out there” is vague enough to evade scrutiny but mystical enough to convince the believer that there is meaning beyond our mundane existence. This brings us to the usages of the word "transcendence.” There is the supernatural view of transcendence in which the material world is a mirage and something grander awaits in the next life. Supernaturalists will tell you that they sense the transcendent even in this life. 

There is a metaphysical understanding of transcendence by which philosophers construct meaning without supernaturalism. Sam Harris employs a naturalist usage to describe his experimentation with drugs, which has enabled him to transcend his own ego boundaries and seem to become one with the universe. Like “faith” and “religion,” “transcendence” has disparate usages that invite obscurantism. "Transcendence," in particular, invites perpetual disdain for material existence and the self.

When it comes to "transcendent" meaning, we have perfectly good naturalistic alternatives such as "philosophical." As for "spiritual" experiences, our lexicon provides options such as "transformative" that connote a profound impact without the suggestion of supernaturalism. Rather than saying that we do something "religiously," we might say we do it "diligently" so as not to suggest mindless conformity. As for "faith" in dubious claims, we might call it what it is: credulity. When speaking of "faith" in virtually assured outcomes, we can express our confidence as a measure of probability. As for "faith" in less certain outcomes, we are speaking of hope.

As a linguist, I am sensitized to obscurantism. My profession also informs me that language will evolve contrary to all efforts to regulate its usage. My point of view lacks authority among secular activists, even if I could present a compelling case. I can only heighten awareness of what Wittgenstein called the power of language to "bewitch” us. In his view, it is the job of philosophers to break that spell. He and Russell were the champions of the philosophy of language. As a linguist by training and self-taught philosopher, I humbly offers my services to the exposition of religious obscurantism.

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