See It Now

If you missed Olbermann tonight, you can catch highlights at Crooks and Liars. Click here for conservative Republican & former Reagan Deputy AG Bruce Fein talking about why Bush must be impeached. Click here to find out what Senator Leahy thinks about Fredo Gonzales.

Taking Faith on Faith

The Washington Post web site contains a religion group blog called “On Faith,” the contents of which are mostly inane. There’s a post up today that might serve as the catalyst for a real discussion, however. Susan Jacoby writes,

There is a huge difference between asking questions about whether a candidate’s church affiliation will interfere with his or her duty to uphold the constitutional separation of church and state (the question that John F. Kennedy was asked in 1960 by Protestant ministers) and asking questions about intimate faith. If Hillary Clinton’s faith did help her cope with her husband’s infidelity, for example, does that tell us anything about her capacity for presidential leadership?

We now know from his personal correspondence that Abraham Lincoln’s faith was dealt a permanent blow by the death of his young son, Eddie, in 1850. Fortunately for Lincoln and for the nation, he lived at a time when no one would have dreamed of asking questions about how a candidate had dealt with such a painful event in his life.

The underlying assumption of many of these intrusive questions, it seems to me, is that people who rely on religion (or say that they rely on religion) to help them through life’s crises are better qualified to lead the nation. In view of the foreign policy disaster created, in part, by President George W. Bush’s assumptions about God having assigned him a mission to spread American-style democracy around the world, this assumption seems highly dubious.

Wouldn’t you respect a candidate who replied, “That’s none of your business,” when asked about his personal relationship with God?

I’d stand up and cheer, but I’m not sure I’m representative of the electorate at large on this matter. I also think anyone who genuinely believes he’s on a mission from God to spread American-style democracy all over the world, especially by means of war, ought to be under psychiatric supervision and not in the Oval Office. But that’s me.

It’s fine for people to rely on religion to get them through personal crises. But faith and wisdom are two entirely different things. Which leads me to the problem I have with using the word faith as a synonym for religion. I can see how that sorta kinda works for the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — but it doesn’t work at all for other religions. In Buddhism, for example, faith is a means, not an end. Faith in most of the Asian religions is faith in practice, not faith in doctrine or God. Doctrines are not to be “believed in,” but understood. Faith and doubt working together can lead to wisdom, or not, but faith is not wisdom itself. In fact, faith without doubt is a dead end as far as the quest for wisdom is concerned. Faith without doubt means you’ve given up the quest and filled your head with an ideology instead of genuine understanding.

As many people are beginning to notice, and as Glenn Greenwald writes in his new book (A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency) , we’ve created a society that rewards and celebrates absolutism and black-and-white thinking. This is unwise. Essentially, we’ve somehow decided that great leadership comes from an inability to think.

And this, children, explains why America is bleeped.

We’ve made a fetish of faith. As I’ve ranted about in the past, America is infested with people who express great faith in the Ten Commandments but who can’t name more than half of them. So what, exactly, is their faith in?

Some years ago, in an online religion forum, a conservative Christian was asked what he expected to find when he got to Heaven. Oh, it will be wonderful, he said. There will be faith. I swear, that’s what he said. Dude, I replied, if you’re in Heaven, what do you need faith for? Clearly, this guy had never thought about what faith might be; he just accepted that it was a good thing he was supposed to have.

This is not religion; it’s brain death. That’s what Saint Anselm said, in fact.

Anselm’s motto is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). … Faith for Anselm is more a volitional state than an epistemic state: it is love for God and a drive to act as God wills. In fact, Anselm describes the sort of faith that “merely believes what it ought to believe” as “dead.” … So “faith seeking understanding” means something like “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” [Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

This is why I think it’s unwise for Christians to fall into the habit of using faith as a synonym for religion. Although faith can mean a lot more than just “believing in” something, it feeds into the current popular notion that religion all about “believing in” things, in the same way that a child “believes in” Santa Claus.

But the faith fetish isn’t just about religion. Three centuries after the Age of Reason, America is being run by people who cannot reason at all. The only thinking going on is of the magical kind.

I believe I understand how this happened. Our society and government have been overrun by right-wing paranoids, religious and political, who for the past 40 years or so have been able to promote their world view over all others by dominating mass media. Richard Hofstadter foresaw what might happen in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life published in 1962, but in those days he was optimistic that the worst would not happen.

It is possible, of course, that under modern conditions the avenues of choice are being closed, and that the culture of the future will be dominated by single-minded men of one persuasion or another. It is possible, but in so far as the weight of one’s will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that it is not to be so.

Happily for Hofstadter, he didn’t live to see how badly his faith in reason would be betrayed.

Right now, if a presidential candidate really did answer “That’s none of your business,” when asked about his personal relationship with God he’d be crucified in media. Conventional wisdom says that candidates are supposed to honk about their faith on demand, like trained seals. If candidates are saying what they think they’re supposed to say instead of what they really think, that’s surrendering to theocrats and religious totalitarians. Whatever happened to “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man“?