Recently, a blogger whose views I usually respect wrote a piece about Easter, lamenting that people just don’t believe in anything these days. There were lot of comments; mine was the only one that disagreed with the writer’s premise. I’d like to go further, and examine the widely held notion that faith, in and of itself, is a great and wondrous thing, without which we would soon founder.
You hear this a lot, accompanied by a lot of sage nodding, amening, and otherwise approving responses. Faith supposedly saves us from all manner of barbarism we would otherwise inflict on one another. I don’t see any evidence for it, period. It wasn’t 19 atheists who flew their hijacked airplanes into public buildings full of innocent people on September 11, 2001. It wasn’t in the name of evolution that the Tsarnaev brothers blew up the Boston Marathon. Down through history, you will find almost no atrocities perpetrated upon innocent victims by people who lacked faith, even the Nazi and Communist atrocities arguably fall in the category of faith despite lack of a supernatural power. Where is there a single shred, the merest mote, of evidence that our hearts’ desire is to maim and persecute, and that we would cheerfully indulge ourselves were it not for faith? I’ll grant you that we seem to torment each other with glee when it is to our perceived benefit, but belief in a higher cause only seems to confer a sanctity to it. I’m reminded of Himmler’s famous admonition to the SS that while it may be emotionally difficult to slaughter Jews, one must grit one’s teeth and do it for the greater good of humanity. He was only echoing Torquemada and all the other grand inquisitors since time immemorial.
And isn’t it more than a bit disingenuous to profess respect for all people of faith, when almost all religious faiths stipulate that those who believe differently will suffer an eternity of anguish? Think about it. You believe that if I have a different faith than yours, after a few years of life on earth, I will suffer incomprehensible torment, not for a few millennia, but for all eternity. Because you believe your God is perfectly just and merciful, you also believe I deserve every bit of it. Yet you insist you respect me, and my faith. Now that’s a Mystery!
Still, you might say, a person needs something to believe in, if not a religion, then at least a coherent set of principles. That’s certainly an interesting assertion; it’s not clear what it actually means. Will just anything do? The ancient Assyrians believed their god Assur commanded them to conquer and humiliate as many people as possible as brutally as possible. Very clear and consistent; their inscriptions brag about the heaps of flayed enemy youth left at the gates of conquered cities, and the rape and enslavement of the women and children. Men of strong faith, all, not an atheist among them.
But wait, don’t faith and religion do a lot of good? Yes, some do. And some do a lot of evil. Essentially, it’s a wash, so what’s the point of lamenting a lack of it? The biggest irony of all, of course, is that far from suffering from a dearth of faith in these particular times, we seem to be positively deluged with it. Religion is everywhere, and New Age faux religions seem to flow endlessly from an inexhaustible source. Ideology has become a way of life even in this most pragmatic of nations.
A crisis of faith? I’ll say. We’re drowning in it.