Quick Thought: Why Do We Make of Faith a Virtue?

We all need hope and optimism, but this world provides very little actual evidence or good reasons for thinking hopeful and optimistic thoughts (such as that we survive the body after death, that God exists, or that our political leaders are admirable people). Therefore, we make of faith a virtue because it gives us hope and optimism. Faith is belief in the teeth of having little evidence or good reasons for having it. “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believed,” the resurrected Jesus says to doubting Thomas toward the end of the Gospel of John. Doubt, of course, is a greater virtue than faith, but it too often leads us to unpleasant conclusions, and we can’t have that. Therefore, we make of faith a virtue.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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14 Responses to Quick Thought: Why Do We Make of Faith a Virtue?

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    Whistling in the dark is fine by me, as long as no one tries to make me whistle along. Never mind that just whistling a different tune can get you killed.

  2. Peter Smith says:

    Terry Eagleton gives a more complete and believable account of faith, based on the concept of trust. When the light came on in our minds, about 70,000 or so years ago, we gained the ability to conceive of the future, to plan for the future and to hope for the future. This allowed us to conceive of a better future and from that simple conception we could imagine becoming better people, the birth of morality. This was a conception denied to all other animals because they could not imagine the future. Our life was no longer merely reactive, in the Darwinian sense, but directed towards a better future. Faith is a statement of our trust in a better future achieved by becoming better people, more moral people. Faith is the virtue that sustained us on the path to becoming better, moral people despite the many adverse disconfirming instances.

    Doubt weakens our resolve to walk on this path and before we know it the path to a better, more moral future is stranded in the morass of cynicism. And the path to a better future is not one of technology but of morality.

    • Peter Smith says:

      It is worth adding that our Darwinian nature did not disappear, when we gained the ability to conceive of becoming better people, for the simple reason it was deeply embedded in our nature. It had after all been a successful strategy for millions of years. Here is the problem, our Darwinian nature is often powerfully in conflict with our urge to become better people. How should we realise our goals of a better future? By following our Darwinian impulses or by subordinating them to our new found moral impulses? History is the eloquent record of our failures to make the right choice. Over time society has evolved institutions to reinforce our moral impulses though those institutions have been weakened, perhaps fatally, by a rampant consumerist narcissism that rewards gratification as the overriding purpose in life. We are slowly allowing our Darwinian impulses to become dominant once more..

      • Alan says:

        Peter
        Love your eloquence, but I think your pessimism misplaced. This process has never been monotonic, there will always be ups and downs. There is growing pressure, my daughter assures me, from her millennial generation against the narcissism currently flourishing. I think she is right and is reflected in the growing awareness of and resistance to the wealth gap.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Alan,
        Love your eloquence,“, thanks
        but I think your pessimism misplaced
        I hope you are right but I fear you are wrong.

        Let me explain.
        All of mankind’s history has been the story of the powerful few concentrating wealth in their hands, effectively confiscating the productive output of the many. This process was interrupted for a while by two forces, that of the industrial free market economy and democracy.

        1) The industrial free market economy broadened the sources of wealth so that wealth was more available and less concentrated in the hands of the powerful, the kleptocrats.

        2) Democratic forces diluted the power of the kleptocrats and this gave the broader population more access to wealth.

        Unfortunately this halcyon period is coming to an end. It is ending for three reasons:
        1) The powerful have quickly and cleverly learned how to subvert the democratic process so that it can be bent to their purposes(lobbyists, campaign donations, etc).

        2) Using this new found leverage, the powerful have begun the process of consolidating the sources of productive wealth under their control, increasing their ability to extract more wealth.

        3) Stimulation of consumer demand. This is the brand new opportunity that was not available to earlier generations of kleptocrats who could only confiscate productive output. Now the kleptocrats have a wide range of tools to stimulate demand for an ever increasing range of products. This increases the market and therefore increases the wealth of the kleptocrats. But it has an interesting side effect. The best route to increasing demand is to appeal to the self interest of the consumer and stimulate his narcissism. This was powerfully reinforced by the entertainment media who have exactly the same interests. This is why study after study have shown strong increases in narcissism to the point it is no longer regarded as a personality disorder.

        Now this matters for three reasons.
        a) narcissism dilutes social capital by making the individual rather more important than group interests. Social cohesion is reduced and this makes it less likely that the kleptocrats can be successfully resisted.

        b) narcissism dilutes moral capital by elevating gratification and self interest as a primary goal. Lower moral capital enables the kleptocrats to extract more wealth.

        c) narcissism shrinks the circle of compassion, weakening the resolve for common action for the good of others..

        The net effect of these three forces is a captive work force more concerned with gratification than moral interests or group interests and thus unable to mobilize to resist the manipulative control of the kleptocrats. Notice how quickly the occupy movement dissipated, achieving nothing.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Alan,
        This article was written by a young friend, it seems to be symptomatic.
        Why my generation does not care

      • Alan says:

        Thank you, Peter, I will read that. While I agree with all your points and did a quick read of the intro of your friends article, I disagree with you conclusions. Sorry I am a slow writer and busy right now so must address this later. This is but a setback on the longer scale. If you want to see true capitalism, read Dickens or visit an Asian sweatshop. Yes, free trade and the suppression of labor unions (which regained government support in the sixties and became dogma under Regan) were cleaver ruses of the opposition. And cheap tech toys aligned with alluring sales pitches serves this Pax Americana as the free bread and wine at the circuses served the Roman Emperors, mollifying the masses. People are basically lazy and want to be taken in by this, but it is quite temporary. Darwinian economics will prevail and life will continue to improve. More later.

      • Alan says:

        Without homes was an excellent article addressing many challenges and fears of the generation but it does not mark its end, just an early stage in development. There are a lot of other voices from that same demographic that are closing on solutions. I ran a google search on ‘millennials social responsibility’ and will suggest two of the top returns: Forbes: ‘Are Millennials Lazy Or Avant-Garde Social Activists?’
        http://www.forbes.com/sites/larissafaw/2012/10/23/are-millennials-lazy-or-avant-garde-social-activists/
        And Washington Post; ‘Millennials to business: Social responsibility isn’t optional’.
        http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-innovations/millennials-to-business-social-responsibility-isnt-optional/2011/12/16/gIQA178D7O_story.html
        Of course in the brief bio of the author herself: ‘A lot of what I do somehow centers around making the world a better place, and it tears me to pieces when I see people hurt.’

        I see from other posts, particularly you most excellent comment on the ‘A Universe from Nothing’ thread, that you are a thoughtful and spiritual individual. I think that will help you to understand both the problem and my vision of the forthcoming solution. First, to digress:
        Lizelle, in the linked article, lays out a series of overhyped catastrophes besetting these millennials: ‘Firstly, we are faced with a world in which we have to die. Secondly, we need to deal with the awesome and terrifying freedom we have been given. Lastly, we all realize eventually, in one way or another, that we are separate from other people and the universe.’ Which ‘… leads to the biggest existential dilemma of all: that of meaninglessness.’ And bemoaning: ‘… we have been failed by those who raised us … They have given us ample food, clothing, shelter and even emotional nurturing, but they have neglected to give us what we need most: the tools to deal with the human condition.’
        I for one am not at all sure what she would make of ‘tools to deal with the human condition’ if she was without food, physical security, clothing and shelter except that to lack any of those would make that be ‘what we need most’. Children! Ignore the hard work that has gone on before them and whine over the relatively trivial problems facing them. Lizelle is no fool though and is able to recognize that ‘…answers we require lie buried in the very religious beliefs we have rejected.’ A good start with a few missteps.
        Recognize first that the roots of the present problem lie with the profound solutions to ‘food, physical security, clothing and shelter’ enjoyed by the industrialized first world following WWII. It was this newly created easy life which led to the explosion of atheism which led to the rejection of the religious solution to the problem of the ‘meaning of life’.
        But back to topic:
        The distractions you speak of, tech toys and ads hyping the narcotic of consumerism are short lived because we have highly evolved dynamic brains that quickly bore of yesterday’s distractions and a growing number of people are developing increasing resistance to Madison Avenue magic tricks. The internet has destroyed monopolies on information so money can no longer control the news and the growing armies of the disenfranchised are ripe for a new progressive movement, waiting only for a leader. I gets right back to Lincoln’s observation that all the people cannot be fooled all the time.
        Life on this planet has never been better for humans, and this new generation of ‘millennials’ appear to me poised to keep things moving in an upward direction.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Alan,
        thanks for those links. They paint a more optimistic picture. But they are contradicted by a careful sociological study done by Christian Smith. He writes about the study in his book ‘Lost In Transition’, you can see the NY Times review here.

        The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

        Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.

        Smith and company are stunned, for example, that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism. (This was the summer of 2008, just before the crash).

        For decades, writers from different perspectives have been warning about the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism.

        These findings are daily confirmed by so many reports. Perhaps the most vivid example is student cheating in schools and universities. This cheating seems to extend throughout the system, involving staff as well. Universities are plagued by the problem and academic staff are not immune. One report claimed that 60% of research psychologists admitted to dishonest research practices. Here is another example, involving young military officers. Nearly one in five of the US Air Force’s nuclear missile officers are now implicated in a widening test cheating scandal

        I share your assessment of Lizelle’s post. Her parents are very nice, responsible people and they would be shocked to know of her judgement. But that misses the point. It simply illustrates how the new generation think.

        Finally I give you another quote from Ross Douthat’s article, ‘The Me Generation

        Voices critical of mass consumerism, materialistic values, or the environmental or social costs of a consumer-driven economy were nearly nonexistent among emerging adults. Once the interviewers realized, after a number of interviews, that they were hardly in danger of leading their respondents into feigned concern about consumerism, the interviewers began to probe more persistently to see if there might not be any hot buttons or particular phrases that could tap into any kind of concern about materialistic consumerism. There were not. Very many of those interviewed simply could not even understand the issue the interviewers were asking them about.
        . . .
        The majority of those interviewed stated . . . that nobody has any natural or general responsibility or obligation to help other people. . . . Most of those interviewed said that it is nice if people help others, but that nobody has to. Taking care of other people in need is an individual’s choice. If you want to do it, good. If not, that’s up to you. . . . Even when pressed — What about victims of natural disaster or political oppression? What about helpless people who are not responsible for their poverty or disabilities? What about famines and floods and tsunamis? — No, they replied. If someone wants to help, then good for that person. But nobody has to.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Alan, you say
        The distractions you speak of, tech toys and ads hyping the narcotic of consumerism are short lived because we have highly evolved dynamic brains that quickly bore of yesterday’s distractions and a growing number of people are developing increasing resistance to Madison Avenue magic tricks.

        Once again, I admire your optimism but doubt your conclusions. To repeat my earlier quote:
        “Smith and company are stunned, for example, that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism. (This was the summer of 2008, just before the crash).”

        I think it is interesting to examine why this should be. We are defined by millions of years of evolution as hunter/gatherers and as tool users.

        Hunting brought in the occasional kill but gathering sustained us between the kills. It was a vital skill that lives with us today as we forage through stores and hypermarkets. We are compelled to gather and corporate marketing has cleverly tapped into this compulsion.

        Tool use was similarly vital at least two million years to our survival. Consequently we manifest an obsessive fascination with tools(of every possible kind) that far exceeds their utility. Discussions in camera forums are a wonderful illustration of this. Corporate marketing has also tapped into this obsession.

        Foraging and tool use were powerful, indeed overriding obsessions because our survival depended on them. Those same obsessions remain with us, undiminished, in a time of unprecedented plenty, indeed they are rather stimulated by availability.

        These obsessions are balanced by the demands of community. So for example, we would share with and assist each other. Community was dominated by our circle of compassion, that is people to whom we had bonds with through family and friendships.

        Over time our circles of compassion was enlarged by religion and communication.

        Today we face the reverse. Religion is in decline and circles of compassion are shrinking dramatically. They are shrinking because the change from extended family to nuclear family to divorced family with one child. They are shrinking because new communications opportunities are reducing direct contact, lacking the rich signalling channels provided by direct contact. They are shrinking because unheralded sexual freedom is diluting the power of this most important bond.

        The dramatically reduced circles of compassion have focussed attention on the self. The focus on self takes the form of increased foraging and tool use, which we are naturally prone to do. This has been amplified by easy availability and powerful persuasion of corporate marketing. It has been amplified by the powerful role models constructed by entertainment media with their style of highly publicised narcissism and conspicuous consumption. It has been amplified by unrestricted sexual freedom which places pleasure before purpose.

        We are in the middle of a powerful self reinforcing cycle of narcissism and consumerism that is degrading moral concerns and dissolving community bonds.

      • Alan says:

        Peter
        I share your dismay and disappointment with “… interviewees [who] were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism.” And agree that a Darwinian phenomenon of ‘what tastes good is good to eat, what feels goods is good to do’ is behind it.
        You mentioned three human characteristics delivered by Darwin (if I might for efficiency use the word as a process rather than a name): Hunting, gathering and tool making. I think for this discussion we really need to add Shopping. Trade and barter were essential skills developed to the point of instinct for their critical importance in tool making. The proper stones for blades did not occur naturally in many habitats so good tool making stones were widely traded – along with paints and ornaments. Three million years later and humans still survive through shopping. If we ever come to a time that shopping should stop, it will be a planet of the apes and the few survivors will be living again in trees.
        Allow me a brief distraction – I would like to challenge your choice of a word. You said: ‘… [Lizelle’s] parents are very nice, responsible people and they would be shocked to know of her judgement.’ I think, like me, her parents would be very pleased with her judgment, but might be disappointed with the millennials depicted in her assessment.
        While I share your concern and disappointment with the decline in religion, I will argue that our circles of compassion have grown by orders of magnitude thanks to this afore mentioned Pax Americana and its enabling Marshal Plan following WWII, and witnessed in part by the United Nations. The sudden growth and great girth of this circle of compassion is such that it has lost much of its personal character. Hence it must be dealt with at an international level, and by governments, not just individuals (though individual charity remains crucial to the human community).
        I’ve mentioned before my vision of a solution, but without sufficient explanation: The internet with its high speed and low cost spread of information and leadership. You have noted a nominal sentiment of ‘it’s good if someone wants to do it.’ It only requires a small number of committed individuals to develop constructive programs, a larger number to review and critique the plans and at election time, broadcast through social networks and even the most committed narcissist can make an informed decision. Occupy was not a failure but a training session and an advertisement for social networking and distributed leadership. The crash was a mild but significant wakeup call. Anyone, especially the narcissist, can find far more pleasure with a good paying job than digging through dumpsters and social programs (as the afore mentioned bread and wine at the Circus) require a healthy economy to sustain. Our present day Millennials are not the naive Marxists of 100 years ago thinking that socialism alone could solve all social ills. Effective voting requires learning what to believe and who to trust. Learning who to trust has always been a challenge to humanity but the transparency created by the current distribution of information makes it dramatically harder for the hucksters to hide and exposing a lie has never been easier. The tools are in place and the Millennials appear to me preparing to implement them.

    • Alan says:

      Peter
      I disagree with your statement (the notion attributed to Terry Eagleton): ‘When the light came on in our minds, about 70,000 or so years ago, we gained the ability to conceive of the future, to plan for the future and to hope for the future.’ Our ability to conceive of and plan for the future has been demonstrated for millions of years through tool making. Crafting flaked blades required the tool maker to envision final shapes and to plan and craft methodically to each blades conclusion.
      The phenomenology associated with this discussion is known to anthropology as the emergence of ‘Modern Human Behavior’, the ‘fully modern human’ and/or the Upper Paleolithic Revolution. This article supports the above date for whichever analysis you prefer:
      http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061222-python-ritual.html

      What I am prepared to argue is that the ‘light’ which ‘came on in our minds’ was the development of faith itself. The notion of a higher power. At this stage, animal spirits or ‘great spirits’, often referred to as animism or archaic religion. I would also argue that this was not for any such purpose as imagining ourselves ‘becoming better people’, but rather a simple social technology that allowed us to live in larger groups which proved to be far more competitive than the family bands of archaic humans.
      Morality and insight into the future can be seen in both birds and mammals. Both are particularly useful for any critter that raises their young. Chimps and various other apes form far larger domestic units than did archaic humans, but these troops are founded upon martial suppression or fighting for dominance. Chimps fight constantly to achieve or defend their position within the hierarchy. The development of weapons by man made fighting within a group untenable. Fighting was simply too lethal with weapons and the response was to break up into small family groups and spread out. It was millions of years later that man was finally able to form into the functioning communities we refer to as Modern Hunter-Gatherer Bands. This connection, between loss of community with tool use is addressed in: Jared Diamond, ‘Third Chimpanzee’ and Christopher Boehm, ‘Hierarchy in the Forest’.

  3. Peter Smith says:

    Bertrand Russell says it best

    Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.

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