September 22, 2009

Faith in Society

Response to Commentary by Bart Kosko, LA Times, Monday, February 19, 2001

The issue of tax dollars for faith-based organizations stirs some to deny the place of faith in society, but such a “faithless society” is an oxymoron. Reason is essential, but is inadequate as sovereign: the attempt to live by Reason alone was a failure of the French Revolution, and there is no “reason” to think we are able to develop such a society.

Perhaps we should reexamine the definition of faith and picture a world without it. Webster’s definitions are many and include a “belief without proof”, but not against it. Without faith, the dictionary would be useless, commerce would be unthinkable, schools closed, parenting impossible, and government abolished. All these things require faith: faith in the publisher, the mutual trust of partnerships and customer-vendor relations, a child’s trust of a teacher or parent, the common good entrusted to public servants. That violations of these come to mind only underscores the fact that trust is an essential part of every human transaction and institution. The only alternative is anarchy, which guarantees zero progress or cooperation. If we are so foolish as to desire such a world, we can be assured we will not get it, for the human spirit (in the great majority of people) both desires to trust and to be trusted. When another puts faith in us, we are both empowered and afraid to disappoint them, and this, too, is an essential part of our humanity.

The worn-out idea that faith causes wars has been brought out time and again, but wars are only made possible by governments, which involve faith in government, both the principle and practice. Webster’s also mentions loyalty, which is a powerful component of the most bloody wars: loyalty or fidelity between allies, often of different cultures and beliefs, lead to wars on a massive scale. Shall we then abolish all alliances and cooperation between nations, or must we abolish government altogether? Perhaps we should look at history again: the “Faithless” governments of Stalin, Hitler, Castro, Mao, and Pol Pot were even more bloody, which brings us to the only alternative to faith that still allows some cooperation and structure.

The alternative is fear. It is possible for fear to mimic faith. In place of cooperation, it brings a common effort for mere survival, and in place of productive structure, conformity. As expressed in the Constitution, we do not want a theocracy, but neither do we desire totalitarianism. In fear, we can build up the police and army, putting our faith (that word again) in arms and violent suppression of our own citizens. We can build bigger prisons and hope they restrain what we fear. Governments can do this well, as evidenced by so many. Faith-based organizations are the alternative to fear-based solutions. We can cooperate in a constitutionally limited way with organizations that have both the motivation and strength to make a difference, but without granting an official sanction of their particular beliefs. In these organizations, faith in God provides the impetus for action, and their belief in Eternity, something outside and greater than Nature, allows the continuity essential to be effective. This partnership must be an uneasy one, but the alternative is known: governments hostile to faith never respect human rights. Those who wish to purge all faith from public life, including those who believe only atheists and agnostics should hold public office, cannot point to a single enduring success in all of history.

In the end, we are back to faith and reason. It is unreasonable to expect faith to go away. Faith in God and each other is an essential part of our humanity, and to deny it a place in public life is to promote a government lacking the qualities we deem essential in every person: humanity.

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