philosophy • 27.01.08
Faith is a kind of spiritual food. The mind of a human seems to need it to get through. Myth offers similar benefits. A life absent of such things feels like it is missing essential ingredients.
Are these requirements suspect I wonder? Is the spiritual food of belief not low on nutrition? I say yes. Although it keeps the mind alive it provides a toxic form of nourishment. I think that having sound knowledge is a healthier way of doing that job - i.e. having knowledge that works. To know that water will come out when the tap is turned or that light will come on when the switch is thrown is knowledge that works. Faith, belief and myth don’t make this happen. Action makes it happen backed up by knowledge. At certain times in history clever people worked out the mechanics, the detail and the analysis of such things and bestowed a benefit on mankind. Certainly they may have needed belief in possibility to push on with their enterprises but only as a provisional requirement. Knowledge, ability and determination would always have been more crucial.
With scant knowledge there is a vacuum. The resulting insecurity needs addressing. The mind fills the vacuum with faith, belief and myth. This toxic trio has filled the knowledge void since times when understanding was threadbare. Question is, can the trio be completely cast off and the knowledge that is now available be used to generate a better psychology? If so, this would mean that at times it would be necessary to live with not knowing and to learn how to be comfortable with that. With better mental health I think this is possible. If knowledge on a subject was lacking it would be considered unhealthy to fill the void with mythical stories.
So why do I think belief can be toxic? Belief is something held to be true in the absence of evidence. As kids Santa Clause was a nice idea. It brought a wonderfully warm feeling of generous paternalism. The notion of a benevolent old man who came down everybody's chimney at Christmas bearing gifts was a cool thing. At five years of age I never questioned this, that this man had a hell of a lot of children to get round in a night. And getting down these chimneys after so many biscuits and glasses of milk? These details didn't matter. All that mattered was the feeling and the fun. When divested of the myth it wasn't a huge problem. “Obviously,” I remember thinking, and moved on unharmed. Same with the Jesus story and the idea of God. I rather liked that, the thought that somebody was watching over me and taking care of me. There was to be no adult consensus on the mythical status of this one however. Far from it. Huge numbers of perfectly sensible people still held to the Jesus idea into adulthood and life-long. Centuries old institutions had been established around this belief. And yet is this not just another form of Santa Clause, an implausible myth, another warm and fuzzy story that could also be dumped without causing too much damage? I'd say so. Actually I'd say that just as a mature adult still believing in Santa would be unhealthy, then the same for the Jesus story. I think such a belief still residing in a mature person is toxic and acts like a poison to a properly functioning rationality. It is the permanent suspension of disbelief. It is a reality too far.
Richard Dawkins has become the sceptic’s mouth-piece. Despite being a non-believer of religion he still very much believes in the truth of his science. Darwinism is more than useful knowledge to him. It gives rise to a whole belief system. This is the fallacy Berlin talked of and what Wittgenstein referred to as “scientism”. Dawkins and the Atheists aren't just saying that it is not possible to know transcendent reality, they are specifically saying that whatever transcendency is it is definitely not God. I say that the truest philosophical position is one of not-knowing. What is transcendent is unknowable. By definition. The Atheists get the best of both worlds in a way. They secure the support of hard science’s rigorous claims but they also get the bounce from a metaphysical belief in the scientific way as absolute. This fills the same psychological space as religion does for the god-believer.
For many, the move from religion to enlightenment lead to the adopting of new absolutes. This was a mistake. Living with non-belief and relativism is a tough call but I think it is a necessary requirement for enlightenment to stand. It is tough but not impossible. It is a tangible task and one that should be fully embraced. For much of my adult life until fairly recently I had faith in providence. Losing that was something of a wrench. So I'm not saying that dumping belief is always harm-free, just that the wounds can be healed. In this sense I am a recovering believer now. The tendency to fill the void of non-belief with other forms of absolute is tempting. It is like a balm to the disillusioning. But to do that would be like an alcoholic who is missing the hit finding an alternative addiction.
As well as being addressed intellectually, a fully mature relativism has to become an integral part of the social psyche in some realisable form. Who knows what that might be. Churches performed that task for religion. I passed one this morning and saw the happy folks pouring out having had their weekly shot of the serum. There remains something mystical about churches and the things that people do inside them. That I can't deny. They are often exceptionally beautiful places. To lose them would seem almost philistine but for an enlightened mindset there is no need for such seductive display. The belief systems that underpinned the Church were as toxic as they were nutritious. Perhaps they might morph into open spaces for public meditations. Good food for good thought.
The tendency to fill the void of non-belief with other forms of absolute is tempting, like a balm to the disillusioning