Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why we have faith, and why we lose it

This is a little essay that I've published in some discussion forums, so I thought I would republish it here.

A question that fascinates many of us is why so many of us have religious faith and why some of us come to lose it. It is my opinion that theism--any belief in a god or gods--is driven by the utility of the belief or what it does for us. What needs does it fulfill? The answer to the question, then, is whether or not we think that the belief is doing its job properly.

As far as I can tell, belief in a god does two things. It explains things to us, and it empowers us. Belief in a god helps us to understand why we exist, how we got here, and why things are the way they are. But it may be even more important to us that gods make us stronger. They offer us a chance to achieve immortality (a central theme of the oldest religious epic, the Gilgamesh story). They perform miraculous cures and bring good weather. They take our side in wars, and they justify our violence against our enemies. It is no random fact that the German Wehrmacht had "Gott mit uns" (God with us) on their belt buckles. Most Christians believe that God supports their political goals and moral attitudes (although they tend to see it as themselves supporting God's political goals and moral attitudes). I cannot think of anything beyond these two purposes that a god may have, but I welcome suggestions. I see the companionship that people get from communication with God as a kind of empowerment, but maybe one could see that as a third reason to sustain belief.

When atheists argue with Christians, it seems that the debate centers primarily around how good a job God does at explaining things. That is why the debate over evolution is so important. Darwin's theory does much to undercut the need to explain biological (and physical) complexity as a divine artifact. Although most Christians have probably given up a literal belief in the Genesis story of creationism, God still seems to explain the mystery of the origin of the universe and the principal reason why evolution seems to have worked to create human beings. God simply guided evolution in their minds. But is God's explanatory value more important than his ability to empower us? I think not.

Most 18th and 19th century religious skeptics in the West tended to be deists, not pure atheists, but Darwinism helped to change that demographic--to create what Dawkins has called the "intellectually fulfilled atheist". In reading biographies of such religious skeptics as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain (both probably deists) and Charles Darwin (a confirmed atheist), I have been struck by the fact that the tipping point from faith to lack of faith in their lives came after the deaths of loved ones. God failed to be there when they needed him. Before that point, they questioned the usefulness of God in explaining reality, but they could buy the fact that he might have played some role in setting things up. It was the utter failure of their God to prevent horror and tragedy that drove them away from religion.

Darwin was a particularly interesting case, because he claimed not to have really embraced atheism until around the age of 40 (from David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin). That was after his father's death and shortly before the tragic death of his treasured young daughter. Lincoln's and Twain's lack of faith hardened similarly after the loss of children. It is ironic, because people of faith quite often find themselves becoming more religious after such tragedies, not less. The experience of tragedy is like a wedge in that it drives people who possess and lack faith further away from each other. After the 9/11 tragedy, the churches in the US filled up, but so did the number of people asking (or explaining) why God had abandoned us.

So I want to end this little essay by saying how I think it affects the debate between theists and atheists. If one is trying to develop a persuasive case for or against belief in a god, the more important of God's two functions--explanation and empowerment--is empowerment. The feeling that God doesn't explain things well may weaken faith, but it is the realization that he fails to help us that makes a real difference in the end. We have to look elsewhere for the strength to get through life's worst tragedies, and that is something which many (perhaps most) of us find too horrible to contemplate.

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