Tuesday, June 28, 2016

define faithless

Until I subscribed to materialistic naturalism, I didn't fully appreciate the rhetorical disadvantages it can have. So many other perspectives have been dominant throughout history. One of the subtler aspects of this historical domination is language. Words' various denotations and connotations lend greater support to one side. Productive discussions are more difficult. (Peter Boghossian has stressed this deceptive slipperiness of common words.)

"Faith" is one of these tilted words. It has accumulated diverse meanings and contexts of usage. It's happened to such an extent that, depending on the applied definition, I'm not technically "faithless". Apparently, I'm not faithless in the following broad ways.
  • loyalty. This kind of faith appears more often in the word "faithful". Whether the focus is a group or a cause, it refers to an undivided commitment. It requires refusing to betray/abandon the group or cause, especially when that would be easier or more profitable, or when competing pressures arise. Of course, the list of potential loyalties that need no supernatural frame is a lengthy one. Advocates of materialistic naturalism can be faithful to them without any contradiction whatsoever. In my experience, they have above-average contrarian tendencies and they prize their independence, but they're as loyal as everyone else to the groups or causes which they deliberately join. 
  • not capricious. This kind of faith is about not being controlled by whims. It's holding firm to an idea, not continuously dropping and picking it back up as the mood strikes. But the total opposite is undesirable as well: never ever discarding ideas is possibly a sign of aloof, complacent stagnation. Like the majority of faults, it's easier to perceive either incorrect extreme in others than in oneself. My winding path to materialistic naturalism was prolonged, careful, and informed. The very end represented a huge distance from the very start. But it wasn't capricious. 
  • reliable communication. This kind of faith is akin to credibility. It's the dedication to uphold one's own statements—to fulfill promises. It's backing statements with actions whenever applicable. It's paying the statements' costs. And I would say that this principle is more compatible with my current view than my former one. It fits well with the principle of estimating ideas' accuracy precisely according to the quality and quantity of corroboration. Both principles express that ideas should neither be held nor expressed in a manner which is isolated from realities and efforts. Just as prospective truths should be evaluated by linking them to the consequences they have (or in fact don't as the case may be), personal statements should have consequences on the speaker's behavior.
  • trust. This kind of faith is directed at trusting other people or collections of people. It's not trusting them to exist, but trusting that they will do good. It's trust that they will make admirable decisions or at least struggle to enact their good intentions. Sometimes this faith in the person derives from an ongoing reciprocal relationship with them. If so then this faith might have been confirmed repeatedly for years. Faith in someone who has shown their goodwill is hardly a groundless leap in the dark.
  • positivity. People plan, but they can't eliminate unfavorable chances. This kind of faith is the choice to not obsess on these risks. I'm fine with this, because someone may highlight the happier outcomes in their imaginations while they acknowledge the realistic odds of each and they prepare for misfortunes. This contemplation isn't worthless if it provides them motivation and guidance. And after they've already done all they reasonably can, having faith in a beneficial outcome causes no harm.
  • acceptance of imperfect proof. This kind of faith consists of proceeding on the basis of provisional ideas. It may be argued that any idea without invincible authority implies that someone must take it on faith; therefore faith is something everyone uses all the time, and it's hypocritical to not embrace it in the argued context. The error of this conclusion is that the category of ideas with imperfect proof is wide and mixed. This indiscriminate mass of ideas represents a crucial gradient of differing likelihoods. These differences are decisive. If validating an idea with "merely" a 90% likelihood qualifies as faith...then yes, I suppose I'm not faithless. But it's ludicrous to propose that an idea of 90% likelihood successfully earning my "faith" logically forces me to respond similarly to ideas of 10% likelihood.
  • awe. Some commonly try to associate awe with faith in specific beliefs—probably theirs. Either the awe inspires the faith, or the faith provokes and enables the awe, or awe and faith are more or less synonymous. They may murmur, "How can you not have faith? Don't you feel awe?" The honest answer is that I do—right before I cheerily skip the presumption of blaming it on something mysterious. At times one can be awestruck by an astounding yet demystifying explanation. Real objects of awe, i.e. things much grander than the scale of human existence, are everywhere. Classifying episodes of awe as faith would end up classifying me again as not faithless. (Or, ugh, "spiritual".)  
  • interest in paramount ideas. Right along with awe, some associate faith with any strong interest in paramount ideas. That's faith's "territory". They characterize faith-based thinking as deep, profound, introspective, elevating contentment over greed, and searching for luminous beings and not this crude matter. So reluctance to indulge in faith is shallow and mundane. The snag in this self-congratulatory generalization is that it conveniently ignores the opposite result: when less reverence for obtaining answers through faith is an effect of the determination to systematically investigate the questions. If thoughtful, fervent interest in paramount ideas is exclusive to faith, then I'm not faithless. 
Now that I've rambled on a while about not being faithless, am I a "person of faith" in the usual smug sense of that label? I'd rather not call myself that, and I suspect nobody else would find it helpful. I realize that by the most prominent definition I'm thoroughly faithless: I lack religious affiliation and all of its numerous expressions. 

My complaint is how this definition of faith is unintentionally accompanied by the peripheral faith definitions I listed. Placing people under the heading of faith grants them a halo (ha!) side-effect of hinting that they possess the qualities in the faith list. And barring people from it hints that they might not. I imagine the practical impact will shrink, as the social status of the concept of a person of faith continues to dwindle. If that vacancy were later filled by the scrupulously vague concept "person of patchwork spirituality", I'd judge it to be an improvement regardless.

Lastly, I'm compelled to mention the faith definition that writers with my view frequently prefer to underline: the practice of willfully neglecting, or only superficially pretending, to judge a given idea's accuracy via the means of neutral inquiry and analysis. Becoming progressively more and more faithless by this notion of faith nudged me to reexamine my opinions. I like to have faith that more people will be faithless in this regard too.