Why I’m Faithless at OnFaith

Jun 20, 2014

By Herb Silverman

 

This is my 184th article for OnFaith since I started writing for the publication back in November of 2008. OnFaith was founded by Sally Quinn and remained at the Washington Post until late 2013, when it moved to FaithStreet. What I liked about writing for OnFaith at the Post, aside from it being part of a prestigious newspaper, was that it featured contributors who covered the full spectrum of religious and nonreligious views. On the other hand, FaithStreet is not a street on which I live. Its work is primarily about connecting people to faith communities, but I’m more interested in disconnecting people from faith communities and connecting them with atheist and humanist communities.

Out of the approximately 150,000 words that I’ve written for OnFaith a few have involved positive comments about religious leaders and issues they’ve espoused, but I’ve not had one positive word about “faith.”

Initially, I didn’t think I’d be contributing very often — if at all — to the newest iteration of OnFaith, nor did I think the new editors would be interested in my contributions. The first piece I pitched for the new OnFaith, entitled “A Dangerously Incurious Pope,” was rejected, and later published here. I assumed my relationship with OnFaith was over, and so I published with Huffington Post and elsewhere. Then a “miracle” occurred when I was invited by OnFaith to give an atheist’s perspective of Lent.

What you’re reading now is my tenth piece for OnFaith at FaithStreet. I prefer “preaching” to religious believers on FaithStreet rather than to those whose views are similar to mine. Jesus purportedly went where the sinners are, and I like to go where the “faith-ers” are. I also think OnFaith’s Patton Dodd is an excellent editor. He improves my articles but doesn’t try to soften my criticisms of religion. (That’s what my spouse does).

Speaking of my wife Sharon, she is “unfaithful” like me — in the sense that she lacks faith in supernatural beings. We have a faithless, honest, and monogamous relationship. “Faith,” unfortunately, is usually thought to be a virtue. Why should we automatically show reverence to someone of great faith, which only indicates a conviction that can’t be shaken by contrary evidence? Respect for religious faith, whatever that faith might be, plays an important role in perpetuating human conflict.

7 comments on “Why I’m Faithless at OnFaith

  • ” “Faith,” unfortunately, is usually thought to be a virtue. Why should we automatically show reverence to someone of great faith, which only indicates a conviction that can’t be shaken by contrary evidence? Respect for religious faith, whatever that faith might be, plays an important role in perpetuating human conflict.”

    I’m of the position that an unshakeable confidence, and unshakeable fidelity, both fall out of the evolutionary logic of the cognitive arms race concept put forwards by Trivers. In a highly social species that has to balance the needs of cooperative ventures with a healthy suspicion of cheaters and scams, there develops a need to advertise one’s loyalty and commitment. In a world of traitors and liars trying to use you for their own ends and at your expense, a loyal companion who cannot be tempted is a valuable ally, and such an ally who can advertise their virtue to others and then find equally virtuous partners is also at an advantage.

    Into this mutualistic marketplace of reputations could enter a virtuous person who didn’t even wait to see if their partner was equally virtuous, or who was more indiscriminate about their particular brand of niceness (say, was kind to everyone, or always fair regardless of circumstance). In technical terms, an environment of tit for tat players can be invaded by “saints” who do not punish those who take advantage of them, but who never get taken advantage of because they are surrounded by “nice” strategies. Thus, you potentially get the evolution of indiscriminate nice guys, since they prosper in a world in which strict reciprocating organisms (“do good unto good, do evil unto evil” types) are already thriving.

    Since one of the things people look for in a trustworthy partner is relentless commitment in the face of temptation, it’s not difficult to see both how dogmatic mindsets might evolve and how a people could add in their culture a special privilege for people who remain loyal beyond all reason. Of course, it’s not quite that simple (if too many “saints” infiltrate the gene pool, it can be invaded by cheaters, which in turn could be invaded by tit-for-tat strategists, etc.), and it’s not clear to me how a commitment towards people can get transferred to a commitment towards ideas. It unifies ideas from the ‘Nice Guys Finish First’ chapter in later editions of The Selfish Gene, as well.

    So I’m guessing part of the answer to that question is that the deification of faith comes from a need to show loyalty to one’s social peers, expressed in this case to the extreme by having indiscriminately loyal people refuse to budge on matters that are, at most, arbitrary and accidental. Faith might also be treated as indicating a respect for authority (say, of one’s ancestors or of self-appointed leaders in a religious or political hierarchy) and perhaps as evidence of a pure essence, soul, or divine spark, expressed in the mind, that cannot be contaminated by “alien” thought. It would fit into the relational model framework of morality proposed by Haidt and discussed in Pinker’s Better Angels.

    It also probably helps that faith is wishful-thinking incarnate. You almost never have faith in things you don’t want to believe in.



    Report abuse

  • . It also probably helps that faith is wishful-thinking incarnate. You almost never have faith in things you don’t want to believe in.

    It’s interesting that the notion of faith, once seen as a virtue, has taken on a shift in meaning to that of a foolish claim to knowledge. I’d look askance at someone who said that they had faith.



    Report abuse

  • I may not have what you are saying quite right here as I am about to go to work and am rushing a little, so apologies if I get you wrong. I’m familiar with the tit for tat and development of social standards around these strategies but I’d argue that this does not involve faith as we observe each others reactions and punish those socially when we catch them cheating. People of faith can have stark evidence pushed their way and still continue with their faith. I don’t think this is the same thing.

    For example how many Catholics left the church in the last couple of weeks when we found out that the slut shaming faith that they belong to created the conditions of social exclusion in Ireland that led to homes run by the church specifically for the holding of unwed mothers until their delivery and then stealing of their children who they kept malnourished (even by the standards of the day) then when they died as a consequence of their belief system then threw almost 800 infant and babies into a sewerage tank? Not many even after the priest talking about it on the news says “You can’t judge the church by our modern standards”. Funny I thought they were claiming to have a higher infinite standard? Well I’m sure for some this was the straw that broke the camels back but there weren’t that many, not sufficient to be newsworthy anyway. Faith brushes over evidence like this.

    My theory (so it ain’t worth that much) is that our ability to project into the future allows faith and the benefits outweigh the costs. But happy to discuss.



    Report abuse

  • I’m familiar with the tit for tat and development of social standards around these strategies but I’d argue that this does not involve faith as we observe each others reactions and punish those socially when we catch them cheating.

    This is true, but my point wasn’t that tit-for-tat itself leads to faith. It can be invaded by a strategy that does, though. A population of tit-for-tat strategies can be invaded by purely nice strategies, since in a population of tit-for-tatters, everyone’s nice anyway, so no one can tell the difference. Unfortunately, when cheater strategies come along, the uncritical nice strategies give them a leg up in the population by being so unflinchingly gullible in the face of exploitation. It’s here, among these gullible but nice invading strategies, where faith might arise.

    My other point was that faith might become “deified”, so to speak, because generations of a social species (i.e. humans) are competing in a cognitive arms race between honest and dishonest tactics, and this creates an increasing demand for associates to be unflinchingly loyal, and even completely trusting, which creates a demand for people who show those qualities (and thus attract valuable allies). In such a “marketplace” of virtues, a relentlessly loyal and trusting strategy might sometimes prosper because they fulfil the ideal criteria for a partner. Even cheaters should, in theory if rarely in practice, value them, because you can do anything to them, and nothing will prompt them to abandon the cheat, making them valuable in times of hardship. Hence you’ve got some motivation for promoting strong faith as a virtue: good guys want it because it overlaps with genuine virtues such as unstinting loyalty, and bad guys want it because it’s easy pickings.

    All that would have to be resolved would be the issue of how to prevent cheating from overrunning and destroying the saints. Usually, there’s no answer to the free-rider problem, which is what Dawkins stresses in the book. It might be that reciprocity, gullibility, and exploitation cycle unstably over time in a game of rock-paper-scissors: tit-for-tatters drive out nasty strategies, nice strategies invade tit-for-tatters, nasty strategies eat their way through the nice strategies. This is horribly simplified and hypothetical, but the subtleties can be found in Dawkins’ book.

    Note that the tit-for-tat, saint, and cheater strategies don’t have to be discrete people. A population of strategies might manifest, for instance, as a population of people with varying mixtures of tit-for-tat, saint, and cheater strategies in their heads.



    Report abuse

  • I’ve just thought of something else (not an add-on to the same point I was making, but a separate point). The question of gullible faith is also the question of persistent failure in the face of parasites (for convenience, I’ll lump in predation as parasitism), and there are at least two conditions which would enable a parasitic strategy to persist unhindered, without destroying prey strategies:

    The parasitic strategy doesn’t cause much damage, and is broadly tolerable to the prey strategy. This is simply because generations of evolving organisms will then have higher priorities to tackle, and won’t necessarily compete more economically and successfully if they devote resources to fighting this lightweight parasite. For instance, a tapeworm just sits in the intestine and takes a share of the food coming in, but otherwise isn’t threatening enough to warrant a response from the immune system, which devotes it resources to a strong defence against relentless hordes of potentially dangerous microorganisms instead.
    The parasitic strategy strikes rarely, so even if it can kill the prey, the prey might still function more advantageously if it focuses on other priorities. This is because the lower the frequency of damage, the more other priorities divert resources. For example, worm-eating fish are occasionally killed by anglers pretending to be worms, but since the alternative is to starve to death, and since anglers might make up as little as 1% of all worm-like things observed, fish lineages gamble and grab whatever they can.

    Both conditions can co-occur – a parasitic strategy can be both mild and rare – but if neither are fulfilled, the parasitic species will probably get embroiled in an arms race with its host or drive its host extinct.



    Report abuse

  • Hi Zeuglodon

    Thanks for the reply and sorry if this misses you I haven’t had a chance to check this tread in a bit. I get that Faith could invade through various pathways with out in itself being beneficial the whole meme idea explains this very well. And emergent properties can come about that may have some detrimental side effects. I suppose the block I am still having is that it seems to go against the Tat part of tit for tat.

    Punishing those that cheat against you seems to me to be an important feature of this as an evolutionary strategy (at least until they seek to fall back into compliance). Faith to my way of thinking doesn’t fit this model in that is removes the other party noticing the cheating. I trust this person, I have faith that they won’t cheat so I will respond when they do with complete trust.

    regards



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.