Nouveau Thoughts: August 2006: Archives

August 1, 2006

Can Faith & Religion Be Acts Of Cowardice? genre: Hip-Gnosis & Nouveau Thoughts & Six Degrees of Speculation

Faith & Religion

I’ve always been a contrarian. Those who know me well know that my motivation for being so is primarily to force myself to look at alternate perspectives in order to uncover more “truth". Being a contrarian is like walking a tight rope…tilt a little too far in one direction and you risk the ire of those you potentially offend. Nonetheless, today I venture out onto the wire again without the benefit of a safety net in the hope that at the other end lays more “truth".

I’ve been thinking a lot about faith and religion. In a world filled with skepticism, I have long been fascinated by the propensity of people to cling to faith and religion while expressing wholesale skepticism for other concepts and data that is supported by strong factual evidence. Faith has long been portrayed as an act of courage and there have been numerous books, plays and movies made to celebrate such acts. However, as I’ve pondered that notion, it struck me that one could argue the opposite…that faith and a belief in religion are acts of cowardice. Abrasive as that may sound, please hear me out.

First, I should make my own confessions. I grew up a Catholic and attended Catholic schools until I went to college. My family is Italian and as such faith and religion were fundamental constructs throughout much of my life. Regardless, about seven years ago, during a difficult time in my personal life, I found myself lying in bed looking for comfort and hoping for guidance. It wasn’t long before I found myself beginning to pray about my situation…asking God for guidance…and without warning I suddenly stopped. After a lifetime of prayer and faith, I vowed at that moment to never pray again…and I’ve kept that vow to this day. It wasn’t an easy task. I’ve caught myself about to invoke prayer on a number of occasions…although the frequency has greatly diminished with the passage of time.

Let me attempt to explain why I made this decision and perhaps that will help explain why I would make the assertion that faith and a belief in religion are acts of cowardice. I’ve previously written about “terror management theory", a psychological concept that attempts to explain how humans deal with the notion of the terror created by their pending mortality. The theory posits that there is what one could characterize as an existential disconnect whereby the individual attempts to bury the anxiety created by the fear of death.

The theory asserts that culture and self-esteem are interconnected as the mechanisms of choice to deal with this anxiety. Essentially, as the individual begins to comport with cultural paradigms, the individual thereby receives favorable feedback that bolsters self-esteem. Heightened self-esteem seems to diminish the anxiety created by the concept of one’s death. Culturally accepted achievements and affiliations are therefore reinforcing and they provide the individual with an esteem buffer that allows them to avoid some of the inevitable anxiety that is created by our uniquely human awareness that death is inevitable.

One of the primary cultural constructs is religion and, as such, faith is the means by which the individual is able to demonstrate one’s connection to that cultural paradigm…the method by which self-esteem is bolstered and anxiety is therefore diminished. With this backdrop, I propose the argument that expressions of faith are acts of cowardice used to ignore the inevitable…not unlike using alcohol or drugs to mask unresolved anxieties. Hence my conclusion that fateful night was that prayer, and therefore faith and religion were merely the crutches I sought to use to anesthetize my turmoil and moreover to minimize my own realization that each day passed brings us closer to death.

One must then look at the mechanisms within culture that seek to insulate religion and faith from scientific examination to fully appreciate the theory’s significance and to understand why faith and religion endure. In a world that by and large requires evidence in order to advance new ideas or novel theories, there is an unspoken taboo on the application of the same to religion and faith. Further, when science refutes religion or faith, whether that is by implication or as an elected choice, there is often an inherent cultural push-back. That collective push-back is the angst that permeates culture and society with regards to dealing with death.

An example might be helpful. The state of Kansas has been at the forefront of the battle between evolution and intelligent design (creationism). The State Board of Education recently mandated a curriculum that challenges Darwin’s theory of evolution and that many within the scientific community see as an attempt to circumvent science by endorsing and institutionalizing religious beliefs. At the center of the conflict is a woman named Connie Morris. The New York Times recently discussed the Kansas issue here.

Connie Morris, a conservative Republican running for re-election, said the board had merely authorized scientifically valid criticism of evolution. Ms. Morris, a retired teacher and author, said she did not believe in evolution.

“It’s a nice bedtime story," she said. “Science doesn’t back it up."

Clearly, these remarks represent a full reversal of the application of science and religion. Ms. Morris and a majority of Board members, because of the religious beliefs they hold, (although they deny that their religious beliefs are the premise for their contention) seek to use science to disprove one scientific theory (evolution). They argue that because the science isn’t absolute (basically many of those opposed to evolution contend that there are some time gaps in the fossil documentation of evolution) then, at the same time, a greater truth must exist and that truth is reasonably found in faith because faith provides a better (or one might posit the only) explanation of the gaps within science (intelligent design such that a higher being must have been involved). They make this argument despite the fact that science continues to predictably fill in these blanks as more evidence is figuratively and literally unearthed.

Nonetheless, she and other like minded individuals, supported by a culturally adopted construct that serves the purpose explained by the “terror management theory" are by default asserting that faith is science of the highest order...and need not prove itself scientifically…but merely contend that the converse cannot be proven absolutely. By calling evolution a “nice bedtime story" Ms. Morris has completed the reversal and the culturally held beliefs (faith and religion) remain unchallenged and not subject to scientific standards. As such, the mechanisms that provides relief from the anxiety of death (faith and religion) are protected and preserved.

Let me offer another example that demonstrates my proposed argument at work within an individual. Mel Gibson was recently arrested for driving under the influence. During that encounter, his behavior apparently involved flagrant anti-Semitic remarks. In the aftermath, the situation does an excellent job of showing how faith can be used to disprove the obvious without regard for reason or legitimacy. Today Mr. Gibson issued a statement in which he asserts that he isn’t a bigot and that he isn’t anti-Semitic…and most notably explains that it isn’t true because “that goes against my faith". In saying as much, Gibson is substituting a culturally held premise (faith) as a defense for his own explicitly contrary actions. Not only is that intellectual dishonesty, it is a despicable act of cowardice. Regardless, many will allow and accept his explanation in order to protect the notion of faith and religion.

Let me offer one final example. The recent phenomenon of suicide bombers is perhaps the ultimate act of cowardice that has at its core a culturally held set of religious beliefs. It also presents an instance of abundant irony. Let me walk through the rationalization in order to make the necessary connections. Driven by the perceived desperation of their situation, and in the absence of the strength to make the choices necessary to be an actor in the process of change to make their life and this life here on earth better, they not only embrace culturally held beliefs that seek to diminish the anxiety of our existential existence, they leap beyond this world in what they deem to be an act of faith, in the hope and belief that the next world is guaranteed to provide them with what they were unable or unwilling to endeavor to obtain here in this existence.

Further, in their acts of faith, they seek to end the lives of those whose faith they deem worthy of destruction…all the while ignoring the fact that if they believe in faith, they are providing the same afterlife opportunity to those they murder…without any evidence that it is their faith that will be rewarded by their act as opposed to the faith of those they kill. That is an indefensible act of cowardice committed under the guise of faith fully devoid of reasoned support. However, the actions will be defended by those who embrace the same culturally held beliefs.

Faith can therefore become the means and the method whereby one defines the meaning and purpose of one’s existence and when that faith subverts the realities of our human condition, humanity is abandoned. If humanity is abandoned, then acts of faith are frequently allowed to trump humanity and what follows is often the infliction of atrocities carried out in the name of faith. They are acts of cowardice that are perpetrated as part of an elaborate system of denial meant to not only minimize the terror of death for the actors but to give the death of some of the participants a greater worth and therefore a better promise of an unfounded, though ever defended eternal future.

If faith is meant to soften the blow of death by offering the possibility of an afterlife, then living life with faith because death is too frightening is merely an act of cowardice that has nothing more than an unproven and uncontested culturally held context and contract as its premise. It is perpetuated despite the reality that virtually all of our remaining worldly existence is predicated upon fact…and yet we cling to faith despite the fact that the preponderance of evidence suggests that death is inevitable and final. I contend that this faith driven denial must therefore be synonymous with cowardice.

In the end, religion and faith are likely to become the vehicle by which the existential journey is abandoned. By subrogating our responsibility to make the choices necessary to define the meaning of this life for the promise of a future life that is “believed" to be absent the same travails, the individual remains a culturally defined entity rather than an individual that defines culture. In that subtle distinction is the quintessential difference between cowardice and courage…and therefore it is also the difference between accepting and manipulating the terror of death. Unfortunately, that choice will determine whether the individual has actually lived enough to accept death or chosen to cease the act of living in order to avoid the reality of death. Death will gladly tell each of us which choice we’ve made.

I choose to believe there is no afterlife because I accept the evidence that suggests as much. For years it was easier to believe otherwise, yet harder to live. I gave up believing in faith and religion so I could start believing in this fully human existence. I accepted the responsibilities and the consequences of making this life meaningful without the need for a means to avoid the fear of death. In so doing, each day can be lived as part of the preparation for dying without a preoccupation for the prevention of death. By living each day, we can remove some of the potential for regret and we can also minimize what would otherwise be a growing need to be compensated for the days that we didn’t live…and which faith and religion have taught us to expect to obtain in an idyllic afterlife. This life is forfeited when it is used to negotiate for an afterlife.

In the end, faith in one’s self and faith in humanity requires courage because the evidence suggests that both are flawed. Perhaps if we accepted as much, faith might become fact and this life might be lived as it should rather than as part of an elaborate self-denial. I think its worth a try…the current approach has proven to be every bit as deadly. Death is a given…life need not be its victim.

Daniel DiRito | August 1, 2006 | 3:00 PM | link | Comments (1)
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