Watching episode 704 of The Atheist Experience, I had a little insight about faith. The caller, a humble, fearful sounding man from a fundamentalist church, was repeatedly returning to his beliefs despite what the hosts asked him. Traci regularly asked why he believed that the particular Christian dogma he ascribed to was true, and he really did not answer the question at all. At other times, the hosts of the show have asked callers how they choose from among the many ancient religions (or modern ones); usually, the caller resorts to the old canard that you “just have to have faith.”
Matt Dillahunty’s canned response to that comment is something like “Faith is the excuse we give ourselves to believe something when there’s no other reason to.” From this perspective, faith certainly seems like a negative. If your only way of distinguishing your religious tradition from those of others is faith, then it’s pretty presumptuous to be so self-assured that you’re right.
But contrast that with faith as a kind of mental placebo, a way to help you get through the tough times. Two secular examples of this are the Little Engine That Could (a children’s story about a small train who succeeded in pulling a large cargo up a steep hill by trying really hard and saying, to itself, “I think I can, I think I can”) and Fred Gailey. Gailey, you will remember, is the optimist defense attorney from A Miracle on 34th Street. His take: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.” Certainly, this can be a good thing.
But how do we distinguish harmful faith from helpful faith? One way, it seems to me, would be to use faith as a way to articulate how the world should be, and the hope we have for that project. To have faith in America, for instance, is to believe the principles of freedom and equality can ultimately win out against the forces that conspire to reduce peoples’ freedom and equality. This is different, of course, from blind faith that America is the best–and if you don’t like it, you can go jump in a lake. (I crib one way to describe the difference in these two perspectives from Al Franken: Mature love for the country acknowledges that it’s run by imperfect people with good intentions who make mistakes, sometimes tragic and horrible; immature love for this country says things like “love it or leave it.”)
So perhaps we all need faith, but we should be able to think carefully about those things we hold faithful, and be able to explain why we do so.