The Need for Secular Faith

Voice of God
Classically Educated prides itself on being eclectic.  Our manifesto makes it clear that we are looking to display as broad a variety of disciplines as possible.  That is patly because we believe in the conceptual superiority of Polymath discipline but mainly because we have a severe case of “shiny” syndrome.
Under these premises, we had an inexplicable gap in our subject matter: faith.  It is a concept that has been central to human experience for as long as human experience has existed… and yet, we’ve only mentioned it tangentially when we made fun of gullibility in the name of spirituality.  Clearly, a more measured, serious approach was needed.
But who could write it?  Faith is a polarizing, moving subject and our regular contributors and especially our editorial team tend to be strongly opinionated and often atheistic – which is great for most subjects, but bad for this one.  We think we’ve got the right man for the job.  After many years of mental hibernation and corporate procrastination we finally get a piece from our deep north correspondent in the mountains near Seattle.  He has asked us to refer to him as “The Delay Lemming” (which we found fitting, so that’s his new handle).  We believe this piece will make you think (or is that: “we think this piece will make you believe”?).

I grew up in Buenos Aires in what I consider a very representative context towards religion for the country: there is a historical base of Catholicism that feeds many customs and morals, but for the most part the rest is fairly secular.  My grandma would go to church on Sundays, my mother on Christmas, and I would only go there when someone was getting married.  When I moved to the USA later in life I saw a similar thing in the liberal half of the population – the base is now Protestant, the morals have different relative weights but for the purpose of this article are largely the same.

There is also a need, fueled by the religious divide with the other more zealous half of the population, to distance oneself from all things religious and push forward an atheist view. The goal is to base choices on the best available science (like vaccination) as opposed to following what was deemed right and wrong by the scripture of choice. In this context, faith is equated with religion and seen as the enemy of progress and common sense.

xkcd religions
(Original comic here.  Click to see the mouse-over)

If you take a pragmatic approach to a human level, the choices we make have consequences in our lives.  We make those choices based on our own models of the world in what we think would yield the best outcome.  These models have inherent probabilities associated with them, like rolling dice, and as such a level of uncertainty and randomness.  When the outcome meets the model and our expectations, we pride ourselves in our superior understanding of the world and rational choices.  But when the unexpected happens, when unforeseen consequences arise or when we start throwing people and emotions into the mix, the results are blurrier.

In these failure scenarios, the most often answer given by religion is faith: believe in our model of the world and trust that there is a higher-order reason for your current suffering.  Billions often find solace in this answer and atheists tend to reject it wholeheartedly. The engineering answer is to look for new information and update the model accordingly to account for this miscalculation – but what about the times when there is none?
Secular Faith
The answer I believe to be also faith, but a secular kind of faith.  This would be the belief that the model you acted on had a high probability of success but yielded failure on this occasion. The faith comes from understanding the odds and thinking about behavior in the long term, believing that acting on this model was indeed the best thing to do despite a failed sample outcome, and thus continue to act this way in the future. The emotional frustration and the discipline that this conviction requires mimics that of religious belief, which should open a path to empathy and hopefully improve the conversation.

Agree wholeheartedly?  Disagree violently?  Have a  slightly deranged opinion about something completely unrelated to this post? That’s what the comments section is for.

Charlie Hebdo and History Repeating itself

Je suis charlie

On April 11th, 1812, a group of Luddites attacked a mill in Leeds, exchanging fire with the armed guards within and leaving two dead.

On January 7th, 2015, a pair of Islamic extremists attacked the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, opened fire, and left twelve dead.

The incidents might seem completely unrelated.  After all, one is an incident over two hundred years old, involving a group that was protesting against the social changes brought about by technology, while the other is based on a religious premise, a protest against a specific act, and looks more like the continuation of ancient crusades and jihads than anything else.

And yet, the parallels are pretty obvious.

The superficial similarities are what jumps out first.  The Luddites were a pseudo-military force that trained and indoctrinated its recruits and eventually found itself facing the might of the British army before being eliminated.  Islamic extremists are similar, except that they are facing the might of most of the world’s armies as opposed to that of just one nation (thanks in large part to the Luddites defeat, the world is now one single nation, essentially).

But there exists a much more subtle similarity as well.  Both events essentially motivated by fear of progress and change.  While the Luddites expressed this openly, religious extremism is just another symptom of the same disease: man’s fear to move forward into a new era.

Of course religious fanatics don’t fear the newest iPhone or electric cars (although some of them do).  The thing they are fighting against is progress as society moves away from religious thinking.  Whether it be jihadis attacking freedom of speech by killing the editors and staff of a magazine that published things they found offensive or right wing Christian fundamentalists taking advantage of regional political power to ban the teaching of science in favor of pseudoscientific theories (and stunt the education of innocent children in the process), they are all reacting against the same thing: religion is no longer a leading driver of social change or social mores.

paris not afraid

Yes, there is a world where people can satirize any prophet and continue living, and it is this one.  The men and women who died in the attack are the ones the world considers heroes… not the attackers.  All but a few misguided souls will be raising a glass in remembrance to the dead – their magazine might have been a bit over the top, and often in incredibly bad taste, but no one can doubt that they had balls and integrity, or that they were true to the spirit of freedom of speech and thought.

This doesn’t mean that religion is unimportant or something to be dismissed.  People are much more free to explore their spiritual side and find a path that helps them deal with modern life than ever before, and many religions are keeping up with the times and offering heir adherents answers that truly help them cope.  But as a force that can force others to conform and be a homogeneous flock, it is spent.

This is anathema to many, to the same type of people who, had they lived in the 1810s would have been part of the Luddite Revolution.

They have already lost, but they just haven’t been able to accept it yet.  They see the world around them getting more and more alien to their beliefs and, unable to adapt, they become violent in their extreme.

I can’t do anything to ease the pain of the loved ones of the people murdered this week.  Or to heal the wounds of the city of Paris or of France.  I can’t even shout loud enough to be heard what a wonderful religion Islam is when it isn’t being practiced by ignorant, frightened, worthless extremists.  The action of fools will harm innocent, peaceful muslims all over the world, including many that I am proud to call friends.  All we can do is support them from here at Classically Educated, which makes me feel impotent and angry.

But at least we can take solace in the knowledge that, like the Luddites before them, religious extremists are just rabid dogs.  They are dying off due to forces they don’t have the mental faculties to understand.  All they are smart enough to do is hurt people before they die.  But both rabid dogs and religious extremists are doomed by the very forces that give rise to their aggression.  Yes, they might get more and more rabid as their time passes, but in the end, they will just be a curious memory, like the Luddites.

We won’t miss them when they’re gone.  And we won’t fear them while they’re here.