Faith IV

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, May 25, 2011

Origins of Faith

It is important for us to understand the nature of faith because faith, like fire, is a powerful thing and we cannot get away from it; it is a source of great benefit when it directs our actions skillfully; it is highly toxic when it leads us woefully astray. It also serves as an instrument with which to manipulate others, and to be manipulated, for benefit or harm.

Most of what we believe, most of which we are devoted to, is a matter of faith. None of us actually know enough for it to be otherwise. We all like to think of ourselves as rationalists, but even a cursory examination of what we believe or put our hearts into reveals that not much arises purely from reason and discernment.

We are, on the other hand, rationalizers: We think we discover a rational basis for our beliefs and devotions after the fact, that is, after they have already arisen on some other basis. Have you ever noticed that you personally are one of those rare people who has the uncanny ability to be right, right in your social and political insight, in your understanding of religion, and so on? Have you ever noticed that others, in spite of their faulty and sometimes totally wacky notions, nevertheless almost always erroneously think they are right? This, I speculate, is the result of rationalization of personal faith, applied to our own but not to others’.

This is not to say that faith is beyond rational thought, nor that rational thought is beyond faith. In fact rational examination of faith might reveal where it gets us into trouble and where it is likely to yield benefit. But the relationship between faith and reason is complex. I would like this week to consider how faith arises. We will quickly see that the causes and conditions are quite diverse. I thought this might be a useful exercise before we let the Buddha cut to the chase. For one thing many of these conditions have evolved since the Buddha’s time. This will be a fairly random set of observations on my part. I invite readers to follow my lead and post their own observations.

Family. Much of our faith is simply absorbed from our elders in the family. If the older generations are conservatives, we become conservatives, if they are racists, we become racists, if they place great value on the sanctity of marriage, so do we, if they put stock in education and reading, so do we, if they have great faith in Science or believe in the literal word of the Bible, so do we. This kind of faith is acquired by the youngster prior to the development of an active faculty for discernment or reason, and yet can remain strong and unquestioned throughout his life. This is not to say that one of the other factors below will not later override our early faith, but generally this will be done with difficulty and often traumatically. Family faith is also not necessarily a hazard; it is a means to communicate the acquired wisdom of many generations.

First impressions. First impressions lead to what looks like simple inductive reasoning yet is based on only the one instance, not enough to be considered truly rational. For example, suppose you meet an Eskimo for the first time, and he insults you, steals a can of salmon from your cupboard when you are not looking, accepts a beer from you but then passes out on your floor, lets his sled dogs eat your hamster, etc. Most likely the belief, “Eskimos are jerks,” will set in. Of course your personal experience might not be remotely typical, you only have met one Eskimo, yet that belief can become so entrenched that only repeated encounters, and repeated disregard of evidence, will finally dislodge the belief that Eskimos are all jerks. By the same token, it is much easier to convince someone of the veracity of Global Warming on a hot day than on a cold day.

Herd Instict. If everyone around us believes something or values something, we generally fall into line. When I was young everyone I knew was anti-establishment and wanted to make love not war, and sure enough, that became my profile. If every time we turn on the radio someone or other is denouncing President Obama as a Muslim Marxist-Fascist, then pretty soon we start to believe he is like this, even without evidence or explanation, even without knowing what a Marxist or a Fascist is beyond bad names you call someone you don’t like. Many of our social values seem to be instilled this way, such as belief in America (for my American readers, Uganda for Ugandan readers, etc.), Democracy, Liberty, Human Rights, Free Enterprise, Capitalism, Fairness, etc. Interestingly many of these, like the Self, become values of great devotion without discernible referents. For instance, many patriotic Americans seem not to like or even want to be nice to the bulk of other Americans, hate the American government, don’t like nature much and so don’t appreciate the great natural beauty of the vast American landscape, yet cling with both hands to some abstraction called “America.”

Respect. We tend to follow the example of people we encounter and for one reason or another respect or revere. If our teachers are adherents of the Chicago School of Economics, we also become adherents. If our best friend puts a lot of value in personal appearance, we might also lean in this direction. If we meet someone who devotes all of their energy to helping the poor and disadvantaged, we might embrace that role ourselves. Many of us choose role models at some point to try to emulate. Respect or veneration opens us up to the knowledge, beliefs, views and values of another. Without respect for our teachers we could not learn, without respect for scholarship our worlds are much smaller, without respect for T.V. pundits we would lost the opportunity to be so misinformed. Respect is itself a form of faith, of putting our heart on someone or a human institution or source of information.

Viewpoints and Values. Most of our viewpoints and values arise in one of the other ways listed here. However once a viewpoint or value is adopted, as in the case of the first impression, it becomes a condition for additional points of faith, often derived in part by reasoning. An American patriot, or one who believes America is “good,” generally ends up with faith in many other propositions, such as America’s foreign policy is benevolent, America’s democracy is exemplary, America is the source of most international foreign aid, Americans are brave, America has been given a special role by God on the world stage, America is above international law. Similarly faith in the Free Market or the Capitalist system as a force of good commonly supports additional points of faith, that it maximizes efficient allocation of resources, that government or popular oversight is unnecessary, that people get rich in proportion to the good they produce for the world, and so on. Of course a scientific theory also gives rise to many consequences, but it is incumbent on the th eorists that these be testable, grounded in discernment.

Viewpoints are particularly pernicious, and it is no wonder the Buddha was particularly unsupportive of them. In Buddhism “view” and “Wrong View” (ditthi and micchaditthi) are generally taken as synonyms, except for the few things specified as “Right View” (sammaditthi). We tend to think of them as the stuff of rational thought, which is true, but they also arise in the midst of great uncertainty, that is, at least partially out of faith, and then not only spawn many other beliefs of diminishing certainty, but tend to justify themselves as they become the lens through which we interpret reality. So, for instance, with faith in the Free Market one no longer sees rich people or profiteers, but captains of industry (and, I suppose, their families), one tends to view long commutes in massive smog-choked traffic in positive terms as opulence afforded by an efficient market, all the while confirming one’s faith. With faith in a despot, or in the dictatorship of the proletariat, one no longer sees opposition to government policy as legitimate, but rather intrusions of the forces of decadence or even malicious foreign influence. Of course sweeping viewpoints, like “Whatever the Bible says is true,” or “Whatever the Government does is bad,” spawn many absurdities, and indeed people end up believing the darnedest things. Both science a Buddhism are relatively disciplined about viewpoints, but otherwise the well-placed viewpoint is an uncommon thing.

Greed. Greed and Hatred are the major emotional factors driving out behavior outside of what we believe or value, and function even in a world of pure discernment and reason. As the Buddha pointed out, they are great distorters of reality, that is, sources of ungrounded belief. Our neediness typically gives rise to its own justification. The greed of the elite is accompanied by faith in privilege, or in distorted views of the contribution it is making to society, such as civilizing primitive people, or creating wealth that drives the economy for the benefit of all. Grasping after prestige or personal identity tends to produce strong opinions simply as a means of showing off an imagined aptitude for discernment. Thwarted greed tends to produce anger toward human obstacles, which then spins off elements of faith. Lust produces the notion, “He/she is the most beautiful man/woman in the world,” at least until the next day.

Hatred. Along with greed, hatred tends to promote faith in Good and Evil, forces let loose in the universe that happen to correspond remarkably well with our own sense of personal comfort level. Anger induces us to make unfounded attributions of intentionality. In fact scapegoating is a common attribute of anger; anger will build up like an electrical charge in a cloud, then quite arbitrarily look for a lightning rod, a damp tree or some schmo flying a kite to discharge on.

Aversion toward what might be a well-founded discernible or rational belief, suggested by a faithful source of evidence, can lead to faith in the opposite of that belief. This is denial. In spite of all the symptoms or the lab tests, one denies that a love one is dying of cancer. In spite of environmental and social decay and collapse, one denies that the economy can’t just carry on how it has always carried on. This is the distorting effect of hatred.

All of the forgoing might give the impression that faith is a very powerful yet confused and often frightening force. This is verified when you consider what a confused and often frightening place the world is. But notice that this is not confined to religious faith, which can also be confused and often frightening. However religion has become a scapegoat of choice, it is the schmo flying a kite that we most like to discharge our ire on.

Manipulation. It gets worse. Faith, in modern times had been supplemented by another powerful yet confused and frightening force.

My mother, in her eighties and not always of clear mind, one day received in the mail a notification that she was the first prize winner in a sweepstakes. She was instructed to reply and verify that she was who she thought she was, and to claim her eye-poppingly large prize. She had enough faith in the goodwill of the sweepstake organizers and in her own propensity for unsolicited good luck that she replied. She also had faith in the desirability of receiving such an influx of wealth (a faith belied by empirical studies of the fates of lottery winners). This naturally led to an exchange of more correspondence and ultimately a request for payment of some small fee so that the funds could be released from a foreign account, and in good faith she paid the small fee. The funds however were never released, and instead a barrage of similar notifications began arriving in her mailbox, notifications that she had won this or that.

What I found particularly novel is that she began receiving phone calls and letters from psychics, who reported spontaneous visions or favorable signs that came to them out of the blue concerning this elderly woman in San Francisco, whom they out of kindness undertook to forewarn so that she be prepared for fabulous wealth. My mother also began to receive notifications from banks confirming the movement of large sums of money into mysterious accounts. In her state of twilight discernment, she viewed this as confirmation of her faith that she was about to become enormously wealthy, as soon as a couple of fees had been paid to comply with government regulations.

She was not only paying small fees right and left but even began friendly correspondence with the various psychics who had contacted her, who for the most part seemed to be real people advising real clients. Pretty soon my mother was receiving a stack full of notices in her daily mail, and her retiree back account was nearly drained.

Several aspects of this experience are striking. One is the essential role of faith in the goodness of other people’s intentions. I had before this incident admired my mother for her innocence in this regard. Like friendship, this is a faith that tends to inspire good intentions in others, and certainly helps keep one’s own intentions in line. Losing this faith, I dare say, is the first step in losing one’s own integrity, yet at the same time it is a kind of gullibility. Second is the unscrupulousness evident in the exploitation of that faith, … and of the elderly. My brother’s reaction to these events is that people like that should be taken out and shot. The worst part is that the wanton exploitation by another of this faith leads to cynicism. Third is the level of organization assembled in order to provide many sources of evidence for the illusion of forthcoming winnings, suggesting metaphors of dark forces at work with long arms.

Unfortunately this is the nature of our times. The same thing happens to manipulate public opinion and influence public policy. Some newsworthy event, such as a major oil spill or a major uprising in Uzbekistan, occurs that naturally calls into question in the public mind some business enterprise or political concern, and demands a neutralizing response. Within a day editorials are being written, pundits and politicians are offering their views and corporations are issuing statements, with such remarkable consistency that the neutralizing response becomes publicly acceptable, no matter how absurd.

What’s more, the science of public manipulation has become quite sophisticated and is at constant work manufacturing faith in carefully constructed illusions, justifying wars with no inherent merit, promoting growth of an unsustainable economic order, dulling responses to impending crises, and of course inducing people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have, all for the worst of human intentions. And religious organizations have not been exempt from the mass marketing paradigm, or perhaps I should write “religious” organizations, because religiosity may often be part of the illusion.

It is a task of Buddhism to bring order to faith. It is not to eliminate it; that would be to eliminate thought, to eliminate meaning. It is to make faith skillful, to encourage those aspects that bring about beneficial results and to discourage those that bring about harm, to make our faith more rational and less delusional.

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