The essence of religious faith is often obscured in popular discussions by the propaganda from nonbelievers and believers. Nonbelievers equate faith with gullibility and say faith is foolish belief without sufficient evidence. Believers say faith is emotional proof of a personal relationship with God. Rediscovering the protoreligious roots of faith, though, may illuminate the situation.
Faithfulness, Covenants, and Animism
“Faith” means trust or confidence, from “fides,” which is a root of “confide” and “fidelity.” “Fidelity” means loyalty or the strict observance of promises and duties. That sense of faith shows up in the word “faithfulness,” which is largely synonymous with “fidelity.”
In the three ongoing monotheistic traditions, where faith came to be central to Christianity’s appropriation of Judaism, the earliest kind of faith wasn’t the mere one-way dogmatic acceptance of a creed, but faithfulness as integral to a two-way covenant between God and the Israelites. The covenant was an agreement between God and his chosen people: if the Jews obeyed God’s commandments, God would fulfill his promise of preserving and enriching his people.
This symmetry of faith is hidden in plain sight in the Christian notion of “having faith in God.” What that expression means is that the believer trusts in God to fulfill his side of the bargain. For example, if the Christian prays for a certain outcome and says she has faith in God, what she means is that she trusts God has heard her prayer and will act with her best interests in mind.
The assumption, then, is that God, too, has obligations, that he’s bound by a covenant to help his followers. Of course the believer is supposed to trust in the truth of her religious creed, but trust in God himself entails that God is supposed to honour his side of a covenant. What Western Christianity did is replace the Jewish law with the confessional acceptance of Jesus’s sacrificial death as the means to atone, but Christianity maintains the double-sidedness of religious faith. That is, Christian faith is really two-way faithfulness between God and Christians.
This two-sidedness points, in turn, to an older stage of religion. Before there were religions in the sense of organized spiritual institutions, there were folklore, magic, and shamanism. The spirits and sacred powers in question weren’t thought of as being as high above the tribe or nature as a king is above his subjects, because there were no kingdoms. Organized religions arose to reflect the hierarchical structure of emerging civilizations, as Morris Berman points out in Wandering God.
Instead, the spirits were identified with what we would call natural processes, and the “religious” task was largely the protoscientific one of controlling those processes to benefit the tribe. Instead of exact science or a church hierarchy, there was the shaman or medicine man who negotiated with the spirits through an altered state of consciousness or who sacrificed an animal or cast a spell to compel the crops to grow or to heal a child or end the tribe’s squabbling.
Religious faithfulness to a covenant seems to have emerged from the openness of animistic spirits to being magically controlled, and that openness was possible because the spirits were just personifications of manifest, mundane cycles or events. The two-sidedness of faith-as-faithfulness arose from the importance of causality and pseudo-mechanisms to animists: the shaman’s function was to manipulate or negotiate with the spirits to magically guarantee a favourable outcome in the ordinary world.
What mattered originally wasn’t faith in the sense of belief in a religious doctrine, but the mechanism that connects the spirits to the tribe, such as the communication via altered states, the ritual sacrifice, or the magic spell. And there was thought to be such a concrete mechanism because the spirits weren’t metaphysically estranged from the embodied tribespeople; rather, the spirits were no more than comforting ways of thinking of the events that unfolded in the tribe’s immediate environment. The spirits were part of nature, because they hadn’t yet been chased from the universe by scientific investigation.
Vestiges of Protoreligion in Christianity
Notice that archaic instrumentalism shows up in the heart of Christianity. The Christian believes she urgently needs to confess her faith in Jesus as her savior, but as Paul said in 1 Cor.15:14, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Jesus’s redemptive act was a sacrificial killing of a person. Just as the shaman slaughters the chicken to heal an illness, because of some presumed causal connection between the animal and the ill person, Jesus acted shamanically in ritually killing someone potent enough to redeem our entire species.
That sacrificed person was himself, since Jesus magically doubled as an incarnation of God. According to Christian understanding, Jesus thereby conquered death for everyone and even descended to the underworld to free the souls that had been trapped there, thus defeating the evil forces that had attempted to thwart God’s plan for humanity.
As barbaric as the notion of human sacrifice may be, the concreteness of Jesus’ crucifixion is crucial to the protoreligious logic that props up the Christian’s glorification of “faith.” Without the materiality of Jesus’s sacrificial death, there would be no pseudo-mechanism to magically connect God with the believers and thus no new covenant or two-sided Christian faithfulness. The Western Christian agreement is that God would accept believers into heaven, taking Jesus’s death as sufficient payment for sin, if the believers would periodically grovel and admit how pitiful they are for being unable to save themselves from God’s wrath.
Eastern Christians have a different mechanism: instead of acting as a sacrifice, Jesus was a model to be imitated and thus these Christians contemplate Jesus to know God and to be more godlike themselves. This kind of Christianity is more mystical than the Western kind, but two-sided faithfulness still plays a role for the Eastern Christian in that she demonstrates her commitment to God with theoria, which are various inward, contemplative practices to magically acquire oneness with God, while God opened up those paths for salvation by sending the world his son Jesus.
In mainstream Western Christianity, religious faith often becomes the one-way triviality of “having faith in God.” The idea is that all the Christian needs to do is verbally accept that God did all the work for us in removing our sin as a factor in divine judgment. That is, the Christian need only trust that God will fulfill his promise of crediting us with the infinite value of Jesus’s spilled blood.
The selfishness that’s instrumental to classical capitalism seems to have been anticipated by that Christian trivialization of spirituality. After all, for the capitalist, things magically work out for everyone when we’re each as selfish as possible in business; in particular, far from feeling guilty about her narrow-mindedness, the consumer should be driven by it. No need to fear the environmental impact of consumerism, for example, since that cost is an economic “externality” and thus is magically irrelevant to our prospects.
Likewise, in this degraded form of Christianity, the Christian doesn’t have to work hard to improve the world, since God has already done everything for us that ultimately matters. Christianity becomes lip service combined with compromises with all manner of secular anti-spirituality. It’s no accident that the most egregious versions of this “Christianity” are based in the United States where the effective predominant religion is obviously capitalism.
The Sacredness of Secular Progress
The question is often asked whether atheists, naturalists, or secular humanists have faith in anything or whether they ought to have some kind of faith. Is it possible to have no religion at all or do we tend to fall back on religious impulses, taking something to be sacred in spite of our philosophical conceits? Applying the above analysis of religious faith, the question becomes not so much whether the atheist believes in something without proof, but whether she relies on a bidirectional pseudo-mechanism that counts as a covenant, an agreement that obliges both the “secularist” and some sacred object. Any such analogue with monotheism would amount to a vestige of protoreligion in “secular” society, vitiating at least much of the propaganda that supports the dichotomy between the religious and the secular.
One possible secular covenant is marriage, although in the secular world marriage is a commitment between the married individuals and the state. There, too, we see the primitive appeal to a pseudo-mechanism in the symbols of the marriage ceremony, the idea being that if the ceremony is performed properly, the marriage will be blessed. Of course, secular people are too skeptical to believe there’s any such magic in the ceremony, and they ensure the rituals are performed more out of social pressure to appear to respect a certain tradition than out of anything like faithfulness to a sacred agreement.
More central to secular humanism is the faith in the progressive potential of human nature. Here the idea is that we mortals replace the gods that never existed in the first place, because there was always just the natural world that waited, as it were, for us to rationally explain how it operates. We should be optimistic about our potential to improve our collective situation, rather than succumbing to despair, given the apparent absurdities of godless life.
If we ask for the source of the mainstream secularist’s optimism, we’re met with an induction based on data such as those compiled by Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now and in his previous book, which shows how science and technology have raised people’s living standards, especially in the developed societies that can afford those institutions and tools. We can see that the applications of reason have led to so much progress in only a few centuries, that when we project that progress into the future, as is done in science fiction, the possibilities are stunning. For example, transhumanists say we’ll merge with all-powerful and all-knowing technologies, ruling the galaxy as immortals.
The religious flavour of these optimistic speculations isn’t accidental, since here again there’s the logic of the religious covenant. Implicitly, at least, the secular humanist commits to neoliberalism, critical thinking, philosophical naturalism, and other tenets of Western secularism; meanwhile, she expects her sacred talisman to reward such service. That talisman is none other than the far-future human descendant who is made godlike by science and technology rather than by conforming to an obsolete creed. Just as monotheists trust that God will redeem human suffering in an afterlife, secular humanists trust that future transhumans will redeem all the strife and folly of our pre-rational period, by being so awesome. There’s even a scenario in which transhumans will resurrect all previous humans, by simulating our minds in a virtual reality.
Regardless of the likelihood of that progress, the point is that secular humanism presupposes that such progress is at least naturally possible. That convenient presupposition amounts to faith, since it’s conjectural and comforting. And it’s not just any faith but the archaic variety of faithfulness, that two-sided sacred agreement that originated from animistic magic. The implicit agreement between the present secular humanist and her far-future heroes is sacred to her because without the idea of social progress, that is without the pseudo-mechanism that connects the present to the far future, the secularist has no compelling answer to the cynical existentialist, pessimist, or nihilist who says that, on the contrary, science shows that human life is a monstrous joke.
This isn’t to say that secular humanism is a religion in all the traditional respects or that reason is nothing but faith. There are important psychological and social differences between atheists and theists. But the cultural war between new atheism and monotheism, for example, generates caricatures of the opposing sides that are useful precisely because they obscure as much as they illuminate. Nor does any of this mean that the truth is somewhere in the middle or that we should live and let live. On the contrary, we should be appalled by the hypocrisy and self-serving delusions that degrade us all.