A Contrarian View of The Secular “F” Word

Why A Contrarian View?

“I know full well that the reader has no great desire to know all this, but I have the desire to tell them of it”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Opinion pieces, interestingly enough, lend themselves mostly to parroting mainstream ideas of the intended audience while doing little more than gently rocking the boat. It’s probably not in the best interest of any writer to piss off their audience. Challenging ourselves to add something meaningful to the body of secular literature that advances the dialogue instead of simply rehashing old ideas is not easy. To move a discussion forward we really need an antagonist, a contrary viewpoint, that at the very least awakens the mind to contemplate the possibility of new dimensions within a given subject. This is my first attempt at playing the role of the antagonist. Wish me luck.

Call it hubris or stupidity on my part, but I contend that our treatment of the subject of faith in secular circles has missed a fundamental problem that often negatively impacts our lives even outside of a religious context. With faith becoming the taboo "F" word in secularism we have lost a critical understanding of how all of us operate in the real world. While we can clearly see from a secular vantage point that religious faith can be very toxic, I believe we have missed what makes it so. Faith is just one element in a complex mix that begs the question which element is responsible for the toxicity of the whole?  Can faith exist and reach toxic levels outside of a religious context?  Can this toxic mix infect even the high and mighty domain of science? 

For some background on my approach to this subject, it might help to understand how I make my living as a technical analyst. My job is to solve problems that cause millions of dollars in lost revenue due to mistakes that amount to little more than the difference between a 0 and a 1. When a single missing semicolon can break several thousand lines of application code or a couple of misplaced digits can bring down a global financial network, I can't afford to play semantic games. I must ask precise syntactic questions and look beyond the obvious easy answers. If a problem makes it to my desk, all the easy answers have already failed to solve the problem.

Any problem that involves a complex recipe of diverse elements can not simply be summed up in broad strokes and filed away as solved because some self proclaimed genius identified the sum of the parts as a problem. Thank You Captain Obvious! We need to get at the root of the problem to determine the solution. Is each of the individual elements a problem?  Maybe just one of the elements is the problem and responsible for poisoning the whole. Does this particular mix of elements result in an emergent property being the source of the problem? If we remove any single element from the mix would the problem go away or do we need to remove a specific element? 

It is one thing to say a chocolate chip cookie is bad, but it is another thing to identify if it has too much salt or too little sugar, too much flour or too few chocolate chips, it was cooked too long or not long enough. Anyone can say the cookie is bad, but why? I am sure the chef would appreciate some specific feedback to improve their next batch. Like salt in a cookie recipe, faith is only one element in a complex toxic recipe we call religious faith.

A Rational Faith?

I am often amused by our reactions to theists asserting we atheists also utilize faith, especially in regard to science. We trip all over ourselves in vehement red faced semantic denial, like they just insulted our first born. The decibels in our tone noticeably goes up and we emphatically state “SCIENCE DOES NOT INVOLVE FAITH, SCIENCE IS BASED ON EMPIRICAL DATA AND FACTS!”  Faith is colloquially positioned as the polar opposite of rational thought. There is a simple dichotomy between faith and reason, where facts based on evidence and faith based on wishful thinking are mortal enemies in the secular mind.

Now bear with me dear reader, if you stay the course through this section you might actually agree with me in the end. I am well aware if we define faith as “confidence in a given proposition without evidence”, I am left with an indefensible position on the existence of rational faith. Apparently in the secular mind faith is equivocated to leap of faith. As difficult as this may be, we need to free the word for a moment from its customary mooring to religion and explore its primary formal definition; belief, trust, or confidence in a given proposition. After this exploration we will insert faith back into its religious context and hopefully its role will then be much easier to see and predict.

In our everyday life faith plays a key role in every decision we make, every action we take, and every action we refrain from taking. The past provides us data, evidence, and facts. The future though makes us no promises or guarantees. Just because my car has always started in the past, I have no guarantee that it will start tomorrow. Even though I don’t know of a single car that has exploded just by turning the ignition (except in the movies), there is no guarantee my car will not explode the next time I start the engine. Maybe a criminal organization mistook my car for someone on their car explosion hit list. In practical terms, faith is simply the confidence we place in the expected future performance of various propositions. Faith bridges the gap between the past and the future. Without it we would be completely paralyzed in a state of constant fear unable to engage the world around us.

A rational faith, or better yet a warranted faith, is a confidence level in the future performance of a given proposition that accurately correlates with the data gathered from past performances. Having confidence that my car will start tomorrow is rational or warranted based on the facts. My car is only a year old, new cars don’t generally fail in their first year, there are no strange sounds or vibrations coming from my car, and it has never yet failed to start. My faith in my car starting tomorrow is warranted by the data. Now if my car was 10 years old, shaking like a San Francisco earthquake, and emitting loud grating sounds, I really should take my confidence level down a notch and go have my car checked out. If I ignore all this evidence and fully expect my car to start tomorrow, I have now embraced an irrational or unwarranted faith in regards to my car.

Floating this idea of rational faith by a friend, they quickly gave me the example of trusting a friend to catch you when you fall. Ah ... the memories of the old “trust fall” bonding experience. If you are trusting a friend who has previously provided evidentiary data that they are indeed a trustworthy friend, how is this faith to trust them to catch you?  Notice all the uses of the word trust in just those three sentences?  Again, in the secular mind, faith has been separated completely from trust even though trust is the primary word used in the formal definition of faith.

The truth is even if they are a friend and you trust them completely and they really want to catch you, there is still no guarantee they will catch you. What if an aneurism hits their brain right when you decide to fall? As this YouTube example shows, there are ways to experience a “trust fall” failure even with someone we can trust.

Point being it still takes faith to engage the proposition “my friend will catch me,” it is just rationally warranted faith based on good evidence.

Irrational Faith

“False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long;” Charles Darwin; The Descent of Man

Let’s examine how faith can be irrational. This is not what I call toxic faith, but simply a confidence level placed in a proposition that is not warranted by the data. This is when our confidence level does not correspond to the facts due to insufficient data. This can be due to unavailable data, failure on our part to search for and examine the available data, or exposure to false data. We can’t possibly know everything there is to know about a given proposition before making a decision, so we sometimes do the best we can with the data we have on hand, taking small leaps of faith.

Our brains are continuously calculating risk-reward ratios subconsciously on our behalf and often permitting us to move forward without expending the effort needed to gather and analyze all the available data. Sometimes the cost in time and effort is just not worth it according to our brain’s calculations. Our brain often replaces accurate and tedious algorithmic data mining and analysis with quick and easy short cut heuristics.

Our brain though can miscalculate and abuse the use of heuristics and lead us to believe we are assigning the correct confidence level, when in reality we are being irrational and our confidence level is not warranted by the data. This is a common problem with overconfidence in economic forecasting, investment projections, and most familiarly in gambling.

Irrational faith is not a simple true or false condition, but exists on a spectrum ranging from low irrationality to high irrationality depending on the risk of the proposition. Take choosing a new family care doctor for example. I don’t have time to get a medical degree and invite doctors over for a personal medical entrance exam to determine who is the best doc for my family. In fact the data I use to place confidence in a new doc is quite far removed from this ideal. I find them in a directory of docs that take my insurance, look for one in close proximity to my house or work, and if they answer the phone that is listed in the directory, they are in!  At least initially anyway.

In this case I am relying on my ability to adjust my confidence level once I have more data. We might call this a small leap of faith, but I know I can adjust my faith up or down based on how the doctor actually performs once I see them. Unlike god, the doctor shouldn’t get away with not answering our questions or not delivering results. Yet, if I took this same approach to choosing a surgeon to perform my brain surgery, the risk involved would place this unwarranted level of faith on the highly irrational and dangerous side of the spectrum.

It is important to note we can have rational confidence in various propositions that may appear irrational to others who have access to more data. There are almost always others who have more knowledge and experience than we do for any given proposition who will view our confidence level as juvenile or immature. Before writing off other people as imbeciles, we should consider irrational faith can often be corrected with the introduction of more accurate data. This is absolutely not the case for toxic faith.

Toxic Faith

To understand toxic faith, we must first understand the key trait enabling a healthy rational faith to persist is flexibility. Our ability to adjust our confidence level based on the latest available data is what keeps our faith rational. The moment we can no longer assimilate new data and adjust, we are headed past Irrational-ville into Toxic-ville. Toxic faith is an entire level above and beyond irrational faith and its simple dance with insufficient data. This is faith that completely ignores the data and persists even in the face of contradictory data. It is the complete loss of flexibility. When faith reaches a point of rigidity where empirical data can no longer penetrate the rational mind, a person is flirting with a toxin that may just enable them to strap on explosives and walk into a crowded market place with no regard for innocent life. Which leads us to the big question: how does faith reach this toxic level?

In two words, human emotion. When faith becomes mixed with a cacophony of emotional states such as love, loyalty, devotion, fear, disgust, arrogance, and hatred, toxicity begins to set in. More specifically, when high doses of natural hormones like oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine and the like enter the picture, empirical data is at risk of being pushed out the window. As Dutch neurobiologist Dick Frans Swaab noted “Psychological experiments with games involving financial payment have shown a link between high oxytocin levels and trust in others, including strangers. That trust remains even if you get cheated a few times.”[1]

Mixing love for one ideal with hatred for anyone who opposes that ideal is almost always a deadly mix. We don’t see someone who simply believes in an afterlife becoming a suicidal terrorist. However, when someone is indoctrinated from birth into a highly intoxicated devotional state mixing it with an intense hatred of all unbelievers, we are dealing with an extremely dangerous individual. Given the right opportunity, planes will then be flown into buildings, taking down any rational concept of faith right along with them.

Having dealt with highly intoxicated, irrational minds from among both the religious and irreligious, let me assure you crazy is not tied to any particular worldview. Hatred is extremely dangerous regardless of the ideology. Don’t kid yourself, even for a secular naturalist, passionate hatred of religion is a very dangerous and slippery toxic slope.

Our emotions are the final result of a decision process in our brains. The data has been collected, analyzed, and the verdict has been reached. Our brains unfortunately don’t tell us everything that went into the decision or provide us a synopsis of the verdict. The brain simply delivers the verdict via our hormonal pathways. The more emphatic the verdict or the greater the urgency, the more intense the emotion we experience. Whether we feel trust or outrage, hatred or fear, the point is once we feel deep emotion the time for rational contemplation is over. As Elliot Aronson opined over a momentary lapse of judgement, “we sacrificed our scientific skepticism on the altar of outrage”. When we are calm and our emotions are in check, the data remains in play.

What about love, doesn’t love solve all of our problems? Consider this from an article in the New York Times from 2011:

Oxytocin has been described as the hormone of love. This tiny chemical, released from the hypothalamus region of the brain, gives rat mothers the urge to nurse their pups, keeps male prairie voles monogamous and, even more remarkable, makes people trust each other. The love and trust it promotes is not toward the world in general, just toward a person’s in-group. Oxytocin turns out to be the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood. Psychologists trying to specify its role have now concluded it is the agent of ethnocentrism.[2]

From Scientific American:

Oxytocin is often thought of as a "love drug," and is linked with all kinds of feel-good emotions in people such as trust, empathy and generosity. Increasingly, however, scientists are finding that the hormone has a dark side—and now researchers have discovered it also can promote ethnocentrism, potentially fueling xenophobia, prejudice and violence.3

And:

According to a new study by an Israeli researcher the ‘love’ hormone oxytocin, that controls behaviors such as trust and empathy, also affects negative behaviors like jealousy and gloating.4

Toxic faith can infect us at anytime in any context, including the domain of science. Again viewing it across a spectrum, toxic or emotionally incited faith is not always dangerous or lethal. Think of parents and their faith in their kids ability to sing. American Idol nightmare performances ring a bell anyone?  We parents do indeed see through rose colored glasses and the faith we place in our kids more often than not is driven more by parental affection than empirical data. We could argue this form of faith is not really harmful. I believe we all benefit from the faith our parents place in us, even when it may not always be warranted by our actual skills. Though I am sure some embarrassed American Idol contestants might beg to differ.

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More often than not though faith poisoned by emotion moves toward the harmful side of the spectrum. Repeat spousal abuse is a perfect non-religious example. When an abused spouse keeps taking the abuser back after their teary repentance only to be subjected to further abuse, often causing harm to innocent children in the process, we are now dealing with harmful toxic faith. Due to love, devotion, or some other psychological, emotional underpinning, the abused spouse keeps assigning a confidence level in the abuser that is absolutely not warranted by past performances.

Even mighty science is not completely immune. We can see this from the halting start and stop progress it has made over its storied history. I would classify this on the low end of the spectrum, but it is still toxic emotional faith at its core. Scientists that are slow to let go of their pet theory in the face of new contradictory evidence are not immune to toxic faith. The pursuit of status, investment of time and money, divided loyalties, and pure blood, sweat, and tears invested in research can lead to an emotional confidence level that can render a scientist incapable of accurately adjusting to new data.

In spite of this, science has made astounding progress because it has the best system for inoculating itself against this poison. Rational minds can weigh in when a colleague is under this toxic spell. The complete lack of a hierarchical authority structure in science prevents a single individual infected with toxic faith from rising to the top and taking over. This is obviously not the case in religion, where those most infected tend to rise to the top with authority.

While we usually focus on religious faith and its inflexible and disproportionate high confidence level, phobias are also an example of where our confidence level persists at a much lower level than the data warrants. Every morning that I wake up, sit up in bed, and place my bare feet on the carpet, there is no guarantee there is not some poisonous insect sitting inches away from my feet ready to strike and end my precious life. But the data for where I live and the house I live in warrants me having a high level of confidence this will not happen. If I start waking up and turning on the lights, listening for noises, checking under my bed, all before putting my feet on the ground, I now have a lack of confidence that is unwarranted by the data. If it persists and impedes my ability to function in life, it becomes a toxic low level of faith driven by fear. If I take my new car by the mechanic every day on my way home because of a fear it will not start the next day, I am dealing with a negative toxic level of faith due to an irrational emotion. Fear of flying or fear of germs reach toxic levels when emotion rules the day.

Faith is Not The Core Issue

Faith is not the problem in any of these scenarios, but is the victim in a toxic mix hijacked by irrational emotional forces. Even religious faith can start out on a rational footing. Again it may not be rational to us based on what we know, but don’t forget people are not handed Bible Unearthed and Not The Impossible Faith when they are first given a Bible.

Consider a young man who is down on his luck who goes to a Christian church for the first time on a quest for answers to life’s big questions. He hears real people talk about how their life turned around when they gave their life to Jesus. He hears stories of how financial situations were turned around, health was restored and relationships were put back together. Everyone seems happy. The preacher has them read from an ancient text and a neighbor allows him to read along. He sees the text with his own eyes, hears all the stories and the positive message with his own ears. The ancient text tells him that if he wants friends, he should first be friendly. Sounds harmless and worth trying, right?

All of this equates to an initial data set for a proposition to which the man now has to assign a corresponding confidence level. No one should accuse him of being irrational if all the data points to this being a solution that might work when nothing else has worked. It warrants some initial faith. He can adjust accordingly after a few months of pursuit if the evidence still has not validated his initial confidence. Enter stage right a key component of religion often overlooked by outsiders: devotion. Much more than faith is required in religion. Faith is simply the entry pass to get the believer through the door. For Christians, the highest commandment is not “have faith in god,” but to “love god with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Mix in a healthy dose of fear, hell fire, and damnation and the young man has the perfect recipe for toxic faith.

When he not only believes in the proposition, but devotes time, money, and his heart, the data is always at risk of being pushed out. Religious conversions almost always involve intense emotional experiences and it can be very difficult to part ways with those experiences. Even when raised from birth in a religion, in most cases people will have a memorable conversion experience when they are older that they will point to as the moment they first believed. The psychological impact of an intense conversion can be understood by the classic study from 1959 on cognitive dissonance and initiation rites. The study showed the level of severity of an initiation rite directly correlates to the initiates’ level of acceptance and approval of the group.6  No wonder rites like a baptism ceremony and a public confession of faith play such a key role in group acceptance and member retention.

Complicating things even further for the young man, it is no simple matter to adjust his faith to match incoming data if community, friends and family are plodding right alongside him. To top it off, charismatic preaching and teaching reinforce toxic faith when he might be tempted to adjust to contradictory data. Week after week the preacher asserts, “This is just a test of your faith! You must not go by the seeing of the eye or the hearing of the ear! Devote yourself to God and stay true to the course and you will see the results you are looking for!” For good measure, the preacher sprinkles in some fear, “Hold fast to your faith because the Bible says whatsoever is not of faith is sin and all sinners will receive their just eternal reward of torment in the flames of Hell!” Say bye bye to empirical data and the rational mind, they just got swept away in a rush of emotional, fear-laced devotion.

Once he gets off track, using evidence and sound arguments will not budge him because he is emotionally invested in the proposition. A more socratic tact must be taken to try to awaken rational minds infected with toxic faith, logical assertions will not work. Debating with impressive monologues may make us feel better or smarter, but it will do little to budge an emotional mind from its position.

The average saint will continue to pay 10% or more of their income to the church even though the evidence shows they are not doing any better financially as a result. They will continue to pray to the man upstairs even though the evidence clearly shows there is no one home. In the beginning though, holding this supposed sacred book in your hands and reading it with your own eyes is as much evidence as we often have for choosing a doctor.

Closing Contrarian Thoughts (Caution, rough waters ahead)

In response to the theist’s assertion of faith existing in secular life, maybe instead of denying this fact and coming off as intellectually dishonest and guilty of playing semantic games, I submit we should just accept that faith plays a role in every aspect of life and defuse the thrust of their accusation. Then calmly point out the difference is the faith we use in secular life and in science is warranted by the data and is thus rational, while their faith in god is most often grounded in fear and devotion contrary to the evidence and is at best irrational.

Finally, along this spectrum of rational, irrational and toxic faith, is there a common ground where theists and atheists can respectfully engage for sake of our common humanity?  Aside from dangerous intoxicated believers who threaten to exterminate and annihilate our entire species, which most all sane theists and atheists agree should be dealt with directly and urgently, is there a place for religious faith? Must we be hostile to all religious faith as something irrational and inferior to our high minded secular worldview? 

In nature the opposite of conflict is not peace, but death. Thinking protons and electrons, maybe a polarized disagreement is good for our species as long as neither side goes to the high end of the spectrum. Maybe our differences actually bring us together in healthy intellectual and emotional sparring when the absence of such conflict would allow us to drift apart. Not only would atheists and theists cease to engage each other, but both sides would cease to organize around the opposing force. Strap yourself in for my final antagonistic thrust ... as if asking these questions wasn’t enough to send you into orbit.

There is no doubt that religious faith is an integral part of the lives of several billion of our fellow primates. Considering this landscape, it is extremely juvenile, lazy, and short sighted on our part to level an oversimplified accusation of gross ignorance against so many of our own highly evolved species. Some of the most generous, kind, engaging, and intelligent people I have known in my lifetime are religious believers. Religious believers are not all bigoted, homophobic morons. If you believe this stereotypical nonsense, you may need a break from social media to engage a few believers in the real world.

When theist’s say they can't see how X is possible without god, we like to point out that this is a fallacious argument from incredulity. We are guilty of the same fallacy though when our response is we can’t see how someone can rationally believe proposition Y. Why all of us believe and continue to believe outlandish propositions in the face of contrary evidence is no great mystery. All races, genders, ages, ideological orientations and yes, even you and I dear reader are guilty. Atheists believe some stupid shit even while we pride ourselves on our rational approach to life. You know what the ancient proverbs say about pride.

Reasons behind our propensity to believe is covered ad nauseum in the psychology literature. Expressing incredulity about people's beliefs speaks more of our ignorance of basic human psychology than of the stupidity of someone’s beliefs.

Forgive the anthropomorphism, but I am sure natural selection would take great offence to us impugning her most impressive work to date with such base criticisms. Our genes have survived and thrived against extreme odds. For a small minority of our species to call out the vast majority as ignorant overlooks the fact that natural selection is a dictator who favors certain traits with utter disregard for our self-proclaimed intelligent opinions. When reviewing a study on dopamine and religion showing 'spiritual acceptance' is by far the most highly correlated (p < .001) personality trait with the number of repeat alleles of the dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4)," one writer noted “The higher reproductive output of the religious may indeed be advancing the occurrence of the DRD4 gene in the human gene pool.”5

On the surface, it is easy to agree with Bertrand Russell when he states:

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.

To add the final nail in my hubris built coffin, I am going to disagree with the great Bertrand Russell. From the vantage point of evolution, the majority is always right and absolutely not foolish if the end game is about who has the most prolific genes in future generations. If it were possible for a gene mutation for believing in an imaginary flying pink elephant to somehow translate into increased survival fitness and an abundance of progeny, we might want to sit up and take notice. Natural selection doesn’t give a rip about our rational view of the world or our happiness if it doesn’t translate into the propagation and survival of our genes. It doesn’t take a genius to see that believers are out breeding unbelievers. When you mix the many positive placebo effects of believing in god with the doctrine that having many children is both a gift and a duty, it is not hard to see how religious faith is highly favored by natural selection.

The only reason we even have a chance in this ideological battle, and may even be winning, is due to our species’ evolved intellectual capacity giving memes the upper hand over genes. If you feel you must have an enemy to fight, look no further than natural selection. We are all singing her song and dancing her dance. She is definitely a worthy opponent who until we arrived on the scene has gone unchallenged. Ok, enough anthropomorphizing.

If belief comes first and rationalization follows, as Michael Shermer asserts in his book The Believing Brain, then the length of time a belief persists depends directly on the depth of imagination and intelligence an individual can bring to bear on the rationalization of their belief. Shermer argues this is why very smart people can and do believe very stupid things. We should be careful how loudly we toot our own horn declaring our rational victory over ignorance. Even though we may have arrived at the right conclusion, we still may be revealing a dearth of imagination and intelligence on our part.

Being arrogant over genetically inherited traits that are completely out of our control is not a good tact for someone wanting to be a successful member of a highly evolved social species. This is like naturally beautiful or gifted people arrogantly taking credit for their abilities, as if the rest of us just failed to put forth the effort. Yes we may be genetically endowed with fewer D4 dopamine receptors which enables us to avoid a state of ecstatic religious intoxication and thus to rationally evaluate the evidence for and against the existence of a deity. But this in no way makes us somehow superior to others. You might even say we freethinkers simply have trust issues that prevent us from getting too emotional about any given proposition. Rational thinking is just a side benefit of our otherwise unfortunate skeptical genes. Just a final contrary thought for the road.

Give yourself a good chocolate chip cookie if you made it this far, you definitely earned it enduring through this diatribe. I would recommend my wife’s homemade chocolate chip cookies... they are the best.

“Promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate.” ~ Unknown

Resources:

1. D. F. Swaab, Neurobiography of the Brain, Pg 21, 2014
2. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/science/11hormone.html?_r=3&ref=science& (Accessed 05/31/14)
3. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-love-hate-relationship/ (Accessed 05/31/14)
4. http://israel21c.org/culture/the-thin-line-between-love-and-hate/ (Accessed 05/31/14)
5. http://neuropolitics.org/defaultfeb08.asp (Accessed 05/31/14)
6. Aronson, E. & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-181.

Photo Credit: Brittany (Brittbrittphotos)

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