The Nature of Faith

Last Sunday, we had a closing four-hour retreat for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Robert of Newminster. The session was pleasant and the people at that parish are really quite delightful. The experience, at the time when Palm Sunday opens Holy Week, reinforced for me a concept I don’t take seriously enough — that is, the role of religiosity in the lives of ordinary people.
The social scientists tell us that formal religious profession is on the wane. Only one in five Americans visits a place of worship in any given week. Although three-quarters of us confess Christianity, demographers project that Christianity will be a minority faith tradition by 2030 given that one-third of people under age 30 claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.
Yet the religious impulse, as a human phenomenon, is quite different from religious practice. For the unchurched or the atheistic, their religious impulses tend to find expression in other pursuits — sexual licentiousness, radical environmentalism, unfocused spiritualism, unfettered egoism, etc.
Look at the pseudo-messianic undertones of the climate-change True Believers. Some of them suggest that people who disagree with their interpretation of climate models aren’t just mistaken — they’re morally defective and ought to be silenced — or even put in jail. Look, too, at the furor over the departure of newly appointed Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. Some representative supporters of same-sex marriage have argued, loudly, that one man’s private donation six years ago is a public matter because he’s a public face of a company. Think what you will about climate change and same-sex marriage: The zeal to persecute non-believers is a religious impulse that goes beyond mere disagreement about facts, theories or policies.
The phenomenon is simple, really. Human nature is what it is, and that nature prompts us to seek to belong to a tribe. The evolutionary biology and developmental psychology of humankind is fairly well understood on the matter, thanks to pioneering work by researchers like Jared Diamond. Our tribes both fuel and channel our passions and inspire emotional bonds that transcend abstract, dispassionate reason.
Tribes are funny things. In simplest form, they’re society’s little platoons, the places where we discern meaning and level-set sociocultural expectations and find refuge in a like-minded community. In years past, tribes in the United States looked like ethnic bars, churches, fraternal clubs and neighborhood associations. Yet these mediating institutions, across the board, are failing. Gentrification is leading to the erosion ethnic identity for most white Americans; church attendance is on the wane; fraternal organizations are a shell of their former glory; neighborhood civic groups have been superseded by online communities.
So how do we find our tribe? How do we belong? We do it the same way we always have — we find people who “look like us” and share our worldview. Except now, we’re not finding communal solace in religion or civic virtue but rather in political and public-policy forums, and our potential fellow travelers don’t need to hail from our neighborhood but rather can come from anywhere there’s broadband access. Hence the polarization of the electorate: We’re sorting ideologically across party lines because we have fewer purely local social ties to bind us.
Religiosity, when channeled through institutions that have had millennia to develop, is mostly benign. Religiosity, divorced of anchor institutions and self-directed through political channels, is harder to manage. Harder to mediate. Without a diversity of those “little platoons” to provide a broad-based context, we fall into the solipsism of a single-issue messiah. Political activism sourced from a wholly self-contained belief system cannot be reasoned with; it can only be confronted or accommodated.
Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith compels us; even people who profess atheism nevertheless need faith in something. It’s hard-wired into us as humans. As the rich tapestry of competing loyalties — a diversity that helped to check the excesses of any single constituent part — fades for many of our fellow citizens into a single-issue monochromatic print, our faith loses its grounding.
Some may argue that religious conservatives are ignorant. Or superstitious. Some probably are. But their faith in something bigger than themselves offers their religiosity a more humble, more humane path. Those whose faith hails from their own privileged beliefs, answerable to no higher authority than their own egos, have a tougher struggle to maintain a similar humble, humane demeanor. And, in this poisoned climate, it shows.
As a Catholic, then, I must confess: I have not really appreciated the gift of faith until I finally understood people whose faith is little more than a megaphone for their own psyches.

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