Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Belief can be beneficial

Those of us who are non-theists, non-believers in gods and the supernatural, those of us who champion logic and rationality over blind faith and challenge daily the faith of those who appear to prefer belief over knowledge, may be missing the whole point of belief and faith. 

Perhaps faith itself is what is beneficial to us, regardless of the validity or reality of what we believe. 

Call it the placebo effect, call it self-confidence or the power of positive thinking, we can't deny that believing strongly in something can provide a benefit to the believer. 

It would be wonderful to know everything or at least to know that everything could be known. Even if that's the case it's unlikely we as a specie will reach that point in our lifetime. Those of us alive today and reading these words will die with many facts about the universe and ourselves still unknown, still unknowable. Much if not most of what we think we know, what we believe, our opinions and education, are based on incomplete knowledge. Humanity is still young and our sciences younger still. We have only begun to explore the universe we live in. There's vastly more we don't know than we do.

Early in human history we had to guess at what the world was about. Humanity invented explanations for phenomena that these days we are finding natural causes for; the rain, natural disasters, emotions, life. Yet even in finding the causes we are left ignorant of the meaning of these things to the universe. The only true sense we can make of it all is what we value personally, what we believe about the meaning and purpose of reality. 

Too often I hear my fellow non-theists condemn faith and belief without considering that while the object of a belief might be irrational or fantastic, the belief itself can be a positive or at least neutral influence in our lives. 

I believe my dog loves me. I choose to interpret her actions as those born of love and devotion. How do I know she loves me? Honestly I don't. I can't read her mind and I don't speak canine. For all I know she may actually hate me but is smart enough to realize that acting on those feelings might cut off her supply of food and attention. I could go through life with the opinion that my dog secretly hates me and is only using me for her own benefit. But that would strain our daily interactions and our relationship. Someday we may invent the means to truly know what animals are thinking and feeling, but until that day we are left with our beliefs. I choose to believe that which enriches our relationship, the belief that is more beneficial to my peace of mind; Cleo loves me in equal measure to my love for her. I will likely never know for sure. All I have is my faith that this is the case. 

My fellow skeptics and atheists, the enemy of rationality and reason is not faith or belief. Both states of limited knowledge can be beneficial or detrimental to the person holding them. Faith and belief can both play a positive role in our lives within a constructive context and with the knowledge that we are employing them willfully. Blind faith may be unnecessary but faith in things unknown or unknowable is unavoidable and often comforting and reassuring. 

We should not disparage faith in ourselves, the belief that we are loved by friends and family (and even the family dog). Faith in our fellow man and the efficacy of knowledge are honorable. There is reason to believe that faith in the future can empower us to overcome obstacles and roadblocks in our lives. 

Faith and belief are natural parts of our humanity. We should not deny them or belittle them. We should strive to employ them to improve ourselves and the lives of others.