Faith seems to be in diminishing quantity these days. Polls show organized religion is on the decline in America and many other nations, and people still claiming religious belief are visiting their respective houses of worship far less than their forefathers typically did. This fact may be due to millennia of religious oppression, corruption, and even occasionally unbridled malintent culminating into a degenerated concept that is now often treated with scrutiny and a palpable degree of suspicion. Sometimes it is, instead, outright contempt.
Frankly, I do not discourage those who have a distaste for religion, and nor do I particularly care about this aspect. But I fear that devaluing “the power of faith” will cost us Americans a meritorious trait, when it’s stripped free of what consistently seem to be symbolic religious associations, that is. Faith is vastly underestimated as a positive quality, so I would like to speak about the potential advantage of having faith, unbound by preconceived ties to religion.
The idea of faith without religion may be awkward to some, and a little time on Google will show that usually they are considered mutually inclusive, as though they were inherently entangled. As a consequence, this seems to have birthed a kind of counter-culture that works to shake or shatter the will of the faithful, though not without some level of reasonable justification. I am disheartened by this, because faith is an amazing tool that frequently drives people to succeed in their greatest endeavors.
In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years of a life-sentence in prison for anti-apartheid terrorism and then became the first democratically elected South African President, said:
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lay defeat and death.”
Mandela is a Methodist, but it was not his religious belief in humanity that helped him persevere beyond his difficult early life and miserable imprisonment, it was his faith.
When trying to remove it from its religious bindings and encourage it as a strength, it is worthwhile to identify a suitable definition for the word “faith”. This is what I have come up with:
“Faith is a positive attitude towards potentiality when dealing with the unknown.”
This should not be confused with “hope”, which may be more accurately defined as a desire for something to happen without any reason to believe it will. This faith, my faith, is instead guided by as much logic as the individual is capable of, in spite of any reasonable inhibition. This interpretation makes it easier to understand how faith drives us to take daring yet educated risks; it encourages us to cross unknown seas, hike over desolate tundras, march through foreign jungles, and even to break free of our own realm and into that of the stars.
But faith certainly doesn’t just guide us in mastering our environment. There’s a growing body of data to evidence that faith can have a positive affect on mental health. Other relatable studies insinuate abstractly that the whole of our body can be consequently affected by faith as well. Researchers at Yeshiva University found that those attending regular religious services have a lower mortality rate when compared to those who don’t. Of course, there’s a large list of associable characteristics that could explain this, like the fact that attending services exposes one to a more intimate community, thus increasing the odds of having access to assistance in a time of need. But there is still reason to doubt that it is religion which is the critical component of happiness or success.
Consider those who practice religious ceremony but do not actually believe (for many today, this may only require remembering your youth). These people live a life guided by rules they do not or cannot logically support yet still follow, and few could reason that this is likely to generate ideal repercussions. Perhaps in a similar way to that of concealed homosexuals who experience great stress living a lie in appeasement of others, the falsely religious hardly benefit from arbitrarily claiming a personality trait that is not truly theirs. Yet with genuine faith added to the equation, they may gain increased longevity as well as the fortitude to stand despite challenges to their beliefs.
To further support faith’s psychological benefits, studies also show that gratitude can potentially increase happiness significantly; gratitude being something that often follows when one’s faith is vindicated. Faith also self-medicates against the negative consequences of failure. Those who possess faith as an ingrained characteristic are less likely to harbor stressful emotions, because they know (or just believe) that ahead of them will be another opportunity. Perhaps, they believe that there is a “grand plan” that requires one to stumble a bit when following the true path to enlightenment. As a disclosure, I am obviously one of those people.
So faith arguably strengthens mental endurance and physiological health. But still, it’s important to consider the alternative: is faithlessness suitable despite evidence that the contrary may be superior?
For many, the idea of living a bit longer and potentially suffering lesser degrees of mental illness is justification enough. Personally, I do not consider it to be. Although anecdotal, I live in an area where I’ve met many people who explicitly claim to have denied or surpassed the oft perceived necessity of religion or secular faith, and these people are perfectly healthy, meritorious, functional members of society. But, many are also content with what I consider to be a “simpler” way of life that I admittedly have a hard time believing anyone finds preferable. This brings us to what I consider to be the most valuable aspect of faith: its relation to, and especially effect on, our potential.
Meher Baba, an early 20th century Indian spiritual master and self-proclaimed Avatar of the era, believed faith was “one of the most important qualifications for the aspirant”. For him, there were three levels of faith: in oneself, in “the Master”, and in life. He proposed that, when distressed, life will be impacted negatively, but faith in a “Master” nourishes faith in oneself and life in general, protecting against “the very teeth of set-backs and failures, handicaps and difficulties, limitations and failings.”
“Life, as man knows it in himself, or in most of his fellow men, may be narrow, twisted, and perverse, but life as he sees it in the Master is unlimited, pure and untainted. In the Master, man sees his own ideal realized; the Master is what his own deeper self would rather be.”
It is easy to interpret “the Master” as a god, and that is fine, and explains why religion can be so beneficial.
But one should instead interpret “the Master” as an ideal self, something one can constantly strive towards with the goal of greater and greater relative success. This is a quality of faith that I do not believe the faithless can easily take advantage of. It’s not that they cannot work to the same end through another attitude or system, but it stands to reason that there may be many other character perks that would be missed.
Although I clearly support the power of secular faith, I do not primarily desire to convert anyone to this attitude. I want others to consider that faith can ultimately lead to resolution and genuine bliss. With an open mind we may approach the unknown without prejudice, which protects against callous disregard for other people or things. And that is why I consider faith so valuable: because without it, we can easily deceive ourselves into believing we already know that which we, with frightening consistency, often do not. Consistently, the consequence of this is objectively awful.
It is human to err, but it’s critical to believe that such is not necessarily our destiny. With faith, we have a method to prove this belief. Whether the notion stands or not though, what’s important to remember is that we have endless opportunity to master our environment. More importantly, the same is true for mastering our selves.