Much of the present secular discourse against religion is established on a rationally flawed rejection of the notion of faith. One can assert the irrationality of this rejection with confidence on the grounds that it is founded upon the demonstrably false premise that all faith is irrational. Here one must be careful to make the distinction between the discourses of philosophical Atheism and secular culture; there is a distinct lack of evidence that the former exerts any real influence over the opinions and norms of the latter. For the moment then we shall set philosophical Atheism aside, for even here there is an assent to the fundamental importance of faith as the mechanism by which one accepts the very assumptions of rationality. This conclusion, albeit an uneasy conclusion, was discussed in greater depth in the article On Faith (January 4, 2012); one must accept by nothing more substantial than faith that the reality perceived by ones’ mind is indeed real. Secular or popular culture, at least insofar as one considers the so-called ‘Developed World,’ is a far less nuanced and entirely different beast. Assisted by the failure of traditional structures of social authority and the discarding of the same by modernity, secular culture has largely bought into an ill-defined form of relativism; anything is subjectively right for the individual so long as others are not obliged to accept its objective rightness. Such radical individualism or social atomisation, coupled with the impossibility of objective truth claims, by necessity results in nihilism and a foreboding sense of fatalism. Perfect expression is given to this modern condition by Søren Kierkegaard, ‘the moody Dane,’ who wrote:
“If, in the strictest sense, there is to be any question of a sickness unto death, it must be one where the end is death and where death is the end. And thinking that is precisely to despair (The Sickness Unto Death, 1849).”
This despair, not a conscious and constant dread but an underlying assumption of human existence, is ethically and morally directive in that it sees in death the ultimate and irrevocable termination of the human person. Consequently it is inseparable from the assumption that this present life is all that there is; that this is as good as it gets. Within this bleak existential landscape the person has to form an identity based on the realities of existence as accepted in this despair; the development of cultures within wider society constituted of atomised moral agents bent on the relentless search of pleasure and immediate gratification. Analogous sociological phenomena has been discussed by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their 2010 book The Spirit Level, wherein it was shown that people living with a sense of continual hopelessness set aside plans for the future and rather than delay pleasure or gratification sought instant satisfaction with greater risk to their financial and physical health. It is within this milieu that the idea of faith, and indeed hope, are dismissed as illusions and distractions from the harsh realities of life which lead only to a more exquisite or acute sense of suffering.
One is then forced to consider where this rejection of faith in its totality leads? As has been stated above it pushes the human drives toward the perpetual and addictive attainment of pleasure, which in itself creates in the person a greater degree of selfishness or self-centredness. It is this focus on the perceived needs of the self, within a framework of finitude, which accelerated the destruction of the communal and social support systems of the individual; the breakdown of society, and the resultant disassociation from social obligations and any sense of accountability. It is in this fashion that the truly autonomous moral agent becomes more fully antinomian. Echoing Dostoyevsky’s conversation in The Brothers Karamazov (1880); in a world without faith everything becomes possible. Pleasure sought for its own sake, as an end rather than a natural by-product of a well-lived life, becomes stale. Like all addictions its satisfaction has a ramping effect which requires ever greater doses to maintain the same intensity. The ‘simple pleasure’ becomes impossible for the person who has rejected faith. Faith within such a context must therefore be understood as a lack; the void which demands a something. It is precisely as a ‘lack’ that it approaches the theological definition of evil; evil is not a thing in itself, but the absence of good. The implication here is that it is faith which is the good which gives meaning and satisfaction to the human condition. The hunger of the void in the person lacking faith, stemming as it does from an interior lack, simply cannot be a creative power; a something cannot come from a nothing. So it may properly be considered a waste (in the biblical sense); that is to say it is a ‘formless void (Genesis 1:2).’ The natural propensity of the human person to create; his or her innate creativity, must flow from a fundamental faith in the reality of, at least, the future and a life beyond the mortality of the selfish ego.
Endless and insatiable consumption can be the only substitute for authentic creativity, and so it becomes a self-destructive drive more akin to the death instinct than a life form. In its intensification of the essential drives of the human body it seeks fleeting pleasure in the satisfaction of the belly, the genitals and the ego. All three are vicious when exaggerated. What makes them vices is their common compulsion to commodify everything and everyone around the person; as the attainment of pleasure becomes the single and most important purpose in the life of the self-centred individual, things must be reducible to consumables and other people must be dehumanised to be consumed. One need only think of the pornofication of aesthetics and people in secular media. Had the end of pornography be, as its proponents argue, the appreciation of the naked human form and the enjoyment of beauty thereof, there would be no need to leave the art gallery. Rather pornography serves two relatively simple purposes; on the part of the pornographer the parasitic generation of wealth from the sexuality of another, and on the part of the purveyor the immediacy of pleasure and gratification from a commodified and therefore disposable person. These things may be pleasures, but they are not Happiness. Thus they may be properly spoken of as perversions because they distort the natural need of the person for Happiness with the want for distractions from despair.
The remedy for this despair in a culture of death is natural to all human beings; faith. Not yet are we ready to leap to God as the object of such a natural impulse, but proper objects must be identified lest this culture of death triumph. We may start by identifying life as the expected counter-balance of death. Much like Descartes’ faithful acceptance of reason, so we must be prepared to put our faith in life; not simply the life of the self, but in all life in which each particular life finds a natural habitat where life itself is sustained. This faith in life demands that we re-establish the life of the family and the community where ethics may become of the mother tongue. There must be a foundational hope in the nurture of the family and the community in order for a deeper sense of responsibility and accountability to flourish. We are indeed ‘our brother’s keeper.’ For it is only within human communities, as places of security and companionship, that one can begin to intuit meaning beyond the present and beyond loneliness and isolation. In close relation to this general faith in life there is the specific faith in those whom we love; the faith that they do indeed love us in return and, barring tragedy, will continue to be with us on our journey through life. More specific still is the faith in a lover with whom one can establish a family and therefore have faith in a future beyond the life of the self. This is for many the most intimate faith in something eternal.
We may have the courage to have faith in ourselves; that we might be people of integrity who work at being truly alive. Some would want to call this the art of living; the faith that we have in our own future and well-being. If one is willing to accept a rational life where faith is an essential ingredient in the process of living rationally then one is capable of seeing life not merely in terms of selfish desire in the face of oblivion but a life that by its own nature generates meaning. One perverts this faith in life when one demands that meaning be a solution to every mystery of existence. Meaning in the course of a well-lived life is a process which has at its heart a sort of chaos or a shifting fluidity, which has as its milestones, as opposed to its destination, countless meaningful pleasures.