So there’s this new show on US public tv, ‘Colonial House,’ another in the series that included ‘Pioneer House,’ ‘1901 House,’ and ‘Manor House’ (though that one was called something else in the UK, wasn’t it…). At least I think it’s all the same series, but I could be wrong. I must say I find them all highly compelling – the combination of interpersonal tensions, acute discomfort and exhaustion, and missing shampoo and hot running water and supermarkets – fascinating.
The conceit of this one is that it’s a group of settlers on the coast of Maine in 1628, and the governor of the colony is (in real life) a Baptist minister from Texas. He seems like a very decent guy in many ways, but he’s also a little scary, in the way that Texas Baptists can be scary.
At one point in the first hour the minister’s college-age daughter addresses the Sabbath meeting and talks about her idea of god – she can’t really understand what it’s like not to believe in god, she says, she wouldn’t know how to get through everyday problems without his support. But that’s not very surprising, is it, for the daughter of a Baptist minister in Texas. One imagines (I could be wrong) she hasn’t been exposed to much in the way of alternatives. She’s probably heard a vast amount, both at home and at church (which she loves, she’s already told us), about the goodness of belief and the goodness of god, and very little if anything about either 1) the badness of belief (i.e. that there could be anything wrong with it, and what that might be) or 2) the goodness of non-belief, of skepticism or secularism let alone atheism. It seems reasonable to think (highly reasonable given the sort of things her father says) she’s never really thought about it, she’s only been urged, encouraged and trained to believe.
Her father gives an interesting muse on the harshness of life in the colony and how it has deepened his admiration for the original 17th century colonists and the strength of their faith. He does seem, as I said, an admirable man in some ways (less so in others), which makes it easier to think one’s way into a kind of imaginative sympathy with such a view. And yet it’s all wrong. It’s wrong because faith itself is wrong – in the sense in which he’s using it, that is. Faith in peace or a friend or art or ideals can be a good thing, if often over-optimistic, but faith in an immaterial supernatural omnipotent benevolent entity that is our Higher Authority – that is not a good thing.
But, as so very often with religion, it doesn’t do to say so. In fact it’s nearly verboten to say so. One can just about get away with avowing one’s own disbelief, but saying faith or belief itself is a bad thing – now that’s going too far. But it is. It’s bad for one’s capacity to think clearly, to judge, to reason, to argue, to follow arguments, to discriminate. Those are all useful capacities. In fact one could argue that in a democracy, they’re essential capacities. The trouble with ‘faith’ is that it’s the exact opposite of all those capacities. That is, in a way, why it is considered a virtue at all. It’s not considered partcularly admirable to believe the obvious, is it – to believe 2 + 2=4. That’s no more admirable than breathing or eating – it’s just what you do. No, the admiration only comes in because the whole matter is in doubt. So thinking faith is a virtue amounts to thinking it is good to believe something there is good reason not to believe, or a lack of reason to believe, or both. This is normally not considered a good thing. Some examples of it are considered a symptom of mental illness; others are considered a symptom of ignorance or stupidity or both; others are considered foolhardy. It’s hard to think of a great many cases where it’s considered either useful or virtuous. Parents believing in the goodness of their children no matter what, possibly, but other than that…not too many. Except in the case of religious belief. And yet we don’t really confront the possibility that this habit of thought can do harm. That’s unfortunate, I think. I even believe it.