Of Two Minds: Reasoning in Bad Faith

garbage only lucky rev

How much of faith is bad faith, mala fides? How much of faith is clinging to a belief or belief system in order suppress an unpleasant truth of which the believer is at least subliminally aware? Per Sartre, how much of faith is double-mindedness, lying to oneself, being both the liar and the one deceived?

Many if not most people a strong propensity for forming and accepting belief, taking things on faith; this propensity for faith seems likely to be an evolved trait or traits in humans, part of the instinctual behavioral phenotype of genus Homo. I doubt there is a single “believer” gene, but that there are genetic components to this strongly expressed, widespread suite of “believer” behaviors, well, I have “faith” in that hypothesis. The expressions of faith seem highly contingent on culture and environment–People do seem able to believe almost anything. But the mechanism of faith is not just a product of culture or environment. “Faith” behavior is instinctive, and a product of genetic selection.

Faith is of interest to me because I’ve never had much faith. The instinct for faith is poorly expressed, in my case. I do not have an intuitive fellow feeling for faith and persons of faith. Thus I am forced to approach it rationally, which is a disadvantage, since as recent research in neuroscience has shown, rationality is always second string in the human brain. As a product of natural selection, faith behavior must have strong survival value–I don’t mean personal survival, I mean survival of the genetic line–it’s all about the begats, to put it in biblical terms. I seem to be an outlier on the spectrum of expression of the trait. I do have a strong curiosity bump, and faith, this thing so lacking in me, seizes that bump. Why? Why do people have faith? Why don’t I?

So, pilgrims and seekers, you are warned: Faith is a WHY trigger for me. Of course, some don’t need that warning, because they do have–strongly–the  intuitive fellow feeling integral to faith and they can sense I that do not believe, though they may not realize I am a kind of all purpose unbeliever, a universal infidel. But people can sense that I do not automatically accept whatever the unspoken consensus is. As my wife and I put it, I smell wrong–my “tells” are all wrong. I hesitate to use the term, but I am the closest thing to a natural skeptic you are likely to meet.

My lack of faith is not a virtue. As far as I can tell, I was born that way, and it is as innate as my tendency toward the mood swings of bipolar behavior. In fact, I suspect the lack of one and the presence of the other is probably linked. Nor do I mean to imply that I lack the capacity for self deception. As I said, the instinct is poorly expressed, not totally lacking.

This brings me back to the question: How much of faith is bad faith, that is, how much of faith is more or less deliberate self deception? The brain lying to itself, suppressing a felt truth? We certainly need protection from raw truth in order to survive. We need to lie to ourselves in order to function, particularly in a crisis. This protection we afford ourselves is called “optimism.” The expression of optimism is part of the suite of faith behaviors. Many if not most people think of optimism as a positive trait, and many believers elevate it to a religious virtue, but optimism is also a form of self deception. We are not as good, as strong, as lucky, as loved by God, and so on, as we tell ourselves we are. I think many people are aware that optimism is self deception, and those that are aware embrace it all the more strongly precisely because they are aware they are gulling themselves and everyone else. The felt truth must not be felt, because otherwise we might fail to strive, fail to thrive. Even if suppression is incomplete, doubt must be conquered, for we might hesitate to act. Hesitation, we know in the depths of our mammal brains, can kill you. This much of faith is bad faith, but bad faith is good for your immediate survival, the only kind of survival our “selfish genes” “care” about.

I am naturally faithless, hopeless, but somehow I am not loveless. But my love has an element of detachment to it. I think my love is stronger for that detachment, but of course that could likely be self deception. I have a cold eye, but a warm heart. I have no morals, but I have ethics. I feel no rush of empathy for those who to turn to faith in order to console themselves in times of loss and suffering such as many faced this past week. I feel sympathy for the suffering of my fellow creatures, but that is not the same, and people of faith dislike my cold-eyed lovingkindness when they sense my detachment from the story they tell themselves. Our almost inescapable compulsion to myth-make, to construct narrative out of the chaos is also an aspect of faith behavior, another puzzlement that massages my curiosity bump, yet I know we tell ourselves stories as a matter of survival.

Yet all the human impulses I’m lumping together under the rubric of “faith behavior” have become problematical impediments to survival. Not to our species survival, or individual survival, but to the survival of what we are pleased to call modern civilization and the world as we have known it.

It’’s already too late. It’s been too late for several decades, all my adult life, basically. We’ve already expended the resources we could have used to make the changes in culture and infrastructure that might have allowed us to avoid catabolic collapse. We’ve already pumped enough heat into the atmosphere and oceans to insure that substantial climate change is “baked in.” We can’t escape thermodynamics, and we can’t escape the planet, either.

Those whose faith is in Progress, those who are adherents of the “Space Age” version of Manifest Destiny, those whose prophesied rapture is the upload into the “Singularity,” dispute that.

But I think it is the very faith, the optimism, the hopes for a better tomorrow that prevent us, collectively, from taking effective action to salvage something from the wreck of our ambitions. The habits of faith, the instinct to believe, these cognitive structures of the human brain that helped our ancestors to survive and breed, now bend us to our own undoing.

Jesus won’t save us, either, in case you were wondering, and I’m not selling Apocalypse, of any flavor. Rome didn’t fall in a day. Doom will take its own sweet time, and fate plays favorites. I simply think it would be helpful if we, the humans of Earth (or sufficient quorum thereof), didn’t lie to ourselves quite so much…I know it’s not so simple to sort out a work-around to faith, since it seems integral to the morphology of the human psyche. But we can work on it. The fact there’s no hope does not absolve us from this work. And why don’t I (and others like me) have faith? Why a mutant morphology? The why trigger again.

The tickle of paradox: Believing a belief is unbelievable is still a belief. Apostasy becomes orthodoxy, as I have observed  in the spectacle of various competing cults of online atheism pronouncing anathema on each other. If we can’t have religion, we’ll make a religion out of that.

I’m of two minds about it. We lie to tell the truth, and speak the truth to tell lies. As the Rabbi said, I’m talking to myself and letting you listen.


3 responses to “Of Two Minds: Reasoning in Bad Faith

  1. Two more very nice postings, thanx, Dr. O.
    Lots to note when and if i get sufficiently exercised.

  2. Dana:

    You say that you love, and I am presuming not the type of “love” involved in genetic mating, family progeny, or collaborative effort – all of which fall under the “Selfish Gene” explanation. I presume that your love is experiential and absolutely real to you and to those in the field of your love. Pure love is the most potent of human traits, and it is completely irrational, beyond all explanation except the faith explanation of being a creation and gift of divinity. I have faith that, if you examine the genesis and nature of your love, you will find the only faith that matters.


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  3. Hi, Bob. Spike. I’m glad to see you’re both still checking in, in spite of the paucity of posts here at the Tent Show. Pure love? That reminds me of a bit of Thoreau from Walden:

    “A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love. Who can predict his comings and goings? His business calls him out at all hours, even when doctors sleep.”

    Be that as it may, I can’t say I believe in pure love because I’m not sure I believe in “pure” anything. Not even pure bullshit.

    I’m also not sure I made myself clear, as I was harvesting my belly button lint: It’s not so much that I disbelief or lack faith in any particular “thang” so much as I lack the mechanism, or significant parts thereof, and probably because of that lack, I tend to suspect the whole mental process of faith as I observe it in other people and in human culture.

    Like any metaphor, love, or faith for that matter, things become most interesting at the point of breakdown. I’m mangling something Robert Frost wrote, there.

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