“I’ve lost my faith in humanity.” I hear this all the time. It used to be a sarcastic remark. These days, more and more often, people mean it literally.
If you are a person, like most people, who believes in the scientific method, who believes in the values of equality and basic human decency, who believes the words “social justice” are not dirty, how could you not lose faith in humanity right now? In my home country of the USA we see all these values, on a federal level, being put to the torch. And terrifyingly, this phenomenon appears to be happening globally. We see it looming in the UK, in the middle east, in Russia, in France. It’s frightening. It’s enough to make you question everything you believe in.
But let’s talk about faith. Let’s really talk about it. The words “faith in humanity,” like so many others, have become a throwaway term. We are drowning in words in this era, swamped by so many of them that they’ve become a torrent of irrelevant garbage.
But they are not irrelevant. They are precious. They have meaning.
They are powerful.
When I was still a Christian, my faith was my bedrock. It was unquestionable. I hinged everything else upon it. I would say, “You can take my home and my belongings, you can torture me and kill me, you can eradicate all sign of my beliefs from the world, you can even brainwash me, but you cannot touch my soul. You cannot take my faith.” This was profoundly comforting. My faith was about believing in something greater than myself, something that would persist beyond my own demise. Something fundamentally unassailable. At the time it was, specifically, a faith in God and in my own eternal soul: both ideas which I have since come to believe are false.
Perhaps you’ve experienced that earthshaking realization, perhaps not, but even if not, please bear with me for a moment. When that bedrock shattered, it left me in freefall. I was furious at myself, at my former religion, and at everyone who had my old beliefs. I felt tricked—not in the way of a victim who is scammed out of their credit card, but in the way of a person waking up from the Matrix.
I also experienced deep depression as I tried to figure out what the purpose of life was. If nothing of my self would survive past death, what was the point of my being here? I felt like I was floundering, surrounded by death on all sides. I had to chop through it, to work it over in my mind a million different ways, to find the purpose I was lacking, and when I did find it, guess where it was?
In my children, and my wife, and my family and friends. In preventing the needless suffering of others. And in life’s little joys: music and gaming and good food.
Atheists, when asked about the meaning of life, will often reply, “You have to make it yourself.” This made no sense to me at the time. Today, thankfully, it makes more sense than the old worldview ever did.
“But it’s all so fragile,” I thought. “Death can end it all.” And that’s true. That old faith—the belief that everything I loved would survive forever—was gone. Everything I love about my life is fragile. The atheist’s revelation is a bittersweet one: you learn to truly love the best things about your life only by realizing they will die.
Faith, I decided, was for suckers. The idea of believing in something stubbornly, of ignoring countering arguments if they didn’t fit my worldview, was antithetical to everything I now believed. How could an atheist possibly have faith?
I asked this question from a place of despair, but in answering it, I found something surprising: solid bedrock.
Humanity is 200,000 years old, give or take, though our best research tells us our journey began long before that, likely with single-celled organisms in a primordial sea. Awe of the cosmos is one of the hallmarks of a conversion to atheism, and I have certainly experienced it. But while contemplating the vastness and complexity of the universe fills me with awe, thinking on humanity’s journey from that primordial sea strikes me speechless.
I posted on this last week, but think of all the hurdles we overcame to get where we are. Extinction struck countless other species all around us, yet the thread that became humanity survived. Our best research tells us that when homo sapiens prevailed against homo neanderthalensis, some of the key elements that set them apart were imagination, depth of understanding, and—to a great degree—music and art.
Think on that. Truly ponder it.
That spark you feel when you hear music that makes your heart soar? That wonder that comes over you when you see your favorite film, or get lost in your favorite book or painting? That is what makes us fundamentally human.
Humans are unique not just because of our opposable thumbs, our intellect, or our capacity for compassion. Humans are unique because we embody all three. We have the power to affect our world, the capacity to build on our knowledge from one generation to the next, and the wisdom to recognize our faults.
History tells us how we apply these gifts. Yes, if you choose any given era from our tenure—including the current day—you will find evils. Rape, enslavement, genocide, invasion—evils made all the worse by the fact that, to a great degree, they are our invention.
But if you look at the arc, from the beginning of our journey until now, you will see who we truly are. You will see a trend toward wisdom and justice. Wars that give way to lasting peace. A tightening of the moral fabric that binds all of us—not just a single family or tribe or province or nation, but all of us. An expansion in our knowledge, as stone tablets gave way to hand-written books that gave way to mass-printed books that gave way to the full scope of human knowledge in our pockets.
We are a species that reaches. We are a species that craves truth. And thankfully, we are a species that shows compassion. In the long story of our journey, we have seen that compassion birthed and strengthened. Yes, there have been setbacks. Yes, there have been failures. But if you look at history’s evidence of who we are the trend is ever upward.
That is where I found my new faith—a belief in something greater than myself, that will persist beyond my own death. Not a faith that I prop up stubbornly, but one that props me up. Not a faith that ignores scientific arguments, but one that is based on them.
Yes, I believe we stand at the cusp of a dark time in human history, possibly the darkest many of us will have witnessed in our lifetimes. I stand prepared to fight it with every ounce of my being, but I am also braced to lose: to witness generations of progress fall aside, to witness a resurgence of superstition and hate and ignorance.
But such philosophies of hatred have risen before. Always, they have fallen. The losses they inflict are terrible, but in the vastness of the cosmos, they are a blip on the radar. The trend prevails. Humanity cannot change what it is.
So you see, I am prepared for this battle. Because no matter how it ends, I know who will win the war.
They can take my home and my belongings. They can torture me and kill me. They can eradicate what scientific research they can reach. They can even brainwash me with propaganda until I forget who I am and what I believe.
But they cannot take my faith in humanity.