Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Naturalist’s Faith (20 October 2010)

"In my mind, a naturalist is someone who comes to understand the biological life and ecological relationships of a particular place with some depth and seeks to use this understanding to forge an appropriate relationship with earthly life." (14)
 - Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent (2006)

The polarization of faith and reason in our culture is unfortunate, as it limits our options and undermines our wholeness as human beings.  Those who have 'faith' seldom reason as well as they should, and those who live by reason seldom allow themselves to have any degree of (at least acknowledged) 'faith.'  For me, a naturalist perspective grounded in science demands just as much 'faith' as I needed when I was religious; it is just anchored differently and expressed more subtly.

There are two senses of 'faith' that must be considered.  Big 'F' faith is the kind of 'absolute trust' that fanatical religious and ideological cults demand of their followers.  This kind of Faith is all-consuming – as anyone who has been a "true believer" knows – and as such blinding.  Big 'F' Faith is the kind of 'trust' that can tolerate no doubt and no challenge to its subjective authority—as it is ultimately very weak, and as a result makes the person of Faith very insecure.  Therefore, they have to be constantly bolstering their Faith, making Big claims for it, and – sometimes even without meaning to – foisting it on others.

The second kind of faith – small 'f' faith – is what I mean when I allude to a Naturalist's 'faith.'  This is the kind of faith that manifests itself as trust in one's environment, in one's friends and family, and in the world as a place where, because we have evolved here and become more or less adapted to our world, we are able to survive.  The kind of faith that I have as a naturalist is a basic trust in the world as it is; as we have found it upon coming to consciousness as individuals.  Many of us are born into a world where there is more or less continuity; some degree of security and always new horizons to explore and move beyond.

Our species has been walking about on this planet for something like 200,000 years, and our ancestors – "proto-human species" for lack of a better term – have been ambling about, making a living out of their environments, and doing self-enriching things for somewhere on the order of 200,000 to 5 million years.  We are a fairly successful species, generally speaking, and as such – barring environmental catastrophes and despite the deplorable state of injustice that leaves some billions of our fellow humans in poverty while the rest live in more or less resplendent style – we are likely to survive for some time.  This, for me, engenders a kind of faith in our existence.  We are more or less well-adapted to the planetary environment in which we have evolved.

We are also endlessly creative and industrious, so it would seem changes in our planetary environment may well be overcome, providing we wake up in time and assuming they are not too disastrous or happen too quickly.  Now, if we could just correct the economic and social injustice in the world, develop a global ethic that would be workable for everyone, and find ways to make sure whole populations aren't starving, at war or under-valued, then we would have an even greater reason for faith in our situation.

As a naturalist, I also have faith in reason.  This is not the kind of Big 'F' faith that bestows worship on something, but rather the small 'f' faith that can be construed as 'trust-in' something.  I try to use reason to the fullest extent; to figure out the nature of reality, to come up with ways of living my life that are compassionate, creative and honest, and to work out my ethical responsibilities.  I also use the imagination to do these things, and I'm a very intuitive person as well; so I am not a "reason-monger" or a "reason only" advocate.  The emotions – with which evolution has invested us and which natural selection has not weeded out but rather preserved – are also poignant guides to the living of life, and I can say that, as a naturalist, I have a small-f 'faith' in these human faculties as well.  Intellect—Imagination—Emotions; these are all important tools.  It is important to always keep these different abilities (reason, emotions, intuition, imagination) in perspective, to know their place in the project of being human, and to acknowledge their limitations.

Faith – from this naturalist's perspective – is what produces solace and gives us peace; respite from existential angst (when properly placed) and a sense of dwelling in Earth & Spirit that is, in itself, humanizing.  I would argue, ultimately, that small 'f' faith is part of our existential toolkit as human animals, and that to 'deny' it's value is to be less prepared for living life to the fullest.

"We watch, hopefully.  We keep watching.  We fill out days with care, watching our words and minding our vision and our evolution continues.  We branch, we rise." (50)

-        Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent (2006)

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