Every now and then, I hear some pundit, politician, and/or professional troll lament about the ongoing “crisis of faith” in society. They’re not entirely wrong in their whining. The numbers don’t lie. Religion, especially the organized variety, has been declining significantly over the past decade throughout the western world.
I won’t get into the particulars of that decline. I’ve already given religion a hard time on this blog, especially when it gets taken to extremes. While I stand by my criticisms, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I respect religious people and the various religious institutions that do wonderful work.
I should also note that I have some devoutly religious people in my family, whom I love and respect dearly. I don’t want to disparage their beliefs or the fulfillment they get from them. While there was a time when I used to seek out heated debates with religious people, I’ve since realized how pointless and counterproductive they are. As I’ve said before, winning arguments rarely changes the harsh truths of reality.
With that in mind, I do agree with part of their lamentations. I honestly do think that there’s an ongoing crisis of faith in society, especially in Western society. However, it’s not the kind of crisis that the televangelists, the militant atheists, and the card-carrying Satanists of the world have in mind.
To illustrate that crisis, I’ll need to depict a couple scenarios that should make a significant number of people uncomfortable. For this, I apologize, but I think it gets my point across better than any burning bush, fiery sermon, or tax-exempt initiative.
The first scenario shouldn’t be too hard to picture for anyone familiar with the Playboy Mansion. For this, I want you to imagine an ordinary man standing in a large room, surrounded by a 100 women. The man doesn’t have to be Hugh Hefner and all the women don’t have to be Playboy Playmates. It just has to be one man and 100 women in the same room. How do you think that man feels in that situation?
Anyone who has seen a few overtly sexy music videos shouldn’t have too hard a time surmising that sentiment. If he’s a straight man, then he’s probably feeling like a kid in a candy story within a toy store within a water park. He’s probably looking around with a goofy grin, crunching the numbers in his head and wondering which of the 100 women will want to touch his penis.
It’s a goofy, juvenile scenario that most just shrug off as harmless male fantasy. Even if the man is gay, chances are he doesn’t feel threatened or unsafe in any capacity. Being surrounded by women doesn’t garner those kinds of feelings. There’s a deeper message there, but one that only becomes clear when you picture the second scenario.
For that scenario, I want you to something similar. This time though, just flip the genders. Make it so there’s a woman in a room surrounded by 100 men. It’s similar to an exceedingly distressing thought experiment that I pitched before. This isn’t quite like that, but it gets an important message across.
This is a scenario that I’ve actually heard some women use when talking about rape and sexual violence. That’s because in that scenario, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, that woman probably doesn’t feel lucky or safe. One women in a room with 100 men is a situation that evokes discomfort on a level that’s hard to articulate, but easy to understand.
The woman in that scenario isn’t imagining which of those 100 men might be her future husband or, at least, a good one night stand. That woman is dreading every worst case scenario ever inspired by reruns of “Law and Order: SVU.” Her survival instincts go into overdrive because she doesn’t just see a room of men. She sees a room of men who might be inclined to rape her.
As a man, I can’t help but take offense to that notion that women assess men solely on how likely they are to assault her. However, I can completely understand the sentiment. The numbers aren’t on my side. In pretty much every major category of violent crime, men are far more likely to be perpetrators than women. There’s nothing sexist about it. That’s just what the numbers say and they don’t inspire a lot of faith.
In recent years, there has been growing awareness of rape culture and increasing efforts to decrease sexual violence against women. While that is an innately noble effort, seeking to reduce the unsexist forms of violence in our culture, it hasn’t always been entirely honest. In some cases, it inspires moral panics that claim video games cause sexism or just criticizing a woman constitutes a form of assault.
I won’t get into the absurdities of those concepts, as I’ve only so much energy and this blog only has so much bandwidth. I’ll just say that some of the hysteria that such efforts inspire, as noble their intentions might be, are what fuels the escalating crisis of faith and I fear that crisis is escalating to disturbing levels.
In this case, it’s not about faith in a higher power, a collection of deities, or some divine force that determines who wins football games every week. The faith I’m talking about here is more personal. It’s the faith we have in each other, as human beings.
On some levels, we’ve always had it. When you order a pizza, you have faith that the people making the pizza and the one delivering it will make it right and not spit in the dough. When you call a doctor, you have faith that this person knows what they’re doing and will do the right thing in treating you when you’re injured, sick, or vulnerable.
Beyond institutions, we also have faith that our neighbors won’t murder us the first time we meet. We have faith that the people we love really love us back. We can’t read other peoples’ thoughts or know with absolute certainty that their feelings towards us are genuine. However, the simple fact that we, as a society, are able to function and get along to some degree is a testament to the faith we have in one another.
Now, I fear that faith is being undermined by the various hysterias that plague our collective consciousness. Some of it is a byproduct of news media, the internet, and social media where terrifying news is easier to spread and garners more attention. That’s understandable, given how fear is such a powerful motivator.
However, and this is a concept that’s not easy to accept, that fear often clouds our judgment and skews our perspective. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of our caveman brains, which almost always gives the edge to perception over reality. Things that scare us get our attention. Our survival instincts, by necessity, over blow any possible threat in order to ensure our survival.
That fear is the universal counter to faith and since it’s so easy to spread scary things in the age of the internet, it’s easy for our faith to be undermined. It might be for that same reason that organized religion is taking a hit. The internet is making it too easy to look up the many absurdities of a religion and its associated frauds.
Again, I don’t wish to denigrate those with sincere religious beliefs, nor do I want to make light of those who use their beliefs to justify atrocities. However, the faith that many have in a higher power, even within a less religious society, only seems to go so far when it comes to other people.
In a sense, it reflects the sentiment that many parents express to their kids when they have a bad attitude. I heard it from my own parents on more than one occasion. If you expect the worst of a person or situation, then that’s what you’ll experience. Assume the worst and it will usually find you, if only because you invite it.
Thanks to our declining faith in other people, we’ve become far more prone to assuming the worst in others. I know that’s hard to avoid for some people, especially when they’ve been the victim of harassment or violent crime. However, in this case, the numbers are actually on our side.
I’ve shared the story of how I came to believe that people are generally good. For those looking for less anecdotal evidence, the data is pretty clear. There are approximately 7.5 billion people on this planet. The amount of violent crime is only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that. We would not even have that many people on this planet if we, as a species, were so inclined to harm each other.
It’s one of those rare cases where faith and facts are actually in alignment. Most of the data we have paints a fairly clear picture. In general, people are good if you give them the chance. Think of it in terms of a game of chance. If you want to win, you want the odds in your favor. As such, if you’re a smart gambler, betting on people to be good is the best bet you can make.
However, just being naturally good isn’t enough. What good are those instincts if people don’t have faith in them? If people are inclined to assume the worst, then they’ll be just as inclined to expect it and when you expect the worst, you tend to attract it. It’s the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
I get that it’s hard to have faith in people when social media is lined with volumes of stupidity and hate. That’s part of what makes faith such a powerful force in our lives, even when it’s absent of religious connotations. That’s also part of what makes it so vital in our efforts to create a better society.
With that in mind, think back to the second scenario I mentioned with the woman in a room of 100 men. This time, though, I want to add some extra bit of context. I concede that there’s a chance that at least one of those men will be an asshole who tries to assault the woman. However, I have faith that those men would be grossly outnumbered and outmatched by those who will feel inclined to protect that woman.
That’s the kind of faith that I believe we need, these days. Yes, there will always be bad people in this world, but I believe those people will always be outnumbered, overpowered, and outgunned by those who are good. Hopefully, more people come to share in that belief.