Having Faith in Being Human

As our plane lifted off the runway, my son turned to me and asked, “How does this airplane even get off the ground?”

I looked out the window. The wings were shaking as they carved through the air. The massive engines were roaring and spewing heat.

The ground disappeared as we entered a cloud.

I realized I had no idea how it all worked.

Then I was gripped with the incomprehensible fear that it was only the collective faith of the vehicle’s passengers that gave this iron bird the ability to fly.

And mine suddenly waned.

I grabbed my son’s hand, closed my eyes, and waited to feel the plane drop out of the sky.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

A plane’s ability to fly has nothing to do with what anyone believes.

There is a set of very sound scientific principles and very reliable technical solutions at work that ensure the vast majority of airplanes stay in the air, regardless of the onboard faith level.

All the same, it’s very striking how most of us remain clueless about how an airplane works.

Yet millions of people trust their lives on them every day.

So it’s a safe extrapolation that, in fact, faith does keep these things in the air.

But then faith doesn’t make just airplanes fly.

It fires up computers and mobile phones every day. It fuels our cars. It prints this paper.

We hold an incredible amount of faith in technology.

But in a recent interview, Prince Charles said that, “people imagine technology will solve all the problems, which it won’t.”

He’s right.

In his book Harmony, His Royal Highness expands on this idea and laments that, as a result of humanity’s obsession with technology and science, we have lost touch with the religious and spiritual aspects of our society.

Hence, we are no longer at balance with the natural world.

To regain balance, he says, we need to reintegrate religious and spiritual faith back into our love of science.

On the concept of balance, he’s absolutely right.

But to my mind, both science and religion are really only proxies to a far more important faith: that in humanity itself.

One thing that most human societies have lacked is a direct connection to and understanding of the natural world and our place in it that is unencumbered by either religion or science.

Rather than trust ourselves to just exist, we have always tended to  wrap our experiences in mythology or box them with data.

For a couple of thousand years the power structures that formed the various religious groups around the world satisfied our collective existential insecurities with all variety of abstract explanations.

Then science came along and tore those concepts to shreds with its soulless empiricism.

Both approaches are fuelled by that which is our greatest gift, and our harshest curse: intelligence.

Intelligence sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and endows us with the unique capacity for psychotic self-reflection.

As a result of our ability to obsess over the minutiae of existence, humanity is less inclined to just fit into the natural order than it is to try and take it over and reformat it in something that makes more sense.

We need to learn how to ground our perspective in the natural human condition and just let it be, just ride with it.

Prince Charles tempers his description of the spiritual approach as “intuitive”, and that’s a good word to use for what I’m describing.

So rather than balance science with religion, I’d say we need to temper our intelligence with intuition.

We need to embrace our instincts rather than denigrate and disregard them.

Our frustration with the state of being human is that it’s not entirely logical, that we seem to be some inexplicable, intrinsic pattern in the natural tapestry.

But that’s okay.

Because most problems don’t necessarily need a logical solution. They just need the right solution.

At the core of being human is risk. And that’s, in a sense, what we’ve built a lot of our religious and technical solutions around: sin and injury.

We’ve become expert at building band-aids.

Why do we continue to engineer new heart disease medications?

Because we don’t trust ourselves to lead a healthy life.

Why do we have breathalyzers?

Because we don’t trust ourselves to responsibly consume alcohol as drivers.

Why do we use Facebook and other social networks?

We’re losing faith in our natural ability to socialize and interrelate as humans.

If we learned how to focus on being a human in a natural world, we would likely conduct our lives in a respectful, preventive fashion.

We wouldn’t need so much technology.

We wouldn’t need so many band-aids.

In a nutshell, we need to learn to be more suspicious of religious and scientific ideas alike and assess them both on how much sense they make and how they make us feel.

We especially need to learn how to mistrust technology, and require that it constantly responds to the human condition and justifies itself in that light.

As it is, our blind faith in all those gadgets, wonder drugs, and fantastic vehicles is driving a wedge between us and the natural world that we’re inherently a part of.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, November 12, 2010.