Alternatives to faith

I wrote recently about how one of the valuable functions that religion fulfils is that it offers a powerful motivational force. If we believe that God (or luck, or some other supernatural notion) is on our side, then we are empowered to fearlessly take on life’s challenges.

At face value, Atheism appears to offer nothing like this. After all, in some people’s view, the atheist’s universe is a cold, indifferent (maybe even downright hostile) place for us to live our miserable lives.

But wait, here’s a suggestion.

It’s not my suggestion. I found it listening to Sister Sledge sing We are Family. Here’s their proposal:

Here’s what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You won’t go wrong
This is our family jewel.

That seems to me to be a powerful motivational formula for success. It clearly worked for the Sisters. Maybe it can work for us all. And is having faith in yourself any harder than having faith in an unseen Deity? It might be a little egotistical, so we should probably temper it with some humility, tolerance and reason. That could be a good cocktail for success.

Is this a set of principles that we could teach our children? I think it is, although perhaps it’s not the main focus of present day education and parenting. Maybe we need to think a little more explicitly about instilling these values in the next generation. Then perhaps they would have less need for prayers, good luck charms and the rest. I suppose you could always use those things as a backup, just in case.

Here’s some more of the same thinking (plus some lovely photos) at Strong is the new Pretty, and Be Yourself is the new Happy.

27 responses to “Alternatives to faith

  1. It makes me remember about a kind of similar philosophy called Advaita( one of the schools in Hinduism ) which says something like natural and supernatural are same. Soul in you is itself is a God etc. Faith in self may be equal to having faith in God. I agree with that

  2. Alternatives to faith

    “Have faith in you and the things you do”

    “And is having faith in yourself any harder than having faith in an unseen deity?”

    Forgive me Steve, but I can’t yet see where we are finding some alternative to faith; alternative faiths, yes, but no alternatives to faith.

  3. I thought about this. Religion teaches us to be aware how infinitely small, insignificant, and fallible humans are compared to God. It also teaches that in everything we do, we must rely on God rather than on ourselves.

    Proverbs 3:5-6New International Version (NIV)

    5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
    6 in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.[a]


    a) Or will direct your paths

    At first, one might think, “what a discouraging message”. But, considering your previous post, if you believe that all your power comes from something much bigger than yourself, this message is also extremely empowering.

    The point of this philosophy also found in eastern religions is to empty ourselves of all conceit and pride. Religions consider pride to be at the root of evil. One can say that the reason for the original sin is pride — deciding that “I know better than God”. There are multiple warnings against pride in the Bible:

    Pride goes before destruction,
    a haughty spirit before a fall

    — Proverbs 16:18

    I like how Alan Watts compares a human being to a window. Window does nothing by itself. It only lets the light through. The light does not come from the window, but through the window. Anything in the window stands in the way of that light. The window itself needs to be empty.

    • Well this rather puts the cart before the horse. If you start by believing in an infinitely powerful God, then sure, we are worthless next to him and must necessarily put our trust in him. QED.

      What I’m saying is that if you don’t believe in God, you can still motivate yourself and have confidence. QED.

      I’m not saying atheism is more motivating than religion, but that it is not less motivating.

  4. Religion also teaches that we need to let God “live inside”. So I don’t see a lot of difference in thinking that our motivations come from God or from ourselves. In both cases, they come from within.

    Here is an interesting view on relationship between God and ourselves from Alan Watts:

    “I am a son of God,” well there’s the whole thing in a nutshell. If you read the King James Bible… You will see in italics, in front of the words “son of God,” THE “son of God.” Most people think the italics are for emphasis. They’re not. The italics indicate words interpolated [as preference] by the translators. You will not find that in the Greek. In the Greek it says, a son of God. It seems to me here perfectly plain. That Jesus has got it in the back of his mind that this isn’t something peculiar to himself. So when he says, “I am the Way, no Man comes to the Father but by me.” This “I am” this “Me” is the divine in us. We are sons of, or of the nature of God. Manifestations of the divine. This discovery is the gospel. That is the Good News. But this has been perpetually repressed throughout the history of Western religion…

    I think, the original message and purpose of Christianity was to free people from the legalistic oppression and hypocrisy of the religion of its time. It’s weird how things turn around and become the opposite of themselves. There is nothing new in what you write here. It all has been said before. One can even quote the bible to support your point.

    • We seem to be in agreement. Whether God exists or not, true motivation is found within ourselves. Of course we can also be inspired by others.

      • Your comment on the translation of the Bible is very interesting. If true, it changes the entire meaning of the New Testament. The standard interpretation forces us to either accept Jesus as THE son of God, or else to regard him as a deranged lunatic. Changing THE to A makes him perfectly sane and human. I could actually have some faith in such a man and his words.

        I wouldn’t be surprised. I have heard about the mistranslation of virgin birth and other such terms. What I have zero faith in is the church that seems to have decided to deliberately mislead its followers on such matters.

        • The interpretation is not true or false. It’s not THE interpretation, it’s AN interpretation. It makes sense to me. What else is the purpose of Christianity if not to show the humanity of God? It’s supported by many quotes in the NT:

          nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

          — Luke 17:21

          The ripping of the temple curtain at the moment of Jesus’s death is also symbolic. It’s the curtain that separated the “holy” part of the temple where God was believed to dwell and where only the priests had access. The fall of that curtain, to me, is a message that Christianity is supposed to get rid of such separation between God and men.

          It’s funny how people often picture God as a puppet master pulling the strings to manipulate the world. I, personally, consider God to be the driving force within things — ourselves and everything else. Of course, you cannot see it and if you take things apart, you don’t find it. So, one can say, there is no God. But it’s the same as to say that there is no “me” because one cannot define “self” (it’s not the body, it’s not the brain, etc.) and there is no “self” or “soul” inside human body that one could detect by physical measurements. Which, again, makes the point that believing in “self” makes no more sense than believing in God. There are multiple similarities between concepts of “God” and “self”. Even the name of God is “I AM” — another reference to “self”.

  5. I know for sure that I am limited in all my abilities — physical, mental, moral, you name it. No matter what I do, it is not perfect. Believing otherwise is a mistake. So, your “belief in myself” is not really a belief in myself. Because myself is, for sure, limited and slowly deteriorating to the point of death. It’s really, a belief that there is something inside me that is bigger than myself. Which, to me, is similar to belief in God.

    • Not precisely. I’m saying that you should have faith in your own abilities, however limited they may be. Of course, I am not advocating foolhardy behaviour. I do not believe that I can walk on water or beat a chess Grandmaster, but I know my abilities and will succeed best if I have confidence that I can succeed. If I have no confidence I am almost bound to fail.

      • “My dear Watson,” said [Sherlock Holmes], “I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.”

        ― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter

        But… you will have no progress or success unless you believe that you can do or learn to do a little more than you can do now. If you believe you cannot beat a chess grandmaster, you never will.

        By the way, the notions of “ability”, “potential”, etc. are artificial. It’s best not to bother with them altogether. It does not matter what I can or cannot do. It only matters what I actually do.

        Omnipotence is not knowing how everything is done; it’s just doing it.

        — Alan Watts

        Almost sounds like the Nike motto.

  6. agrudzinsky, I’m sure that all of us rely on our own sense of our abilities when it comes to undertaking difficult tasks. Perhaps religious belief is able to transcend our knowledge of our limitations in certain cases – I have heard people talk of how they faced a seemingly impossible task, prayed to God for help, then found they could do it after all. Similarly, firewalkers do something that seems to be impossible, by convincing themselves that they have some kind of superpower. People like athletes must reach deep inside before each race in order to bring out their very best. Faith in God is perhaps a shortcut, but it is a method that can be taught.

    • I agree. I think, religion is a technique of autosuggestion. It’s widely used in non-religious context, of course. See Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Get Rich”, for example.

  7. Thanks for engaging so much with this post. I wasn’t expecting such a big response. You see, I am trying to engage positively with religion and not simply list the things I dislike about it, which I have tended to do in the past. I am going to try and build a positive case for atheism, rather than say why religion is bad.

  8. Yes to bhatmahesht and not just a technicality per Hariod. I.e., alternative faiths, even an atheistic faith in oneself, can be positive and motivational, but atheism as an alternative to faith (i.e., absent of faith in anything, even oneself) leaves you rather desolate, like, as I’ve argued in my blog, Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger or the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And per bhatmahesht, many Buddhist-ish atheists would say that a faith in oneself is essentially a faith in one’s Self, the universal self of our shared cosmic consciousness. And per agrudzinsky, my favorite Alan Watts quote is his rebuttal to the existentialist notion that we’re “thrown into” the world alone and alien: “We do not ‘come into’ the world; we come out of it, like leaves from a tree.”

  9. Good discussion here Steve, read with much interest and thanks to you for the platform.

  10. Another great post.. Enjoyed it as always

  11. “Have faith in you and the things you do…”
    Okay. What if that includes stealing, rape, or murder?

    Is there, anywhere, a prescription for determining “ought” from “is”?

    • This article is about motivation. Morality I have blogged about previously. Most people have a pretty good idea of what they ought to do – putting it into practice seems to be the hard part.

      • Even motivational tools can have a basis of right and wrong!

        As strictly a motivational meme, it’s been around a long time. Parents instill it in their kids — have faith in yourself! It’s true. It’s great. It should be true for all of us. Know who you are and what you can do (and always work on improving).

        The whole point of trusting in god (for those who do) is that god is infallible. Humans, manifestly, are not. The point is getting strength from something perceived as stronger than you are.

        There is also the idea of fate, and some find a lot of comfort in the twin ideas of a greater guiding power and that things are ordained and under control. I mean, you can see why that would be a comforting way to look at it, right?

        As your article starts off saying, atheism as a philosophy just doesn’t offer much in terms of comfort and joy (nor does it claim to) other than what you can scrape together on your own (which, yes, is quite a bit — it’s just that theists get a head start).

        • True enough, although theists can be in for a rude awakening when they put their trust in god and disaster strikes. Some people find that their faith crumbles to dust and they are left with nothing. At least atheists have no false illusions that the universe owes them something.

        • As you said, “True enough!”

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