Thursday, October 08, 2009

Politics and faith

Contrasts in Italian politics among the power of the State that is too long to explain, prompted me these general considerations.

It is funny that there are so many people, much more in Europe than in the States but even here an increasing number, think that religion should be left totally out of the public space, because, they say, it is a matter of faith, and faith is a strictly individual affair.

It's more than funny, it's very funny.

I tell you why: politics rests entirely on faith.

Thus said, it is a little blunt, so I should try to explain myself.

We rarely stop and think of the meaning of the words we use. Too bad, because we could be surprised. So it is for the word faith, which carries a rich set of connotations.

For those who want to exclude it from the public space, it means essentially belief: where to believe something is opposed to knowing it. In other words, belief is equated with opinion, and according to the law everybody should be entitled to his own opinions. Here things become immediately funny, if we just bring to mind how general is the use of an expression like "I believe in...": both for things I can believe or not believe, which makes them opinions, and for things I can't but believe, which makes them science. Troubles starts when it comes to saying which is which: vary shaky business.

One could say, "I believe in the theory of evolution", or, "I believe in the theory of relativity", thinking to be affirming two things equally scientific. Someone else (like yours truly) might think, instead, that this is true for the second but not for the first, and say so. "Why, aren't both of them proved?" could ask the first, politely or with a tone of challenge (of course if he cares to be polite or challenging, and not simply ignore such an ignorant moron, who dares to doubt of evolution). "Depends on what you mean by proving", could answer a little ironic the second, "don't you know that even philosophers of science are not quite in agreement on it? Besides, how could you or I know? We didn't prove it." "You must be kidding, scientists…" "There I wanted you!"

Belief, then, is not just opinion. It simply means to be persuaded of the truth of something, for more or less good reasons. And one good reason can also be trust. Actually, the arguments for or against the theory of evolution might not be so hard to assess. But the theory of relativity… For us average mortals it is like talking about God's existence. We can only trust those who proved it.

Funny business, proving: adverting, testing, knowing…But what has to do with politics? A moment of patience, I am coming to it.

Belief, joined with trust, gives the meaning of faith. Not the full meaning yet, but enough of it to clarify the assertion I made above. I trust somebody, and I believe in what he says; I don't trust him, and I don't believe it. This happens even among scientists, between people and scientists, and, most blatantly, in politics and in religion.

Let's say, for example, the President of the United States tells us that things at the moment are tough, but we are strong and can make it. Well, we confide in him, and do our best.

Congress makes laws. We confide in it, and think that they are conceived for the common good. Courts administer justice. We confide in them, and willingly subject ourselves to their sentences and orders.

Is it clear? All politics rests on faith. Religion cannot be really separated from politics. The Founding Fathers of the United States knew it, but believed that it could be left open to civil discussion, confiding in the reciprocal good faith of people.

What happens, then, if people are divided by utterly different religions (including the religion of non-religion)? And while the government takes one side, the courts take another? A more or less latent or open war of all against all, is Thomas Hobbes' inexorable answer, to be kept in check by a tyrant State.

There is however an other answer I am more prone to: to recognize that our reasoning is prompted by faith, and to look here for proofs of what is said in the public square.


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