Does Faith Have to be a Bad Word?

I was recently one of the judges in a literary contest organized by the editorial team at Ateistas de Puerto Rico. The contest accepted essays from anywhere in the Spanish speaking world. The original intention was to identify secular and/or atheist intellectuals in Latin America, and then to give them a platform by inviting them to write as part of the editorial team, as we perceived that there were atheists in Latin America, but there seemed to be a vacuum in visibility and access to platforms.

We recently announced the winners and shared their three essays online (you may use google translate if you don’t know Spanish). The essay contest was a huge success for many reasons. We got essays from both the Old and New World (Spain, as well as Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Puerto Rico), and were able to learn from each other’s perspectives. One friend from Argentina shared some experiences that his community had when starting to organize an atheist organization in Buenos Aires, and explained the difference between secularism and atheism, and why they are both necessary. A few other writers shared personal anecdotes, while others dispelled myths about atheists.

The winning essay (palabra soez means “dirty word”) discusses how faith has become a bad word among many atheists, and how in reality there are many proven benefits to faith, and how perhaps we should not throw away the baby with the bathwater. His essay reminded me of how the word faith was used by ancient Epicureans to refer to how they placed their trust in each other, and yet today this innocence is lost and most Epicureans avoid the word faith to refer to their philosophical tradition–although, as we’ve discussed before, Epicureanism does exhibit the seven dimensions of religion and constitutes a kind of religious identity.

The winning essay also reminded me of an episode of Bizarre Foods where Andrew Zimmern went to South Africa and spent some time among the Khoi-San people of the Kalahari desert. The San people (aka “the Bushmen”) have been identified by geneticists as the very first branch of humanity, and have both Asian and African features. They are the epitome of man in his natural state. They speak a unique language with click sounds, and their shamanic spirituality (aka “shaking medicine”)–as well as their innocence–has been celebrated by anthropologists like Bradford Keeney. In the episode, Zimmern did not just eat as the locals ate: he also participated in a sacred dance around a fire where healers entered trance. At one point, one of the healers touched Zimmern in his heart while praying for him in trance, and the white TV host started crying in the middle of the Kalahari, not being able to really articulate WHY he was crying.

Human beings are not merely “rational” beings: we also are irrational, and have irrational needs. We need to play, to dance, to loosen up, we need to be touched and loved–not just erotically. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, engage in constant tactile interaction with their mothers for the first two years of their lives and frequently reassure each other with touch. People need affection.

I greatly enjoyed reading the Spanish-language essays, and there were many good insights, but the question posed by the winning essay lingers, and perhaps deserves more focused attention: Does faith have to be a bad word? Can we be fully human if we insist on being only “rational” beings, out of touch with the deeper layers of our identity, our instincts, and our humanity? Are there aspects of faith that are organic and natural, perhaps features of the “psychological immune system” that Dan Gilbert proposes in his TED speech on the science of happiness?

P.S. Here are the definitions of “faith”. Notice that only definitions 2, 3, and 5 are overtly religious or superstitious, and even if we concede this, there are atheistic religions like Buddhism and Jainism that fulfill nearly all of the given definitions.

1. confidence or trust in a person or thing:
2. belief that is not based on proof:
3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion:
4. belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.:
5. a system of religious belief:
6. the obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.:
7. the observance of this obligation; fidelity to one’s promise, oath, allegiance, etc.:

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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