“My faith guides me.”
“I trust God to take care of it.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
You hear things like this when people are talking about misfortune, comforting those who are struggling or in pain, or taking some action that could have bad results. These quotes are all signs of faith, which is simply the belief that a higher power or greater force drives the universe toward a place of goodness.
For both religious and non-religious people, faith plays an important role. It quells our anxieties. It motivates us to take risks. It does these things by assuring us that it will all be okay.
However, faith also strips us of our agency, passes the credit for our successes, and makes us feel worse when we fail. Some may argue that there is no harm in believing that a higher power will save the day. I argue that such an attitude is disrespectful to ourselves.
Recently, I lost my job. Although this came at the tail end of a treacherous span of years, through which I struggled with depression and suicidal ideation, oddly, I found my premature departure refreshing. Partly because the workplace was toxic and partly because I now had time to focus on my own business, I felt pretty optimistic and empowered. Meanwhile, I was flourishing as an artist and enjoying a renewed connection with my partner. To me, it seemed like the universe had indeed opened several doors despite slamming one.
Yet when I posted about these exciting new opportunities on social media, I was a little dismayed by the comments:
“See? You just had to have faith.”
“See? It all worked out.”
“See? God works in mysterious ways.”
Yes, I see. I see that things are better now. But where is the acknowledgment of my efforts? Had I sat on my couch and rewatched “Scrubs” for the umpteenth time instead of working hard to launch my business, it wouldn’t matter if the universe flung open a thousand doors.
Having faith does nothing except assuage our fears. It has no role in honoring our good work. In fact, it’s so disconnected from good deeds, self care, and compassion that people are able to credit it for sheer dumb luck. Worse, it’s considered both the prerequisite and the means to receive good fortune, even if you don’t put in any effort.
Now, I am also not a fan of erroneously accepting responsibility for the universe’s mischievous dealings. No one should feel that they are to blame for abuse, assault, or violence, and no one should feel guilty for their lack of success despite putting in the effort. Plenty of people struggle, work 80 hours a week, and have great ideas. They can’t all be incredibly successful. Believing that your faith will get you ahead is less effective than putting in the work, though. And pinning your success solely on your faith is a slap in your own face.
Faith and personal responsibility aren’t opposites. They’re two sides of the same coin.
Recently, I came across a podcast in which an entrepreneur was talking about how as a “visionary,” she “downloaded” her ideas from God. What struck me is that she ascribed neither these ideas nor their execution to herself in any way, and rather thanked God and her “faith” for her success. She got so caught up in her inspiration that she forgot about her perspiration. Religious beliefs aside, she thought of herself as simply being a pawn of the universe.
We’re supposed to be motivated by this attitude? Because she didn’t actually talk about the work that she must have done, she had nothing of value to say. What happens when we work hard, have faith, and don’t get ahead?
In many such cases, we feel like such a failure that we contemplate giving up.
In a 2016 study, suicidal ideation was greater among those with religious beliefs. These findings have a complicated role in a very complex area of research, and indeed, in many religious countries, religious involvement is associated with a lower suicide rate. However, we’re talking about ideation, not execution. While suicide is forbidden in most major religions, ideation may still happen. Whether feelings of betrayal by a higher power or self-blame for “not having enough faith,” an outlook that strips oneself of agency can lead to increased feelings of helplessness and the painful question, “What if I’m just not worth it?”
The illusion of faith as a protective buffer against misfortune isn’t limited to Judeo-Christian traditions. Many New Age philosophies discuss processes such as manifestation and meditation, and encourage practitioners to abandon the idea of self or free will in favor of a communalistic outlook. In New Age worldviews, we’re all part of something greater that serves as our source of motivation and fortune. (Psst: That’s faith.)
After I’d confided in a friend about the tortures that my abusive ex-boyfriend put me through, I was stunned by her response. She was very into what people call woo: an eclectic blend of chakra-based body practices, suspicion of science and pharmaceuticals, and a vague belief in the Universe as a guiding power. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that she said,
“You’ve got to be careful about what you’re putting out in the universe. You get what you put out there. If you just manifest positive energy, good things will come to you.”
According to this friend, I had caused the abuse by putting out a subconscious desire for it. And if I simply “think positive,” I’ll be immune from further harm.
This is a particularly devious form of faith because it gives you the illusion of agency. Yet if you read between the lines, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If bad things happen to you, it’s your fault, but if you’re upset about your situation, more bad things will happen to you. So you’ve got to trust that the universe will manifest good things for you if you take a positive approach.
What utter bunk. I suppose all the people in the world who are being unfairly imprisoned, tortured, or abused by natural disasters, corrupt politicians, or traffickers need simply manifest positive energy and hope the universe listens. And I suppose that people born into wealth and privilege, who have never had to lift a finger to enjoy a cushy life, are really good at this positive energy thing. Of course they’re positive if they’ve had someone to wipe their butt their whole life.
In all versions of faith, whether religious or secular, you’re asked to turn your attention away from your own feelings and experience and toward something so intangible and mischievous that, much like our entrepreneur above, you end up having to blindly throw things to the wall and see what sticks.
What would happen if you took faith out of the equation? If you believe that God will protect you and that you’ll be rewarded in heaven for being good, that’s fine. But what if you also believed that your good actions and hard work led to success in and of themselves ? What if you decided that you might be able to do something to fix a bad situation rather than hoping it will “sort itself out”? What if you accepted that sometimes our best efforts end up being unsuccessful?
You’d be celebrating and honoring your own agency. You’d be better empowered to keep your personal demons at bay. And you’d be able to find both inspiration and motivation from within, rather than waiting on the universe, which, as we’ve noticed, works in mysterious ways.