Sunday, August 26, 2012


Virtues have their opposites, but they also have their pseudo-virtue counterparts. Whereas faith or belief on the one hand is one of the most fundamental religious attributes, on the other hand, it is one of the most misunderstood concepts. Faith to most people is equated with a cognitive conviction that is based on acceptance of ideas that are communicated by others. The basis of acceptance is often either an emotional or a cognitive argument. It is an affirmative response to someone's saying "take my word for it". The cognitive mechanism behind this type of persuasion is a topic in itself, so I will not expand on it at this time. There is, however, another epistemological source of persuasion that is based on empirical knowledge.

This last element separates faith that comes from experience and belief that is the product of emotional or rationalistic persuasion. Subsequently, I will be referring to persuasion that is the result of a rationalistic or emotional argument as belief, whereas for empirically based conviction I will be using the term faith. This distinction is important because it represents the two different types of conviction that one finds in religion. In both cases the cognitive understanding might exist, but, while faith is the result of experience, belief comes through emotion or rational sounding arguments. Along this line of thinking, one often observes the phenomenon, where experience can produce knowledge that is beyond understanding and language. This would be the definition of a mystical experience. Another important yet difficult point is that of defining the authenticity and validity of empirical knowledge. This is a rather difficult task that also deserves a special treatment.

Having said that, I can now introduce the concept of piety. Piety is related to faith. While faith can be thought as an input mechanism of spirituality, piety is the expressive side of it. The word expressive should not be thought of as being synonymous with overt behaviors. In this sense, piety is a rather cognitive phenomenon that is not limited to behavior but can be extended to attitudes, thought processes, etc.

In the absence of experience, faith and piety become belief (as I defined belief earlier), superstition and pietism. All these attributes are commonly seen in religious cultures today and in the past. Fanaticism is an example of superstitious pietism coupled with aggression.

There are milder forms of pietism. In these cases, the person is attached to ritualistic practices and/or doctrinal fixations. He/she separates people between "us and them" between good and bad or believers and non-believers.  That person thinks that he is a member of an elect group, while others are thought as outsiders in need of conversion.  On a rather personal level, a "believer" spends much time on external practices and feels proud for such behavioral accomplishments. He judges the worth of others, even those with the group, on the basis of these external ritualistic practices, and condemns or at least pities those who have not achieved such levels. Ironically, his focus is mostly on how others are lacking in such practices, while his efforts, even if they are minuscule, are greatly valued.
At a cognitive level, beliefs are often based on authority figures. In the world of science, the authentication of a claim must follow the rules of validity and reliability. In order for a hypothesis to be viable it must be both testable and falsifiable. A personal experience might or might not be authentic, unless it can be replicated or verified by an independent observer. The concept of independence in this case is very important, since it is common for people to claim similar experiences, but these experiences are not truly independent but copies of behaviors.

A belief can lead to pathological states. Fanaticism is of course an obvious extreme example of such pathological states. There are, however, stages of pathologies of lesser severity, yet still posing problems for the psychological and spiritual state of the individual and can lead to more serious pathologies. Such attitudes and behaviors are alarmingly common in religious groups. When lacking persuasive power, they resort to problematic and often unethical or coercive practices. From a psychological point, these practices lead to problems of emotional and social isolation and alienation.

The motives of pietism are selfishness and pride. There is typically a present of future gain toward which he works hard. An example of such selfish thinking is the future promise of some kind of reward. In that context, salvation is a personal eternal reward that carries an almost material value. Goodness and virtue become means to this end and in the absence of that goal, they cease to retain their value, and they disappear.

Pietism is closely related to hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is not necessarily an intentionally deceptive practice, where the hypocrite knowingly tries to deceive others. As the case is with pietism, hypocrisy is also concerned with external behaviors and less with essence. The hypocrite is convinced that whatever behavioral practices he follows are enough to please God or to satisfy his moral code. Others are judged on the basis of their adherence to legalism or moral practices. Moralism is an expression of pietism and hypocrisy. Moralism is an attitude concerned with judging the behaviors of others. The self is defined by overt behaviors and not by the health of the inner person. In the moralistic way of thinking, there is a gap between the inner world and the behavior. A person of that mindset is mostly concerned about feeling good now and in the future. When he does not achieve that state of mental euphoria, he becomes confused. This confusion leads to psychological paralysis or blame of others, unsuspecting that this condition might be the result of his own spiritual pathology. It is not uncommon to see these people fall into a hyperactive or manic state for saving the world either through coercion or punishment.

The pietist is constantly searching for signs and miracles to validate his theories. He feels an existential void and tries to fill it with anything that looks real. But since he has either lowered of eliminated all together the criteria of authenticity, he confuses what is real with what he hopes might be real. Thus he has an insatiable appetite for validation.
It is important that these distinctions between faith and belief, between piety and pietism are made, because they define the difference between authentic and non-authentic faith, between healthy and pathological spiritual states. There are times in a person's spiritual development, when
he desperately looks for authentic answers to profound existential questions. Instead, most commonly, he encounters pseudo-virtues that lead to disappointment and often a cynical abandonment of their spiritual quest. History is full of such examples; unfortunately, healthy encounters are rather exceptional.

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