What has faith got to do with war?

You might just as well ask: What has faith got to do with anything?

For many years faith was the province of religion and the enemy of science, but in today's world of terror and suicidal extremism, faith is as much a part of the battlefield, and also the armoury, of our competing world views, as anything else. In fact, with global political alliances and international arms trading, it is often all that divides one side from the other.

So let's take a look at faith, not individual Faiths, but the very human condition that is more a part of us than we first realize.

First a distinction; belief, which is a reasoned or instinctive assessment of something that leads to an assumption or conclusion, is not the same as the faith which follows and allows us to trust and project that belief into our convictions and actions.

For example, when people first reasoned, or were otherwise inspired, to believe the Earth was round, that was one fundamental step. But when the first navigator set sail around the world, and, despite all the fears and objections from his crew, continued sailing into what might be oblivion, or an endless ocean into some vast nowhere, that was faith indeed, and perhaps we can agree that faith is belief in action.

Faith drives us from the moment we consider the consequences of taking our first step, even before, when we first open our eyes then close and open them again to see if the world is still there, we are putting our beliefs to the test.

And it's not just the big things, like learning to swim or ride a bike.

Try a little test now.

Sit comfortably then close your eyes and stand up slowly. Fold your arms, then shuffle your feet but stay where you are and wait for nine or ten seconds, then with eyes still shut, and arms still folded, very slowly sit back down again. Depending on how slowly you can sit back, you may experience a moment of uncertainty, when, despite your knowledge that the chair has not moved and you will not hit the floor, your faith in ever so slightly tested.

If this experiment doesn't work then you may easily construct something similar, as children we sometimes jumped into the swimming pool with our eyes closed, instinctively testing our ability to trust our environment, and that frightening exciting anticipation of leaping into the void.

The point is that belief and faith are often derided as specifically religious restrictions, when they are in fact tools for life and living.

If we get over this precept that faith is limited, then we see that a religious person's spiritual belief is no different to atheist conviction or secularist ambition, and that manipulating faith can be a road to wealth or power, or even a strategic aim of those trying to polarize societies in preparation for war.

Faith, though, you may say is too great and noble an attribute to be exploited in this way, but think again.

From earliest times, charlatans and soothsayers, witch doctors and all manner of fraudsters, have used our faith against us; they have taken our ability to believe and to commit to that belief, for their own ends.

This is possible because we all have the ability, and the need, to believe in and trust each other. It is as fundamental and necessary to human nature and society, as anything can be. Without it, humanity disappears.

Of course we have evolved distrust as a defence, and this is where knowledge and scepticism prevail, but as in everything with Man, there is a loophole, well known and oft exploited.

Lying is an inescapable part of human nature, it is observed in primates, and every prey and predator employs deception of one form or another, so we are well adapted to detect and check each other's veracity, but there is one area that fools us in our millions. Not only the naive, but even today's experts and high tech polygraphs can be fooled by someone who actually believes their own lies.

Fortunately, this is a rare pathological condition, but it is closely related to a far more dangerous, and widespread phenomenon, there are people who transfer their beliefs by believing, not in what they say, which they may know to be untrue, but in their own ability to convince and deceive others into believing the untruth.

This is not necessarily a sinister skill. 

We have all been sold something by a salesperson whose gushing praise and confidence no way matched the product we bought. But he was probably not lying, and was simply confident (and ultimately being truthful) in his belief that he could sell us that product; that he knew what we wanted, and would convince us that was what he offered, and was not his faith indeed rewarded?

Politicians employ this ruse all the time, they exalt us to believe, not always that they are right on a particular issue, but that they have our best interests at heart, and we in turn know that they have faith in what they say, so it must be true; but what they say may not be what they mean, and their faith was not in what they said, but in the fact that many of us would believe them.

The ultimate exploitation of this belief and faith combination, is of course, when ideological or 'spiritual' leaders mobilize armies and even whole populations to do their bidding.

They include the ones who speak with such gusto and fervour that few listening can doubt their absolute conviction, so en mass we believe them, then we put our faith in them, and when things don't turn out as expected, we make excuses and allowances, we accept them in faith, rather than re-examining what they told us in the first instance.

This is an important distinction, because beliefs can be questioned and reasoned, but faith is about deeds, about accepting and then acting upon something we have already come to believe.

The true horror of what this can lead to is well documented.

But why would anyone take this ability to such extremes as we have seen? Well it's part of the cycle, it's how the 'skill' is developed from the outset.

The salesman who convinces others to buy his shoddy and worthless junk, soon moves on to selling snake oil, and when a few are actually 'cured' by his placebo, he demands greater acknowledgement of his 'gift', until he proudly proclaims that cat's piss is a medicinal wonder, and delights to watch as gullible fools drink and affirm his brilliance.

And the greatest test is yet to come, for life and death are the summit of 'achievement' for such a person. Unfortunately, when the world was shocked in more innocent times, by the malevolence of Charles Manson and the folly of his 'worshippers' who killed and butchered on his behalf, little did we know then, the scale of what would be visited upon us today.

But killing is not enough for those whose own belief can only be validated by the actions of others, and suicide is the ultimate expression of control.

The Jonestown 'event', was seen as the modern pinnacle of such mind control and abuse of faith, but events since, have demonstrated that humanity as a whole, is not so far removed from that jungle clearing as we had previously thought.

The real lesson here, is that we should be very careful in whom and in what we believe, because, however benign and mundane it may seem, thereafter our faith will follow.