For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.
Sir Francis Bacon, 1640
In the murky depths of the human mind, faith and reason both participate in forming beliefs. But they don’t necessarily overlap or share the same epistemic value in forming knowledge. I’m inspired by Nick Trakakis thoughtful account of his struggle to reconcile his faith with philosophic inquiry in Why I Am Not Orthodox, ABC’s Religion & Ethics, 7 December 2015. Trakakis concludes that faith commitment to the main forms of organised religion is “incompatible with the pursuit of truth and wisdom”. The idea that faith contains epistemic value is the mirage of organised religion.
I want to challenge the understanding of faith presented in the responses to Trakakis article: Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning: A Response to Nick Trakakis, by Benjamin Myers, 9 December 2015, and Intellectual Assent and the Value of Disagreement: A Response to Nick Trakakis, by Richard College, 22 December 2015: both from ABC’s Religion & Ethics.
Blaise Pascal paradoxically described faith as providing the “heart” with “reasons” which elude “reason”:
The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.
By definition, faith and reason are mutually exclusive. Faith is defined various ways, but always entails a lack of evidence. Faith always walks hand in hand with doubt. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines faith generally as “trust”, and notes religious faith has several models: “affective”, “cognitive” or “volitional”.
Affective faith is a state of confidence and trust.
Cognitive faith refers to certain knowledge of God provided directly through revelation. Cognitive faith arms itself with Reformed Epistemology, an alternative epistemology where claiming direct knowledge of God is a legitimate form of evidence. The cognitive faith of reformed epistemology is excluded from this discussion because it attempts to fundamentally alter the generally accepted rules of evidence and verification. It even endows humans with a cognitive faculty for detecting God, the sensus divinitatis, of which no evidence exists. Unless there’s some reason or evidence to regard reformed epistemology as a legitimate arm of knowledge, then it remains an article of faith itself.
Volitional Faith is the choice to believe sometimes characterised as intellectual assent. Faith can be either a type of act or a type of assent. So both affective faith and volitional faith involve trust and confidence in a proposition.
Philosopher Matt McCormick defines faith as:
Faith: Belief without sufficient evidential justification.
Faith is offered in defence of believing in what we have insufficient legitimate reasons to believe. Faith should not be used as a substitute for evidence. To use it as justification for belief is a category mistake which assumes the existence of a faith-based category of knowledge which is unavailable.
The Oxford Dictionary defines evidence as:
Evidence: the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.
If faith could actually contribute something tangible towards accepting a belief, it would constitute evidence. Since faith, by definition, is belief in the absence of sufficient evidence, the concept that it’s an actual reason for belief is self-negating and self-referential. It’s breaking the rules of epistemology to insert faith on the evidential scale as if somehow bridges the gap between incomplete evidence and knowledge.
Faith is an attitude towards evidence, rather than a form of evidence in itself. Faith does not provide “fullness to reasoning”, it simply pumps up the tyres of belief beyond what is epistemically justifiable. Faith has no epistemic content to apply to the proposition.
Failure to understand this leaves us imprisoned in an epistemology where the unknown and the unverifiable share the same status as verified knowledge. We lament the results of this failure over and over in debates about evolution, climate science and other areas where pre-existing beliefs and mythology clash with science.
Once we liberate knowledge from its foggy prison we can consider the merit of applying the same discipline to religion. What happens to religion without the supernatural? Can we reconsider religion without its myths? Is there a non-theistic future for religion?
The “Faith” of the Gaps
The God of the Gaps argument uses gaps in scientific knowledge as evidence for God’s existence. A parallel can be drawn in the use of faith to plug the gaps in theories of knowledge. To Benjamin Myers, faith and reason are indelibly connected. Further, Myers claims faith is foundational to reason. But his claim that we “cannot get started without faith” is flawed. The reality is that we cannot get started without evidence.
Myers offers Clement of Alexandria’s argument that we should accept Christianity on faith alone. (I note Clements self-defeating claim to have dozens of cogent arguments in reserve). But we simply cannot consider Christianity without processing a substantial sum of information describing the beliefs and doctrines of the religion. These make certain claims about the creation of the world, the life of Jesus, human nature, and our purpose in the world. One cannot fail to consider how credible these claims are. One cannot switch off inbuilt mechanisms for applying our critical faculties to the story, and contrasting it to knowledge of history, cosmology, anthropology and so on. It’s true that we might choose to adopt belief in the absence of sufficient evidence. But that’s not the same as starting with faith alone. The proposition contains basic information which constitutes evidence. So we’re not starting with faith, but evidence. It’s more accurate to say that we’d be starting with insufficient evidence and heaping faith on top of it, like coals onto a fire.
To start with faith Myers argues we need to adopt a change of disposition to one of “basic trust”. Myers offers Clement of Alexandria’s comparison of faith to getting drunk at a party.
You might have some doubt about whether it’s right for a person to get drunk. But it’s your practice to get drunk before considering the question….Only when divine things are in question do you first inquire…
Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that most people don’t just get drunk without thinking about it anymore. Drink driving laws have put paid to that. And even prior to modern sensibilities about alcohol consumption, it’s quite silly and untrue to say we only apply reason to questions of the divine. But the insistence on applying a “disposition” of trust helps us acknowledge that this is what “faith” is: an attitude, a belief – not a form of evidence.
Nonetheless, it’s worth exploring the problem of propositional knowledge Myer’s outlines. The assertion that there are things which first must be accepted without proof is based on the philosophical problem of defining knowledge. But alas, it doesn’t provide a compelling argument in favour of faith. Myer’s point is valid only to the extent that philosophical theories of knowledge are inadequate. Theories of knowledge fail to provide an agreed evidential foundation for what we regard as knowledge.
If I take my knowledge of a thing A, based on the evidence for it B, I should also logically require evidence for B. But now I am stuck in an infinite regress unless I can prove some item of knowledge which is foundational. A foundational type of knowledge might be considered our first direct perception, or an article of faith. Thus, so the argument goes, we must start by assuming something is true.
But equally, we acknowledge the substantial progress made in science, technology and other areas of knowledge without an apparent foundation. Our expectation that knowledge must have a foundation may be unrealistic, especially considering the traditional definition knowledge – as justified, true, belief. Gettier problems demonstrate the expectation of perfect knowledge is unrealistic given they rely on our own imperfect perception. Things that seemed justified and true have long turned out to be false on closer inquiry. Virtually nothing is known with absolute certainty.
When, for instance, we view a red car, our perception and knowledge is often incomplete. We recognise the image and the attributes of a motor vehicle, but we don’t appreciate the object in its totality. We don’t know what brand of oil is used. We mightn’t know all of the parts of the car. Many things inside are hidden from view. We wouldn’t perceive all of the molecules and atoms which make it up. In addition, we may be deceived by an illusion, or by mental illness, or a failure of eyesight.
But, in practical terms, we can use the red car to go to and from work, to pick up our kids from school, and to go shopping. It’s not an article of faith that our red car will reliably assist our lives – it’s based on reasonable evidence. Yet our knowledge of it is far from perfect. But even so, there’s no reason whatsoever to place “faith” as the foundation of our red-car knowledge. And though we’re satisfied by our practical knowledge, we cannot justify how our knowledge of the red car is founded.
The “Faith” of the Gaps is the unjustified insertion of faith as the foundation of knowledge. This theory not only suffers from a lack of any substantive argument, but must overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle that faith is not an article of evidence but an attitude towards it.
The weakness of my position does not imply a strengthening of yours
Crucially, the limits of knowledge don’t dictate that we must take things on faith. The nominated candidates for faith are almost always an extremely narrow set of metaphysical, religious beliefs for which no verifiable proof or disproof exists. It’s hardly coincidental that the advocates for elevating faith are the same people who advocate the unverifiable beliefs.
Myers quotes Augustine from The Advantage of Believing:
If it’s wrong to believe something we do not know, I’d like to know how children can obey their parents and return their love and respect without believing they are their parents. There’s no way this could be known by reason. We have a belief about our father based on the word of our mother…
It’s not the case that children rely on faith to determine who their parents are. Children have many good reasons to conclude that their parents are their real parents. Their mother has cared for them ever since they can remember. Their parents might share physical similarities. Their parents claim to be their parents. And their siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents all agree. The foundation is not trust, but reasonable evidence. They could even get a paternity test if necessary!
… But we do believe, without any hesitation, things that we admit we can’t really know … We could give lots of examples to show that nothing in human society would be stable if we decided not to believe anything except the things that can be held with absolute certainty.
From the premise that we believe many things which cannot be known with “absolute certainty” it does not follow that we must therefore rely on faith. As Sigmund Freud said in The Future of an Illusion, “The weakness of my position does not imply a strengthening of yours.” The human cognitive bias towards absolutism tricks the mind into imagining the problem as a false dichotomy: Faith or reason. But that’s a false choice. We base our beliefs and knowledge on a varying scale of reason: a scale varying between no evidence, some evidence and an irrefutable amount of evidence.
Do we, for instance, know anything with absolute certainty based solely on faith? And tellingly, how would we test any claim that we do? By using evidence? How do we choose which beliefs to have faith in without evidence? Why not choose Poseidon, Mithras, Apollo or any other God to place our faith in?
Faith is not a category of evidence
In William James famous lecture given in 1896, The Will to Believe, he argues in “defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.”
James is influenced by the human need for necessary knowledge:
…the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessing of real knowledge.
He argues absolutism is a requirement of knowledge because humans need it.
But simply because humans want or need it, does not make it so.
The underlying a priori assumption that because humans need certain things, the world and its objective reality must necessarily comply, is clearly a product of religious belief itself. One only assumes such a thing if we consider humans pivotal to creation itself.
His most persuasive point is that evidence regarding a beliefs truth or falsity is sometimes only accessible to believers. Pointing to St Augustine’s oft quoted “Unless you believe, you will not understand” James contends that we must first use faith to welcome in the object of our faith, and only then can we achieve further knowledge.
If this is true then it stands to reason that it applies beyond religious belief. But the testing of a hypothesis or holding a provisional belief in one, isn’t the same as intellectual assent. Do the scientists investigating “string theory” actually believe in it? From reading about them recently it seems they do make an investment in belief to some extent. To be precise, they hold a provisional belief. Provisional means subject to testing and verification, sitting somewhat short of accepted knowledge. Scientific history is full of surprising discoveries made whilst trying to prove something else. By no means is it demonstrated that any particular knowledge relies on holding a belief in it prior to discovery or verification. And wondering if something is true is hardly the same as believing it.
And how can we ignore the internal contradiction of arguments made for faith on the basis of evidence and reason? We’re asked us to accept an attitude of “basic trust” to propositions such as the existence of God or Christianity, without sufficient reason and evidence, by accepting the offered reason and evidence. On what epistemic basis do we consider such arguments? If they are lacking in evidence do we just insert an attitude of faith? And if so, how can we ignore the obvious circularity in using faith to justify faith, and the internal contradiction of using evidence to justify faith?
Distinguishing Faith and Reason
Richard College, Intellectual Assent and the Value of Disagreement: A Response to Nik Trakakis, ABC Religion & Ethics, 22 December 2015, provides an interesting discussion of the “the epistemology of disagreement”.
The founding premises of our beliefs are informed by “gut intuitions”. These intuitions are influenced by such things as our genes, early life experiences and traumatic events, socio-cultural influences, the structure of one’s language, geographic and political context, and religious instruction. Experimental psychologists have scientifically identified these tribal influences as producing cognitive biases.
Referencing William James The Will to Believe, College contends that “underlying pre-rational passions and volitions” inform which “truth-claims are more or less on the table”.
College’s “gut intuitions” are the human fogginess in the enchanted glass. There’s no doubt that human beliefs are informed by reasoning which is unduly influenced by non-evidential factors. But it doesn’t follow that abstract concepts such as reason and faith are artificially conjoined by human folly.
Faith and reason are not hermetically sealed rival domains – the so-called disjunction of Athens and Jerusalem – requiring us to either suppress one and champion the other (hence the alternatives of hyper-rationalism or fideism), or try to find a way of breaching the abyss between them through some kind of uneasy balance.
College’s argument mirrors James argument that because humans use faith to form beliefs, then faith must be indelibly bound to reason. ie. because humans practise it, it must be so. But acknowledging the human propensity to prematurely form beliefs by using cognitive biases, such as wishful thinking, does nothing to suggest that those biases contribute to the epistemological status of the hypothesis. What humans believe has no bearing on reality. The scientist’s test is not made more likely of success because he has a hunch it might be true. Just because humans are prone to make these mistakes, doesn’t imbue them with virtue. Humans are inclined to apply faith to hypotheses with insufficient evidence. Acknowledging this unremarkable fact should not compel us to enjoin the magisterium of faith and reason. To the contrary, it should stiffen our resolve not to conflate them.
Since the world exists independently and objectively, then reason ought to be the most efficient and effective way of ascertaining knowledge of the world. Perhaps reflecting centuries of near universal religiosity, philosophers attempting to define “reason” often presume it only applies to humans. Despite this, we see other animals in nature displaying the use of reason, albeit at a more primitive level. Reason is a variable faculty in humans, as it is in nature. We easily envisage the possibility of alien life forms using reason much better than we do. We expect man-made technology to assume and even outperform the human capacity for reason some time in the future. Reason is an abstract concept which needn’t be limited by humans.
We ought to use the concept of reason to find the best path to knowledge. We must distinguish reason and human reason. To accept reason as subject to the passions of humans is to limit the human project. And to succumb to the rationalisation that evidence plus a dash of faith constitutes reason, is gaming the system to achieve a preordained result.
The faith claims of religion aren’t susceptible to reason’s weighing of evidence because they contain none. Artificially moving the concentric circles of the two domains over one another may provide hope for holders of unverifiable beliefs, but that hope is a mirage.
As Trakakis argues, the problem with religious faith is assuming we know the truth to start with. We’re not open to honest enquiry if we assume to know the truth on faith, as if faith constitutes an article of evidence in itself.
Can we imagine religion without God?
Having separated faith and reason let’s now attempt to reunite them again. There’s nothing wrong with faith per se: my argument merely notes faith is an attitude of trust not an article of evidence. If we cannot have faith in God, what then do we put our trust in?
In western societies the supernatural claims of Christianity are waning. In the post information-explosion world, faith is no longer enough to perpetuate extraordinary claims which continue to elude proof. The question becomes whether religion can survive and in what form. The diverse and changeable history of Christianity suggests that it may live on.
The beliefs of Christianity have changed continuously from the 1st and 2nd century until now. The original belief in a heaven on earth was reinvented to a supernatural one when the “imminent” second coming failed to arrive. From Judaism to Gentile Christianity to Medieval Christendom, from Protestantism to Enlightenment secularism, to the myriad modern Christian sects – the doctrines of Christianity have been debated, revised and reinterpreted. Christianity is nothing if not resilient.
That’s why it’s possible to envisage the religion which will replace Christianity is Christianity itself: a new form which reimagines theology by placing faith entirely within the realm of reason. Consider how much stronger faith would be when unshackled from fancies and clamped-on-hard to the real world.
Rather than providing “fullness to reasoning”, faith can become an attitude of trust to reason. Not, mind you, the elevation of human reason to exalted status, or the reification of reason to the point where it’s harmful, but simply a trust in using evidence to form knowledge whilst acknowledging the limits of knowledge. In a religious sense, trust can extend to using reason to seek wisdom – the wisdom necessary to properly define and fulfil the mortal human project.
By following reason rather than faith, the metaphysical claims of a deconstructed Christianity would become natural rather than supernatural. The Sermon on the Mount loses none of its force if we accept a non-divine view of Jesus. The tale of the Good Samaritan may or may not be based on a real event. In terms of its use as a parable in the modern age, it’s truth is neither here nor there. Also, regarding Jesus as a mortal teacher and a moral compass allows the sort of mutability envisioned by Sigmund Freud. The existing teachings and values of Christianity can change according to their utility and relevance.
The power of mythology is not its perceived truth, but the power to unify. Myths have defined societies from prehistory to the present day. Today, we witness the myths of religion replaced with conspiracy theories and a fragmented set of social networks. Modern humans participate in a wide array of disparate preoccupations including social networking, meditation, reality television, online gaming, personal development, political causes, literary pursuits, sporting and social clubs, weight loss schemes, personal fitness and so on. Replacing the sense of community of religion with their own narrow values and aspiration these are pseudo-religions. No doubt modern society would benefit from the rituals and healing of organised religion under an umbrella of shared values. But in modern pluralist society, unity cannot be achieved by exclusionary religious groups practising a narrow set of beliefs. Whereas once unity was achieved by universal conformity and punishment of dissent, nowadays, it could only be achieved by a broad and inclusive philosophy.
Reprising the earlier discussion of provisional beliefs, there might be a way for Christians to maintain some theistic beliefs without offending reason. It’s not unreasonable to admit the mystery of existence whilst entertaining a notion of a creator-God. Provisional beliefs in cherished aspects of Christianity could survive, whilst acknowledging alternative theories and competing views occupy equal status. Embracing uncertainty, and admitting the limits of knowledge, will become tools to regulate beliefs.
The dogma will go. Consider how few of the 613 Mosaic Commandments of the Old Testament – including edicts such as “Break the neck of a calf by the river valley following an unsolved murder” – remain relevant today. Add to this the disproven stories, such as Genesis, Noah’s Ark, and the Exodus, and it’s not hard to imagine postmodern Christians taking a more agnostic attitude to the metaphysical and doctrinal claims derived from The Book.
A new Christianity may become a melting pot of Christian humanism, secular humanism and a philosophy. Christian humanism has a long tradition dating back to Justin the Martyr and other 2nd century writers. Using the teachings of Jesus and selectively using other parables from the Bible, might form the basis of a non-theistic Christian ethics.
This is not to say that Christianity will simply become secular humanism. Humanism is a broad and loosely defined movement derived from both Christian and secular influences. As an ethical philosophy focussed on humans eschewing the supernatural or transcendent, humanism isn’t as broad in scope or ambition as Christianity. But the rituals and institutions of Christianity could transform humanism into a theological project. One can readily imagine the commingling of the rituals, philosophies and ideas of both resulting in a new type of religion.
Rather than a set of fixed beliefs and creeds, the “religion” becomes a collection of ideas aimed at remodelling and convalescing humankind. The religion would more realistically produce ideas on how to improve the human condition – ethically, spiritually and philosophically. The consensus of human knowledge would form a basis for human betterment.
Capturing the essence of what is human and how to describe human nature would inaugurate such a project. An unsentimental, naturalistic picture of humans and our natures is by no means a finished project. Since our scientific understanding of human nature is incomplete, our philosophic meditations on human nature will necessarily be provisional. The study of human nature cuts across many fields. Any progress made in solving the “hard problem of consciousness”, in understanding the origins of life, and describing the elements within the universe, will all contribute to a deeper understanding of the human condition and our place within the universe.
Our knowledge is still in its infancy. We are no wiser on the best of way to live than were our ancestors in Aristotle’s time. We aren’t even much wiser than the humans who blew their handprints in red ochre on cave walls 25 thousand years ago. We’ve had thousands of years of erroneously assuming we are the centre and pinnacle of creation, the lone species for whom a divine purpose has been set out: preparing ourselves for a mythical life after death. We need to unlearn all that.
Lloyd Geerings Christianity Without God describes a pathway for Christians to reconcile and combine the cultural heritage of their religion with humanism. Geering argues humanism is a product of Christian thought, and describes the continually changing nature of Christianity. Daniel McGuire’s 2014 book of the same name argues for a “moratorium on god-talk so that together we could explore alternatives to earth’s current social, political, economic, and ecological distress”.
We’ve seen emergent Christian movements such as Peter Rollins, Ikon assemblies, offering a religion without religion using transformative art. One of the most admired Christians of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a series of letters from prison speaking of a “Religionless Christianity”. Though Bonhoeffer demurs from religion, not from faith, his focus on the provisional nature of belief has been taken up later post-modern Christian offshoots such as Jesuism, Christian atheism, and Paul van Buren’s Death of God movement.
We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur (as if God is not given). And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it… The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.
In the Netherlands, 42% of Protestants don’t believe in God, and 1 in 6 pastors are agnostic or atheist. One of its ministers, Klaas Hendrikse describes God not as a deity but as an expression of human experience. In his book, Believing in a God who does not exist: manifesto of an atheist pastor, Hendrikse argues that God is a word for what connects people: “Someone says to you, for example, ‘I will not abandon you’, and then makes those words come true. It would be perfectly alright to call that God”.
The existential mystery is central to the religious urge. To echo the Tasos Leivaditis poem, Violets for a Season (quoted by Trakakis), we stretch out our hands toward the infinite like lost children. The handshake with the infinite never happens. But the hope of finally grasping hold of the keys to our existence is nevertheless exhilarating. Many modern non-theists foresee a day when religion will no longer exist. Personally, I doubt it.
I recently watched a moving documentary about the devastation caused by the Chinese Sichuan school collapse. Many parents lost their children in the disaster.
In one moving scene we see a mother at dusk, on the 5th anniversary of her daughter’s death. She lights a sky lantern. Rising slowly, its red glow gradually animates an expression of inconsolable despair on the mother’s face. She clasps her hands in prayer. Family members cling to each other all looking upwards.
My beautiful daughter. I have to believe that you are happy in your life in heaven. When I look to the sky you are the brightest star.
Other than with religion, how else could the mother reconcile the immensity of her loss? The mother cannot cease being a mother. If there are better ways of soothing human despair than this, and there must be, then we have so far failed to find them. Acknowledging the obvious self-delusion does nothing to invalidate the urge to ancestor worship and false consolation embedded within our psyche. If we intuitively practise religion in certain situations, then we must at least acknowledge the deep human need for worship.
In his influential Kenyon college commencement speech, What is Water, David Foster Wallace asserts that “there’s no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship”. A good reason for religious or spiritual worship is that anything else will “eat you alive”. Worship money and you’ll always be poor. Worship appearances and you’ll always be ugly. Worship power, and you’ll be weak. Worship the intellect and you’ll never be smart enough. Wallace’s message acknowledges the human need for meaning, communion with others, and to exercise control over our mind. His overall message is that the most obvious and important realities are often the most difficult to see.
Humans have long tried to exercise dominion over the Earth. But the organ we need to subdue is the one inside our own craniums. The mind of man remains an enchanted glass. We can only attempt to tame its lavish appetites by continually refilling it with evidence. And once the glass is clear and the beams of light travel straight and true, what we see might seem so obvious we’ll wonder how we never noticed it before. The deus ex machina of religion, the phoenix arising from the ashes of dogma, is doubt and uncertainty. Reason and evidence are the best hope of revitalising the religious project.