Some years ago in my high school philosophy class I was conducting the regular exercise of staging a panel debate over the proposition of the existence of God when one of the students who volunteered to take the affirmative position asked to modify the proposition slightly: He wished to argue that it is overall good for people to believe in God. We had gone over the subject of Pascal’s Wager, but that was not what he was talking about. He firmly believed that God is worth believing in for purposes of maintaining a sense of purpose, a belief in justice of some sort and a basis for social capital between believers. He was willing to join Pascal in saying that the nature of the subject is such that strictly rational proof wasn’t going to be forthcoming on the subject one direction or the other, but he did not believe that the “wager” on the matter needed to be based on the hypothetical hereafter; he wanted to argue that faith in God made sense as a presuppositional basis for one’s lifestyle choices regardless. Rather than arguing for the reasonableness of faith in God, he wanted to argue for the reasonableness of faith in faith in God.
As a debating tactic this was rather questionable. As a general principle one is not allowed to modify the proposition under consideration once the debate has begun. I nevertheless let him run with it for a little while in the name of encouraging original thought on the subject. Members of the opposing team were neither prepared to refute this modified proposition nor were they prepared to concede such a point. In coming back to the original subject then this provided a bit of a polemic advantage to the affirming team in terms of the whole burden of proof matter. I don’t think that either side really “won” in terms of converting significant numbers of their classmates to their perspective, but it was a particularly successful class in terms of encouraging deeper contemplation of the matter on both sides and building respect between those of opposing viewpoints.
Switch to a much different anecdote: During my time in South Africa over the last year I got to know one particularly pleasant older couple who married later in life, after the children both of them had from previous marriages had become adults already. The wife came from a traditional Muslim family but over the years she had seriously allowed her religious practice to wane. Her husband came from a European agnostic background where religion had no particular meaning in his life whatsoever. But because he felt he had nothing to lose in the matter and because he didn’t want his wife to suffer further social alienation from her community, he chose to officially convert to Islam prior to their getting married. This fellow, an atheist friend of his and I as a Christian had some intense discussions of religious matters that went on for most of the night on occasion. These discussions didn’t bring any of us closer to the others’ positions, but we grew to be far better friends in the process. But one thing that came out in the process is that my Muslim convert friend still isn’t entirely convinced that there’s a God named Allah out there, or that his religious exercises –– which he has put a very sincere effort into learning to do properly –– will get him into some sort of paradise in the world to come. He sees these things primarily as a matter of appreciating the cultural lifestyle of his wife’s people. He wouldn’t have tried such an experiment were it not for romantic motivations, but he is now firmly convinced that the sort of secularized Muslim practice that he has adopted is far better for him that the religiously uncommitted life he had before. In his own way this fellow too his less committed to faith in God than to faith in faith in God.
In recent years many atheists have challenged the validity of the theist position on just these sorts of grounds: They claim that the majority of those who claim to believe in God have not actually considered this distinction properly; that of the 90% of Americans who claim to have some sort of faith in God, the majority really just have faith in faith in God. They appreciate the comforting sensations they get through prayer and various church rituals. They appreciate the sense of community that arises out of their religious observances. They like the sense of rhythm and flow that traditional worship times add to their weekly and annual routines. What they don’t necessarily stop to consider is whether there is a bona fide transcendent being out there that actually corresponds to all of the teachings they get from their religious communities. What they have faith in is the practical value of the traditions themselves; they haven’t really stopped to consider any of the evidence (or lack thereof) for what these traditions claim to refer people to.
There’s probably a fair amount of validity to such charges when it comes to religious practice in the United States and many developing countries. Religion is not something that most people bother to think through, and what information they do seek out on the subject is designed not to open their minds to other possibilities but rather to reassure them of their reasonableness in sticking to their comfortable traditional beliefs. There are plenty of clergymen who know that this sort of comfort and reassurance is what they are being paid to provide, and who therefor quite intentionally gloss over any of the difficulties inherent in their communities’ chosen dogmas.
And yes, this can spill over into rather lazy thought processes among religious people when it comes to participation in democratic processes. Rather than carefully analyzing what sort of circumstances we find ourselves in in terms of economic conditions, the state of our environment and our relations with other countries, and rationally weighing the proposals offered by various candidates for improving things, many continue uncritically supporting the representatives of whatever party ideology they’ve been brought up to trust in. This does not bode well for the political future of America, or other countries following similar patterns.
It does not follow from here though that following tradition for tradition’s sake –– for the basic sense of comfort and harmony it has to offer –– is necessarily a bad thing for the traditionally religious. Nor does it follow that if someone were to actually find a way to force those who remain comfortably and blindly committed to religious dogmas to stop and think rationally about them for a change then that would be the end of religion as we know it. Nor yet does it follow that critical discussions of the mentalities associated with belief in God can be taken as evidence against God’s actual existence –– if you separate the phenomenon of faith in God from that of faith in faith in God in terms of not giving credence to the positive implications of the latter in defense of the former, then you can’t justifiably take the latter in evidence against the former either.
Bertrand Russell was certainly right in saying that many people would rather die than think, and many of them do; but this does not mean that those of us who actually appreciate the human thought process for its own sake are always morally superior to those who prefer to avoid thinking. Non-intellectuals of many types can nevertheless be valuable members of society and morally outstanding individuals, and often their faith in faith in God –– even if they lack the conceptual sophistication to think of it in those terms –– can further enhance these positive qualities. In other words if they have to be ignorant it doesn’t really hurt for them to be religious as well. In fact it may actually be of considerable benefit to them. Non-religious ignoramuses can be even more dangerous than the religious ones at times.
It is also somewhat obvious that just because a large group of ignorant people believe something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be true. Yes, there are ignorant people who, for religious reasons, still believe the universe is less than 7000 years old, and to anyone with more than a fifth grade understanding of geology they are obviously wrong. But the fact that these same people also believe that the water in the ocean is salty, that dark clouds bring rain, that crude selfish acts have negative consequences, and that forgiveness and harmony with our fellow human beings are nevertheless possible doesn’t stop any of these things from being true. Those with the hubris to claim that their beliefs are infallible have a strong penchant for making idiots out of themselves, and deservedly so. But setting that attitude problem aside, those who practice religious faith with a certain intellectual humility aren’t necessarily wrong just because they have faith of this sort.
Regarding the evidential disconnect between faith in God and faith in faith in God, let me say something about my experiences today celebrating the first Sunday of Advent.
Of all the self-identified religious believers I know, I actually don’t know any who are less formal about participation in sacred rituals than I am. I can sincerely say that as much as I believe in God, I have very little faith in the power of religious observances to please God or to make me a better person. I have a particularly weak faith in faith in God. But regardless of this weakness in my faith, I still find a degree of aesthetic satisfaction in playing along with various sorts of religious rituals every now and again –– be they “high church” or “low church” rituals of western style Christianity, or something more exotic to my up-bringing. I also enjoy the experience of strengthening loose personal acquaintances and meeting with people who are otherwise strangers to me in the process of “believers’ fellowship.” So with that in mind I decided to make a more concentrated effort to get to one of the worship services today marking the beginning of the season leading up to Christmas.
Being in the mood for a bit of “smells and bells”, I made my way to the local late morning Anglican service. I got there about five minutes after the scheduled starting time, but I clearly hadn’t missed anything yet. There were five other people sitting in the chapel, candles were lit on the altar, the wine and wafers for the Eucharist were sitting ready on a side table, and the building caretaker was busily attending to various logistical matters in the back room still, but there were no hymn numbers on the board, no organist in place and no priest in sight. Over the next five or ten minutes two other worshippers drifted in, but still no sign of the professionals. Finally, 20 minutes or so after the scheduled starting time, the caretaker came and said she didn’t understand what was happening, but she was unable to reach the priest or his boss, the vicar, by phone, but there was obviously some miscommunication because it was unlikely that both the priest and the organist were out with sudden illness or car problems with neither of them calling to notify the congregation. She offered to make us some coffee anyway, but we all just shrugged and smiled and decided to be on our way.
So instead of that worship, later in the afternoon, I went to a loosely Lutheran styled Evangelical service There things were very relaxed and family-oriented, they sang a couple of the more traditional hymns for the day together with a mix of traditional Sunday school worship choruses, and afterwards everyone sat down together to a little pot-luck dinner. During the worship service itself, over the continuous buzz of active young children, who made up about a third of those present, the priest carried out the ceremony of lighting the first of the four Advent candles next to the pulpit. Then there were the formulaic Bible readings which tied into the words of a beloved Finnish hymn for the beginning of Advent: “Hosanna, oh son of David”, and from there the sermon was based on a retelling the story of Palm Sunday on a children’s level. (It’s interesting to see how elements of Christianity’s two biggest holiday seasons get blended together sometimes.) It wasn’t the most aesthetically moving religious experience I’d ever had, but it was fun in its own cutesy sort of way.
The thing that was emphasized about the story for the children was the importance of the donkey –– the ass –– in Jesus’ efforts to follow the script laid out for him in the book of Isaiah. In other Bible stories as well the donkey is symbolic of God’s intention of making himself known in the least intellectual, least ceremonial, most humble and most unlikely ways possible. God regularly uses donkeys to show that who he uses really isn’t all that important. So sitting there among all of the mumbling and moaning children, I decided that if I ever have the chance to design an official coat of arms for the Huisjen family, our heraldic beast will have to be a donkey. It would just be so appropriate on so many levels.
The failure of today’s rituals to live up to standard expectations creates no crisis of faith for me; I had no faith in the rituals to begin with. If they happen to work and provide their own satisfying stimulation, fine. If they collapse under their own weight, it’s no big deal as far as I’m concerned. If someone else has alternative rituals which they find to be more dependably satisfying than the ones I take part in, good for them; it’s no threat to my faith to admit that the various ceremonies I take part in frequently leave much to be desired.
As many of you are already aware from my Facebook statuses, I am currently in the process of returning to the academic study of theology, to do my doctorate in philosophy of religion. In this process I am more acutely aware than ever of the misleading nature of the word “theology.” Etymologically it would mean the study or science of God; but in fact its object of study is never God himself, but rather the character of people’s faith in God. In many regards this simplifies the question of the position of the subject within an academic context: regardless of whether or not academics actually believe in God, or believe that anything can actually be known about God, they cannot deny that there are people in the world with faith in God or gods, and that these people’s beliefs have profound effects on the lives of everyone around them. For this reason if no other, the nature of this faith needs to be studied from a number of different perspectives. But the more I study the variety of ways in which such faith operates, the less faith I have in faith. But my point here is to say that my lack of faith in faith should not be construed as a lack of faith in God.
And if you aren’t confused by all this yet I’ll try again later to get you that way. 🙂
Happy Advent season to all.