Disambiguating Faith: Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Rod Dreher confronts psychological research which illustrates the pervasive role of rationalization in our thought processes, which leads us reflexively to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs rather than challenges them among other techniques for seeing only what we want to see.  Turning to the implications of the realities of rationalization for the religious person’s self-understanding of his religious beliefs, Dreher writes:

for believers who consider religious claims to be objective truths that can only be approached and appropriated subjectively, the science here is challenging. It should make us consider to what extent the religious beliefs we hold are ours not because they make sense to us, but because they satisfy emotional needs. That is, how objectively arrived at are our religious convictions? Do we too quickly or eagerly dismiss challenges to them, thinking the challenges aren’t serious, when the truth is the challenges are too painful or unpleasant to admit for consideration? Isn’t this also true for many atheists, who are so committed to the idea of a purely material universe that nothing they might experience or observe would change their mind?

First of all, not all atheists have to be materialists.  Many people read Spinoza as an atheist and see no problem with his positing a mental attribute of existence.  This does not entail any of the things atheists reject about, say, the Christian God who allegedly is a distinguishable, personal, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being who exists separate from the universe, intervenes in the universe, violates the laws of nature with miracles, reveals himself to unique individuals with special truths crucial to human salvation that he otherwise makes inaccessible to everyone else, that he tortures people eternally for not grovelling to him in worship or for making the mistake of not guessing correctly and by faith that he exists and is as the Christian tradition says, etc.

All of that stuff is what atheists really are rejecting.  And even if a bare abstraction God like the god of deism or Tillich’s “ground of all being” or Anselm’s “perfect being” or a Spinozistic “substance” which is the essence of the universe, or any other god of the philosophers becomes more believable to me, as an atheist—so what?  Does that make superstitious claims about virgin births and resurrections from the dead and blood sacrifices for propitiation of sins at all rationally plausible?  No, it doesn’t.  I turn over in my mind the possible existence of many gods of the philosophers all the time and feel no existential dread about the prospect of being convinced one of them is a better explanatory principle than atheism with respect to the question of being and its origins.  I just am not convinced by them.  Maybe the same way that I might be prejudiced in favor of my favorite economic theory or theory of a historical event and disposed against some counter-evidence or another, similarly this particular philosophical issue I similarly look for evidence against the God of the philosophers more than for it.  Sure.  Like you say, that happens in all philosophical, scientific, social scientific, political, personal, etc. judgments.  We always look first to confirm what we previously believe and seek out corroborating evidence.  That does not make either of us right or wrong but it’s a reminder to give the god of the philosophers as fair a shake as I can.  And I think I’ve done pretty well on the fairness score, having been a devout Christian from ages 5-21, having gone to a devoutly Evangelical college and then a premiere Jesuit graduate school, and studied and taught a wide range of theories of God, and engaged dozens of smart Christian philosophers among my peers and teachers.  But, yes, I, like every one else on every belief-position they hold with commitment, must always be on guard against rationalizing in favor of my atheism about the god of the philosophers.

But I don’t confuse for a second the idea that there might be a ground of all being that exists distinct from the material universe and that I should remember to keep reconsidering my reasoning against it with the barest plausibility that the claims of the Bible about that being’s nature and interventions in history are remotely true. The God you can rationally and plausibly defend from philosophy is a bare metaphysical postulate from which nothing else of substance follows if there ever was one.  It’s as abstract and irrelevant to practical matters as the question of universals vs. nominalism or whether numbers have independent existence from minds.  In short, it bothers philosophers but has little bearing on anything else directly.

And it gives no plausible support whatsoever to the ludicrous idea of a tyrant god who craved calf blood over human beings’ sins or went around threatening people with death if they ate shellfish or threatening to make them eat their own children if they defied his laws (Deuteronomy 28:53).  The ground of all being is metaphysically an interesting concept to think about.  The crazy biblical God is just a joke to rationality and a myth of lingering power from our deep cultural past to Western society.   And it’s nothing to have any anguish about rejecting or any fear that I’m “rationalizing” to dismiss out of hand.  No Christian believes in Thor or Poseidon or Vishnu or Baal or a whole host of other gods, and you don’t do so for good reasons that have nothing to do with rationalization.  Same for atheists with respect to all the mythologies of positive religion in their entirety.

Theists like Dreher often pose the issue like the question is just one’s stances on tricky metaphysical/cosmological conclusions about grounds of being or materialism vs. various forms of mentalist accounts of the universe, when in reality, the driving wedge between atheists and religious people is the belief in counter-scientific, supernaturalistic claims and fantastical assertions about “God’s” pronouncements and “God’s” interventions in history or “God’s” special revelations.   On the bare abstract metaphysics, I see no good reason to think that there is a personal God, even if some sort of ground of all being might be defensible.  And it is absolutely effortless to reject the notion of a godman giving a blood sacrifice to appease a vengeful merciful God who would otherwise punish all of humanity because one human ate a fruit suggested by a talking snake as it is for any Christian to effortlessly.  No rationalization, no existential anguish, and no faith is required to dismiss that nonsense out of hand as easily as any Christian waves away the loads of gibberish taught by Scientology.

And until there is evidence of what are called “supernatural” forces or influences in the world, there is no concern that they might be plausible.  They’re vastly improbable and so not worth any anguish or contortions of rationalization required.  There is no faith commitment that they’re not possible or impossible to prove in the future.  There is a philosophically, epistemologically, and scientifically grounded opposition to belief in them without sufficient evidence and an open-mind to compelling evidence should it ever start arriving under controllable, fraud-proof conditions.  That’s not faith, it is reasoned skeptical epistemologically sound restraint in affirming the existence of something for which there is not sufficient evidence and the whole history of the natural order as counter-evidence.  I don’t lose any sleep or have to lie to myself or make a fervent commitment through prayer and fasting not to believe in miracles.  It’s not like the theist, who has to do those things to convince yourself of them.  I’m going with where proportioning beliefs to evidence leads, the theist is the one going beyond that illicitly.  That’s the difference.

For Spinozists and outright materialists alike, the rejection of God is a philosophical conclusion.  As such it is open to philosophical objections.  As long as they came to this philosophical conclusion through arguments about proper epistemology and applications of that epistemology which led them to their metaphysical views, I do not see how this is a “faith” commitment or a matter of rationalization.  Anyone can (and everyone sometimes does) rationalize opinions they currently hold rather than quickly abandoning them.  But that does not mean that all views are equally founded on rationalization or are equally unsusceptible to objective justifications.

Faith, however, is a commitment to rationalize because it mixes loyalty with belief.  The person of faith does not merely rationalize but chooses to do so as part of an identity-based commitment to a tradition and gives their rationalization the honorific name of “faith”.  The Christian is committed to the metaphysical belief in God explicitly by faith, explicitly in advance of and in declared defiance of all future evidence to the contrary.  I do not know any materialist who has similarly sworn to never believe otherwise or who recites a creed of beliefs that he must never abandon on pain of alienation from a tradition.

The fact that a given materialist or atheist or Republican or Democrat or psychoanalyst or behaviorist or proponent of any other disputed theory may be prejudicial towards his or her position when evaluating new evidence does not mean that they have gone as far as the religiously faithful who have outright resolved on principle, and as a foundation of their identity to rationalize in the face of all future evidence.

That’s what separates religious belief from other beliefs.  For those who hold viewpoints non-religiously, unfaithfully, in all other realms of life, the fact of rationalization does  not become an opportunity to say, “but everybody does it, so so can I” but a challenge to constantly reassess and critically challenge one’s own beliefs to correct for the tendency to rationalize.  For the religious person the omnipresence of rationalization is taken frequently as a license for faith—“see, all everyone does is rationalize, so therefore, we people of faith are no less justified than anyone else.”  “Everyone inevitably has presuppositions so religious presuppositions are no less justified and therefore equally permissible as any others!”  Such reasoning responds to challenge that demands more introspectively truthful thinking as though it were a license to believe whatever one wants!  It’s perverse.

Your Thoughts?


For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above.  It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.

Faith in a Comprehensive Nutshell


How Faith Poisons Religion


What About The Good Things People Call “Faith”? (Or “Why I Take Such A Strong Semantic Stand Against The Word Faith”)


How Religious Beliefs Become Specifically *Faith* Beliefs


Faith There’s A God vs. Faith In God

Trustworthiness, Loyalty, And Honesty

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Which Actively Opposes Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Implicit Faith

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

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