In a previous post, I discussed how theist Rod Dreher was led to some introspection and cultural criticism based on reading he was doing about the pervasiveness of distortive rationalizations in our thinking. In that context, he tried to compare religious and atheistic rationalizations as similar in kind, as both kinds of faiths. In that last post I challenged that assessment of the situation.
In the same piece I was quoting from he had gone on to reflect on whether he ever rationalizes with respect to faith, given the amount of reason there is to see rationalization all throughout human thinking:
I think we all do that, at least sometimes — and if we don’t think we do it, we’re lying to ourselves. Human beings are not robots, and religion is not merely a collection of syllogisms. Ultimately, this is a question of epistemology — how do we know what we know? How can we trust our own perceptions, and our own thoughts? This is why I keep coming back to the question of authority on this blog. Science shows that our own judgment is unreliable — yet we have to make them. In a time and place such as our own, when the crisis of religious authority is deep and wide, and for most of us, there are few, if any, social or political costs to abandoning the faith of one’s fathers for another religion, or none at all, we shouldn’t be surprised that about half of all contemporary Americans have changed religion at least once in their lives. I have done it myself.
Then Dreher recalls his agonizing loss of intellectual certitude as a Roman Catholic which led to his conversion to his Orthodox faith:
I’m raising my children as Orthodox Christians, of course, and I couldn’t do that if I didn’t think Orthodox Christianity were true. I do believe it’s true. But I can’t hold to it — and I don’t think I can hold to anything — with the intensity and surety that I once held to Catholicism. Because see, I believed in Catholicism. Lord, did I believe. And I lost that faith. The reasons, I’ve talked about here before, and I don’t want to go into them again. The point is, I never believed in anything with the intellectual and emotional certainty with which I believed in the Catholic faith. And I lost it. It was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever endured, except possibly the death of my grandmother, which happened when I was a child. I say this not to be melodramatic, but only to underscore how profoundly that experience shook me about the certainty of knowledge, and of faith.
The thing believers who have never gone through it don’t know, and can’t know (unless they are extraordinarily empathetic) is how much more fragile one’s faith is than they may think. I can never again be as complacent as I once was — which is probably a good thing. One’s faith depends far more on one’s will than one may think — which is why I brought up the scientific research, and started this post. Nevertheless, I am as certain as I can be that Christianity is true, and I want my children to grow up and to believe as Christians. It is the most important thing in the world to me as a father. So what do I do, in light of all this?
It seems to me that the thing to do is to work hard to help my children want to be faithful Christians — this, as distinct from convincing them intellectually that they should be faithful Christians. I think the latter is crucial, of course, but not as important as the former. Thomas Merton, in “The Seven Storey Mountain,” said that early on in his life as a Catholic, he imagined that his conversion was solid because he understood the arguments for the faith, and he was prepared to sit up late at night arguing with all comers. In truth, he said, any conversion that is chiefly intellectual is precarious, because it is more important to convert the will. But how does one convert the will?
At night in my house, I’ve fallen into the habit of praying with my second son in his bed at night. My daughter, who is almost three, will come in of her own volition to pray with us. We sing a couple of prayers to start, then pray the Our Father, and a couple other prayers. And then we talk to God about our day. A few nights ago, my daughter was working in her play kitchen, and she was singing, “Oh heavenly king, Comforter, Spirit of Truth…” and then the Trisagion Prayer, and then the Our Father. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful. She had no idea anybody was listening. She was just making tea and singing. And I thought: well, there you go. These prayers are becoming part of the fabric of who she is. She doesn’t understand the theology, and she can’t. But the ground is being fertilized for seeds that are also being planted now. A great thing about the Orthodox faith is how all-encompassing it is, how it’s really a way of life, sensual, communal and of course (above all) spiritual. Once it gets into your bones, it’s hard to imagine it leaving you.
In reply to Dreher, in his comments section, I came back with the following reply:
So, let me get this straight—you read about the ways that our wills prejudice us to believe what we want to believe and not what evidence really shows us. You take it to heart that you should be more introspective about whether you believe things you should or not. And then you conclude by recognizing that if your children only believe according to what their intellects confirm, they are far less likely to believe.
So, the solution is not to train your children to be intellectually scrupulous but to deliberately prioritize faithfulness to what they would otherwise intellectually eventually see as false. You want to train your children’s wills to be prejudiced towards what you recognize would not remain believable otherwise. I can’t say I don’t understand what’s going on in your mind (as I wrote about it here) but I can say that it is utterly depressing you could be so self aware about inculcating your children to believe regardless of truth or falsity, to put faithfulness above truthfulness as a fail-safe against their daring to break away from a faith about which you are profoundly intellectually insecure.
In short, you read a book about how our minds are prejudiced by our will’s prejudices and resolve to better prejudice you childrens’ wills. I can’t wait for you to read more books about more vices and see how you convince yourself your children really need them too!
Dreher replied to me in the comments section and I will respond to his reply in my next “Disambiguating Faith” post.
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.