Disambiguating Faith By Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Please don’t dismiss this post as too long to take a shot on reading through.  The debate it features promises to be candid and thorough and, I hope, thought-provoking for believers and unbelievers alike.  I hope you find it as worth your time to read as I found it worth mine to write.  It set a CWH record for length for a good reason, I think.  If you don’t have time to make it through it now, consider bookmarking it for later at least.

Before reading this post, I really recommend you take a look at Clergy Guy’s post to which it extensively responds.  Few people in general, and probably fewer in his position, are willing to be so publicly naked and humble and I feel like he deserves a proper hearing in his own uninterrupted text before I engage in the thankless task of pitilessly challenging the words and ideas through which he has borne much of his soul so candidly.

I also recommend you take some time to peruse other posts from his blog, like this remarkably compassionate one about learning the importance of letting members of his flock doubt through an experience with panic inducing doubt in his own faith and this one where he candidly confesses what he feels as a “need to believe” in the resurrection for personal reasons.  Here’s a poignant reflection on an experience he regretted which demonstrates an admirable balance between self-criticism and self-understanding.  Rather than downplaying his mistake he faces it squarely and rather than overblowing the role that weakness of character plays in highly complex interactions, he recognizes the limits on his culpability in an equally healthy way.  In this amusing post he vents irritation at Christian smugness and church realpolitik by lambasting nauseating church signs and fantasizing about telling the truth on them or—even more radically, actually saying something life affirming on one! And reading this one, a reader can share vicarious delight as he exposes the shallowness of a parishioner’s desire to serve people.

But, for now, my rejoinder to his rebuttal to me.  In italics are quotes from my previous remarks to him, which you may read here but need not in order to follow this post’s discussion:

“Of course the faithful doubt, Clergy Guy—doubt is a precondition of faith. Were religious believers to be certain and doubtless (even if wrong), then they wouldn’t be exercising a will to believe worth calling faith.”

Okay, no disagreement there.

However, some people actually insist that their issues of faith are really facts. And some insist that if we believe that we should not doubt at all. My thought is that people of faith should get to examine their doubts without being attacked.

I most certainly agree with this of course.  A major unabashed aim of mine in life is to get people of all sorts, and in some ways especially people of faith, to rigorously doubt what they take for granted to be true or, worse, what they fervently want to be true.  Full exercise of freedom and excellence of thought requires open-ended inquiry that embraces doubt.  I certainly do not want people of faith to be attacked for doubting.  I attack them for not doubting, i.e., for choosing to have faith.

Your assertion is that one cannot have faith and truly allow oneself the opportunity for doubt. It has to be one or the other.  I disagree. I not only stand up for the right to be ambivalent, I also say it is necessary.

There is a difference between a right and character trait or a behavior.  I stand up with you for people’s rights to be ambivalent.  Genuine conflict in mind, borne out of an honest, patient, principled willingness to endure deep and lengthy uncertainty rather than be in error is quite noble to me.  I live in a comfortable ambivalence about many matters that I consider urgent out of respect for their importance and for the truth.  My blog so far highlights more what I am highly confident that I know than what I struggle with because it takes much more care to do justice to those matters about which I am able to see multiple important perspectives.  Hopefully over the coming months as I start blogging the topics of my ethics lectures, my posting will reflect the open-ended ambivalence of my larger thought process.

But that right to ambivalence is really not faith.  Devout people may feel that ambivalence—I did as a deeply committed believer.  But then they’re not being people of faith.  Because faith is a resolve to no longer be ambivalent.  How can one worship ambivalently?  Doesn’t worship require a full giving of oneself?  How can one tentatively have faith?  That’s not faith, that’s rational, tentative proportion of belief to evidence.  When you do that, you’re not being a person of faith, you’re being a rational person unwilling to commit one way or another.  If all the churches, synagogues, and mosques were filled with people who ambivalently allied themselves to their religions the religions would become defunct as Christianity has largely become in Europe.

This is because opening oneself up to proper ambivalence and doubt makes one at minimum unable to affirm the resurrection or the virgin birth, etc. as factually true or the God of the Old Testament as at all a moral figure.  The only way to believe such things is to commit one’s will beyond the evidence and that’s faith.   If one does not so commit oneself, then one does not have faith, just considerations and speculations but nothing by which one lives one’s life or to which one surrenders one’s heart, mind, and soul.  Faith, if it is to be at all distinguishable from general reasonableness and proportioning of belief to evidence has to be defined as a distinct process of committing over and beyond evidence and opting to reject ambivalence in favor of commitment.  And this is why I oppose religious faith.

Some atheists seem every bit as militant in their positions as the arch conservative evangelical Christians are about theirs. I want to ask people on at both extremes this question: “Surely, you are not claiming that you understand all things, are you? Surely there is room for questions and doubts.”

One of the most useful memes which the New Atheists have spread is the instructive analogy to Zeus.  Do you have questions or doubts about Zeus’s existence? I seriously don’t expect you do. Do you ever seriously wonder if David Karesh or Muhammad or Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard or any of a million other cult/religion founders and leaders actually were divinely inspired?  I seriously don’t expect you do.  And, more importantly, you have no good reasons to think those things could be true, given what we know about psychological causes of beliefs and behaviors, what we know about history, what we know about humans’ mechanisms for deriving justifiable beliefs and the limits of such.  What we New Atheists are insisting on is that there be no special exemptions made for Yahweh and Jesus simply because we are Westerners with a legacy of taking those gods (or that triune god) seriously.  As readily as all our public discourse takes as patently obvious the merely mythic status of Zeus, we demand that we apply the same abundance of common sense automatic acceptance of the mythic status of Yahweh and Jesus “the Christ” (if not Jesus the historical figure, as even the atheists are split on whether that too is a myth or if the Christ born of a virgin and rising from the dead is a myth overlaid atop the story of a historical person.)

So, no, I have no reason to doubt and worry—maybe those genocides carried out in Judges were really divinely demanded by a true god and were not simply the works of blood-lusting barbarians made from comparable psychological molds as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.  Or, if the biblical genocides didn’t even happen that such mythic stories actually reflected a divine inspiration about divine truth about morality and not ancient violent, hateful mindsets towards neighboring peoples.

Psychological, biological, anthropological, sociological, archeological, historical, moral, and epistemic understanding all put the question of Yahweh’s divinity and Jesus’ divinity as beyond the pale of plausible truth as the films of George Lucas.

Does this make me insufficiently open to doubt and ambivalence?  No, it means I save my doubt and ambivalence for genuine puzzles.  There is so much to struggle to know about how the world works that no energy has to be wasted trying to figure out whether palpably mythic interpretations of ancient warfare or the doings of an alleged miracle-worker in ancient Rome are of special revelatory value about anything.

Finally, no atheist I know claims to understand everything.  The fact is that atheists’ willingness to cite the limits of human knowledge is (irrationally and unfairly) held against us.  The religious demand that we color in all the gaps in human knowledge with the word “god” while the atheists admit that there are mysteries but resolve not to affirm any principles at work in the world or behind the world until a clear and demonstrable account of what those principles are can be had.  It is faith which tries to leap to unsupported speculations about what goes beyond our best and most consistent, rational formulations, restricted scrupulously to the nature of the only world of which we have experience.

Our certitude that Yahweh and Jesus are mythic figures is not equivalent to, and nor does it translate to, any hasty presumptuousness about our abilities to explain physics or morality, etc. beyond our demonstrated abilities to do so in experiments and arguments open to public scrutiny according to reason and ongoing revision according to new facts and better, more explanatory theories.

“The very character trait of faithfulness (seen as a virtue by the faithful and even some non-believers but as a vice by me and many here) is a disposition against ever concluding on the side of doubt, even where there is preponderance of evidence in that direction.”
I submit that thinking persons, theists or atheists reach out with their imagination and thoughtfulness to find more meaning than they can currently see. And that sort of quest brings about a never ending supply of questions and even doubts.

The possibility of God cannot be proven. You say emphatically that there is a preponderance of evidence that God does not exist. But you cannot disprove God existence any more than I can prove him. Actually, in terms of logic, it’s much harder to disprove the existence of something, isn’t it?

Yes, in fact, at Camp Quest, the secularist camp they go out of their way to offer the students a prize if they can prove that an invisible unicorn is not present on the camp grounds.  They don’t do it only to sharpen their g0d-refuting skills but actually to demonstrate to them how hard it is to prove a negative (that something does not exist.)  Apparently the vast majority of sessions no one wins the prize.  In other words, at the secularists’ big camp to go and counter religious indoctrination, they teach precisely this humility before the question of disproving the existence of the untraceably invisible.

As to where the preponderance of evidence lies on the question of God’s existence, this may surprise you but I am not that emphatic about where it lies with respect to “God” on all definitions.  I think that metaphysically the question of ultimate being is too difficult to take an emphatic stance.  To save space, I will just refer you to my most recent ruminations on the subject, written Friday night in interaction with a talk by Daniel Dennett.  To put their thesis in one sentence:  ultimately, insofar as the metaphysical aspects of the debate about the source of all being involve complicated ontological and cosmological questions best answered by specialists in metaphysics and mathematical physics and cosmology, I simply think all of us non-specialists (and maybe even many of the specialists) have a duty to be technically agnostic about the source of the universe.  And so that’s what I am.

Every semester in which I teach intro to philosophy I enjoy forcing my students to seriously grapple with various versions of Tillichian, Thomistic, and even Anselmian arguments for the existence of God.  In fact in the summer, I had my students watch two videos for our God unit, William Lane Craig formidably battling Victor Stenger in debate and Richard Dawkins’s interview of Jesuit astronomer George Coyne wherein Coyne is given the chance to do the majority of the talking and give as sympathetic and scientifically sensitive spin on theism as possible.  I also expose them to William James’s arguments for the right to will to believe (as well as the Cliffordian view of the matter, with which I personally identify strongly).  And I usually get around to exposing them to Spinoza and Ayer and Hitchens and the Euthyphro.  There are just too many important sources to consider to get a full view of all the issues involved.

I have chosen to proceed in life by accepting the possibility that God is real—like a working hypothesis. You have chosen to proceed with the conclusion (I’d call it an assumption) that God does not exist.

Our choices are not so equivalent though.  The deist, “ground of all being” or “perfect being” God that may admit of plausible formulations worth ontological and cosmological debate is quite irrelevant to how we live or where or whether we worship.  That existence of such a God is one which one can rationally defensibly or indefensibly claim a right to believe based on arguments from science and philosophy.  That’s not a God for faith.  Yahweh and Jesus—those are gods for faith because they admit of no serious argumentation in their favor but rather can only be accepted by a willful decision to ally oneself with the Christian tradition (or with either the Jewish, Christian, or Islamic traditions in the case of Yahweh, with each of those traditions radically altering the account of who Yahweh is such as to  make him functionally really three different gods).

The difference between us, therefore, is not a choice of hypothesis.  If you choose faith, you choose to reject your otherwise correctly functioning willingness to dismiss mythic gods out of hand.  And you do this, quite likely out of a set of deep psychic allegiances to your tradition, your family, and other aspects of your upbringing and personal life narrative, none of which are rational bases for maintaining a belief about metaphysics or whether miracles can occur, etc.

This is where the theist and the atheist differ. The argument can quickly break down to the level of two kids saying “Uh huh” and “Nuh Uh.”

My view is that it’s sort of like chess.  Keep advancing the arguments until at some point 3 uh huh’s are met with three nuh uh’s in a row and you just have to call it a stalemate because both of you apparently see no better available moves!

“Doubt for the believer is a way of creating an opening for reaffirmation of faith and the experience of a strong act of faith, just the way that sexual desire sets us up for the satisfaction of orgasm.”

That’s an interesting analogy. I’m not a psychologist, but I think it’s well established that sexuality and religion are closely connected in the human brain. Perhaps you’re correct about the dynamics of doubt and faith. But I realize this is a tangential issue.

Just to make clear, I just made the association for the sake of convenient illustration.  The connections between religion and sexuality are a deep subject I meant to make no comment on through that particular analogy.  I wasn’t linking them just comparing similarities in their structural dynamics.

“Let me personalize this (and ask your forgiveness for the rudeness of personalizing an abstract debate): Can you, as a member of the Christian clergy, conceive of the possible conditions wherein you would be inclined to leave the faith? Are there possible conclusions that if you were led to them rationally you can acknowledge in advance you would be forced to abandon not only your faith but your life’s work and existential vocation? Do you resolve that you are willing to inquire with open endedness, to immerse yourself in contrary ways of thinking to your faith’s and give them the full chance to prove themselves to you?”
Okay, you wanna hear the personal stuff? I have hit at least two crossroads where I was ready to leave my work, my heritage, and my faith. I came close to ending my life, as well. Both times I came back from the edge to make some major changes in my life as well as in my understanding of God. I decided that many of my beliefs were not true, but some things remained:

1. It is good to love others.
2. I was born to help others.
3. Confused and as frustrated as I can be, there must be a God.

And this is why I doubt you are a person of faith.  Because you were willing to go this far.  At this point it seems like you have no particular need for Jesus or Yahweh either.  It reads like you see to the bottom of that shallow intellectual pool just fine.  You don’t need to be a religious person or a person of faith to love or help others or to believe in a source of all being.

I take it you believe in a personal God but why?  I can understand the inference to a ground of all being, but why don’t you think it is anthropomorphic to start attributing any traits resembling those of our own with all the biological contingency of their conditions of being?

And by a God do you mean an omnipotent and omnibenevolent one?   I think it’s a false inference to look at a world which functions according to the law that all life must live off the death of other life, in which utter destitution for hundreds of millions of human beings is a constant, and in which we are born with psychological dispositions towards fear and hatred of those different than us, and infer that we are creatures designed by an omnibenevolent being living in a world created by the same.  But, you know that argument I’m sure, so I’ll leave it at that!

It sounds like you’re asking if I’m willing to spend a huge portion of my energy in disproving what I have chosen to believe in order to prove to myself that atheism is valid. No, I am not.

In the past, I have done intense examination of myself and I have had to make some changes in my beliefs. By now I have come too far in the development of my thoughts and concepts to start with a clean slate. However, I am dedicated in my search for truth, and yes, I am capable of making reversals in my beliefs.

Well, dramatic (traumatic) conversions are not necessary.  But can you at least imagine a series of reversals of beliefs “baby-stepping” you out the door?  I know it’s hard to fathom from within faith.  I vividly remember the day in late May 1999 when the thought I could actually leave the faith hit me.  The inexorable pressure, the realization that my thoughts had gone to far, that it was now becoming a likelihood that I simply could not convince myself to believe again, that the experiment in doubt had gone well beyond experimentation.  It was such a horrible and terrifying experience that took months to finally accept.  In a certain way, that day lost in my thoughts at my cousin’s soccer game, was the day it really ended.  It just took 5 more months to make the transition psychologically manageable and adequately prepared for.

I admit it terrifies me when you mention the thoughts of suicide.  It genuinely grieves me.  I won’t presume to have any idea the particular reasons for those thoughts.  But I assure you of one thing in case your doubt ever feels oppressive again—it really is possible find the will to affirm life outside of a Christian world.

One of the core beliefs I have is that there is a God whose existence that I cannot fully prove. This assumption helps the universe make sense to me.

Metaphysically maybe I can see that.  But morally the idea of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God raises way, way more questions and confusions than it could possibly answer.  And the awful devastation wreaked against human life and spirit by the history of religion makes the prospect of a personal God unfathomable to me.  It means he either is really the awful bastard whose image the fundamentalists reflect (just as they claim) or he is the most incompetent recruiter and manager an organization has ever seen!  Here are some more thoughts on that theme.

You said something about my basing my faith on a pre-established commitment to tradition and its beliefs. There is some validity to that, but I have spent years examining those traditions and no, I’m not particularly married to them.

That’s great to hear philosophically—but isn’t it clear that being a minister of those traditions entails marriage to them?  To put the question in a bit more concrete terms—are you free to call the traditions just wrong or must you from the pulpit, with non-anonymous friends offline express your ideas always through the tradition’s symbols and basic framework of categories?  Isn’t this stifling your ability to simply think and speak wherever your honest search for truth leads?  Doesn’t it hem you in?

However, I have maintained belief in the existence of God.

I’m just not convinced that’s the same thing as faith.  You can be an honest doubter who just thinks there is a God as long as atheism was a real possibility.

“Do you set up tests which your beliefs must pass or you will choose to abandon it?”

I can look at my past to see if my beliefs passed the test of validity. Many of them have not. I was raised to believe in the inerrancy of scripture—this has not proved to be true and it created a crisis within me that caused me to leave the arch conservative denomination I was with.

I have also been hugely disappointed with churches in general. The life of a minister is one where one regularly gets his/her heart broken by the people he dedicates himself to helping.

The study of the history of Christianity is also hugely disillusioning.

Many atheists criticize the Bible and the church in an attempt to discredit the possibility of God. I can find plenty of negative things to say about both scripture and church, but I haven’t disproved the possibility God by doing so.

It’s the possibility that there is a moral and all powerful God running the church that is preposterous.  Not the abstract notion of a ground of all being.  You’ll have a hard time convincing me that if there really is a God he would let Falwell and Robertson and Osama, et al. even dare to speak for him publicly and be taken seriously just once.  But I already jumped ahead to this topic earlier.

There is no end to the stupid things said by people who profess to believe in God—it’s not hard to find ways of poking holes in their logic. Perhaps it’s even harder to resist making fun of them. I agree that people can be utterly ridiculous. But their flaws do not disprove the existence of God.

Many of my assumptions about God have not proved to be true: God does not answer all prayer; God does not do miracles of the supernatural kind; God does not protect people from harm; I’m not always certain that God loves me.

Doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist.

But it does mean that the traditions claiming to represent him and to effect his power in the world show no evidence that they really do.  Not only do religious people indistinguishably feature all the same virtues and vices as irreligious people, religion itself serves as a uniquely powerful vehicle for certain vices in particular and leads way too frequently to stupefying depths of irrationality and rank irrationalism itself to be the vehicle for an omniscient God to reveal himself.

“You are not leaving open the possibility of abandonment of the position. You may think about the reasons against your position and even indulge your pangs of uncertainty, but you’re not putting those beliefs into reason’s furnaces fully prepared to see them burn rather than survive.”

The existence of God is my framework of understanding. And while I have considered the possibility before that there is no God, and I have been willing to change everything in my life, I am not now at this point in my life.

Does that mean I am not a free thinker? You can conclude what you want about that. I do not feel the need to prove the validity of myself to others.

Are you free to share this much honesty from the pulpit?  If all religious people publicly doubted as honestly and freely as you do anonymously, could there even be religion.  What would be the point?  Where would be the institutional energy?

But maybe the point is that we need institutions where people who don’t really believe but who have deeply spiritual natures that long for community, ritual, purpose, and wonder can get those needs met without having to have any of the pretenses of faithfully believing in nonsense.

I read on your blog that you are about to complete your Ph.d in philosophy. My sincere congratulations on your tremendous achievement.

Thank you.

I doubt that you are willing to chunk it all and start all over again reexamining your entire system of understanding and convictions.

HA!  You’d be surprised how much I’ve had to do that in the last year.  It’s sucked, but, yes, in the last year I have made major shifts in my thinking.  Right now I am drastically conflicted on some major issues and the positions in my dissertation itself have become wildly more tentative and uncertain than I had any desire for them to be.   Continuous study and the great fortune of having marvelous philosophers with whom to debate and be taught and criticized leads me to great confusion and frustration.  And I have no other choice because to close one’s mind is to cease being a philosopher.

But I will say this, because faith intertwines abstract beliefs into your personal life and personal identity so deeply, it makes simple transitions from one belief to another immensely harder than anything comparable in mere philosophy.  Leaving my faith in 1999 was existentially traumatic and alienating and led to several years worth of personal stupidity as I tried to sort out who I was and what I believed without the tentacles of faith on everything.  Transitioning this past year (or 2) from an insistent anti-realist and Nietzschean to being a more chastenedly Nietzschean rationalist and increasing realist has just been disorienting.  And it’s a bummer to feel wrong.  And it’s hard to cope with changing one’s mind when it makes you feel fickle or emotionally like you’ve betrayed important ideas and ideals that you had put a lot of energy into.  So, all of that’s somewhat rough, even outside a faith context.  But as long as I can do the hard work ahead of reconciling my new positions on various issues with my older criticisms of these new attitudes, I am quite confident I’ll be fine going forward.  And who knows, maybe I’ll even flip back!  “C’est la vie” is all I can say.

But losing faith?  That meant having to re-conceive and restructure way too much of my life that had been tied up with Christianity.  It required a ridiculously drastic process of reassessment and reconsideration of everything.  And that’s why faith is so unadvisable.  It invests too much of what we believe and who we are in a particular tradition and its symbols, etc.  It makes honest changes of mind too hard (and technically it refuses you your current doubts and me my entire philosophical adventure of the last 10 years outside the Bible).

“Maybe you are (willing to completely reject my faith), maybe that’s why you’re here hanging with the atheists and on your blog expressing your disillusionment with Christianity. Maybe deep down you are a free thinker who would rather be honest than faithful. But it’s one or the other—-honesty or faithfulness, doubt or faith. You can’t have it both ways.”

I am surprised that a man who has dedicated his life to the study of philosophy insists that life is so cut and dried. Be that as it may, I do not agree with the statement that honesty and faithfulness are mutually exclusive.

Few philosophical puzzles can be solved in a cut and dried manner.  But we can define some terms in a cut and dried way for clarity.  I just think that I can isolate the numerous phenomena that all go by the term faith and show how they differ from similar attributes or epistemic habits.  That’s the purpose of this disambiguating faith.  You’re free to argue with how I make the distinctions, but I think I can show how faith differs from simple loyalty, how it differs from other kinds of trust such that it gets its own word, how it functions primarily as a tool for traditions to bind themselves together, how it distinguishes itself from free reasoning and doubt by serving as tradition’s tool for braking them when it’s scared of where they will lead, how it binds even the barely believing viscerally to their traditions, how it differs from both belief proportioned to evidence and action which takes into account the consequences if one turns out wrong, how it differs from guessing, how it differs from epiphanies and justifiable gut feelings, how it is only a questionable species of the otherwise valuable processes of pre-, sub-, and unconscious reasoning that in some cases leads to artistry and correct intuitions, how it is neither brainstorming, hypothesizing, nor reasoning counter-intuitively,  how it is fundamentally a process of rationalization, and more than that how it is a deliberate commitment to rationalization, how it illicitly is a choice to over-trust our hearts over our reason (or to do so in the wrong way), how it is relativistic and subjectivistic and counter-rational, how it exploits children’s dependency on authorities and solidifies that dependence rather than preparing freethinkers, how it is mutually exclusive with open-ended doubting, and, most importantly, how it represents a way of thinking that defers to baseless authorities in an authoritarian way.

With enough time and patience, you can cut and dry anything philosophically.  That is our art.  Of course someone can always challenge any or all of these arguments I’ve made, in which case I’ll do some more cutting and some more drying.  That is the philosopher’s art, at least the style of it I find most effective for all of us who cannot be Nietzsche.

I have always thought of faith as a way of contextualizing the known and the unknown. I look into the universe, marvel at its size and complexity and I conclude there must be something that created it, which I call God. This is a conclusion that I then use as an assumption which frames how things work in the rest of life.

Faith as orientation point.  I should probably disambiguate that sense of the term.  I’ll add it to the list.

In the meantime, what you describe there is an inference, not a faith.  You infer from experience that there must be a God.  That’s just reasoning, not believing on faith.

Why am I hanging with the atheists? I said something about liking a challenging discussion and that I like many of you. I don’t have to agree with you about the possibility/impossibility of God in order to value who you are.

The feeling’s mutual (at least for me).

Since you’re challenging me to bare my soul, I’ll go ahead and answer a little more fully. I confess that I am utterly bored with the church. I’m bored with the platitudes and the fear that keeps people cowering within them. I have spent my life working with them and helping them, but I’m not getting enough back from them to sustain me, and I sometimes feel like I’m dying from loneliness.

Yes, I need to make some kind of change, but in order to help me get by I’m reaching out for more than I have.

I figure that belief in God should open up possibilities, not shut them down. The same is true about people. I should open up the avenues of discussion, not shut them down. Reaching out in this way has helped me find some new people, a couple of new friends, and perhaps that’s even saving my life.

I am very sad that I cannot freely make these admissions to my own people, but instead I make them anonymously to people on the internet who come down on the opposite side of the most important issue in my life.

I think it’s a fundamental critique of the institution of which you are a part that you are in this bind.  It’s not just the particularities of the particular people to whom you are ministering.  The issue is the closed nature of religion itself.  That’s what’s really suffocating you.  That’s what makes religious people boring or petty or self-righteous or delusional.  Of course, secular people can be those things too.  The special connection to religion though is that religion is a culture’s business of insulating its traditions against change.  That’s its special role.  It is the hammer of “because tradition, er God, says so!” that a culture needs to have on hand in case people start to change things in ways that look like they’ll run the whole thing off the rails.  And as the keeper of traditionalism and bald, irrationalistic authority, it breeds closed-mindedness, petty legalism, authoritarian temperaments, fanatical devotion, and whatever delusions it can use to counter the powerful influence of unfettered thinking.

I feel really bad for you because I think you’re a freethinker who’s waking up to find himself trapped in the tradition protection business working with tradition protectors all day.  And they just don’t mix.

Thanks for being so amazingly open with us, even if you must do so anonymously.  I hope what we offer is ultimately edifying.

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

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://clergyguy.blogspot.com Clergy Guy

    Thanks for the great blog, Daniel. Just two thoughts for now:

    First, I am not now suicidal and I am not dangerously depressed, so everyone can relax and not worry. I won’t ever go back to that dark place, but that’s another story.

    Second, I have to differ with you about the definition of faith. You maintain that faith is absolute commitment to something that cannot be proven. Almost every major figure in Christianity has had a crisis of belief from Mother Teresa back to the prophet Elijah, yet they plugged on in their service to a God they questioned, and they are honored by it.

    I have more, but it will have to wait.

    I wish you many good things,

  • http://clergyguy.blogspot.com Clergy Guy

    One more thing, when I asked if you were willing to re-examine all your beliefs formed in previous, I knew I was taking a chance asking a philosophy student such a question. Serves me right.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Hey Clergy Guy, thanks for the kind words about my blog!

    1. I appreciate the reassurance about your mental well-being. With the lifetime of counseling experience you must have, I’m sure you understand my desire to be sensitive about such matters.

    2. The Mother Teresa example is interesting and worth thinking over in a post of its own. It is a case of permitting oneself one’s doubts but prima facie it sees to be exemplify (rather than refute) my claim that faith is a commitment to act against one’s reason out of a more fundamental allegiance to one’s tradition. But as you point out, it is a case of doubt that remains doubt rather than transforming into a cognitive acceptance. Two quick thoughts about that. 1. I think the Mother Teresa example is about faithfulness more than faith. It’s a loyalty issue more than a faith one. If she genuinely doubted and kept plugging away serving her church, I would argue that she ceased being a person of faith but remained a faithful person. (Though I’ll doubt whether she should have remained faithful to a church over her conscience, and of course I take seriously Hitchens’s criticisms of the content of her service, but that’s all separate.) Finally, there had to remain a dissonance between her private doubt and her public appearance of faith. I mean, has there ever been a prominent believer who engaged in ministry while confessing, “Yeah, I just don’t feel this at all, but I’m keeping saying the stuff hoping God shows back up.” It seems so incongruous to how religion works for anyone to be that candid. And I think that’s a mark against religion.

    3. hahaha, yeah, I’m a philosopher and all of us, including many of the religious ones just have to be far more capable of reconsideration of positions than just about anyone else. Tangentially related to that thought—http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2009/08/09/philosophical-or-psychopathic/

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  • http://www.blogdrive.com/manage/blog_comments?bid=525290&pid=28 Marilu Rodger

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