Credo Ut Intelligam: Sam Harris and Pope Benedict on Faith and Doubt

“You have to pick yourself up by your bootstraps somewhere.  It’s better than pulling yourself down by them.  You have to . . . every objective paradigm has to make a first move; it has to step into the light based on some axiomatic judgment that is not self-justified.  Gödel proved this in logic, and this is true for arithmetic; it’s true for things far more complicated than arithmetic.”  Sam Harris, (see 10:00 – 11:20)

“No one can lay God and his Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself.  But however strongly unbelief may feel justified thereby, it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words “Yet perhaps it is true.”  That perhaps” is the unavoidable temptation it cannot elude, the temptation in which it, too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief.  In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being.  Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt.  It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty.  Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication.  It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one, it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever; for the other, the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him.”  Benedict XVI, Introduction to Christianity, 46-47.

“There is no such thing as a mere observer.  There is no such thing as pure objectivity.  One can even say that the higher an object stands in human terms, the more it penetrates the center of individuality; and the more it engages the beholder’s individuality, then the smaller the possibility of the mere distancing involved in pure objectivity.  Thus, wherever an answer is presented as unemotionally objective, as a statement that finally goes beyond the prejudices of the pious and provides purely factual, scientific information, then it has to be said that the speaker has here fallen victim to self-deception.  This kind of objectivity is quite simply denied to man.  He cannot ask and exist as a mere observer.  He who tries to be a mere observer experiences nothing.  Even the reality “God” can only impinge on the vision of him who enters in the experiment with God – the experiment that we call faith.  Only by entering does one experience; only by cooperating in the experiment does one ask at all; and only he who asks receives an answer.”  Benedict XVI, Introduction to Christianity, 175-176.

Or, as a wise man once said, “I believe in order that I may know.”

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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  • David Nickol

    I watched Harris and Craig on live streaming video on a Notre Dame web site, and the farther along the debate went, the more I was impressed with Harris. I am guessing “philosopher types” would have awarded the debate to Craig, since he stayed very much in the philosophical framework. “Oh, that’s a question about epistemology, not ontology. We’re talking about ontology.” But many points raised by Harris (including his answer about miracles at the beginning of the clip you link to) had me nodding my head. I had to laugh at his remark that although many people claim the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba works miracles much like Jesus did, he doesn’t merit an hour on the Discovery Channel. I had never even heard of Sathya Sai Baba.

    • brettsalkeld

      Harris has some impressive qualities, but also some glaring blind spots. I think his weakest segment is the one that begins with “Well, that was interesting . . .” and launches into a standard tirade against theism and Christianity in general that takes almost no account of what the Christian tradition teaches on all kinds of things where he thinks he takes issue with it, all the while totally ignoring Craig’s challenges. (I also don’t buy for a second his suggestion that ancient peoples are uniformly narrower than anyone you have ever met. Passing over specifically religious figures like the deutero-Isaiah I wonder, Socrates anyone?)

      The debate is a tricky forum because you can win and lose at the same time. Craig was definitely the better philosopher, but whether his strict logic had as much of an impression on his audience is another matter. Harris decided, at one point, that rhetoric was going to be more important than argument. Some like this, others don’t. As I’ve noted in the past, whether you like a particular move in an argument usually has less to do with the move per se than with whether or not you are inclined to agree with the person who makes it.

      But yes, the kid with the miracle question was walking into that one. I don’t think there is any good reason for Christians to deny the possibility of miracles outside of Christianity. And I don’t think miracles as such are a very good way to prove anything.

      • Dominic Holtz, O.P.

        But yes, the kid with the miracle question was walking into that one. I don’t think there is any good reason for Christians to deny the possibility of miracles outside of Christianity. And I don’t think miracles as such are a very good way to prove anything.

        Yes and no. We should not want to discount the probative value of miracles at the very least because Jesus himself and the New Testament in general take the miracles of Christ and of the apostles to be, in some sense probative. The narrative of the man born blind, for example, in John is rooted around the fact that Jesus did for this man what no one had ever done. The Resurrection itself testifies to the identity of Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

        However, apart from the grace of faith, we cannot move from the miracle to the truth which the miracle attests. We might find ourselves trapped in difficulties or contradictions (e.g. the Pharisees who accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul while nonetheless accepting that their own exorcists do the same by the power of God), and we need to allow that miracle understood broadly (i.e. not things, like creation or the forgiveness of sins, only able to be done by divine power, but also wondrous things acting apart from the nature of the things involved, e.g. levitation or unexplainable healings) is by no means confined to the Christian dispensation.

        So, while we cannot be true to the Gospel and at the same time avoid proclaiming the miracles which Jesus performed (which were not all, or even the core, but nonetheless part of his Good News). At the same time, we need to be careful if we imagine that this or that miracle story, as such and without the eyes of faith, will be able to sway someone not open to the movement of the Spirit.

        • brettsalkeld

          When I first wrote my bit, it didn’t include “as such.” Upon consideration I added it for roughly the reasons you note here. Especially : However, apart from the grace of faith, we cannot move from the miracle to the truth which the miracle attests. I was especially concerned not to exclude the Resurrection.

          I didn’t want this thread to turn into a debate about miracles, so I ducked the issue by qualifying my statement. I am in basic agreement with all you have written here.

  • Julian Barkin

    On a side note: wow that is the youngest picture of our Pope I have seen ever! He just had to pick holy orders over marriage eh? :)

    But, sorry to say, I’m not quite getting this post. I think what both men are saying is a little deep for me on first glance and with no post-secondary theology. Care to make it understandable Brett?

    • brettsalkeld

      Well, the basic point is that any kind of knowledge is inaccessible without a prior commitment. We call that commitment belief. “Belief” is inescapable for human persons. We cannot simply know. We must believe. A theist believes God exists and an atheist believes God does not exist, but they both are engaging in the same kind of exercise. Anyone who pretends to be above this, who thinks they can simply know, is entirely naive. Everything you know depends on so many prior conditions that you simply can’t find your way to the bottom of the pile. Knowledge comes to us through culture, language, etc. and it comes to us only if we believe in things like “meaning” “reality” “truth” etc. Even the scientific method is a cultural construct. It does not fall from the sky any more than the Bible doesn’t fall from the sky.

      I know this is a bit disjointed. I quoted Ratzinger here because he says it much better than I, but hopefully if you reread him after my comments he makes more sense.

    • Dominic Holtz, O.P.

      It is not, I think, justified to assert it to be absolute naivety to claim to know some things directly. After all, the Law of Non-Contradiction, to which Harris adverts, is not something we “take” to be true, and from that basis argue other things. Rather, we just see that it is so. It is, in the classic sense (not in the post-Romantic sense) intuitively obvious to us. Some might choose to deny it, but as Aristotle has shown, their very denial reduces to unintelligible nonsense. Every “proof” against the Law of Non-Contradiction necessary depends on the truth of the Law it means to overcome.

      The deeper challenge here, what I take Ratzinger to be making, is a little different, namely that, given the truth of the matter (viz. that the foundation of all reality is Trinitarian, and thus interpersonal), we do not get to truth through an abstraction from the subjective to an unassailable objectivity. Such an abstraction, if useful in some contexts, in nonetheless neither the whole truth, nor even the most fundamental. However, in this vale of tears, we walk by faith and not by sight, so that to know the deepest and most certain truth means, necessarily, to walk the very same path as doubt. To turn away from doubt so as to find objective certitude is actually to turn away from the very source of certitude. To follow what is, to us, the seemingly shaky foundation of the personal and subjective, on the other hand, turns out to be the most stable and objective way of engaging the universe and its Creator.

      • brettsalkeld

        I think we are simply differing in our terms in an area where terms can be a touch fluid.

        Trusting human intuition is a form of trusting as well. So, while I perhaps overstated things in saying we can’t know anything directly, the point that you can keep digging without hitting bedrock, I think, still stands.

  • muldoont

    Note that Thomas Kuhn writes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that all science requires a kind of faith, too. In describing science as a series of paradigm shifts, he points out that a scientist who names a new way of looking at the world (like Copernicus replacing Ptolemy or Einstein displacing Newton) has to act in faith:

    “He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the older paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made in faith.” (SSR p. 158)

    The issue with modern atheism is that it represents a new gestalt, even when the older gestalt is still compelling to many careful thinkers. The challenge of the atheist is to show that the contours of reality are better rendered without the God hypothesis–a daunting challenge indeed, since even the God hypothesis changes from age to age.

  • Francisco

    The Pope thinking aloud about doubt and tacitly admitting that he experiences it has me kind of freaked out. There are some people in the Church I don’t want doubting and the Pope is one of them. Why? Because it’s comforting to think that there are some people who are absolutely sure. I wish the Vicar of Christ would look at unbelievers with something like bemused indulgence.

    Also, I think modern-day miracles or purportedly supernatural events or freaky stuff we don’t fully understand help the case for Faith more than, say, one of Aquinas’ proofs, which don’t do much for me. They might not be perfect, but they are pretty compelling reasons for hope if you ask me.

    • brettsalkeld

      I’m not sure you are understanding what the Pope means by doubt. Allow me to try elucidate. His point is not that Catholics don’t truly believe. Rather he is highlighting an epistemological point, namely that believing/doubting is a different kind of thing than knowing/not knowing. There are things that don’t belong to the realm of ‘knowledge’ (at least in our current state) but that are nonetheless true. In such cases you can believe or doubt, but in either case you are admitting that the claim you are believing or doubting is a different kind of claim than, say, 2+2=4. If you treat the claim that God exists as the same kind of claim as 2+2=4, then you don’t know what you are claiming. One is a foundational claim on which systems are grounded. The other is a claim that makes sense within an existing system. They must be approached in different ways. Human language recognizes this in the use of “believe” as opposed to “know.” To say that you “believe” in God is not to say that you kinda sorta know but not quite. It isn’t hedging one’s bets. It is to acknowledge what kind of claim the God claim is.

      • Francisco


        That’s interesting feedback I would be inclined to agree that 2+2=4 and “There is a God” aren’t the same kind of claim.

        I still wonder if belief isn’t a weaker form of assent than knowledge. “There is a God” makes sense within a certain system; however, that system includes premises that not everyone is going to accept and are, in fact, debatable. This distinguishes it from a mathematical or logical truth that can only be understood and proved within a certain discipline or system. So, when people say I believe such and such they often tacitly admit a certain amount of uncertainty. This is not be the case with people who have had certain kinds of religious experiences, but these experiences are only convincing to the person who experiences them.

        I agree with you that believe and know denote different kinds of claims. I know my boots are to my right. I belief my girlfriend loves me. I know that the unique parsing lemma is provable in first order logic. In other words beliefs are the sort of truth claims that are under-determined by the evidence. So, there can be stronger beliefs and weaker beliefs. I can believe that Notre Dame will win a national championship next year (faith bordering on the delusional) or I can believe that some trendy scientific theory is true. We can assume it’s a well-supported theory, but things change. We’ll see in a hundred years.

        Also I reread Benedict on this and I think I am safe to say that he is acknowledging that people of Faith DO question their beliefs in a way that they wouldn’t question 2+2=4. They sit down and think, “What if I’m wrong?” Unbelievers sometimes do the same thing. I hear there’s a nice Graham Greene story about that. Frankly I wouldn’t mind believing in God the way I know 2+2=4 or the way I believe my kitchen is messy for that matter. Perhaps one of my roommates cleaned it, but I’ll take those odds any day of the week.

        Sorry, for the long comment. I hope it’s cogent. To sum up I’m not sure that belief isn’t “kind of sort of know but not quite.”

  • cantueso

    There is an additional problem in that in German, which is Ratzinger’s language, there is only one word for what in English becomes “belief” and “faith”.

    Anyway, the Cardinal was very tolerant in that regard; when he started out as a pope, and before, when he was just a cardinal, he was considered and declared a heretic by the Catholics on the extreme right.