Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity August 29, 2009

In a previous post, I wrote the following of Rod Dreher’s decision to inculcate in his children a faithfulness that would safeguard their faith against intellectual faltering:

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 by our wills’ prejudices and resolve to better prejudice you childrens’ wills.

In reply, Rod wrote to me in the comments section of his post to which I was replying:

But I believe our religious faith is true, and like Erin, I understand now that everything in our family’s life must testify to the truth of it if our kids are going to have confidence in their faith.

Actually true things do not need everything in one’s family life to testify to them for kids to believe them.  I didn’t grow up every morning being told about how DNA creates a cell.  I didn’t go to a Sunday Science School where we built little DNA models.  I didn’t even own a single science kit and I let my lab partners in high school do all the work because I can’t think with my hands (I’m rather ashamed of this).  My mom and I never had big long talks about DNA, nor did I go to summer camp to study it, and nor did I celebrate any family holidays of tribute to DNA.  Yet, I believe in the truth that DNA exists because there is plenty of evidence to believe it exists.  And when I form beliefs about truths, I turn to experts in the sciences or in history or in the social sciences and I simply learn the truth.  And on philosophical questions I listen to and read various reasons and I come to different positions.  I wouldn’t come up with a better conclusion about the free will/determinism debate or the “universalists vs. nominalists” debate or the “realism and anti-realism” debate based on my family’s traditions.

And that’s because confidence in beliefs should be, and for me is, inculcated according to rational reasons for belief.  Turning your kids’ lives into a social conditioning to accept a certain view of the world is not teaching them anything about truth or how to find it but about your beliefs and how to think only in terms of them.  But, I’ve already addressed this point at length, so I’ll move on:

My post intended to express what I’m learning, and have learned through bitter experience, about the fragility of human knowledge — and that includes knowledge of atheism, too — and how conditioned it is by subjective factors. This is not to deny Truth, but only to recognize how imperfect our grasp of it is in our subjective state. Yet we cannot live as if all truths were tentative; we must choose, and choose wisely.

No, that’s categorically false.  We must live as though tentatively known truths are tentatively known.  You would never suggest that Barack Obama take a given tentatively proven suggestion about what might help improve health care in the country and insist that there is no room for holding beliefs tentatively.  You will not accept it if he says, “well there is a 52% chance that this program will be improve health care, but there is a 48% chance it will make things worse.  But there is no room for half-beliefs in life, so I demand everyone get 100% behind the Truth that we must enact this program.”  That’s not choosing wisely.  It’s choosing recklessly, irresponsibly, arrogantly, and stupidly.

But we must choose one way or the other and our choice cannot be tentative since it takes one course and not another, right?  That’s a false either/or.  If I choose to believe A on 52% evidence and commit to a course of action based on that degree of evidence, I also should adjust my manner of following that course of evidence to account for the hypothetical possibilities that the other 48% likely scenario is actually true after all.  This is different than a belief about which I am 99.99% sure.  In that case, I do not usually have to take any precautions or modifications to the course of action dictated by the likely belief.  I just follow the belief’s prescriptions without hesitation or adjustment for probable incorrectness.  And, sometimes, the dangers of a less probable scenario are so great that I should act as though it were true just in case.  If there is a 1% chance there is a bomb in the building, I should act as though there is a bomb in the building.  But if I know the odds are 1% I shouldn’t believe there is a bomb, just act as though.  While leaving if someone were to ask me, “do you really believe there is a bomb?”  I should say, “no, I think we are safe, but the odds, however slight, make this precaution necessary.” That’s acting wisely.  That’s prudently apportioning beliefs to evidence in accord with the best standards of careful reasoning and that’s acting according to reasonable calculations of risk and cost.

But, you may protest, it’s different with belief in God!  With God, we must leap 100% one way or the other since there is no probability either way and the evidence is inconclusive!  But that’s false.  There are numerous famous reasons available that people find compelling for either belief in God or lack of belief in God.  These arguments may convince someone to one degree or another.  One should adequately rigorously investigate those arguments.  I doubt anyone who does with any intellectual sincerity and consistency is coming out 100% convinced of the crazy genocidal tyrant three-in-one Godman/Godhead/Godspirit of the Bible that demands blood sacrifices for our sins and who rises from the dead and who punishes people for other peoples’ sins with curses and eternally punishes those who do not see the murky evidence of his existence as convincing.  That God has really low probabilities against Him.  A leap to believe in Him is at least a 99% leap against moral, scientific, philosophical, and common sense.  And such a leap does not wisely deserve 100% commitment of belief even when made.  That’s not respect for “Truth”, that’s not a wise willingness to face the forced choice that requires no tentativeness.  That’s just plain old irrational.

But the evidence of some vague impersonal ground of all being or Anselmian perfect being or Spinozistic substance of the universe or deistic originator of all being is worthy of weighing.  I can’t say I’m a 99% atheist about those various “god” concepts, I just need to get clearer on a lot more ontology, cosmology, physics, mathematics, etc. before I can feel confident either way.  But those possible philosopher gods are utterly irrelevant to the religion you try to justify with contortions of the word truth.  So, let’s return to those:

Kierkegaard taught (correctly, in my view) that truth is subjectivity, by which he meant not that truth is relative (which he did not believe), but that the kinds of truths for which men live and die can only be known subjectively — that is, appropriated inwardly with passion.

First of all, that is false.  I can understand rationally, through publicly accessible and assessable reasons the values of freedom and equality and human prosperity.  I can defend my commitment to them through a wide range of publicly accessible and assessable considerations.  Moral philosophers have for centuries worked out powerful arguments for understanding the objective and defensible dimensions of our ethical concepts and reasoning processes.  There is, of course, no unanimous agreement either about the metaethical foundations of ethics (or whether it has any), or about the best principles for settling hard moral cases, or about every particular of ethical application.  It’s an ongoing discussion with further challenges and requirements for clarification and defense of concepts and categories all the time.  But it is nonetheless a rational process, capable of rational justifications.  And only those such principles, ones for which you have reasons that you can give to any fellow human being who would ask (not just the members of your narrow religious cult) are ones worth living and dying for.  Suicide bombers sacrifice everything for a voice of God they cannot confirm.  That is irrational, it’s irresponsible, and it’s dangerous beyond belief.

Religious inquisitors and “reformers” murdered each other for hundreds of years in the West by living and dying for opinions that admitted no rational adjudication but which they audaciously and contemptibly held to be capital T true and worth intemperately killing for as though they had absolute certainty.  No, there is nothing wise about untentatively holding the beliefs that you have only convinced yourself you know through a subjective intuition of the voice of God or your thoroughly subjectively and dubiously recounted experience of “knowing God.”  And a collective set of such false intuitions embodied in a formal religious tradition only multiplies the intellectual and moral error, it does not make it any truer or morally respectable.

And, for the record, a “truth”-claim justified only by your subjective feelings is the definition of a relativist truth.  Kierkegaard was one of philosophy’s most ridiculous sophists and manglers of philosophical concepts.

You cannot prove that God exists; you can only know Him with your heart, and in an act of the will (this is the well-known “leap of faith”). It is not, in SK’s view, to believe a lie, but to recognize that establishing a relationship with the Truth requires faith, which is not the same thing as intellectual knowledge.

This is gibberish.  You cannot know someone in your heart or anywhere else without first proving he exists.  It’s a fallacious dodge to say, I can’t prove God exists, I can only know him in my heart.  If you can know him in your heart, you must have proven he exists or you don’t know anything.  You wouldn’t argue this flat out stupidly about anything else in life.  But with God, with a 100% heart and life commitment, you make these ridiculous elisions of logic?  And this is your “wisdom??”

And this idea of non-intellectual knowledge is special pleading for your right to say you know what you do not have reasons for.  That’s not profound—it’s arrogant.

I want to create within my children the kinds of hearts that want to know Christ, and to do so in the Orthodox Christian faith, and that desire that so fervently that whatever test they are put to in the future, they will have the inner strength and conviction to withstand it for the sake of their faith. As a Catholic, I assumed that reading and talking about Catholicism all the time was the same thing as being a good Catholic, and that my faith was safe because it was always on my mind. I ought to have been reading less and praying more. It’s a tricky position to be in, because I wouldn’t have come to Orthodoxy had I not lost my Catholic faith, so in a sense I’m grateful. But at the same time, what happened to me as a Catholic could happen to anybody, whatever their faith, if they don’t understand how complex the process of knowing is, and how limited and fragile we are as subjects.

You say that I’m intellectually insecure about my faith, and I guess you’re right — but intellect did not save me before.

No, but your intellect still can and must save you from this arrogance that wants to let your subjective heart make you exempt from rational demands for the reasons for your beliefs.

My experience has taught me not to doubt my faith, but to be more empathetic and tolerant with people who are suffering crises of faith, and who have lost their faith. It’s a tricky position to be in — recognizing how fragile faith and knowledge can be, but remaining attached to a religious faith.

I have a tremendous amount of empathy and tolerance for people who are struggling to get out of the mental slavery of faith too.  I was there once.  I know how hard it is to liberate oneself.  But it’s so crucial for growth into a genuinely intellectually responsible person.  I hope they make it out and am willing to help anyone who needs the help.

But there I am, and I can’t unlearn what I’ve learned. If I want to be more secure in my faith, the thing I must do above all is to love God more, and to love others more in Him and through Him, and to pray more so that the dark glass through which we all see will become clearer. Orthodoxy teaches that we know God through our nous, and that the way to clear our nous — the faculty of noetic perception — is through constant prayer. Makes sense to me.

Again, you read an article about how rationalization prejudices us against contrary beliefs and what is your solution?  Constant prayer, constant conditioning of your mind to believe what it already believes, constant repetition of the falsehoods with which you want to brainwash yourself.  What a disaster.

Are there any atheists reading this who ever doubt their faith? What forms does that doubt take?

Again, atheists do not have faith. We have beliefs that we attempt to proportion to our evidence and best inferences as best as possible.  We don’t let our hearts trump our reason, condition our wills to refuse counter-evidence as a matter of pride, practice, or principle, and we certainly do not claim that we access absolute Truth through subjective experiences of gods who we can contradictorily “know” but not “prove exist.”  That’s how we do not have faith, however much we may be proportion our belief that there is no personal biblical or koranic God to the overwhelming evidence that we see that there is indeed no such crazy, contradictory, moral monster out there justifying irrationalism and authoritarianism for millennia.

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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