Disambiguating Faith: Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Disambiguating Faith: Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting September 5, 2009

On Unreasonable Faith, there is thread chatting about doubt in the context of discussing  a quote from Descartes about the necessity to thoroughly doubt at least once in one’s lifetime.  In the ensuing discussion, Clergy Guy writes:

Just wanted to chime in to say that I think one can have faith and doubts at the same time.  In fact, how could we not have both since faith is such a subjective thing? The church as hurt a lot of folks in their fear of legitimate questions.

Of course the faithful doubt, 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. They would just be believing with certainty that they had facts just like those they get from perception or reliable testimony about which they feel no conflict to believe.

The issue is not whether or not one passively experiences doubts. That happens to any thinking person who has either not been presented with sufficient evidence or who has encountered significant counter-reasons or counter-evidence for their beliefs. The issue is rather one’s attitude towards doubt. Because the person of faith makes a volitional commitment to a tradition and its beliefs both in advance of possible new evidence or arguments and also usually to the preclusion of genuinely honest, open-ended skeptical investigation, the person of faith is opposed to genuine rigorous, systematic, open-ended doubt by definition.

The person of faith, by definition, cannot be a skeptic, cannot be a freethinker with respect to religious matters, cannot take the attitude that future evidence or reasons will change his or her mind about religious matters. A person who genuinely does have those attitudes and priorities of an open-ended investigator is already not sufficiently a person of faith, she is already willing to put commitment to truth over commitment to religious tradition. From there it’s only a matter of time, if she seriously inquires, that she will abandon religious tradition as insufficiently founded since, by even its own admission it is clearly insufficiently founded according to reason.

In my own case, as devout a Christian as I once was, in retrospect I was always a rationalist at heart and in methods. My Christianity was desperately rationalized so that I could think it was actually rational. When 7 high school and college years of relentless rationalizing (and especially the last 3 spent studying theology and philosophy full time) just couldn’t make it rationally acceptable, the rationalist in me had to reject those religious beliefs.

Ultimately, despite believing strongly, committedly, and passionately, and structuring all of my life around my religious beliefs—I was, ironically, not really a person of faith. I was a young kid trying to find the rational justification for the religious theories and tradition to which I had been deeply emotionally, intellectually, and socially attached. By contrast, a genuine faith is a genuine willingness to believe precisely where there are good reasons to doubt.  Belief with uncertainty but with preponderance of probability (say, a belief in a 56% likely belief) is not “faith” but rational inference.  Definitionally, faith has to be belief in that which is not even 50% likely or it would be rational inference.

And faith is not just any belief in <50% probable beliefs but an active, volitional commitment to believe in those improbable propositions.  Faith can also take the form of an active, volitional commitment to believe in a 51% probable belief and act on it as though it were 100% certain rather than only 51% likely.  It is rational to hold a 51% probable belief only tentatively, with 51% confidence, and to only have a 49% tentative acceptance of the possibility of an alternative 49% probable belief.  Faith is the choice to align one’s passions and will with greater strength to a belief than its rational probability of truth warrants.  Any belief rationally calibrated to evidence and other rational justification is not a faith belief but a normal and rationally justified one.

And not only does genuine faith commit to believe where there is just insufficient evidence but also it believes where where there is a significant preponderance of positive countervailing reasons not to believe. In that context, doubt cannot be embraced as a route to a more honest and possibly unexpected truth but rather can only be embraced as a challenge to believe all the harder and all the more faithfully in the unlikely. The moment of doubt is embraced in a comparable way to the one in which we embrace the irritation of sexual desire. It’s a set up for the consummation and satisfaction. 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 sexual satisfaction of orgasm. For the faithful, doubt is not desired for its own sake or as a means to truth but as a precondition of exercising the faithful will to believe and to intensify that will’s strength against the occasion of reason’s “temptation” away from belief.  For the faithful doubt ultimately cannot be decisive—by the volitional commitment entailed in faith itself, doubt cannot ultimately lead to a rejection of that which is genuinely held by faith.

The very character trait of faithfulness (seen as a virtue by the faithful and even some non-believers but as a vice by me) is a disposition against ever concluding on the side of doubt, even where there is preponderance of evidence in that direction. Let me personalize this (and ask Clergy Guy’s forgiveness for the rudeness of personalizing an abstract debate): Can Clergy Guy, as a member of the Christian clergy, conceive of the possible conditions wherein he would be inclined to leave the faith? Are there possible conclusions that were he rationally led to see them, in advance he can promise that he would have to acknowledge in advance that he you would be forced to abandon both his faith, his life’s work, and his existential vocation?

To all religious people who claim an openness to doubt as a good thing:  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? Do you set up tests which your beliefs must pass or you will choose to abandon it? If you don’t do these things, if you don’t have a clear sense of how you would judge your faith and what the possible conditions under which you would reject it are, then you are not doubting. 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.

Maybe you are, maybe that’s why you’re here hanging out on my atheistic blog.  Maybe deep down are a free thinker who would rather be honest than faithful. But it’s one or the other—-honest doubt or faithful faith. You can’t have it both ways.

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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