What Is Knowledge? Religion, Atheism, and Belief

What Is Knowledge? Religion, Atheism, and Belief March 16, 2020


by guest writer William M. Shea


Does the question of God’s existence itself imply, indeed “prove” that God exists?

Or is it only the question itself that exists and not its intended, its affirmative answer?  “Is there a unicorn?” certainly doesn’t imply that in fact a unicorn exists.  There is a stark difference between the questions. The second can be answered negatively with a high degree of probability. No, unicorns don’t.  Still, like Bigfoot, one might just show up someday. The intended in the question, the unicorn, is by definition a “thing,” and it would fall within the horizon of possible human experience. The Bigfoot and the unicorn haven’t registered in that horizon— yet.

“God,”again by definition, isn’t in any sense a thing. God is a No-thing, whatever that may be. We are not going to bump into or even “kick” God as if God were Woodbridge’s stone in order to test God’s reality.  God transcends the horizon of possible human experience which begins with sense experience. The latter is the ultimate check on empirical reality. God is not a datum. Once you agree with this it is unreasonable to affirm the existence God.  Once the question is uttered you are left with only two reasonable answers to it:  agnosticism (you can’t know whether God is real or not) or atheism (if it isn’t an object, it doesn’t exist). I take neither of these options — except perhaps in moments of high anxiety or deep depression.

To further the discussion let me try my elemental definition of terms in the discussion as I use them:

Faith, as the term is used frequently, designates the trust religious people have in God, both as existing and benevolent, communicable and interested, “trust-able.”  But there are other meanings to the term, more elemental perhaps:  People, religious or not, have faith that their senses and their intelligence are more or less reliable else they wouldn’t take another step.  They start having faith in the “next step” bit by bit from birth.  They even find enough in living to generalize: “Life has meaning and value.” They might be said to abandon this faith when they decide on suicide or drugs, or fall into a catatonic state  George Santayana, the Harvard philosopher, called this “Animal Faith”, which is belief in that which our senses tell us (while, as philosophers, maintaining a modicum of skepticism).  Call this  animal faith an instinct.  Twentieth century philosophical theologians Schubert Ogden (Methodist) and David Tracy (Catholic) expanded this elemental meaning to the thoughtful conviction that life has meaning and value.  For them  this a basic and universal trait of human beings, a “transcendental” as Kant used that term.  Atheists and agnostics have both kinds of faith. The third kind of faith, religious trust that human life has an aureola of meaning and value beyond the realm of human experience, that faith rests in this “beyond” which makes Itself present in human life through some form of mediation.  This aureola must be sought out and, once found, listened to should IT speak.

 Spirituality  is the term we currently use in the West to designate the ways of seeking out and living with this aureola, most often in the practice of a religion or even without an “organized” religion. Currently spirituality and religion do not mean exactly the same. These days you can be “spiritual” without being “religious.”  Atheists and agnostics may well prefer to skip both designations but this remains a matter of linguistic taste.

Beliefs issue from the seeking and finding, from attention and understanding, in the form of claims to truth, to what is and is not attributable to the aureola and what relation it holds to the cosmos and human life.

And Religion refers to the community and way of life which holds to, acts out and passes on the beliefs affirmed.  

 Generally speaking these suggested definitions, brief though they be,  are, in my view, unproblematic. But when we come to the term  Knowledge the problems mount. For example, do we know that God exists or do we believe it, or both?  And just what is knowing in this case?  Knowing seems to me to be constituted by the judgments of fact and value grounded in experience and understanding. What differentiates theism from atheism is this: theism affirms that human beings can know that what  is named “God” exists (is real) and atheism denies that we can know that God exists because God can’t exist, while agnosticism denies that we can know whether God does or doesn’t exist.

Both atheism and agnosticism deny what they do because they think “knowing” is restricted to what is experienced, to “things” and their relations, to the empirical.  I am a Catholic Christian. In my community the possibility of knowing that God exists is not only commonly held opinion but has become after a lot of fussy argument a matter of formal doctrine. Thus the First Vatican Council (1869) echoing St. Paul’s letter to the Romans  (1:19-20) decreed:

If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.[1]

This claim is a heavyweight in the Catholic theological and communal worldview. It maintains, not that everyone knows by philosophically argued conclusion that God exists but that God can be reasonably known to exist by everyone. It is evident to me at least that most Catholics are not inclined to argue their way to an affirmation philosophically but still they can know. But how?  Is there some way of knowing that is not easily classified as philosophical, that is a pre-philosophical, implicit way of knowing that gives reasonable grounds for affirming the existence of God?  Are there two ways of knowing God?

This question drove me nuts for a couple of decades.

The next post will address “Knowing God.”


[1]  Vatican Council I , de fide, session 3, canon 1.


image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Faith_is_beauty.jpg

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