Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

What is faith?

with 6 comments

I’m concerned that faith is widely misunderstood—particularly by people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others that have been dubbed New Atheists. My sense is that they understand faith as a kind of antithesis of scientific knowledge. While scientific conclusions come from logical reasoning based on consistent observations, faith they say is unreasoning belief in something that can’t be observed, belief in an idea just because it’s written in the scriptures of some traditional religion.

Some sort of contrast between faith and knowledge certainly isn’t new to the New Atheists. The Oxford English Dictionary defines faith as:

strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.

But taking this definition as a starting point, we still have to ask what this spiritual conviction is. Is it just blind acceptance of the teachings of a religious authority? I say no.

While that could be true in theory for rank-and-file members of a religion, it can’t possibly be true for a religion’s founders. Nor can it be true for any of the later teachers that had a role in developing a religion’s doctrines over time. These people weren’t just accepting pre-existing ideas—they were formulating new ones—so where did their new ideas come from? Inspired by God? From a deep spiritual insight into the nature of reality? But such explanations are rejected out of hand by New Atheists and other people who categorically prefer science to religion. So where do the formative figures in a religion get their ideas?

I don’t think acceptance of authority is a complete explanation even for the faith of a religion’s rank-and-file members. Some societies may be so closed to outside influences that they offer only a single belief system, and everyone is pressured to accept it. But in most societies today, people are exposed to a variety of beliefs, so how do they choose which one they believe?

I guess the path of least resistance is to accept the religion you grew up with. But plenty of people don’t—they give up the religion they grew up with and convert to another one. I can’t imagine they choose their new religion at random, so there must be some other explanation for their faith, besides a blind acceptance of authority.

I’m convinced that the spiritual conviction in the Oxford English Dictionary definition is a kind of intuition that draws from emotions and unconscious cognition and half-formed ideas that can’t quite be put into words. I agree that faith is distinct from reason, insofar as the logic behind a reasoned conclusion can be described step-by-step. But I don’t agree with the New Atheists’ conviction that faith is distinct from empiricism. Faith is empirical, but the observations are introspective rather than sensory. We each make our own evaluation of the teachings of a religion not by looking at the world but by listening to our heart. The truth that a person finds in their religion is present and real to them through their intuitions, even though they can’t justify it with the instruments of reason.

Note that this description of faith says nothing about whether the metaphysical content of religious beliefs is true or not. If their metaphysical content is not true, then our “spiritual” intuitions actually tell us something about the human brain, and the deep undercurrents of emotion that it produces in our experience. As Pascal said—the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. But if the metaphysical content of religious beliefs is true, then our spiritual intuitions are a channel through which we sense an underlying metaphysical reality. Either way, faith results from experiences that are present to us in our intuitions. The metaphysical ideas and other doctrines of a traditional religion may be taught to us by someone else, but we will only sincerely embrace those doctrines through faith if they resonate with what we feel in our heart. That’s very different from the notion of blind faith that is so common today.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

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Written by Joel Benington

October 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Your post includes several statements of personal conviction–“I don’t think,” “I’m convinced that”–yet it omits the most important one: you, yourself, firmly believe that the “metaphysical content [of spiritual convictions] is not true.” In fact, you’ve written a book based on the assumption that such convictions are false–that they are benign delusions arising mechanistically from the structure of our brains. In your book, you champion religious belief as a mechanism of altruism, implying that the truth of such beliefs is less important than their evolutionary purpose. Yet as a scientist, you care greatly whether or not your own convictions are true. You care about literal truth in (I’m guessing) every aspect of your experience, yet here and elsewhere, you downplay its importance in the context of other people’s religion.

    The problem is that you’re not talking only about the heart’s reasons (which I respect even less ambiguously than you). In this post you seem to blur the line between intuition and belief–between an inner sense of spiritual reality and the adherence to a particular doctrine. Nobody intuits that God wrote commandments on slabs of rock or that Jesus rose from the dead. Either those things actually happened in the world or they didn’t. If one is going to take such assertions literally rather than symbolically, then I agree with Sam Harris and his friends that the statements must be evaluated with our reason, not our hearts.

    Jody Frank

    October 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm

  2. Thank you for your comments, Jody. You’re right that I have myself been unable to believe in the doctrines of any of the major traditional religions, but I certainly don’t insist on that POV in the book you speak of—nor do I in the post you’ve commented on, as I stress in the last paragraph.

    I do propose in my book that much of the emotional appeal of traditional religions is the rationale and context they provide for devoting ourselves to other people (which I am convinced is the secret of happiness: http://bit.ly/o8ftQa). But that idea doesn’t by any means imply that the truth of religious beliefs is less important than their evolutionary purpose. As I say in the book, the evolution in humans of this drive to care for others could well be the grace of God working through the evolutionary history of life on Earth. And there’s nothing terribly provocative about the idea that God’s grace could work through biological evolution—in fact, it’s a prominent theme in recent Christian theology.

    I don’t know how you’ve concluded that I disrespect the heart’s reasons (even if only ambiguously). I have the greatest respect for human intuition. Reason is a useful tool, but most of our most important decisions are arrived at intuitively, and I’m with Freud in thinking that that’s a good way of doing things.

    You say that events like the resurrection of Christ either did happen in the world or they didn’t. Sure, but that doesn’t mean that there is or ever has been a conclusive and fully rational method for an individual human to decide on their truth or falsehood. As Kierkegaard argues in his Philosophical Fragments (http://bit.ly/q56yMf), the question of belief or doubt is far more complex than that, certainly for people today separated from the historical events by so many centuries, but even for contemporaries who we might naively think would have had a more straightforward experience of those events than we can.

    So intuition must always play a large part in faith. In noting that, I haven’t meant to denigrate religious belief in the least—in fact, the whole point of my post is to show that faith is a far more empirical and less arbitrary conclusion than the New Atheists think it is.

    Joel Benington

    October 24, 2011 at 12:42 am

    • Thanks for the response. Sorry to have misunderstood your writing in some ways–but I don’t know why you concluded that I think you disrespect the heart’s reasons. Mainly, I was acknowledging that you do respect them and asserting that I’m all for them, too. I just worry that you’re blurring the lines between faith and belief.

      Can we agree that intuition reveals a different kind of truth than reason? It tells us important (and often ineffable) truths of the heart and spirit, but it’s notoriously bad at revealing literal truth.The devil is always in the details: historically, people have fought, killed, and tortured over literal points of doctrine, thereby violating the altruistic spirit of their faiths. At the same time, I think you’re right that people live the truths of a religion by practicing it. (At least, I think that’s what you’re saying.)

      I think the problem with the New Atheists (except Sam Harris) is that they decry literal-minded belief while ignoring the underlying, essential truths and mysteries of faith.

      I just started a fascinating book by Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation, about the origins of the major religious traditions:

      “All the traditions that were developed during the Axial Age pushed forward the frontiers of human consciousness and discovered a transcendent dimension in the core of their being, but they did not necessarily regard this as supernatural….The sages certainly did not seek to impose their own view of this ultimate reality on other people….if a prophet or philosopher did start to insist on obligatory doctrines, it was usually a sign that the Axial Age had lost its momentum.”
      –Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation, Anchor Books, 2006.

      Jody Frank

      October 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm

      • P.S. I strayed from your original post, but to circle back:
        “The truth that a person finds in their religion is present and real to them through their intuitions”: that, I think, is faith, and it is experiential. But it’s not interchangeable with belief in specific details or doctrines.

        Jody Frank

        October 24, 2011 at 4:09 pm

  3. hey, great blog! love it 🙂

    Donovan Rossell

    November 7, 2011 at 8:19 pm

  4. I’ll share a few quotes from George Eliot’s last novel, _Daniel Deronda._ As far as I know, she’s still unsurpassed in wisdom and clarity on matters of the spirit:

    “For you shall never convince the stronger feeling that it hath not the stronger reason….”

    “He wanted some way of keeping emotion and its progeny of sentiments–which make the savors of life–substantial and strong in the face of a reflectiveness that threatened to nullify all differences. To pound the objects of sentiment into small dust, yet keep sentiment alive and active, was something like the famous recipe for making cannon–to first take a round hole and then enclose it with iron; whatever you do keeping fast hold of your round hole.”

    “The inspirations of the world have come in that way too: even strictly-measuring science could hardly have got on without that forecasting ardor which feels the agitations of discovery beforehand, and has a faith in its preconception that surmounts many failures of experiment. And in relation to human motives and actions, passionate belief has a fuller efficacy.”

    “The most powerful movement of feeling with a liturgy is the prayer which seeks for nothing special, but is a yearning to escape from the limitations of our own weakness and an invocation of all Good to enter and abide with us; a _Gloria in excelsis_ that such Good exists; both the yearning and the exaltation gathering their utmost force from the sense of communion in a form which has expressed them both, for long generations of struggling fellow-men.”

    Jody Frank

    January 27, 2012 at 4:28 pm


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