About Faith

It seems to me the “new atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, etc.) are too hard on “faith”—believing without evidence.  If you believe in God without thinking you have a proof of his existence, or even a reasonably good argument, then your belief is a matter of faith.  Should anybody take you to task for that?  I think not.

A person who was willing to believe nothing “on faith” would have a rather scanty store of beliefs.  He or she would be missing some beliefs I take to be very important. 

For example—the belief that every human being matters.  Exactly why does everyone matter?  No doubt you could say a few intelligent things about it, but you’d soon find yourself not quite sure what the basis for the belief is. 

If you think about it long enough, you might start thinking maybe every human being doesn’t really matter.  I think you could find yourself completely perplexed for a while, but after all the perplexity died down, you might believe (I hope you would) that every human being matters. 

If that example doesn’t grab you, think about your own ultimate values.  What do you think is important?  Your convictions on those subjects probably have the character I’m talking about.  You’re committed, but it’s not easy to give the evidence and the arguments. 

Personally, I don’t have first hand experience of believing in God, but I’ve got quite a few “informants,” and from what I gather, believing in God can be like this. Faith is something akin to the stance that all of us take on one matter or another.

Here’s what I think the “new atheists” are right about.  There really is something pernicious about the phenomenon Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief” (in Breaking the Spell).  We do need to question the common  idea that believing (in God, in Jesus, whatever…) is virtuous.  That’s the attitude that makes a person struggle to maintain conviction in the face of doubts. 

A friend talks about being a Christian on her blog and writes about confessing all her doubts and questions to her mother, who responds “It’s OK to have questions, just so long as you believe.”  To believe even though you don’t have proof or good arguments is one thing—fine with me!  But to believe even when you’re starting to suspect you’re wrong?    

“Belief in belief” is implicit in the recent reportage about Mother Teresa’s doubts.  It turns out she was wracked with doubts all her life.  Is she to be admired for cleaving to belief anyway?  If believing no matter what is a virtue, then yes.  

The supposed virtue of faith seems to be modeled on the virtue of faithfulness—as in, staying true to your spouse despite temptation to stray.   But that’s a matter of loyalty, keeping promises, being honest.  That is a virtue.  Believing in the face of persistent doubt is something else entirely. 

I can see that important beliefs shouldn’t be thrown overboard upon the first hint of doubt.  Some beliefs are really commitments, in some sense.  But when doubts pile up, we surely need to let them have have their normal effect on conviction. 

I don’t think unbelievers should knock “faith.”  They should question “belief in belief.”  True believers—and I do know some–can have one without the other.

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