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Does Reason Need to be Enabled by

Something that Could be Called Faith?

In a letter to her husband Charles, Emma Darwin wrote: ‘May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved influence your mind too much? There are other things which cannot be proved in the same way, and if true are likely to be above our comprehension.’

The concept of faith is a broad one: at its most general “faith” means much the same as “trust.” This discussion is specifically concerned, however, with the notion of religious faith—or, rather (and the difference is important), the kind of faith exemplified in religious faith. Philosophical accounts are almost exclusively about theistic religious faith—faith in God—and they generally, though not exclusively, deal with faith as understood within the Christian branch of the Abrahamic traditions. But, although the theistic religious context settles what kind of faith is of interest, the question arises whether faith of that same general kind also belongs to other, non-theistic, religious contexts, or to contexts not usually thought of as religious at all. It may perhaps be apt to speak of the faith of—for example—a humanist, or even an atheist, using the same general sense of “faith” as applies to the theist case.

[The following passage is from Atheism in Our Time, by Ignace Lepp, 1963. In his book the author, a Marxist turned priest-psychoanalyst, dissects the modern varieties of unbelief.]

Even rationalist atheism is more often motivated by the emotions than by reason. But this does not imply, in our opinion, a depreciation of this form of unbelief. Still less do we want to discredit reason in any way. We do not criticize rationalism because of its trust in reason, but because it takes reason to be absolutely autonomous, endowed with an absolute objectivity, and capable of judging everything in a sovereign manner exclusive of other influences. Such a conception of reason does not bear up experimentally. Man is a whole; in the life of his spirit and soul* we observe an interaction of all his faculties. The flesh influences the spirit; the spirit influences the flesh. It is not only normal but desirable that reason be influenced by the emotions; otherwise, reason would be demonically cold and incapable of understanding human reality. On the other hand, it is also normal and good that man’s emotions and sensibility be controlled, in varying degrees, by reason; otherwise, the irrational and chaotic would reign.

* In conversations, and perhaps also in my writings [as a Marxist], I frequently used the word “soul.” But I did not see in this “soul” and “substance.” It was merely a convenient term to designate the totality of man’s psychic faculties. I adopted the position of all materialists: the soul and what we call the spiritual are not essentially different from the biological or physical; they merely represent a superior level of the evolution of matter.

[FAITH: 1) complete trust or confidence in someone or something: this restores one’s faith in politicians. 2) strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof: her religious faith sustained her in times of adversity. 3) a system of religious belief: the Christian faith. 4) a strongly held belief or theory: the faith that all life will ultimately become one.

The atheist cohort (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, A. C. Grayling, etc.) seem to believe that faith is always and everywhere a bad thing, intellectually contemptible and morally pernicious. The human race, on the other hand, seems to think that faith is fundamentally a good thing, notwithstanding the fact that faith may be, and often is, blind, arbitrary or superstitious. The first four quotations below are extensions of the second of the four dictionary definitions of faith, while the next seven are illustrations of the fourth definition.]

We may define “faith” as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of “faith.” We do not speak of faith that two and two is four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.

Bertrand Russell

Faith is a state of mind that leads people to believe something—it doesn’t matter what—in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway.

Richard Dawkins

Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe, when reasons fail, such propositions as that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse.

Sam Harris

Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason.

A. C. Grayling

All science requires faith in the inner harmony of the world.

Albert Einstein

It has been an act of faith on the part of scientists that the world can be explained in the simple terms that mathematics handles.

R. W. Hamming

Faith doesn’t have to be unreasonable, and often is not.

Salmon Rushdie (Interview with Bill Moyers)

If we have better grounds for believing something to be true than for believing it not to be true, it is not irrational to invest a certain degree of faith in it. There is nothing unscientific about such an attitude because the question at issue, concerning as it does the untestable, is not a scientific question. It is not a matter of possible knowledge.

Bryan Magee (from Confessions of a Philosopher, 1997)

A very great deal of what we all unquestioningly accept as knowledge depends upon testimony, and testimony, in turn, depends upon the belief that there are other minds besides our own. To common sense, the existence of other minds does not appear open to doubt, and I do not myself see any reason to disagree with common sense on this point. But, undoubtedly, it is through experiences of my own that I am led to believe in the minds of others; and, undoubtedly, as a matter of pure logic, it would be possible for me to have these experiences even if other minds did not exist.

Bertrand Russell

[On April 15, 1945, three days after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert Oppenheimer, the man in charge of the Manhattan Project, spoke at a memorial service to the assembled scientists who were shortly to bring into existence the atomic bomb.]

When, three days ago, the world had word of the death of President Roosevelt, many wept who are unaccustomed to tears, many men and women, little enough accustomed to prayer, prayed to God. Many of us looked with deep trouble to the future; many of us felt less certain that our works would be to a good end; all of us were reminded of how precious a thing human greatness is . . .

In the Hindu scripture, in the Bhagavad-Gita, it says, “Man is a creature whose substance is faith. What his faith is, he is.” The faith of Roosevelt is one that is shared by millions of men and women in every country of the world. For this reason it is possible to maintain the hope, for this reason it is right that we should dedicate ourselves to the hope, that his good works will not have ended with his death.

Everything is moods—love, hate, convictions—when you have no belief.

Malcolm Muggeridge

Do You Agree with Any of these Maxims?

[For intellectual purposes it seems to me that we need to accept the concept of “valid faith,” just as we accept the concept of “valid reasoning” (i.e. rational inferences from plausible premises). Without recognizing that every philosopher is, at some level, a man of faith, it is impossible to create a level playing field for competing world views.]

Without faith—or something very like it—reason can’t get any traction.

Everything that logic can give us is ultimately founded on faith.

Faith makes convictions possible.

Just as truth has to do with the value of the things we know, so faith has to do with the value of the things we believe.

Faith is the free element in thought, logic the necessary element.

Faith is a kind of knowledge.

Secular humanists have too much faith in reason and not enough faith in faith.

Are These Examples of Implicit Faith?

A miracle is a violation of the laws of Nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established those laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.

David Hume

I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection.

Richard Dawkins

I believe that the acquisition of knowledge is one of the fundamental aims of man; that truth will, in the long run, prevail, and is always to be preferred to expediency.

Julian Huxley

Those who think the human mind is nonalgorithmic should consider the hubris presupposed by that conviction. If Darwin’s dangerous idea is right, an algorithmic process is powerful enough to design a nightingale and a tree. Should it be that much harder for an algorithmic process to write an ode to a nightingale or a poem as lovely as a tree? Surely [Leslie] Orgel’s Second Rule is correct: Evolution is cleverer than you are.

Daniel Dennett

It is no exaggeration to say that science contains the future of humanity and that it alone can say the last word on human destiny and teach mankind how to reach its goal... Science is only valuable in so far as it can take the place of religion.

Ernest Renan (ex-seminarian & modernist)

There must be a Creator even if there is no Day of Creation. Looking at Being as it is looks secondary and dependent. Existence exists; but it is not sufficiently self-existent; and would never become so merely by going on existing. The same primary sense which tells us it is Being, tells us that it is not perfect Being; not merely imperfect in the popular controversial sense of containing sin or sorrow; but imperfect as Being; less actual than the actuality it implies.

G. K. Chesterton

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