What does it mean to have faith in God?
It’s not a simple question.
Lately, I’ve been wrestling with The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs, a book that tries to analyze religious belief from a psychological perspective.
The author, Solomon Schimmel, grew up in Orthodox Judaism but lost his faith in the literal truth of the Torah. He ponders how he believed and why. He sees faith as primarily as an emotion:
“Faith in God, for example, usually refers to a sense of trust and confidence in God’s protection, or wisdom, or caring. It is primarily an emotion …” 1
But the emotion has factual implications:
” … the most obvious one being the idea or assertion that there is such an entity as God who has certain attributes.” 2
He asks how a person who trusts in God knows that there is a God. His answer: 3
- Upbringing: “He might believe in God because he was raised to believe that there is a God.”
- Experience: “He might have had certain personal experiences that he interprets as evidence for God.”
- Authoritative texts: “He might come to believe in the existence of God because he accepts certain religious texts as sources of truth.”
- Authoritative people: “He might believe in God because he accepts the wisdom and authority of certain individuals, such as religious leaders or theologians, who affirm that God exists.”
- Theological arguments: “He might believe that there are firm logical proofs for the existence of God.”
- Personal meaning: “He might find that only by believing in the existence of God does his own existence have any meaning or purpose.”
All of those require us to know what we mean by “God.” However, Schimmel says:
“In all of these cases of belief in God, there is either an explicit or an implicit assertion or proposition to the effect that God exists.” 4
Without a definition of “God,” we don’t have a proposition. All we’ve got logically is ” — exists.” No evidence can prove or disprove it because it’s not a statement: it’s just a blank followed by a verb.
If we define “God” anthropomorphically, as a finite being who lives in the universe but is immortal and more powerful than humans, it solves the logical problem. But it makes the statement “God exists” obviously false, even according to the Jewish sages.
If we describe “God” as an infinite spirit of goodness that transcends both the universe and our understanding, the belief is no longer obviously false. But then it’s not at all clear what the belief means, since we admit at the outset that we don’t understand what we’re saying.
It seems to me that Schimmel and most other religious skeptics are trapped by an unrealistically narrow concept of what belief is and what it does. They think that belief is only about making assertions, such as “the book is on the table.” If belief is only assertion, then the only justification for a belief is evidence — logical or empirical — that what it asserts is true. As a result, religious skeptics make faith more cognitive than it really is.
Skeptics admit that belief does other things. Schimmel, for example, says that:
“My own moral and ethical values have been deeply shaped by certain core values and teachings of Orthodox Judaism …” 5
He thinks that belief can have negative consequences as well. However, since he thinks belief is only about making assertions, he is forced to discard positive results of belief as irrelevant. In a curious inconsistency, he does not in the same way discard negative results of belief: he thinks that negative results are arguments against a belief. However, that’s almost certainly an unconscious side effect of his skeptical view.
The main point is that belief does, in fact, do other things than just make assertions. It forms character and moral values. It provides people with a sense of identity and place in the universe. It promotes social cohesion and cooperation. It gives emotional comfort in times of difficulty, and gives courage to overcome the difficulties.
A string of words that we admit we don’t understand, such as “God exists,” cannot do us much good as an assertion. But such a belief can have meaning in other ways than simply pointing to a fact. It can point to shared values, moral behavior and social harmony. Then, the belief’s good or bad results become its justification or lack thereof.
Beliefs that are unreasonable by normal empirical standards can be quite reasonable by other, more pragmatic standards. But as long as skeptics remain trapped by a narrow view of belief and its functions, they won’t be able to see that.
Schimmel, S. (2008), The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.