_A Shot of Faith To The Head_: Bad Title, Great Book: Part 1: “Belief in God is Irrational”
Mitch Stokes is bold. He begins his “shot” into our heads by challenging the notion that rational beliefs must be supported by evidence, a belief known as evidentialism. This might at first sound like a bad move, as if to say to tell Sherlock Holmes that you just have to believe you know who stole the diamond, and that’s ok. But retrace the steps of human reasoning. Go quiz the philosophers (and even the scientists) on this issue. We have always used reason as long as we have used writing, and earlier. What is evidence, though? And how does it factor into our reasoning? Is it just a matter of things that are there for us to find, things that obviously point the way toward true things, so long as we are rational? Simply put,
evidence is support for a belief in the form of an argument. Many beliefs need arguments and evidence. For example, a crime scene investigator must use evidence to prove who killed the butler. But suppose the investigator wants to know the motive. There will be some evidence, but motive involves something less material. Multiple motives may be involved, and some not discovered. When it comes to motive, an investigator is more likely to walk in the terrain of faith. And though a hunch shouldn’t be used to make an arrest, a hunch has been good reason to pursue a lead. Faith has played a role in leading many an investigator to the truth. And faith in central beliefs, like the belief that we can and should expose and punish criminals, is what motivates many a detective.
We have these “basic beliefs“, beliefs that everyone has, that do not follow a code of “using evidence”. As a detective, how do you know that murder is wrong? What evidence brought you to this conclusion? You might say that everyone just tends to know, or that it makes you feel icky to see murder, or that it is defined as an act against our own species, or that it is illegal. But none of these things actually proves scientifically, mathematically, or philosophically that murder is wrong. They only serve to support that belief, keep it fresh.
There are things we believe that cannot be proven, but can be supported. These are realms that transcend the physical and measurable. Theists have these beliefs. Atheists have these beliefs. Ultimately, there is no evidential foundation for the deepest beliefs humans have.
Lest we believe ourselves to perfectly rational entities, Stokes reminds us that our “cognitive (belief-forming) faculties” are not 100% reliable, so our basic beliefs are not inferred, but assumed through experience. Everything you argue, ultimately, traces back to something based on assumptions. This is where we all naturally are. All adherents to all “isms” have this in common: Our deepest beliefs are caused by experiences that trigger them, not by a series of logical deductions or inductions from perfectly observed, irrefutable phenomena. The logical reasons we seek only serve to give support, not actually prove, these deepest beliefs.
How do we come by rational beliefs, then? A key definition of rationality Stokes returns to in his book is this:
A properly functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment.
For over 2,000 years Christians have defined Faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), because faith is a belief in testimony because of the credibility of the proposer. Faith is “a way, a method, a process” of coming to a belief, Stokes explains. And since all our beliefs are based on our cognitive faculties, all our beliefs ultimately stand on faith in some other belief. We even have faith in our senses when we believe their testimony. This is why Christians (that is, rational Christians) don’t just believe in God and his Gospel because they merely saw it in a book and someone told them it was right. The circumstances of our reception of this message lead us to trust our senses, just as we may be led to believe that there is such thing as an atom, not because a textbook told us about it, but because, despite the fact that we cannot actually observe or see an atom, we have faith in the testimony of our reasoning and senses, as well as the testimony of experts and authorities, to produce such a belief.
And if we evolved reason, then what did we evolve it for? Some reasoning skills make sense in terms of helping keep us alive and perpetuating our species, and could be explained by evolutionary theory alone. But much of our higher reasoning has nothing to do with keeping ourselves alive or preserving our species. If we developed this reasoning, and evolution only develops survival skills, why would blind chance evolution produce any such thing as, say, philosophical reasoning? What natural help would it be for a lion to begin questioning why he eats the antelope?
“Evolution is more interested in useful beliefs than truer ones,” Stokes points out. Survival does not concern itself with finding truth, but finding what is useful. As a species, like any other, there is no reason we should even dream up any idea or concept that we would debate as “true” or not, but rather what is useful or not. Scientific evidence shows only that animals “contemplate” what things do and whether they are safe and desirable, but shows nothing of animals reasoning whether things are true by their own virtue. “I don’t care what this creature is: I want to eat it, mate with it, or run from it.” (Unfortunately, some humans follow this thought process throughout their lives).
So, if there is no God, and we were not created, then any “reasoning” we evolved would only pertain to what is pragmatic, not what is true. Our faculty, then, must be designed, because it is not only rational by nature, but inherently yearns for truth, for transcendence, for virtue, for beyond. In fact, it is because this yearning is recognized and sometimes denied that some have bothered to articulate that there is only a physical universe. If we had only evolved faculties with which to understand the physical universe, how would we have dreamed up one beyond this that one could deny? Acknowledging that many humans ponder and meditate over the non-physical is de facto acknowledging that humans have a faculty with which to ponder such things. We must then answer for how this “yearning” came about.
“Taking God for Granted”
Stokes is a minimalist when it comes to using scripture to prove mere theism. He even ventures as far as to say that we do not need the Bible to prove God’s mere existence, but the Bible does reference two major ways in which we can. One of the few arguments he says we need is articulated in Romans 1, a statement not arguing God exists based on scripture, but assuming that nature shows God does exist: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” In other words, you look at the cosmos, and you must believe there is a divine being that originated it. This has been called (by Aquinas, for example) the sensus dei or sensus divinitatis, “a belief-forming mechanism akin to memory, reason, credulity, and sense perception.”
I wish Stokes had explained an important distinction here: This is not to be confused with the argument from ignorance: “I don’t get it because it’s so confusing, so I’ll just use God to explain it.” Some believers use it but it doesn’t work for most intelligent non-believers. Rather, the true natural argument is not based on the fact that one is ignorant of how the universe works, but that the more one observes the rationale and beauty of the universe, the more one is compelled to acknowledge and give credit to the one who formed it. Yes, the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one understands, just as when men first learned that stars are not wonders in a dome, but wonders in a vast expanse that went on seemingly forever. It is this paradox that drives us: When our mental faculties discover new things while functioning properly in an appropriate environment, we confirm both how rationally devised the universe is and how little we still understand about it. So, it is not so much a collection of facts we acquire that lead us to believe that God created it (as the facts themselves will only tell us about the working of the universe, not its origin or purpose), but the experience of discovery itself honestly compels us.
So why do so many people not believe? What are they not seeing? I recall the Psalms of David, in which he identifies atheism not as a mind problem, but as a heart problem (14:1). There is an emotional response to the world that thwarts what we see. Our sinfulness blinds us to what is obviously there: A created natural world with natural laws that can operate rationally and can be understood rationally, a natural, rational effect of being created by this rational, natural being. A divine being is behind this. Sin taints our hearts and blocks us from this vision. In the Christian story, the Holy Spirit can restore our sense of the divine.
The story continues…