Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?


  • Beliefs founded upon revelation, insight, or intuition must be distinguished from trust based on commandments, dogmas, traditions, or officials.
  • This distinction has a pedigree founded upon heresy, sectarianism, and reformation and is always founded on the epistemological conflict between an inner light and an external orthodoxy.
  • Religious beliefs are rarely advanced as mere opinions, but what is the justificatory difference?
  • Knowledge may be defined as “truth justified by a preponderance of evidence,” and must be publicly defensible according to modernist axioms of commitment.
  • Religious believers will find evidence less compelling than a passional commitment that projects their yearning.
  • Not only can we not know those convictions that we believe, but we also do not believe what we know because we have no need for a passional commitment to a truth we can justify.
  • As examples, consider the absurdity of “believing in” the inverse square law or the reluctance we bring to the knowledge that we will most certainly die; we refuse to believe it because we desire not to die.
  • As institutional authority has declined in the centuries since the Reformation, religious belief as a private possession of the moral agent has grown in tandem with modernist and postmodernist axioms of commitment, though believers seem rarely to recognize that theirs are commitments of belief rather than trust and of yearning rather than knowledge.
  • Since this axiomatic shift has largely gone unnoticed by believers, they still seek a means to invest their beliefs with the public moral power traditionally claimed by religious authority.
  • Because belief is a private possession of moral agency, most persons think it entirely open to preference, but this a serious error.
  • Beliefs, for example, cannot rationally contradict knowledge; the temptation to overlook this truth is most powerful at the frontier where knowledge fails us and desire allows us a broad discretion in directing our beliefs.
  • An example of such a frontier is the issue of the existence of a Creator: ontological and cosmological proofs of deity are opposed by the problem of evil and of divine hiddenness.
  • Once this frontier problem has been recognized, the temptation is always to move the border so as either to claim greater religious knowledge or to deny its possibility.
  • Any effort to erase uncertainty is ill-advised whether it be based on phenomenalism or scientism because it tempts a distortion of judgment, an acquiescence to desire even in ordinary operations of judgment that will distort even the simplest determinations of truth and goodness.
  • While the principle of non-contradiction is an acceptable arbiter of beliefs, it is inferior to the five proofs of correspondence to determine knowledge.
  • Believers claim the incorrigibility of authority with the latitude of the virtual circle but only for their own beliefs.
  • Beyond the frontiers of knowledge, we have no choice but to engage beliefs, and in religious matters the need to commit is particularly strong in the face of divine hiddenness.
  • Many professions of religious belief are motivated by considerations disconnected to their claimed truth: its comforts, promise of eternal rewards, or utility.
  • Fideism argues that religious truth is not amenable to reason but rather is realized through affronting it, but whether it extends beyond reason or is approached in defiance of it, all religious belief is at best a doxastic venture, meaning a commitment beyond what is clearly warranted.

To address the question of whether our religious beliefs pass muster as true knowledge requires us to isolate belief from authority as justification. Should one accept an article of faith because of some external source — commandments in holy books, dogmas, traditions, or officials  — that subscription must be distinguished from a private belief rooted in revelation, insight, or intuition. I make no judgments on truth by drawing this justificatory distinction. My purpose is to process the different sources of warrant that operate in each case.

Some believers may not find it possible to disentangle the passional commitment they feel from the authority that warrants it, but the distinction has a long pedigree that is most clearly observed in cases of heresy, sectarianism, and reformation. Ankhnaten rejected the authority of Amun Re.  Jesus rejected the authority of the Pharisees in favor of his own inner light. Luther staked his claim at the Diet of Worms. The Romantics embraced the pantheist power of their intuitions against all authority.

The central perspectival question such a rebellion suggests is this: what makes you think your own belief true? Why did you forfeit trust in the authority whose moral preferences you once thought convincing enough to justify the surrender of your own power to decide? In committing to a belief, are you merely expressing a preference among qualitatively neutral options, choosing to name what calls to you as true and what doesn’t as false? Can truth and falsity enter into belief? If so, then religious belief must claim to be knowledge. But of what kind?

It certainly seems to be a declarative sentence like other knowledge claims. It argues for a truth. Even more significantly, it uses that same warrant to argue for goodness, but that effort offers other challenges (see What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“). And it is in the nature of such declarations about divinity that they go beyond utility or quality, straight to the tough one: moral goodness (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“). But advancing that claim surely violates the essential difference between knowledge and belief: we arrive at knowledge by a dispassionate consideration of experience, a ratiocinative weighing of evidence, not by the passional commitment that characterizes belief (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). If knowledge is “truth justified by a preponderance of evidence,” even the most fervent believer must confess that belief is something quite different: it is “judgment changed by desire.” It is our yearning that has us declaring our beliefs so forcefully, not our knowledge. Coming to knowledge and to belief are two separate and disconnected operations. They are so different in terms of both process and justification that we must ask whether religious belief is in any way related to knowledge.

If we cannot claim to know those things we believe, must we believe the things we know? We don’t. I know the inverse square law is true. I hardly need or wish to believe it. I know I am going to die, but because I do not desire to die, I refuse to believe it. So if not the same, can we find any point in experience where belief and knowledge touch upon each other? At the frontier of our knowledge is a hazy vista of reasonable possibilities that we cannot know, and to shape them as we desire is no bad thing, provided those desires do not contradict what we do know. The argument for or against a deity is an obvious example. If knowledge is judgment by a preponderance of the evidence, it seems we might use undistilled experience as evidentiary support for knowledge that there is or is not a deity. This is hardly a private issue (“Authority, Trust, and Knowledge). The definition of a deity requires that your God be my God too.  No issue could be more clearly common to us both since positing a creator is a truth claim affecting all rather than created by each of us [We each create our own judgment, of course, but the thing we judge exists or doesn’t in the reality we all experience] (see “What Counts as Justification?“). Of the public proofs of judgment, authority held the field until its spectacular collapse in the Protestant Reformation. And in its every form and expression, all of institutional authority’s power could be traced to divine sanction. Those days are long gone and the collapse of authority as a public justification has enabled private belief in such issues to bloom. Understandably, the proliferation of private belief that began in the Reformation as heresy and revolt against authority has increasingly characterized religion in Western cultures, at least in part as a response to the fatal weakness of authority. That weakness traces to its peculiar means of warrant that make it quite stable initially but also prone to collapse when facing fundamental challenges. Because it relies completely upon the trust of congregants for its superior ability to discern the divine will, when trust is credibly challenged, authority is weakened. Authority’s strength derives from its ability to weld together truth and goodness claims into a single composite of description about reality and prescription about what to prefer in it. Congregants give up their own capacity to do that work, entrusting it to the authority who acts on their behalf. They literally are incapable of doubt because they have transferred the power to doubt. They think their accepted authority indubitably true and good. That apparent strength is more apparent than real, though. It is might better be called brittle because credible challenge forces the congregant to re-appropriate the agency she has surrendered so that she can theoretically resubmit it in trust, perhaps to the heretic or reformer who disputes orthodoxy (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). Multiply this by millions, and you have the story of the most significant intellectual event in Western history, the Protestant Reformation. That appropriation of individual agency took eight generations and changed the history that followed in ways unimaginable to Martin Luther, the man who began it (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems“). For the purposes of this discussion, the significance was to transfer the power of religion from authority to belief. And that means from a public source of verification, though brittle, to a private one, with all the possibilities for dispute that suggests. A good part of the continuing saga of religion since the Reformation has been the attempt to make private belief as publicly respectable as authority once had been or, failing in that attempt, to find some way to make its justificatory power comparable. This effort has never succeeded, and it can’t because belief of any kind can never be defended as public knowledge capable of resolving dispute and directing moral consensus. That is directly traceable to belief’s composite structure of judgment and deeply private desire.

This truth has had tremendous cultural resonance, focusing most powerfully upon the attempt to find and defend public sources of moral consensus in Western societies that are as compelling as the emulsion of truth and goodness that authority provided, whose force was to suppress dissension and engender trust. But since individual preferential freedom is the bedrock of contemporary cultures, no substitute for religious authority has emerged (see “Modernism and Its Discontents”). That failure echoes down to our own moment in time, but if it has public import by cutting us free from the certainties of religious authority, it has cathartic private ones as well. The power to engage belief is now inescapably an individual natural right, and so each person faces the question of how to integrate it with her own schema of knowledge. Since no one is free of the desire that propels belief and vivifies it, everyone has answered that question in her own way, though all defend the sacrosanct natural right to exercise preference as they wish. But we ought not confuse the natural freedom to engage beliefs with the preferential responsibility to align them as best as we are able with what is true. By seeking to isolate it from knowledge and further by claiming that it properly ought to begin where knowledge fails,  I am suggesting that some ways to engage religious belief are better than others. I’ll use the question of the existence and nature of the Creator as an example of an approach that respects the belief/knowledge dichotomy and seeks the boundary where knowledge tapers into belief.

So how ought we decide where that boundary lies? The analogy to the courtroom serves us in this question, for there seems good reason to judge both atheism and theism to be true, and good reason means we have some knowledge to wield in deciding. The arguments for theism, both ontological and cosmological, are easily accessible by examining the arguments of Anselm and Aquinas, but the scales seem fairly well balanced by the problem of evil and by the very issue we are examining, called by analytic theologians the problem of divine hiddenness. It is as though reality presented us with opposing lawyers offering perfectly convincing but contradictory arguments, leaving us with only our own experience to contrive a verdict. It is good to know the deeper arguments, though none are decisive, because this is certainly the one question worth exhaustive and sustained intellectual effort. Perhaps others find them more decisive one way or another than I. But I suspect most persons share my sense that the philosophical arguments are a wash. This standoff then almost immediately and naturally produces an appeal to belief. Knowledge moves us to the point where it can serve us no longer. Why engage it at all if it cannot provide an answer? Wouldn’t it be simpler to let our own inclinations decide from the beginning and save all that effort? Why examine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Why not accept that belief is all we have? Isn’t that admission fundamentally more honest than the skybridge effort to reason oneself toward religious belief that must prove unresponsive to reason in the end? Isn’t faith “the evidence of things not seen?” Why not unleash desire early in the decision process if the end allows it to be unleashed later anyway? Think of the time, fear, and trembling one can avoid!

Obviously, such labor-saving — and possibly soul-saving — questions of commitment have been fully articulated in the five hundred years since Luther began dismantling religious authority and modernism began elevating individual moral autonomy. How has the early commitment to belief turned out? The answer can be found in the history of philosophical phenomenalism and the resulting development of postmodernism in the calamitous twentieth century (see Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). We can summarize the development of an early commitment to belief by the umbrella term: coherentism.

The essential quality of this position is that questions like those concerning the existence and nature of a Creator are unknowable and therefore open to belief. Coherentists see all questions of knowledge as comparable to this one, and so they deny any distinction between knowledge and belief. Here is why. They say we lack the capacity to gain objective knowledge of the world, it being deformed in unknowable ways by influences on consciousness that we cannot be aware of. So all questions about the world resemble the question about the existence of the Creator. Knowledge cannot be separated from belief because what we think of as knowledge is always pulled by unconscious desires, warped by deficiencies of language, blocked by the perceptual wall that distorts sense data before we are aware of it, and molded by cultural values that operate beneath the threshold of thought. The coherentist knows the world is unknowable, and yet in her jealous retention of her own agency, she also knows she is responsible for choosing in it. She regards her agency as sacred and so engages in the active creation of her world within the perceptual wall of her own awareness. All must be powered by her beliefs. She makes it as she wills by her own power. Or in later iterations of postmodern thought, she is made by the power of her culture without her awareness, her reason molded by its beliefs, which are equally divorced from the reality they profess. In the coherentist schema, all claims to knowledge are actually composed of personal or cultural beliefs.

Between the turn of the twentieth century and the 1970’s, coherentism was formalized into a belief system that bears some resemblance to religion. Modernism had replaced trust in authority with the power of reason applied to individual experience but had sought consensus through universalizing that reason so that persons might make intersubjective sense of their private experience. Coherentists rejected the universality of reason, seeing persons as blank slates whose reason was as molded by environment as cultures themselves, Postmodernism bases its position firmly on the uniqueness of experience built upon a philosophical movement called phenomenalism that claims we can never climb over the perceptual wall, or escape the influence of unconscious forces, or resist the formative pressures of culture, or tame the resulting idiosyncratic reasoning that sense data produces, or use language to communicate clearly. While modernists weigh evidence and reasoning, postmodernists see both as so personally constructed, so biased by personal experience, culture, race, gender, or religion — and so warped by a will to power that directs desire — as to make our public interactions as contentious as our private thoughts (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements“). What moves commitment is passional and often unconscious belief. The only rule is the principle of non-contradiction, the simple alignment of claims to truth, goodness, and beauty so as to eliminate or minimize the reductio ad absurdum of claiming contraries as simultaneously true. Our beliefs must cohere, and their coherence is the sole test of their truth as a private and personal kind of knowledge. Since the level of logical rigor involved is one of the issues belief can arbitrate, we can expect to see wide variability in the means by which persons seek coherence. The private schema they produce is the virtual circle, their own creation of a private reality (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). It is the signature act of those who embrace postmodern thinking. That creative construction may be subjective or relative to culture, though no effort is made to arbitrate the many cultures all persons must navigate in everyday life. As regards the two terms under discussion, we can simply draw an equal sign between knowledge and belief for these persons. Should they insist their beliefs are “true for me,” or that their beliefs are more true than their knowledge, or that the truth quotient of their beliefs may be measured by their passion in professing it, you might consider a polite withdrawal, for a condition of their virtual circle is that your views are decidedly yours with no claim upon their own. You should ask that they approach their own views with the same diffidence.

For a coherentist, belief functions as persuasively as the most demonstrable empirical proof, more persuasively really. If she doesn’t like Einstein, she can claim relativity nonsense, at least for her own virtual circle. She will feel entitled to equate belief with knowledge or to elevate it above knowledge, or more accuately, to elevate her beliefs over your knowledge. To her mind, what she believes is more reliable than whatever the rest of the world knows. This superficially resembles the credal professions of the world’s most dogmatic religions, but differs in one important respect: the virtual circle professes the private quality of its knowledge while the Abrahamic religions are not at all shy in claiming the universality of their truth and goodness claims. Their truth must be everyone’s since its source is the universal deity. You can imagine the terminological confusions when the religious believer confronts the postmodernist one. Or you can see it play out in some of the controversies the plague the search for public morality (see “Belief in the Public Square“).

All of this confusion about the relation between knowledge and belief gets us no closer to the religious truths we seek, but I hope the path chosen by postmodernists can be seen as one that dead ends the early commitment to belief as a private possession. Its passional nature tempts too premature a closure on questions of religious belief when combined with a jealous retention of one’s own power to commit. Can we then swing to a premodern commitment, to a revival of authority, reject the private nature of belief, and subject ourselves to trust in institutional authority? That is also an impossible reversal, for the kind of trust we can nowadays bring to bear is never total but always cycling back toward a deference to our own rational agency (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return). What today’s congregant feels, at least in Western cultures drenched in modernism, is a simulacrum of trust that verges on the counterfeit, especially in comparison to the total forfeiture of agency so characteristic of premodernism. We can still see that kind of trust in some places in the world. We call such congregants religious extremists (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?“). What Western premodernists want is deeply affected by our society’s confusions about belief. They want to think their authority inerrant and universal as these things were traditionally regarded, yet also to retain enough agency to tailor their faith to their own beliefs, which they would realize if they took the time to closely compare their faith with their fellow congregants’. They want the incorrigibility of authority with the latitude of the virtual circle, not just for religious beliefs but for all, confusing their natural right to their own agency, the permissibility of their natural freedom,  with the knowledge that might universalize its conclusions. So they say they don’t believe in homosexual marriage or global warming with the same passional rectitude that allows them to say they do believe in man’s fallen nature or Christ’s saving grace. Though they share almost nothing with their postmodern peers concerning their views on authority, both camps are persuaded that belief is a form of knowledge. So they engage it early and often because desire moves preference for both sides. Their disputes are therefore interminable and beyond resolution.

The effort to claim belief as knowledge is deeply mistaken, but it does point to one truth about religious belief: in the absence of knowledge, we still must choose. As William James says, we cannot refuse to decide (see “The Lure of the Will to Believe“). We must move forward into mystery. We face a fork in the road and cannot remain or return. So do we choose the path of commitment to belief or of atheism? There is no other choice, for even if agnosticism is our knowledge decision, we must still live each day. Since pragmatism bases its judgments on the “cash value,” the practical impact, of our actions, it seems to me a no-brainer that at this point we apply Pascal’s Wager to the equation and march confidently down the road of theism (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). Many, perhaps most persons choose religion for its comforts, its social value, or from cultural conditioning. For them, religion is a matter of utility, of hypothetical reasoning that asks, “If I choose to commit to belief, what good will it do me?” But the problems with this view are troubling. First, we are changing the rules of knowledge if we judge by a preponderance of the evidence and then tamper with that evidence to make our decision more convenient or useful. Our judgment must be impartial and suspicious of this very temptation to skew the evidence. It is bad faith to become a pragmatist simply because the issue under review is a difficult one. Secondly, Pascal’s Wager only becomes applicable when we cannot know the true situation, but pragmatism reassures us that the psychological benefits of theism make it quite useful in this life; therefore, its usefulness makes it true according to the rules of pragmatist knowledge . So where is the wager? To rig the game this way is cheating. It is also venal So we return to our former position, scratching our head as we peer into the mists beyond the fork in the road, knowing we must move forward on this most essential of questions, even in our ignorance. So we choose either fork– to accept or reject the existence of a deity– based on belief, not knowledge. We believe what we want to believe, bearing in mind that classifying this issue as one of belief forces us to also face our attachment and affection for the choice we have made while abstaining from declaring it as a universal truth. Believers think that theirs an admirable faith. Unbelievers call it delusion, yet this too is what they want to believe rather than what they know.

There is a respected tradition in theology that argues belief to be in opposition to reason, or at least to hypothetical reasoning. Now this could imply what empirical science implied in the late nineteenth century: that ordinary reasoning is not competent to process conceptualizations beyond its experience, so that issues of eternity and infinity simply bounce off consciousness or drop into slots that distort meaning (see The Limits of Empirical Science”). Belief in this view must either supplement or substitute for knowledge. If belief extends knowledge, the believer is charged with pushing her quest to its logical limits in the tradition of theology and then use that scaffolding to posit plausible possibilities to guide belief. The Roman Catholic view follows the thinking of Augustine and Aquinas in that pursuit. The Protestant tradition allows for the other possibility, and it is joined in this antinomianism by the great Asian religions that accept or even embrace the irreconcilable natures of human and divine. The divine is thus distanced from the pedestrian applications of thought and must be approached by peripheral vision, even by means of affronts to reason that force it to accept its limitations. Zen Buddhist koans, mystic ineffability, meditative trance states, ecstatic visions, cabalist ritual, and altered states of consciousness all seek to produce belief without resorting to either reason or knowledge. Kierkegaard and his admirers best represent what might be called the fideist tradition of faith in defiance of knowledge. To the seeker at the fork in the road, that option allows the leap of faith to be a fundamental commitment divorced from hypothetical reasoning, a passional commitment engaged at the far end of knowledge. Fideists are persuaded that belief and knowledge are fundamentally different qualities of conviction, and in an effort to avoid the self-delusions of believers who wish to conflate them, may pour their all into belief not as a kind of knowledge nor as an extension of it, but as a thoroughgoing replacement for it, a total commitment to faith. But because religious belief ought to reject hypothetical utility, that does not mean it can replace it. We still must exercise preference in the world.  Kierkegaard regarded the “Knight of Faith” to live in defiance of his knowledge, embracing the position falsely attributed to Tertullian: “I believe because it is absurd.” I would argue a more defensible doxastic venture would be one that believes because it isn’t (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip“).


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