The question I am posing in this analysis probably seems arcane, but it is an extremely practical and important one for every religious commitment. Please allow me to begin to unpack it in plain language. The issue is this: in what ways can religious beliefs power moral truth that valid secular moral systems can’t? What if any real value can they add to moral conviction? Asking such questions obliges us to ask the obvious if uncomfortable follow-up: what do they take away?
A question this broad simply cannot be asked without carefully defining the terms of the analysis, which is why the wording of the title question is important. The most difficult term in it is “true.” I have devoted a considerable number of words to that effort in other essays (see “What Makes It True?” and “What Counts as Justification?). Given our present confusions about whether truth lies in a publicly defensible correspondence to reality or in a coherence to our private convictions, declarative sentences — whose grammatical role is always to proclaim a truth — must take a stand on which of these positions is assumed in the sentence. This is a problem for any declaration, but it is a far more difficult one for beliefs in contemporary life, so our thinking must continually choose between public and private means of warranting them. We begin by asking what the term “truth” means for our answer to the question. Does it imply an understanding that allows any belief to be true for me but not for you (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”)? Or does it denote such strong epistemological doubt that it casts shade on any religious belief’s claim to truth at all, rendering all equally valueless to moral reasoning (see “Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?”)?
Thinking in terms of these extremes is valuable if only to eliminate both from further consideration as we seek to answer the title question. Here is why neither extreme can survive scrutiny. No fan of the first position can be consistent, for some set of possible beliefs is clearly not consonant with every sane person’s knowledge and if it is claimed to be, then that claim will prove to be inconsistent with others the believer professes. For instance, I may believe I live on the far side of the moon, which certainly disagrees with your view of things but also challenges other notions of my own about the life I actually lead, perhaps concerning my weight or respiration or the sanity of others. There are many more wrong beliefs than right ones because imagination is more fertile than reality, but reason mandates that whatever beliefs I proclaim also do not contradict each other. For this view, one can ignore reality, but one cannot ignore the consonance of declarations about it, for a truth claim is meaningless if one’s next declaration will contradict it. Disqualifying some beliefs from contention in this way requires a sorting mechanism: the requirement that valid beliefs adhere to the most basic rule of reason, the principle of non-contradiction. That is a very low bar, but it will prove sufficient for opening this investigation, though not for closing it, as will become apparent. Just as the need for consistency challenges a promiscuous multiplicity of beliefs, it also must disqualify the opposing extreme that no belief can be true because none is certain. This kind of skepticism is practiced by admirers of science or by epistemologists who hold any knowledge claim to standards far beyond consistency. Their kind of radical doubt can only be defeated by a very high degree of empirical proof or rational certainty. But these positions are also self-contradicting since the deterministic predictability that powers the scientific method is contradicted by scientists’ felt freedom to form hypotheses, laws, and theories. It also faces a far more obvious issue: empiricism’s methods must prove blind to questions of ultimate value, therefore placing all moral issues far beyond its scope (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). Furthermore, certainty cannot be the standard applied to beliefs. Almost no fact in experience can be proved true to certainty, leaving all conclusions reliant on them to be held in doubt (see “Facts are Fluxy Things”). So if non-contradiction is our simple test, we must move toward the middle of the range of possible religious beliefs, neither totally open to imagination nor closed to possibility. Though inconsistency taints the extremes, we still may examine a broad range of possible beliefs that can be claimed as true. So the next problem is to narrow that range.
We can do that by looking at the other words in the question. I use the term “beliefs” advisedly to denote a specifically limited kind of truth claim (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). I wholeheartedly endorse Immanuel Kant’s great dichotomy: that knowledge and belief are separate domains of truth determined by the kinds of warrants available to each. We cannot expect beliefs to rise to the level of knowledge, even if we accept that knowledge need not be certain, only that it be justified by a preponderance of the evidence (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). The title question does not venture into questions of religious knowledge, assuming that these can be arbitrated by the same critical means by which we arbitrate all knowledge claims. But to advance a belief, and even more so a religious belief, must be to launch a speculative venture into uncertainty, forcing us to seek some standard for commitments that go beyond what we can know. If they are something less certain than knowledge, the question requires that we begin with a speculative standard that holds a lesser grip upon our assent, yet does not turn it loose to fancy.
Such commitments may require only that they be permissible to reason, meaning non-contradictory to what we know to be true. To be clear, any belief whatsoever is permissible to freedom because persons’ felt preferential freedom allows them to indulge in flights of imaginative speculation even if they prove contradictory to their own knowledge or to reality itself (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). Rational permissibility relies on the expectation that in questions of approaching God, persons might prefer to believe what they think true rather than what they think merely conceivable, and that will be the standard here. So if we accept that our knowledge gradually devolves from near certainty to substantial doubt, the degree arbitrated by the warrants we are able to marshall for our declaration, we will eventually reach the foggy boundaries where knowledge fails and belief begins. The question is whether we can carry our moral baggage with us as we go on. In keeping with the requirement for consistency, the question also requires that such ventures — meaning those not open to knowledge — be “doxastic” in nature: they must not only cohere with what we know even if not dictated by it, but also they must cohere with each other as a consistent proclamation of faith.
We will begin this effort to travel the road from knowledge to belief by moving past true moral knowledge. Even the most devout religionist will agree that we have plentiful evidence that some moral duties are easily accessible even to non-believers and count as knowledge independent of religion. Societies have always condemned murder, lying, and abusing children for reasons anyone can explain. The great categorical commands of the Decalogue contain other kinds of rationally demanded rules of moral conduct: don’t steal, don’t covet what isn’t yours, etc. (see “Theocracy and the Commandments”). So even fervent believers must agree that many moral rules are available even to atheists (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”). For instance, the most compelling moral framework of any society is set by positive laws, and in all but theocratic states, these are endorsed by citizens for their obvious long-term utility. Their appeal to practical reason recommends them to every citizen as morally conducive to a full human life (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer”). But the most advanced legal code could not provide complete moral guidance (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). That system is still in formation (see “Functional Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”), but our present confusions must not make us think either that morality without religion is impotent or that all religious commitments are simply private expressions of personal beliefs. We know that a secular morality is entirely possible (see “Three Moral Systems”). But is it complete without religious addenda or strictures to give it force? Is religious belief necessary to make morality comprehensive and worthy of our endorsement?
The question then concerns what kinds of religious beliefs might do that. Again, it narrows our focus, for it specifies a certain sort of belief, an “uncompassed” one. But that implies an obstacle to the search that may fatally injure it, rendering all beliefs incapable of carrying the burden of categorical morality in the same way that public laws or secular moral systems can. Unlike knowledge, the truth of our beliefs cannot be justified by a preponderance of the evidence because they are merely possible and permissible to reason rather than compelling our assent. You may believe in aliens or God or angels or ghosts or you may not because justification for such beliefs is not available. All are permissible but none is so transparently true that it compels reason to concur. This poses its problems for “public beliefs,” which is a contradiction of terms, though persons still try to profess them (see “Belief in the Public Square”). Nevertheless, it is not the weakness of their hold on our reason that threatens a consensual acceptance of beliefs so much as the strength of their grip on our passions. For beliefs are the essence of private conviction. They are emulsions of judgment, which might raise them to the level of public knowledge, and hope, which pins them to the yearning hearts of those who believe. Even when they concern secular matters, they are literally declarations of private faith. The etymology of “religio” is “I profess” and of “believe” is “I hold dear.” So religious belief’s power comes from shaping reality to the mold of each believer’s will. This is obviously difficult in ordinary experience in which we must negotiate with other believers. It gains traction when the believer can fashion her commitments concerning the imperceptible world of the spirit. Here imagination can run rampant as can the hope inherent in belief. This means that religious belief is sure to be tailored not only to experience but also to one’s most ineffable desires (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”). This “substance of things not seen” contains some possibility of truth, to be sure, but even the most fervent believer — perhaps especially that believer — can never isolate the likelihood of its truth from the deepest hopes that enable it. Because it inevitably involves an uncertain future outcome, belief is more open to divergent possibilities than knowledge and so is more likely to be challenged by those holding other beliefs. So as Kant put it, the problem with such claims is not that none is permissible but rather that too many are because we have so few bits of real knowledge with which to test them.
This is an insoluble problem for public professions of religious beliefs. All religions seek to explain the relation of the human to the divine, the nature of the afterlife, and the necessity of rituals and sacred texts to access divine will. The permissibility of each is made evident by the number of its devoted believers, but their multiplicity of explanations and directions means that each can only be possible. None is known. All are believed. Most believers commit to one over all the others for understandable reasons having little to do with the likelihood of its truth. For instance, nearly all religionists continue in the faith they were born into. A broad syncretism of religious beliefs would claim that doesn’t matter, that one is as good as another if it serves the interests of the believer. This view fully accepts the equality of all religious beliefs, seeing them as “uncompassed” in their moral truth. To be clear, an uncompassed religious belief does not deny that religions provide moral direction. It simply regards the truth of all such directions as equally in doubt with commitment being more steered by custom or some private value than by the truth of the prescribed morality. An uncompassed belief is one that can easily go another way and offer the same degree of rational permissibility to the believer. I will end this introduction to the question by acknowledging that some commitments in the broad range of belief are closer to knowledge than others and so are entailed to prior knowledge. I cannot see how most theological beliefs can be entailed. A better question is whether all are uncompassed and if so, are also permissible.
Passionate believers will naturally reject such a broad and breezy dismissal of the truth of their commitment, but the burden of proof is upon them to explain why their religious belief is more likely true than any other, and why it is superior to no beliefs at all. They ought to begin by asking themselves if their strongly held beliefs are proof more of their knowledge or their desire. Knowledge, like morality, confers direction to preference, but hidden in plain sight in the nature of belief is an absence of a moral compass, opening wide to a passional commitment. This may be no bad thing, for it is the very definition of faith and the prime reason it is often seen as known in the heart or found in the soul and almost never as comparable to our ordinary means of knowing. So warranting religious faith by other means is fine by most believers. In Kant’s words, “I had to deny knowledge so that I could make room for faith.” In Paul’s, faith is “the evidence of things hoped for…” Their hope will lead many devout persons to think theirs is merely a different kind of knowledge but somehow true in the same sense. But the actual existence of so many thousands of permissible faiths returns the challenge right back to them. Why commit to one faith over another if the boundaries of permissibility are so spacious?
I wish to argue that they are not, that permissibility for uncompassed religious belief must face other limits beyond active non-contradiction in order to pass the bar of consistency. These limitations will severely limit what reason can warrant.
We can begin by asking why we can condemn cults and sects that believers cling to with a near-manic devotion if any belief that does not violate knowledge is permissible. We think of Jim Jones at Jonestown, the thirty-nine suicides of the Comet Kohoutek sect, the Raelists, the Eckankers, the Scientologists, the thousands of millennialist and utopian cultists who established their short-lived communities in the wilderness of the American West. Their beliefs are often dismissed as mass psychosis, for when we learn of the details, we shake our heads in disbelief at such delusions. That must be what Canaanites thought of the demented fellow who nearly butchered his own son at the command of a flaming shrub, or what Romans felt about the Jewish schismatics who worshiped a carpenter rather than kneeling to the emperor, or what Arab traders called a tribal chieftain who rode his horse to heaven, or what American settlers believed about a colony of heretics translating tablets of gold. Only time and numbers elevate these fantastical beliefs and allow trust in some doctrinal authority to develop.
Every religion began with a single believer claiming some revelation that struck contemporaries as crazed. What caused their first converts to believe in this truth even against their own interests? Now social media provides the megaphone for every belief imaginable. While these are obviously permissible to freedom, ought we think all that do not contradict true knowledge are equally permissible to reason? Before you answer in the affirmative, compare religious beliefs to the familiar game of Clue. One must at some point in the game hazard a guess based less on knowledge than belief, for if one waits for knowledge, she will lose the game. But when ought she profess that belief? Guessing that Professor Plum did the murder with the wrench in the kitchen would seem permissible to reason in the first move of the game, but that belief would almost surely prove wrong. Do believers do something just as suspect for far greater stakes: latch on to a belief that is not clearly contrary to knowledge and commit themselves blindly to it? Isn’t such an uncompassed passional commitment a true leap of faith, the essence of fideism? When one is lost, every road looks the same. So why choose one over another? Kierkegaard admired the wildly romantic nature of the “knight of faith” who quests and commits blindly. And this brings up a second challenge to the rational permissibility of religious beliefs.
For this kind of venture is never thought of by the believer as a tentative one proportioned to its doubtfulness. On the contrary, the blinder the vision the bolder the leap. John Henry Newman concurred on this all-in nature of assent, and William James explored what its absence produces: the real discomfort of continuing indecision. Our need for awe requires us to commit to something (see “Awe”). As James notes, even avoiding that need is a choice. So we must choose and having chosen, we are encouraged to commit fully to the truth of our choice over all others. But if belief is an uncompassed venture of blind hope, it cannot be consistent with a total commitment to its truth. Recognizing that a preference is arbitrarily chosen and then fixedly holding it as beyond all doubt may comfort our unease, but it violates our reason. It remains just as speculative after we commit as before, our devotion notwithstanding. Ontological truth is dependent upon neither our approval nor our needs. If we follow James’s famous directive to believe even in the absence of any reason to choose one venture over another, what beyond our own desire can provide that reason? I will not say such a commitment is untrue, only that it is uncompassed. We cannot know in this life if it is true. Are we to think our passional commitment somehow confirmed by the power of our desire that it be true? How can this kind of warrantless devotion be considered permissible to reason?
This doctrine of justification by faith through a conversion experience matches religious belief to desire, and its importance to believers cannot be denied. It seems we have a spiritual thirst that discomfits us. So we satiate it by a willing commitment to a single religious belief over others. Skeptics will see this act as delusional, but they cannot know it is a delusion because they have no access to the ineffable desire that prompts conversion nor to the truth the convert professes. But if skeptics cannot reasonably condemn such a profound commitment, neither can believers find the means to defend it. They cannot know the truth of what they have chosen, nor can they offer good reasons for others to follow their lead beyond the intensity of their commitment. So why does the act of committing in itself seem to produce greater surety for them, why does it quell their prior lingering doubt? Given the power of desire to dominate reason, the answer becomes clear. If someone asks a convert to explain why she believes as she does, her first response will likely not mention the metaphysical truth of her commitment because that cannot be explained. It is numinous and ineffable, terms invented specifically to characterize what can neither be conceptualized by reason or articulated by language, as Rudolf Otto so convincingly explains in The Idea of the Holy Fideists say their experience does not move them to words but to silence. Should she attempt it, the convert will almost certainly not frame her commitment in terms of mere permissibility. She will not likely admit it to be an uncompassed venture of faith that leaves her as uncertain as before. It is very likely that she will seek to explain what her belief gives her, its benefits and its satisfactions. And this service to her own interests, this satisfaction of her own desire, is the soothing oil upon the roiled waters of her doubt. But if this leap of faith resembles solving the murder in the first move of Clue, we have to ask if what follows is equally sterile to reason.
And that brings up a third challenge to rational permissibility. Is soothing doubt a sufficient compass to faith or a pragmatic act of self-interest dictated by practical reason in present experience? In every moment of our conscious existence, we weigh the truth of what we experience and derive possible goods from whatever preferences we consider. Such hypothetical goods are those our own experience and desire prepare us to seek from the moment at hand. We find such choices useful to our own ends. Had our interests or experiences been different, we would desire some other good. In terms of religious belief, our desire must prove decisive since by definition we cannot know the reality we face. We may frame this choice as reason has habituated us to frame so many thousands of others: as a practical response to something we want. But in this case, we cannot know the reality that opens to our preference. How tempting it is to allow desire to shape it for us, structuring what we cannot know so as to give us what we want! But suiting God to our interests seems both irrational and sacrilegious. Doesn’t the nature of the divine require something more than immanence, not a personal god shaped by our desire but a transcendent one to whom our desires are shaped? The difference is definitional: it distinguishes useful goods from moral ones (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“).. This thought frames a very serious objection to the permissibility of uncompassed beliefs, this one stemming from attempting to mold the divine mystery not only to our own understanding but to our own hypothetical desires.
Believers will respond that their God is more than capable of granting a great banquet of petitions that all believers desire, but not even omnipotence can make a circle with angles or a depraved ambition noble (see “Divine Justice”). Can a private divinity arrange events so as to grant believers’ prayers when they desire to control the deterministic laws of nature or produce opposing outcomes? In the championship game, one side prays that the kicker will score, the other that he will miss. Warring nations’ churches send their prayers for victory to the same God. Coastal residents pray for God to send the cyclone to some other congregation’s homeland. Conflicting petitionary prayers twist and clash in the ether just as conflicting beliefs clash in the public square. It seems clear that a Santa God cannot exist, nor can even omnipotence be squeezed into the space between the ears of petitioners who yearn for a billion cross-purposed hypothetical satisfactions, many in denial of their other rational commitments. How many believers embrace the products of empirical science while seeking out miraculous exceptions to the determinism that science requires? Any mature conception of the divine must posit a reality in which not all personal religious professions are equally permissible. So again we are forced to conclude that doxastic ventures cannot be as infinite as the God to whom they are directed.
Believers might respond a bit differently, focusing less on what belief does for them than on what it does for morality at large. And that position comes closer to answering the question in the title. In this view, belief’s power is socially necessary even more than personally so. From inside the room of faith, it may seem that a world without religious belief would be a wildly immoral one, despite the obvious truth that many moral imperatives are available to knowledge, as stated earlier. When believers make the case that societies need religion to make morality work, they are probably thinking of the incentives that religions offer for obedience and, of course, the punishments for being bad. That argument has real historical power, but making it will do the believer no favors.
For most of human history, religious authority guided moral behavior as it still does in those regions of the world where theocracies rule (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?”). This orientation was profoundly stable, for it required subjects to surrender their own moral agency in trust to a ruler who acted on a divinity’s behalf. The trust that moved premodern authority was not easily shaken (see “Premodern Authority”). But when it was, a very ugly contention ensued because authority’s moral power relied on nothing other than trust, so when it was revoked, what had been moral certainty collapsed as institutions were forced to rely on pure power to secure obedience in the absence of trust (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). It was the disastrous collapse of authority in the Protestant Reformation that allowed persons to begin to use their own moral agency to sanction secular rule by their own endorsements, eventually leading to the establishment of the first polity to separate religious authority from political power, the United States. (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?”). Thanks to this shift in moral agency, private religious belief replaced public religious authority, allowing citizens to profess their personal commitments in their own churches. There is much more to this momentous transfer (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”), but what must be seen in the light of the title question is that the moral power of beliefs is fundamentally different from that of traditional religious authority: private rather than public, passionally self-directed rather than submissive in trust, and therefore divisive rather than unifying. So even if a return to religious authority is the dream of believers so as to stiffen the spine of the moral order, the nature of their beliefs will not allow it, quite apart from the great social changes that have eroded authority’s power in general (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). Any public moral commitments must now rest on consensual and secular commitments, despite the dreams of American pastors, ayatollahs, and Wahhabis. Public morality must exclude private religious beliefs as warrants for public trust.
Foreclosed on the public benefit of private goods, believers will advance other hypothetical benefits of religious commitment. But that search too must challenge rational permissibility, for it still opens too variable a course for religious commitment to steer. At its most extreme, it is the argument of the Gospel of Wealth and the Elmer Gantrys of television evangelism. But one needn’t think the divine an ATM machine to engage the essential point, which is this: religious belief offers pragmatic utility in either this world or the next or both. An entire culture of “spiritual health” and “positive prayer” combines psychological theory with traditional faith to proclaim a range of benefits of religious commitment having little to do with the nature or even the existence of a Creator. And though the three Abrahamic religions’ focus is fixedly on the categorical will of that Creator, they also emphasize the very real rewards of faith and the equally real pains of disbelief in this life as well. From Adam to Pharaoh to Judas, the punishments multiply, and from Abraham to David to Jesus, the rewards pour forth: honor, dominion, and fame, along with sheep and cattle. And lest we think this view naïve or primitive, the great theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin endorse extending the rewards incentive into the next life. This spur to commitment is also endorsed in the doctrine of reincarnation in Hinduism and Buddhism. It seems that rewards and punishments for earthly behavior are as central to theology as the existence of divinity itself. The connection is so ingrained that for many believers, personal morality itself could not survive its absence. Why be good if you are not to be rewarded for it? Why not indulge in sinful pleasures if no hell awaits the sinner? There is a knowledge-based answer to this question: secular moral systems. None of the three knowledge-based secular moral systems explicitly rejects religion. Born into an age of religious authority, they found ways to reconcile their systems to ecclesiastical power. Even the most determined atheist cannot deny that the reward/punishment calculus of religion is as motivational to societal behavior as police and prisons. And the rewards multiply in this world as well as the next. Studies show believers are more stable, hopeful, and healthy than persons who lack faith. They live longer and self-report greater happiness. Surely, this alone confirms the practical benefits of belief even if life ends in death. And without knowledge of what happens after, why not embrace a faith in divine order and purpose, of heavenly bliss or cessation of pain, regardless of the particulars? Why not see a loving supernatural realm raining down blessings on those who are faithful to divine commands?
This argument is a venerable one with a famous pedigree. Posed as a component of the Lord’s Prayer by Jesus, a wager by Pascal, a speculative venture of practical reasoning by Kant, a passional commitment by James (see “The Lure of the Will to Believe”), and a doxastic venture by Bishop, the argument makes a simple case that can be summarized by a simple question: “What do you have to lose?” But when one peruses all of religion’s appeal to personal profit in light of all the uses it has been put to, an unease creeps into what might seem to be to be a snap decision. It involves a final bothersome question about the relation of belief and utility. It is a fundamentally moral one: do such hypothetical motives somehow invalidate religious commitments?
If your belief promises eternal glory and doesn’t forbid suicide, why not exit this veil of tears? Yet when stated this baldly, something venal appears in such calculation, different only in degree from the oily television evangelist who promises prosperity for only the small donation or the gambler who seeks to have God deal her four aces. The intuitive revulsion we feel for such beliefs implies that some kinds of hypothetical desires are not permissible warrants for religious belief. But aren’t these simply the most direct expressions of the “many mansions in the sky” incentives sanctioned by the Bible and revered theologians? Christians are explicitly promised that if they believe, they “will reap bountifully.” But this promise returns us to the knowledge/faith divide. If I adopt a religious posture because I have read the research on its benefits to health, can I be said to be operating for reasons of belief or knowledge, of morality or utility? If I think of my religious faith as a kind of security blanket providing me with comfort and care in this life rather than a yearning for the creator in the next one, do I believe because of the truth of what I commit to or because I derive pragmatic benefits from my commitment? This question poses the problem stemming from the intentionality of religious belief: can it be called “faith” that moves us to immediate advantage, or would we call such calculable rewards something quite different? That question can surely be posed to those who regard religious commitment as a wager to outfox God, but it must be asked of all religious impulses. Seen in this light, a religious commitment made from fear of hell or hope of heaven is less a leap of faith than a kind of utilitarian calculation, a product paid for by a pragmatic set of behaviors. Does such a transaction differ in any way from any other purchase? Was Pascal right in thinking it a kind of wager, a bet laid in hope of profit?
If it is, if one believes in some set of moral principles because they settle discomfort, provide a sense of nostalgia or control over life’s vicissitudes, or even give hope of meeting loved ones in the next life. Such a “faith” becomes a metered response to uncertainty, no different from the kinds of judgments one makes in a thousand other such uncertain moments in everyday life, subject to all the temptations of pragmatic reasoning and inseparable from an ordinary hypothetical calculus (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). But this accounting must also be affected as all belief must be by ineffable desire, so the believer is unlikely to be the best judge of the power of these temptations even if she attempts a fastidious and honest appraisal of what serves her own interests. Even if she is steeped in faith and tries to ignore all the seductions of reward now and in the next life, how can she, when faith’s truths are uncompassed and her desire so strong? And to add to the difficulty, any honest doxastic venture will face the last temptation of hypotheticality. If the faith is true, it will yield these rewards and much more. So it seems morally permissible to hope for all the goods of faith as a consequence of a true moral commitment but not as its intention, which may be too fine a distinction for most persons to draw. But even if we cannot appraise its lure to our own faith commitment, we can surely agree in the abstract that such temptations cannot be the compass that guides faith even though the sacred books of all three Abrahamic religions stress that it can be (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts”).
It is possible to find permissible incentives to religious belief that are not hypothetical. For many believers, these benefits will seem pallid in the shadow of their need and the glare of their desire. These categorical goods are universal, benefiting all believers regardless of the content of their faith. What is more, they buttress both their beliefs and any compassed moral system they engage, though they spur commitments beyond justification and even entailment by reason.
We have a real incentive to respect the human dignity conferred by our preferential freedom (see “Needs and Rights“). In a deterministic reality, our felt freedom to choose goods is a striking anomaly. This freedom confers natural rights to all persons and demands the radical respect of others so that they may exercise the preferential freedom that is their sacred right (see “Natural and Political Rights“). What reason reveals to secular morality is directly comparable to a belief in human worth founded upon the speculative existence of the soul. Reason sees us as unique beings because we alone among all things feel free to choose, and belief sees us in the same light because we alone have the spark of the divine, a small share of the uncaused Cause. Very little effort is necessary then to link reason and belief in this intuition and to strengthen both in the connection. Other reinforcements emerge from it. Respecting human dignity cannot fail to engender a deeper respect for justice in moral reasoning. Thinking our efforts to create a just world is reflective of divine justice reinforces our dedication to equity. Sadly, religious history indicates this result is by no means certain, for “natural law” has been abused to warrant corrupt institutional authority and conservative privilege for a millennium. We do not have to subscribe to a conservative social order to find value in the order of things, for at the root of all religious belief is the simple hope that the cosmos is purposive and improvable rather than random, even if we are no closer to understanding it after we engage belief than we were before. This is not the hope of hypothetical reward but instead of a creation capable of responding to the best in our nature. It is the hope of the triumph of cosmos over chaos that reinforces our rational sense. Thinking in this vein leads us inevitably to feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving, and without a deity to receive these responses, where can we direct them? So one incentive to faith may be directly comparable to God’s intent in creating the universe we see around us: we overflow with love.
A categorical advantage of a different nature, one imparting a specific duty, also reveals itself through religious faith. It concerns an otherwise insoluble problem for our moral duties to individual strangers. While an understanding of the moral bullseye will clarify our separable duties to love and justice (see “The Moral Bullseye”), this vital distinction fails to guide those who are neither friends nor strangers. Our clear, public duty to justice defines our relationship with the interchangeable stranger with whom we interact at a distance in community and polity (see “Needs and Rights”:). And our clear private duty to those whom we love governs relationships with our intimates. Love definitionally requires seeking to assist the flourishing of our intimates. But these clear moral duties do not impart some obligation to those who are neither in the inner ring of our moral bullseye or in the outer ring. What moral duty do we have to acquaintances in our communities, persons who fall between our obligations to love and to justice? I have found religious commitment cracks open the inner ring of the bullseye to acquaintances. It predisposes me to a charitable invitation to friendship. Without belief, I could find no guidance in the moral bullseye on how to treat persons whose paths cross my own and whose needs are made known to me. And without putting to fine a point on this moral duty, we can agree that no religious belief is required for persons to commit to community, polity, equity, and all the real goods of a complete human life, but filling these complex responsibilities with divine purpose is a bulwark further sustaining our best moral efforts (see “What Is the Christian’s Moral Duty?“).
None of these addenda to secular morality is dispositive, but all may guide our commitment. If these incentives produce more hypothetical goods as consequence, if belief results in peace, hope, joy, and serenity, so much the better. But such rewards cannot be a moral inducement to belief.
Even if we can purify our desires to purely moral ones, suchinducements to moral religious belief are freighted with very dangerous temptations concerning what belief requires. For instance, our yearning might move us to an unreasoning credulity or literality about the duties involved in obeying a divine command. This lure is an extreme reaction to a rejection of venal hypothetical rewards, a purified disdain for the very real goods of this world in preference to a hypnotic obsession with visions of the next such as we can observe in flagellants and ascetics. But one immoral temptation of a purified moral disposition has always trumped all the others. It is the reckless ambition of the true believer. Religious belief yearns for confirmation, and believers of all stripes seem all too eager to force their religious vision on others or to condemn those who disagree. Their jealous sense of possession is such a threat to morality that it must be kept always in plain sight by those who commit. While it is likely that one religion is truer than all of the others, no living believer can know which one is. No amount of zeal, no grand total of adherents, and no springs of hope can move any believer in a truly permissible doxastic venture to claim superiority over another making a profession equally permissible to reason (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip“). All the favoritism, suppressions of heresy, anathemas, ostracisms, and simple tribal hatreds that believers direct at those who believe differently are morally bankrupt. They also pollute the beliefs zealots cling to so vociferously. It is fine to love what is yours because it is yours but wrong to hate another because they value what is theirs. This is as impermissible for beliefs as it is impossible for religious authorities to rectify, though it must be admitted that the social stakes are higher when authorities lose the trust that binds societies together. Perhaps the disdain for dissent that believers express is a reminder of the historical desperation institutional authorities have always felt as theocracies came unglued (see “The Victorian Rift”). But not only is the fanaticism of belief fundamentally different from theocracy, it is also unnecessary. Truly permissible beliefs are no threat to social comity because the values they inspire must always be private ones that must align with the knowledge accessible to all citizens and the public morality they consent to.
I must mention one further consequence of permissible religious belief that took me by surprise but that must remain invisible to hypothetical calculations of use that render belief impermissible. A sincere effort to derive any moral direction from truly permissible doxastic ventures is an exceedingly difficult and frustrating task. It rebuffs every unbiased effort, edging the decision always toward self-interested desires and the utility they appeal to, tempting pragmatism or fanaticism on the one hand, and disillusionment or apathy on the other. If one resists hypothetical advantage, she may simply find the issue too difficult for reason to arbitrate. The result is agnosticism: atheism masquerading as open-mindedness. Yet as one wanders down any of these paths, a small, needling spur to further consideration may continue to move her forward, a slight, insistent tug powered by moments of awe. Those converted by it will say of this sense that they are pursued by grace. But pursued to what venture? Something in the blankness of the answer ought to impress us for more than its frustrations. Reason directs our preferential freedom to satisfy all of our needs in experience, except this one (see “Needs Anchor Morality“). Awe is the only human need that is not conceptually available to a reasoning competence through examined experience. Like the aesthetic appreciation that so intimately accompanies religious worship — expressed so powerfully in religious music, art, and architecture — awe resists all applications of hypothetical utility. And like art, it is desirable for its own sake, an end in itself (see “Three Portraits”). As I have sought to show in this analysis, reasoning on our experience of awe, seeking to domesticate it to satisfy our desires, is sure to distort it. Mystics in all the major religious traditions seek awe, but once it is encountered, they find it can be neither conceptualized nor utilized for their common pursuits. Unlike our hypothetical calculations of utility, awe instills a desire that cannot be satisfied and that exists purely in and for itself, a self-evident good that exists for its own sake. Awe may be the threshold of the divine, the spur to faith, the momentary touch of God. Even if it is, the commitment to real faith is an obstacle course through the temptations of utility and metaphysical mystery, not to mention the diversions of pragmatic materialism. Why is the search for faith the single human need that reason cannot direct, that cannot be understood by pursuing knowledge and applying it to experience? We cannot find God by science or expertise. We cannot become more competent in religious faith through experience. We can only reject all the dead ends that experience leads us to. So why is this question of religious faith so unmoored from all other questions of value? Why is it so fundamentally different from the thousand preferential choices we make every day, decisions on what will serve our own interests, decisions our reason can arbitrate? Why must its answer remain always an unknown, open only to a leap and subject to the crosswinds of doubt and self-delusion? Why must it be so uncompassed, esoteric, and closed to dispassionate inquiry? By asking such questions, we may gradually come to a realization we could achieve by no other means but frustration, one that hypothetical beliefs must remain blind to. Like the felt preferential freedom that allows us to ask the question, the impossibility of finding an answer is itself a clue. The divine hiddenness that requires an uncompassed doxastic venture may be in itself a sign of the existence of God. It summons faith.