Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?

To address the question of whether our religious beliefs pass muster as true knowledge requires us to dismiss issues of authority as justification. Should one accept an article of faith because of some external source– holy books, dogmas, traditions, or culture– that subscription must be distinguished from a private belief rooted in revelation, insight, or intuition. I make no judgments here on validity by drawing this 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 tradition was transmitted to postmodernists who regard authority itself as an act of aggression, though at this point if not earlier we are no longer discussing a religious preference. We return to it with the central perspectival question: what makes you think your own belief true? 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 belief must claim to be knowledge. But of what kind?

It certainly seems to be truth claims like all others. It is stated as a declaration. It argues for a truth. Even more dangerously, it uses that same warrant to argue for goodness, and not just utility or some consensual species of goodness but the tough one: moral goodness (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“). But in advancing that claim, surely it violates the essential difference between knowledge and belief: we arrive at knowledge by a dispassionate reasoning about the issue, not by the prejudicial commitment that characterizes belief. These 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.

I am certainly not denying all connection between belief and knowledge though. It is true that we are not required to believe what we know because of issues of emotional attachment versus judgment. I know the Pythagorean theorem is true. I hardly need or wish to believe it. But 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 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 reasoned experience as evidentiary support for knowledge that there is or is not a deity. As I have argued before (“Must Religion Retreat?“, “Religion and Truth”  and “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“), this is hardly a coherence issue. The definition of a deity requires that your God be my God too.  No issue could be more clearly correspondence since here is a truth discoverable by 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 our common reality] (see “What Counts as Justification?“).Of the correspondence proofs of judgment, authority held the field until its spectacular collapse in the Protestant Reformation. Though it still exercises power over belief, it is impotent in contributing to our knowledge on this issue because religious authorities disagree on the nature of the deities they worship, and in the issue of authority as justification, disagreement shatters authority. Empiricism cannot work its magic on this question either, despite the efforts of a current crop of cosmologists, and though one can be an expert on theology as a discipline of study, one cannot apply expertise to the core questions of theology. We are all on our own on this most important of questions.

So how do we decide? The analogy to the courtroom serves us in this question, for there seems good reason to judge either position true. The rational arguments in favor, both cosmological and ontological, are easily accessible, but the scales seem fairly well balanced by the problem of evil. 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 must be resolved by two weaker warrants of knowledge. The first is the weakest correspondence proof of judgment, undifferentiated experience. We claim or deny knowledge of a deity simply because our own experiences are all we have available to form our decision.

But if we are reduced to using this least powerful correspondence test of judgment to resolve this most powerful issue, we still must act. As William James says, in the absence of real knowledge to answer this question, we cannot refuse to decide. 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 fideism 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. 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 it 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. 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. This situation confirms St. Paul’s definition of faith: “the evidence of things not seen.” What do we call “evidence” not provided by the senses? David Hume would call it belief. Believers call it faith. Unbelievers call it delusion, yet this too is what they want to believe rather than what they know.

It is possible to prefer beliefs to knowledge even of ordinary experience, though most persons would consider that choice delusional.  Some  are so enamored of their beliefs that they allow them to dominate and and even negate even their ordinary knowledge of undifferentiated experience. An obvious example would be the snake handling proofs of faith practiced by some fundamentalist Christian sects. Another example would be the denial of the dominant paradigm of the biological sciences, the theory of evolution by natural selection, while partaking of the products of the medical sciences whose work is deeply indebted to and interwoven with that theory.

On the other hand, there is a respected tradition in theology that argues belief to be in opposition to reason, or at least to commonsense 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. The believer’s responsibility depends on which view she accepts. 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.

It is worth asking if these or other kinds of belief ever shape knowledge. The answer to that question differs.

To a modernist schooled in correspondence and reliant on the kinds of proof of judgment correspondence requires, the answer is “no.” She considers herself a hard-headed realist who employs universal reasoning about private experience to glean intersubjective, even objective, truths about reality. She accepts beliefs as the penumbra of probabilities that lie in the shadow of her reasoning and beyond the limits of her knowledge. She may believe in UFO’s or miracles, but only because she deems them not to be impossible, and she inspects her beliefs periodically in light of new knowledge to see if they have been supported or changed by better evidence or improved reasoning. She will conform her beliefs to that reasoning, recognizing that they are composed more of hope than knowledge and so must not be asked to support more than their substance will bear.

Her view seems arrogant to the traditionalist believer, the premodernist, who considers authority a sufficient warrant for correspondentist knowledge. She does not consider herself a fideist but regards whatever authority she trusts as the guarantor of the beliefs she accepts. She therefore regards the truth and goodness claims of her authority as warranted knowledge that she may then incorporate into her other judgments to form an intelligible picture of reality. But this integration is unlike the ordinary operations that mark her efforts to build a virtuous circle, an accurate view of reality. She will read an article citing an empirical study of headache remedies and object to its findings on the grounds that some recommended pain reliever did her own headaches little good. This objection disputes neither the empirical results nor her own experience because an inseparable element of laboratory analysis is the existence of statistical outliers that dispute general conclusions, and she will assume herself one. The rational inspection of the correspondence warrants of undifferentiated experience and empiricism reconciles the two routes to knowledge without rancor. The case must be different in the case of a similar disagreement between authority and other correspondence truth tests (see “What Counts as Justification?“). Trust in authority is an either/or. This quality forcefully strikes the reader of Thomas Aquinas, for in the Summa he uses the support of Church fathers with precisely the same confidence as the most rigorous logical arguments. His belief in the truth of their words is more absolute than in the operation of his own reasoning, and he makes clear that in cases of conflict, that trust must supersede his own judgment. To do otherwise, to subject his trust to rational inspection, would also subject it to all the vagaries of his own experience and reasoning, and must reduce its reliability in his eyes (to be clear, since he is making a correspondentist claim, he expects it to have the same effect on everyone else).  To accept authority is to take reasoning off the table, at least as a means of verification of the trust that supports the authority’s claims to truth and goodness. Alternatively, to subject an authority to the operation of reason is to reject the trust that is authority’s only buttress and to appropriate the truth claim to the moral agency of the thinker. In a global sense, it was this very relocation of agency that marked the end of premodernism and the birth of modernism in the seventeenth century (see “Modernism’s Midwives“). Such an act is irrevocable even should the thinker wish to resubmit to authority, for the locus of judgment has now shifted to her own reasoning and away from the unquestioning trust that had motivated an earlier submission to authority. This is the either/or of authority versus other sources of correspondence knowledge.  The source of knowledge in either case has always claimed to be universal and correspondentist, though, so the relocation of agency may not be clearly acknowledged, though one might hope the diminishment of certainty would be.

Since World War I, a strong and consistent argument has arisen that says all knowledge claims are based on private beliefs. Postmodernism, bases its position firmly on the uniqueness of experience built upon a philosophical movement called phenomenalism that claims we can never achieve objectivity, this the result of the perceptual filters through which we receive sense data about reality and the idiosyncratic reasoning that sense data produces. While modernists weigh evidence and reasoning, postmodernists see both as so personally constructed, so biased by personal experience, culture, race, gender, or religion as to constitute a constructed reality in which perception, reasoning, emotion, imagination, and beliefs all stake their claims with equal persuasiveness (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). The arbitration of these supplicants for acceptance 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. Since the level of logical rigor involved is one of the issues to be arbitrated, we can expect and do see wide variability in the virtual circles of those who embrace postmodern thinking. 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.


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