No Choice in Faith: Case for the Defense

The question before us is whether belief in God is voluntary or involuntary. Here are the errors in the Freethinker argument proposing that belief is involuntary:

The same word “faith” can refer to various different objects, some of them opposite each other. To speak of belief and faith without defining the terms is to speak a verbal Rorschach-blot, where each reader reads into the word his own meaning. It is to risk speaking nonsense.

Faith, here, means placing trust, despite irrational fears or irrational doubts, in the conclusions reached by wisdom and reason, or in an eyewitness or an authority trusted for other reasons.

It behooves a man who sets out to prove a point also to say what he does not intend to prove.

Faith is not offered as a substitute or an alternative for reason and experience. Those who claim that faith is belief beyond reason and doubt, or that faith lies outside the realm of logic and evidence, are uttering something sharply against historical Christian teaching.

To be sure, there are Christians of other denominations who hold that faith is not faithfulness to a known truth, but is instead the mechanism by which the unknown becomes known, a mechanism separate from and independent of reason and experience and perhaps superior to reason and experience. This position, known as ‘fidelism’ is a teaching explicitly condemned by the Church as a heresy.

Here is the official teaching of the Catholic Church:

Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty.

For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation.

The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin.

So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, ss. 37.

Armed with his teaching, we can now define what role faith plays, at least so far as this present argument is concerned.

Human reason, by its own natural power, that is, without divine aid, can indeed deduce the existence of the divine being and deduce some (by no means all) of his attributes:

  • that He is one god and not many gods (as polytheism holds);
  • that He is personal rather than an impersonal force (as pantheism holds);
  • that He is providential rather than indifferent (as deism holds);
  • and He legislated what is called the natural law, that is, the imperatives binding on man of the moral order of the cosmos; this moral order is not personal, not cultural, and not subjective (as modernism holds).

This last point contradicts all modern heresies of Freud, of Hegel, of Marx, Nietzsche, of Sartre, or countless others holding that morality is a matter of and only of the internalization of societal indoctrination, or of an ever-changing evolutionary category, or of historically specific material circumstance, or of self-will, or of arbitrary personal choice.

The modern heresy of neomarxism, which dismisses the moral order as a manmade deception meant to oppress the weak is also contradicted by he findings of reason; likewise for the heresy of postmodernism, which dismisses the moral order or as one arbitrary interpretation of the world order among infinite equally viable interpretations.

(These are correctly called heresies because they are not merely philosophical; they are theological, taking one element of Christian teaching out of context in order to use an alleged conflict with some element of Christian teaching to denounce it.)

The point here is not whether the arguments for the existence of a single, personal, providential and absolute God are or are not persuasive. That is a discussion for another day.

The relevant point is that these arguments are arguments, that is, they make an appeal to reason, whether or not the appeal is successful, not an appeal to faith.

The same kind of reasoning whereby a man supports the proposition, for example, that cause and effect is real is the kind that supports the proposition that the uncaused First Cause is real.

These are rationalistic and philosophical arguments, and could be uttered by anyone regardless of who he is.

The test is this: if a man from Mars parachuted down from a far world and uttered the selfsame argument for or against bimetallism or the Caledonian War, and the argument was not one whit more or less persuasive, then the argument does not rest on the speaker’s trustworthiness as an authority or expert or eyewitness.

So here: the metaphysical Argument from No Infinite Regress for the Uncaused First Cause is the same, persuasive or not on its own terms, whether uttered by Anselm, Aquinas, or Dejah Thoris of Mars.

Other parts of the Christian teaching, it is true, such as, for example, the life and acts, death and resurrection of Christ, the particulars of when he lived and what he said, cannot be deduced by philosophical reasoning.  These rest on eyewitness accounts, and  historical reasoning, and the authority of the apostles to teach apostolic teaching.

Doubts on these points cannot be countered by philosophers, but must be countered, if at all, by lawyers and historians, for the arguments on these points are legal or historical. Arguments on these points concern the reliability of witnesses, or the authority of apostles, or the chain of custody of historical documents.

Pardon me if I dwell on this point, but the counter argument of any village atheist rests entirely on a confusion of terms which it is easy enough to dispel, if we take the time.

If the argument for or against the existence of God, as said, are matters within the bailiwick of human reason, then such arguments do not demand you place trust in anything other than your own powers of reasoning. No one is asked to take them on faith.

Contrast this to an eyewitness who asks you to place more trust in his testimony than in your opinion touching what he saw on the grounds that he was present at the scene and you were not.

He asks you to trust him because he saw what you were not in a position to see.

Contrast this to an expert witness who asks you to place more trust in his testimony than in your opinion touching his particular field of esoteric study on the grounds that he can produce credentials showing his greater familiarity with it than yours.

He asks you to trust him because he has studied some technical discipline, such as law or medicine, too esoteric for the common sense of the common man to know.

Contrast this with a father who need not explain his reasoning to his child because of his natural authority over the child, who are not, at least among mammals, born fully wise and able to care for themselves.

The child, when young, has no choice but to trust his parents, and, as he grows, only slowly gains the experience needed to make judgments about trustworthiness.

Contrast this with a king, an elder, a commanding officer, an employer, or a superior, who need not explain his orders to a subject,  a subordinate or an employee, if and when the superior is acting within the scope of his duties, because and solely because the inferior is bound by law, custom, oath or contract to obey.

These are cases where for various reasons, a moral obligation to keep faith with one’s superiors exists. It may be that, in some cases, an abuse of the trust placed in the superior can relax or even abolish the covenant binding the inferior to obedience, whereupon the moral obligation to obey that superior under those conditions is overridden by a deeper moral obligation.

There may be other cases, but these four cases give reasonable cause for taking a man on faith: an eyewitness, an expert, a natural authority, a manmade authority. In each case, if cause should arise for reasonable doubt, each must produce some credential to support his claim to be an authority.

An eyewitness can be called upon to prove he was at the time and place alleged, and that he has no ulterior motive to testify, and that his reputation for truthfulness among those who know him is good.

An expert can be called upon to show his years of study, or his reputation among his peers in the field.

A father can call upon the mother to testify that the child was born in lawful wedlock.

The various forms of other authority depend on the form of authorization: the king being crowned, the soldier taking the king’s coin, the employee entering into a contract written or unwritten, the apprentice or servant being bound to his master by proper exchange of oaths or signs.

If a man approaches you and argues for or against, let us say, bimetallism or the Caledonian War  or any other proposition, if he does not ask you to accept him as an expert or eyewitness, and he is not commanding you to believe him on his authority as king, father or master, then he is making an appeal to reason, whether that appeal is successful or no.

So, then: we have more than one category of the basic Christian teaching:

One is that God exists, and has certain basic attributes of unity, personality, providence, and morality. These things are matters of reason.

Pagan philosophers can reach these conclusions by dint of unaided human reason, and some have.

The second category concerns historical teachings: whether Christ lived or not, died or not, rose from the dead or not, or whether he said and claimed the things he is said to have said and claimed.

This, again, rests on human reason no less than belief in other historical events, such as whether Caesar crossed the Rubicon, or Washington crossed the Delaware, whether Socrates died by hemlock, or Aeschylus died by turtle.

The miracle of the Dancing Sun of Fatima was witnessed by an estimated 60,000 people, and it happened in the modern day in a civilized nation.  To compare, Ford’s theater seated 600 people or so. The number of eyewitnesses who saw John Wilkes Booth shoot Lincoln and jump to the stage to flee cannot exceed that number. Whether one believes or doubts is a matter of historical  reasoning, for the argument turns on the credibility of the eyewitnesses.

Of course, if one has a philosophical argument turning on abstract first principles purporting to show that miracles never happen because they cannot happen or presidents are never assassinated because they cannot be assassinated, this argument is an appeal to abstract reasoning, and would fall in the first category again.

Beyond this is a third part: whether one believes what Christ said of himself and of other things, including things clearly beyond human knowledge, or, for that matter, whether one believes what prophets and patriarchs allegedly heard and learned from God, and reported. This third type is what we Christians call revelation, because it concerns matters revealed to mortals which we, by no power of our own, would or could ever witness or deduce.

I hope I am forgiven the length of this explanation, but the counter argument depends entirely on mixing and conflating these three separate categories of belief, faith, and reasoning.

With these distinctions firmly in mind, we can answer the arguments raised proposing that faith in God is involuntary.

First, the matter is not like telling a man it is midnight at noon. The argument concerns the unseen order of being which is, by definition, outside the range of man’s senses. More to the point, the arguments about these unseen things have visible implications for the man and his life and the way he lives it which any normal man would normally find an imposition, and some would find an appalling imposition, and an intellectual would find intolerable utterly.

For the intellectual, upon discovering God exists and discovering that God imposes absolute moral imperatives upon creation, finds himself no longer the highest sovereign being in the cosmos. Any intellectual who heeds the argument honestly finds himself called upon to eschew resentment, hatred, fornication and pederasty and the other primary pastimes and addictions of intellectuals throughout history: and most would rather die than surrender their paramours, adulteries, and catamites. (I am thinking in particular of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Arthur C. Clarke). So they confront the proofs of God either dishonestly or not at all.

So while it is true that a man cannot, by a naked act of will, choose to believe it midnight when his eyes see the noonday sun, nonetheless it is also true that he can choose to ignore arguments about unseen things leading to conclusions he dislikes. He can also choose to invent doubts without justification, or adhere to flimsy or fallacious arguments for a variety of emotional or unseemly reasons, once he abandons his intellectual integrity.

A better analogy than a man at noon telling himself to believe it is midnight is a man eager to cheat on his wife, and to justify that cheating by telling himself she no longer loves him. The love in her soul is part of the unseen order of being. Outward shows and signs of love are visible to the eye, but the love itself is not: and outward shows can be faked by convincing playacting.

Distinguishing between the trustworthy and untrustworthy indirect signs of unseen love in a spouse a man is eager, in his own turn, to betray is not like the case of the sun at noon. Here a man does have a choice, because he decides either to be careful and honest with his reasoning, or to be lax and negligent. In a case where his temptation is so strong, and the matters being weighed are so imponderable, the decision to let his honesty in reasoning slip away is not a deliberate nor obvious thing.

It is negligence. By definition, negligence is never deliberate: it is neglect of a duty one could and should have minded.

It is like drifting off to sleep. You do not remember deciding to close your eyes, and you told yourself you meant to get up and get a cup of coffee in a few moments, but right now the couch is very comfy, so …

So nearly all points raised in the argument that belief is involuntary are moot, since they are based on a lack of definition of what faith is, a lack of distinction between (1) abstract reasoning, (2) historical witnesses and evidence, (3) trusting an authority and (4) divine revelation.

(1) abstract reasoning makes no claim on man’s faith, aside from fidelity to the duty we call intellectual integrity. We Christian believe that intellectual integrity of all men, ourselves included, is under attack by powerful temptations and by unreasonable fears issuing from the world, the flesh, or the devil, that is from peer pressure, from irrational passions, or from the unseen order. Faith in this case is fidelity to reason when reason is assailed by irrational doubts.

More to the point, reason has no power to combat irrational doubt. Reason only can fight bad reasoning. Only good emotions and passions can drive out bad emotions and passions. Only the Holy Spirit can restore a man to himself when he is in bad spirits, or oppressed by evil spirits.

The gift of having the Holy Spirit at hand to combat irrational doubts and fears is what we call faith in this case. The word merely means fidelity, maintaining a relationship of trust with something or someone (in this case, fidelity to the conclusions of pure reason) whom one has some independent and sound reason to trust. (In this case, we trust our reason, because to mistrust reason paralyzes the reason.)

So, this is a matter that is voluntary: a man as a philosopher decides whether or not to accept the authority of reason. He decides whether to reason honestly.

(2) The trustworthiness of historical evidence, such as ancient documents, and eyewitnesses, such as the Gospel writers, is not different from the trustworthiness used in other historical events or testimonies. One studies the chain of custody, the deviations regarded other copies of the document, and any surrounding independent archaeological evidence, supporting or contrary witnesses, and so on. Faith here is a matter of common sense and common experience: you ask yourself whether the matter attested, first, coheres with itself, and second, coheres with your experience, particularly any experience tending to act as an indication of trustworthiness.

It is a matter of judgment, not of strict logic,  if one decides not to trust someone with an ulterior motive for lying, or, contrariwise, if a man will die under torture rather than recant his statement, this is a good indication, but not a logical necessity, that he speaks without deceptive intent. Perfect certainty is not available in such cases, but, then again, every jury that ever sat decided guilty or innocence based on such arguments of common sense and common experience.

This is also a voluntary matter: a man as a juror decides, based on common sense and best historical evidence, whether the evidence is weighty enough to convince a reasonable man. Then, as  a separate and deeper decision, he decided whether he himself will be that reasonable man.

(3) There are cases where someone in natural authority have the right to compel belief. You father asks you to take him on faith about some matter where he knows and you do not, because you are a child, foolish and lacking in pertinent experience.

This situation arises most notably when a father is instructing a child in some chore requiring mindfulness, or involving risk. When I teach my teen-aged son how to drive, as a father I am in my rights not merely to ask him to buckle his safety belt when seating himself at the steering wheel, but to believe that the safety belt greatly increasing his chance of surviving a car crash, and moreover to believe that the fear of safety belts trapping drivers in burning cars so as to hinder their escape is a nonsensical fear.

That is to say, as his father, I have the right not merely to ask him to act an act, but to believe a belief, without which motoring is unsafe.

If your father has not abused his paternal authority, that is, betrayed you many times in the past, the command is legitimate.

Please note that a teacher, or guru, a priest or employer or king may also, from time to time and in the field of his authority, also have the right to command belief and to command fidelity. The difference is that paternal authority is natural, and these other things depend on a grant of authority according to proper forms, such as enrollment in a school or temple, confirmation in a congregation, an employment contract or oath of fealty.

This is a voluntary matter.

This is also the sole case mentioned previously of bribing a man with silver coin or threatening him with iron blade to believe what he is commanded to believe. A father has a natural authority to punish disobedience in children, including a lack of faithfulness in carrying out natural or assigned duties, including a duty to believe what an authority lawfully tells you to believe. Other superiors have an artificial or manmade authority that covers similar cases.

If the legislature of Indiana commands its citizens to believe that pi is equal to three, or if Big Brother commands his subjects to believe that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, this is an abuse of authority, and the moral obligation to obey truth first and foremost overrules any obligation to obey the abusive authority. But if a drill sergeant commands his recruits to believe in the Corps in order to maintain morale and unit cohesion, this is a lawful order.

The punishment or bribe in such cases is for the disobedience to a lawful order. It is not a case where the punishment is meant to persuade the inferior to believe what he doubts. It is meant to punish those doubts if and when they spring from unlawful stubbornness and disobedience.

(4) Matter where a prophet or messiah alleges that he speaks for God are to be judged in part like other historical or eyewitness matters, and in part like a matter of paternal authority.

If the prophet has not yet produced his credentials to show that he is indeed a true prophet, actually speaking for God, such as by producing signs and wonders as sign of divine authority, or such as producing a record of previous prophecies proved true and accurate, then the claims of the alleged prophet are to be judged as any other eyewitness who has yet to prove that he was present at the time and place he claims, or any other expert witness who has yet to prove he has studied the discipline he claims.

However, once, for other reasons, you are convinced that there is a God, and that God has the various properties ascribed to Him, and that God does act in history and if it does not defy reason that God is acting now; and once the prophet has produced credentials to show he has authority granted by God to speak God’s words, at that point and only at that point do you fall under the obligation to heed and obey God’s command.

This include if God tells you something He is in a position to know and you are not, which He asks you to believe, and He asks you not to call Him a liar, and quell your unjustified doubts.

One credential to be demanded from any prophet, of course, is that he cannot contradict a prophet one already credits. God being one and not many, it is impossible He contradict Himself. If two messages cannot logically issue from the same monarch, and one messenger admits and teaches that another, earlier, messenger is true and credible, the later messenger impeaches himself. Likewise for prophets, who are messenger of God. The teachings of Mohammed and the Mormons can be impeached on these grounds.

God’s own authority is like that of a father, but more so, since God is also the creator of men, and the legislator of the moral law of the universe. His superhuman power gives him the same authority man has over beasts: namely, that we are in no position to resist. His superhuman wisdom give him the same authority a teacher has over a student or a master over a disciple. As our Creator, his authority is the same as what Shakespeare exercises over Hamlet. He moreover has the natural authority of a father over his children, and in the sacrifice of Christ, the authority a leader earns by his self sacrifice for his subjects.

The other arguments proposing that belief is involuntary are quickly refuted.

No one is asking a man to want to believe something, nor to believe something merely because he wants to. He is being asked to trust his reason, or trust evidence and witnesses, trust his common sense understanding, or trust an authority who has the rightful authority to command trust.

No part of this relies of a type of reasoning different from or inferior to the three types of reasoning (abstract reasoning, common wisdom, and empirical reasoning) we use for all matters, scientific, legal, economic, political, ethical, aesthetic, and so on, and when we make personal decisions of any kind.

We use logic for abstract matters, we use empirical reason for matters within range of our senses, we trust eyewitnesses who have proved themselves trustworthy, we believe evidence once the evidence is proved sound, and we believe messages, letters, books, testaments, and banknotes are legitimate when we have reason to think them sound or no reason to believe them forged.

The idea that Christians, or any normal person, thinks to question authority is evil is not merely false, but absurd. It is the kind of statement only uttered by atheists and only used in conversations of this type, meant to cast a false light on one’s opponent.

This is the trick of merely asserting that opposition to your proposition is based on cowardice, bad faith, or lack of intelligence or imagination. It is an ad hominem argument. Such argument is used, ironical, only by people acting in bad faith, too cowardly to answer a real opponent, too stupid to invent a real counter argument, or too dull to imagine one.

No one who has read the Book of Job believes that Jews or Christians preach or teach that one must not question authority. What we do and what atheists do not do is listen to the answers to the questions.

Christians, any everyone else, including freethinkers, thinks that one must obey authority when it is legitimate and within its proper scope, including authorities commanding belief. By way of example, every single freethinker I personally know, as if with one voice, told me this week that I must not call certain headlines Fake News, on the grounds that to do so would undermine public faith in the mainstream media, without which (or so my freethinker friends solemnly assured me) a democratic form of government cannot exist. They they are willing to cede to proven liars and paid political hacks the credulity I cede to a man who can rise from the dead if quaint, and should be discussed or more length at another time.

For now, it is sufficient to note that even those who make the argument that belief in God must be involuntary because belief cannot be compelled by threats, in areas such this, when beliefs are needed to preserve the social order, make threats to compel belief.

The argument that Christians cannot call for skeptics to examine Christian claims unless and until Christians examine all other claims of all other religions is irrelevant. No one of any religion, and, indeed, no one of any belief of any kind whatsoever, can argue or does argue that one must believe his proposals on the grounds that the opposite proposals are also true. The argument assumes that Christians ask men to believe in Christ on blind faith in the same way and for no better reason than Athenians ask men to believe in Athena. Pagan cult asks for belief on the grounds that tradition and patriotism uphold faith in the local gods, and the song of poets celebrate them. But pagan philosophers, who never hear any whisper of Christ, quite independently, examine the credentials of the pagan traditions and find them unconvincing. See the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Proclus, Lucretius and the Stoics.

In any case, reason when not led astray by sin or self deception leads to a conclusion that God exists, but rejects polytheism, pantheism, deism, or moral relativism. I would also place fidelism and quietism in the category of doctrine unaided human reason can detect are false.

Hence, unlike the Christian teachings, the claims of pagan religions, oriental sages and mystics, the heresy of Mohammed or Thomas Paine, cannot survive the examination of cold reason.

Again, no one is asking anyone to adopt beliefs because they fill some human craving for justice or eternal life or whatnot; nor would a belief adopted for this reason be honest. Another strawman argument.

The various paradoxes and mysteries that surround the nature of God are neither here nor there. They do not make belief in God impossible or even improbable, but neither do they make belief in God more likely, if the belief is honest. A child who trust his father, or a hound who trusts his master, offers love and loyalty to a being whose mind he cannot fully comprehend, and whose actions the childish or canine mind regards as paradox. This is not due to self contradiction in the man, but lack of experience, wisdom, and capacity in the inferior.

The apparent paradoxes are apparent, not real. They arise from the limitations of human speech, and disappear once one speaks with the requisite precision of a scientist, lawyer, or theologian.

In any case, the test for any mystery of the faith is not whether any human understands it (none do) but whether, by the light of this sun too bright to be looked upon, we can look upon all things on Earth and understand them.

For example, if we say the doctrine of Original Sin contains paradox, either because a careful and caring God wold have fenced off the poisonous apple tree, or not made Eve a Parselmouth, or not made Adam able to be tempted to sin, we will be dazzled and crosseyed. But if we accept that doctrine as a given, we can then look at all men, kings and beggars alike, and see that while kings or beggars can be as saintly as St. Louis or St. Francis, they all start as sinners no better than we. This gives us the Christian virtue of being able to salute the king without worshiping him as a divine Caesar or divine Brahmin or divine Fuehrer,  and to bless the poor as our brothers.

Without this doctrine, the choices are, first, the placid misery of Oriental mysticism, despotism, including despotic rule by mandarins or by a caste system, or, second, the genocidal brutality of modern ideologues who blame man’s failings on man’s institutions, and seek heaven on earth by obliteration of whole classes and populations.

The argument than an incomprehensible and invisible being cannot be deduced nor seen by experience is fallacious. Merely because the totality of such a being cannot be comprehended by finite men, does not mean that his existence and his various properties are outside the range of unaided human reason. That he is invisible does not mean he cannot produce visible effects, such as the whole universe, which is available to our senses. From seeing stars, and seeing their sublime beauty which humbles our hearts with awe, we deduce the star-maker.