One of my jobs as a teacher of bright, mostly Catholic undergraduates is to get them thinking about why they hold their religious beliefs. It’s easy enough to spark discussion about the problem of evil (“Can you really read the newspaper every day and continue to believe in an all-perfect God?”) or about the diversity of religious beliefs (“If you’d been born in Saudi Arabia, don’t you think you’d be a Muslim?”). Inevitably, however, the discussion starts to fizzle when someone raises a hand and says (sometimes ardently, sometimes smugly) “But aren’t you forgetting about faith?”
That seems to be enough for most students. The trump card has been played, and they — or at least the many who find religion more a comfort than a burden — happily remember that believing means never having to explain why.
I myself, the product of a dozen years of intellectually self-confident Jesuit education, have little sympathy with the “it’s just faith” response. “How can you say that?” I reply. “You wouldn’t buy a used car just because you had faith in what the salesperson told you. Why would you take on faith far more important claims about your eternal salvation?” And, in fact, most of my students do see their faith not as an intellectually blind leap but as grounded in evidence and argument.
“Well, if there’s no God,” they say, “how can you explain why anything at all exists or why the world is governed by such precise laws of nature?”
At this point, the class perks up again as I lay out versions of the famous arguments for the existence of God, and my students begin to think that they’re about to get what their parents have paid for at a great Catholic university: some rigorous intellectual support for their faith.
Soon enough, however, things again fall apart, since our best efforts to construct arguments along the traditional lines face successive difficulties. The students realize that I’m not going to be able to give them a convincing proof, and I let them in on the dirty secret: philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any of the other “big questions” we’ve been discussing for 2500 years.
This seems to bring us back to where we started: “It’s all faith.” I, with my Jesuit-inspired confidence in reason and evidence, have always resisted this. But I have also felt the tug of my students’ conclusion that philosophy, although a good intellectual exercise and the source of tantalizing puzzles and paradoxes, has no real significance for religious faith.
Recently, however, I’ve realized a mistake in the way that I — and most of my professional colleagues — tend to think about philosophy and faith. (One of the great benefits of getting to teach philosophy to bright undergraduates is that it makes it easier to think outside the constraints of current professional assumptions.) The standard view is that philosophers’ disagreements over arguments about God make their views irrelevant to the faith of ordinary believers and non-believers. The claim seems obvious: if we professionals can’t agree among ourselves, what can we have to offer to non-professionals? An appeal to experts requires consensus among those experts, which philosophers don’t have.
This line of thought ignores the fact that when philosophers disagree it is only about specific aspects of the most subtle and sophisticated versions of arguments for and against God’s existence (for example, my colleague Alvin Plantinga’s modal-logic formulation of St. Anselm’s ontological argument or William Rowe’s complex version of a probabilistic argument from evil). There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals. Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus.
In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case. This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.
This conclusion should particularly discomfit popular proponents of atheism, such as Richard Dawkins, whose position is entirely based on demonstrably faulty arguments. Believers, of course, can fall back on the logically less rigorous support that they characterize as faith. But then they need to reflect on just what sort of support faith can give to religious belief. How are my students’ warm feelings of certainty as they hug one another at Sunday Mass in their dorm really any different from the trust they might experience while under the spell of a really plausible salesperson?
An answer may lie in work by philosophers as different as David Hume, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Alvin Plantinga. In various ways, they have shown that everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life. Such beliefs simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world. Plantinga in particular has argued that core religious beliefs can have a status similar to these basic but unproven beliefs. His argument has clear plausibility for some sorts of religious beliefs. Through experiences of, for example, natural beauty, moral obligation, or loving and being loved, we may develop an abiding sense of the reality of an extraordinarily good and powerful being who cares about us. Who is to say that such experiences do not give reason for belief in God as much as parallel (though different) experiences give reason for belief in reliable knowledge of the past and future and of other human minds? There is still room for philosophical disputes about this line of thought, but it remains the most plausible starting point of a philosophical case for religious belief.
But this defense of faith faces a steep hurdle. Although it may support generic religious claims about a good and powerful being who cares for us, it is very hard to see it sustaining the specific and robust claims of Judaism, Christianity and Islam about how God is concretely and continually involved in our existence. God is said to be not just good and powerful but morally perfect and omnipotent, a sure ultimate safeguard against any evil that might threaten us. He not only cares about us but has set up precise moral norms and liturgical practices that we must follow to ensure our eternal salvation. Without such specificity, religion lacks the exhilarating and terrifying possibilities that have made it such a powerful force in human history.
But how can religious experience sustain faith in a specific salvation narrative, particularly given the stark differences among the accounts of the great religious traditions? What sort of religious experience could support the claim that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and not just a great moral teacher? Or that the Bible rather than the Koran is the revelation of God’s own words? Believers may have strong feelings of certainty, but each religion rejects the certainty of all the others, which leaves us asking why they privilege their own faith.
I am not saying that religious believers are in principle incapable of finding satisfactory answers to such questions. I am saying that philosophy and religion can and must speak to each other, and that those who take their beliefs seriously need to reflect on these questions, and that contemporary philosophical discussions (following on Hume and Wittgenstein) about knowledge, belief, certainty and disagreement are highly relevant to such reflection — and potentially, to an individual’s belief. This is what I will try to convey to my students the next time I teach introductory philosophy of religion.
Gary Gutting teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and co-edits Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, an on-line book review journal. His most recent book is “What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy.”