Knowledge and belief

Mark Mercer, Chairman of the philosophy department at St. Mary’s University, lets us all know how superior he feels to the religious impulse today in today’s Ottawa Citizen.

He tells us that religion is horrid because:

First, because a person can have no good reason of evidence or argument for holding a religious belief, a person cannot hold religious beliefs except on faith, that is, in violation of his or her standards of belief worthiness. Religion is horrid, then, because it depends on and encourages self-deception, wishful believing, and contempt for evidence.

Immediately, one can see there are two errors in this statement. The first is his assumption of error on the part of those who believe in unprovable propositions, such as, there is a God. He states: Because – by his definition – “a person can have no good reason of evidence or argument for holding a religious belief”,  there can be no good argument for holding a belief except on faith. This is the assertion of precisely what he needs to prove, it seems to me. Petitio principi – begging the question – is to assume the truth of what one argues.

Second, faith is not a violation of belief-worthiness. It is an essential element of belief-worthiness. If I did not have to believe something, faith would be superfluous. Faith and belief in this sense are the same things.

Consider this:

I do not believe in the law of gravity. I do not have to. I know it. If I jump off a window, I know that gravity will draw me down to the earth at an increasing rate.

Believing in the law of gravity is superfluous.

If, by contrast, I believe you will show up at lunch today despite the fact you had to drive a hundred miles to get to town, then the use of the word believe is appropriate. I do not know that you will show  up; I believe you will based on my knowledge of your character and history with me.

Belief is different from knowledge; they are different acts or states. I amtempted to add that belief is an act of the soul, knowledge of the mind. But since, on materialist grounds, we have no souls, that is an argument for another place.

Maybe saints know God. For the rest of us, belief will have to suffice. Any God whose existence could be proven to the satisfaction of materialist doctrinaires would be unworthy of belief.

Second, religion involves, perhaps necessarily involves, self-abasement. In worshipping something, a person assumes an attitude of inferiority to the object of worship — not just inferiority of talents, but inferiority in worth, inferiority as a person.

If a transcendent divine power governs this universe, it would be no diminishment of my ego to acknowledge its superiority to me. I am not diminished, I am enhanced, and this has always been a well spring of religion: to partake in something greater than ourselves by acknowledging its greatness.

Third, religion involves the attitude that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. (This must be the best possible world, as it is God’s handiwork.) Thus, everything happens for a reason, including suffering and sorrow, and is ultimately justified by its reason. But to take this attitude (again, against the evidence one has) is to be contemptuous of actual suffering and sorrow.

Not all religions take this attitide, but leave that aside. Volumes could be written about the problem of evil. The Book of Job is a good start. Of all the things one might say about the problem of evil, one of the stupidest I have ever heard is that believers are compelled to be contemptuous of actual suffering and sorrow. They are as mystified as anyone else, but they are not contemptuous. Perhaps our professor friend is attributing to believers what he feels himself.

Much of reductive materialist philosophy partakes of this sophomoric superiority to the concerns and feelings of ordinary humans, including the religious impulse, but so much also partakes of this second-rate thinking dressed up as deep thought. Christmas brings them out, like zombies from the grave.