Friday, March 23, 2007

Graham on Christendom and Modernity

'Christendom, an expert on the topic lamented on CBC the other night, is in decline in the West. Apparently "Modernity" is to blame. The Pope probably agrees. Though I'm not sure what Modernity includes, the advancement of science, technology, literacy, higher education; the greater awareness for cultural diversity; the greater appreciation of the value of tolerance; and so on, are probably all a part of the overall package. And these things might all lead to a decline in Christendom because Christendom thrives on a lack of awareness or understanding of how science reveals the nature of things and how technology works; lower rates of literacy and higher education; a lack of appreciation for cultural and religious diversity; and a certain degree of intolerance of difference. "Modernity" may make its citizens more aware of alternative explanations of religious belief, explanations that don't require the positing of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, all-present, creator and sustainer of all things who acted in the world through his one and only Son in order to save us all from our sins. Perhaps religious belief is simply due to culture and upbringing, or evolution, or driven by various psychological needs, or something else altogether. "Reason" no longer seems to assist "Faith" the way it once did.'
- Peter Graham, reviewing Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's Moral Skepticisms for NDPR.

13 comments:

Samuel said...

More choice leaves less space for any given choice, and more comfort and safety can leave less felt need for God. This may be part of why Christianity has thrived in some places where it is repressed.

Virtualprimate said...

What follows is a blurb I wrote 'On faith' which seems related to this post, so I figured I'd share.
I have posted this elsewhere on the World Wide Web and much to my surprise and disbelief I received a response from Catholic Seminarians from the Vatican See.
The empirical argument they provided didn't seem to adequately support a relation between faith and knowledge...

To demand faith is to demand ignorance.
To believe without questioning is to give up the idea of thought.
Implicit in having faith is the idea that the subject doesn't really know, for if knowledge was had and the theory was certain then there wouldn't be any need for faith.

Faith is not certainty.

The experience of faith is a personal one and can take many symbolic forms; for any church or religion to suggest that they have the true forms or correct symbolism is to deny the main characteristic of faith, the unknowing.
For us, faith is of course a human experience invoked because of the demands of our existence and being, this is in itself enough to justify an acceptance of faith.

It is misguided to say to another that their faith is flawed while it is equally misguided to demand faith of another dogmatically.
Faith is an experience that can be practiced openly through the acknowledgment that it is not an act of certainty but is instead an act of hope.
When you have faith in someone knowing that they will catch you when you fall it doesn't always mean that you won't hit the floor whether by accidental mishap or by misjudgment.

The fact that faith is uncertain does not diminish its value, for we all have faith in many things, for tomorrow is never guaranteed.
The primary difficulty with the existence of faith is that it easily becomes a vehicle for our ego; we demand our own central importance and elevated state and the primary importance of that in which we belief, though when coupled with humility faith can be invaluable.

Faith is not an exercise of belief in one defined and conceptualized force or religion but is instead an act of hope and humility?

Samuel said...

the statement "to demand faith is to demand ignorance" does not apply to the present case, firstly because the removal of ignorance is currently not possible, and secondly because faith is not an end in itself and (probably) not even self-sufficient.

Neither complete ignorance or unquestioning belief is required. Since faith is not an end in itself (partial) knowledge co-ordinates with it in a movement towards the same end, which is closeness to God.

And what is uncertain about faith?
Faith is the certainty of things not seen. Faith thus has two "main components", and an accessory, (partial) knowledge.

It is acceptable to point to faith as a necessary step on the way towards God. It is also acceptable to question faith on the grounds of a) the appropriateness of its object
b) the validity of its accessory knowledge
c) sincerity

Faith is necessarily an act of humility, because it involves relying on something outside the self. Hope and love are expected to work in concert with faith.

The fetishistic attitude to faith which the Vatican seems to be taking is (another) indication of spiritual bankruptcy. I would question the appropriateness of the
object of their faith.

MH said...

Samuel, allow me three points of contention.

Firstly, you assert that faith ‘is the certainty of things not seen’. Perhaps I am splitting hairs, but that seems poorly constructed. I think the problem is in the assertion that ‘faith is x’ rather than the more apt, I think, assertion that ‘faith is the justification of a claim that x’.

Secondly, you assert that faith ‘is necessarily an act of humility, because it involves relying on something outside the self’. The obvious counter to your assertion is that faith is actually an act of arrogance, because it presupposes that there is an omniscient and omnipresent being whom, while controlling the incomprehensible complexity of a universe (or multiple universes) actually cares about the actions of a single individual. Analogously, it seems on par with a sunbather concerning themselves with an individual election in a atom of silicon in a grain of sand on a beach on the other side of the globe. The more nuanced point is that the second element of the claim – that faith involves relying on something outside the self – seems redundant. Why? You seem to be asserting that non-belief doesn’t rely on something outside the self as a point of reference. What then of the materialist who asserts that there is no need for faith because there is no proof in the world that a deity exists? Are you willing to claim that she does not rely on something outside the self in the same way as a theist?

Thirdly, you assert that the ‘fetishistic [sic] attitude to faith which the Vatican seems to be taking is (another) indication of spiritual bankruptcy. I would question the appropriateness of the object of their faith’. Now, I’m not a Master of the Pontifical Universities, and I would assume nor are you, which leads me to ask: on what are you basing this assertion? The theology of the Roman Catholic Church, to the extent that it is a single theology, has developed over two thousand years with the benefit of centuries of engaging the leading minds of the West and the Arab and Judaic worlds. To label the complex notions of faith which have developed from this process as ‘fetishistic’ [sic] seems ignorant. (I take fetish in the sense of a ‘craze’, at this point.) Further, shifting the sense of ‘fetish’ to one I think more akin to your intended, the object of Roman Catholic faith is belief that a certain Jesus of Nazareth was born of the God of Abraham and David, lived, was crucified, died, buried, after three days rose from the dead, and then ascended into Heaven, and that in so doing he suffered to redeem humanity from its sin. I’m not sure what is taught by post-Protestant churches is the correct object of a Christian’s faith – perhaps it is the personal relationship with God that emerges from reliance on that Papist tome the Bible – but if the aforementioned object is inappropriate, I would like you expand on what is appropriate.

[As an aside, perhaps someone here can answer my question – how is it that the Protestant and post-Protestant congregations can reject the doctrine of papal infallibility, while still retaining a belief that the Bible is authoritative, given that the composition of the Bible is predicated on papal infallibility? It was a council of the Roman Catholic Church that made the edit …]

Perhaps these contentions miss the point of your comment – they might, it is early in the morning and I’ve slept little having grappled with some aspects of Berlin, after a day spent grappling with certain aspects of maritime law – and if they have, excuse them. That said, if your point was hidden behind them, you might be advantaged by a better exposition …

Samuel Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samuel Douglas said...

I'm not 100% convinced that Sam B is in a position to question the 'object of faith' of the Catholic persuasion.

Actually, I'm not convinced of a great many things in this conversation.

To respond to Sam B’s points on faith:

I’m not in the business of questioning people’s sincerity of faith.

But of the two other grounds for questioning listed as appropriate, what more could need to be asked?

Both give an atheist or agnostic ample grounds for argument. If as you point out, faith is a means rather than an end in itself, then to attack the object of it, and the ‘accessory knowledge’ (not sure what you mean there- is it the knowledge that faith gives you access to?), is to question what is important. This seems to be fairly consistent with how I operate when I argue against theism, so I can’t find justification for your smug tone.


I think that the only problem with VP’s idea is that he didn’t specify that in some circumstances faith does not demand ignorance; rather it is a product of a reflective process. But don’t be mistaken, I agree that under many circumstances faith in a deity does demand ignorance, whereas faith in something that you have reason to doubt, like the existence of sub-atomic particles, arguably does not make the same demands.

As for this whole ‘outside the self’ thing: There are a number of acts that consenting adults can engage in that involve one or more agents relying on something ‘outside the self’, and many (though not all) are not acts of humility.

As for your comments regarding the Vatican, see below.

Mr Hill: I suspect you may have gotten a little off track. But this is not entirely your fault. Sam B was doing poorly enough without engaging in his habit of making open-ended and ill defined tilts at Catholic windmills. To this extent, your response is understandable. To the same extent, I think it only fair that Sam B make it clear his argument regarding the ‘spiritual bankruptcy’ he refers to in a clear and accessible manner, so it can be discussed by all members, Catholic and otherwise. This would be best put in a separate post. Nothing in your response was offensive as such, but it was a little over excited, and longer than necessary.

Sam B: If you are going to stir the pot with your ideas on Catholicism, could you put in a separate post, and make it a decent argument. If you don’t you will either be faced with demands of a retraction and/or people won’t take you at all seriously.

Rowan Blyth said...

Protestantism is ultimately a modernist schism, and has flourished at points in the modern epoch, including, as described here the ‘post-protestant’, who seem to be numerous enough for Peter Costello to be very eager to have on side, and who also appear to give Guy Sebastian a career. I’m really not sure how far you can sustain the argument that Christendom is shrinking due to modernity; unless if you are honest about the term Christendom as more accurately referring to Catholicism than to all Christians. It basically refers to the Holy Roman Empire.

In this case I would say that ‘modernity’ is to blame. It caused, as I said, an internal humanist schism aligned with the increasing middleclass. At the same time, you are seeing the new political formation of nation states, something which is hard for an empire to come to terms with. Worse is now is the time in capitalist (especially including information capital) history that we are seeing a new post-nation state situation forming through hyper-globalization. It gets increasingly hard to draw borders around empires when the shading starts overlapping.

Of course modernism has been powered by a steady increase in secularism, and this hurts the total number of Christians, though really shouldn’t need to, as plenty of people are rational and have faith.

What is this ‘expert’s’ solution? That we abandon modernity? What do we go to? Old Jehovah and son might have some stubborn resistance from that other god, Zeitgeist.

I think if you add up all the Christians and accept that the waters around them have gown (and will continue on doing so). Then you would probably see a sizeable chunk, at least in brute power stakes, is in fact Christian. Christendom is increasingly meaningful only to history however.

Though with all this is mind, you would assume that Protestantism was produced in alignment with reason. They in fact emphasised faith instead. Very possibly because reason was always its own separate entity, and you find numerous individuals of reason and faith: Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. There is no reason to suggest reason has anything harmful to do to faith, except that faith thrived in pre-modern conditions, which were ultimately before mass education and a bloated professional class. Honestly I don’t think they ever worked explicitly mutually or frequently to any degree enough to say that "Reason" no longer seems to assist "Faith" the way it once did.”

Martin: Protestantism criticises Catholicism as being fetishist because it has various symbolism and trappings, such as vestments, the Virgin Mary, etc. What Sam B seems to be questioning is the fanfare of Catholicism. It is in fact a fetishist religion, or at least compared to Protestantism. This is one of the major points of separation and one openly declared when the schism occurred. Of course your typical protestant is very possible more at the whim of the capitalist fetish economy, but some do take anti-fetishism very seriously and consistently.

You do raise a good point when you say that the Bible is a Catholic edit. It is a common claim by Protestants to take the bible to its word, unlike the ‘burdened’ and corrupt Catholic tradition with its layers of interpretation. The thing is that the protestant “cut” of the Catholic tradition doesn’t happen until 1611 with the King James Bible. Quite simply it’s just another layer of agendas in translation, and investment in interpretation. Learn Hebrew and ancient Greek, go back to the original, with a full sense of the history of the bible, ancient and medieval philosophy, in general theology, then you might be able to make that claim. I would hope, even if not as severe as actually learning the biblical languages, that this is what the theology department will be teaching.

And quickly on Faith: it is unjustified belief. Otherwise it wouldn’t be faith. So yes, it is not certainty. That doesn’t mean it is entered into with ignorance. This is basically one of the few things existentialism might be said to empirically ‘prove’.

MH said...

Rowan – if Samuel B was intending to critique the symbolic and ceremonial elements of Roman Catholicism, he could have been clearer in his expression. I read his comment as being a critique of the object of Roman Catholic faith, not those elements that the Protestant regards as ‘papist paraphernalia’.

If you are correct, then I’m not really in the best position to reply. My knowledge of the post-Protestant congregations is limited, so I am not in a position to provide examples for an assertion that Roman Catholicism is less fetishistic [sic] than the post-Protestants. That said, there have been comments made by various passers-by over the course of this blog that suggest there are post-Protestants who believe in speaking in tongues and faith healing. Then there is that whole literal interpretation of the Bible thing …

Virtualprimate said...

Hehe... awesome.
You see, the opening line of the bit of scrawl that I posted was purposely worded to antagonise.
What the argument hopefully establishes is exactly as Rowan said that "it is unjustified belief. Otherwise it wouldn’t be faith. So yes, it is not certainty."
However, if this is true then it could still be argued that if one accepts faith one must also accept a certain degree of ignorance.
It would follow that it is a contradiction to claim faith and to also claim that you know without doubt.
Thus I describe faith as an act of hope and humility.
This doesn't mean that people who have faith are not able to use reason, nor that they can't enter into it without being ignorant of what it is that they do.
By the description given we all have a certain degree of faith and we are all to a certain degree ignorant.
Therefore, indeed my argument could be described as existential.
And I am a meat puppet.
:)

Samuel Douglas said...

VP: There's something about how you phrase things that leaves me uneasy. The devil, as is often the case in our game, is in the detail. This 'certain degree' of which you speak covers a pretty broad spectrum of beliefs.

I have faith that other conscious entities exist, and I accept that I'm ignorant to the extent that I lack of direct evidence that they do (have you had someone else's experience lately?).

But there is a vast gulf between this sort of belief and having the kind of beliefs that cause you to pray every night to some sort of cosmic Santa-Claus.

I don't know much without doubt. But I'll put my doubt up against a Theists doubt any day.

Faith should be an act of hope. But I would say that sometimes it can be an act of despair - that we can never hope to overcome a specific kind of ignorance or misunderstanding.

Rowan Blyth said...

I agree with Sam d. It’s an odds game. Good odds I exist, reasonable odds you exist, lotto odds that the world's most popular faith-powered friend happens to exist.

So why do people play lotto and why do people believe in God might be a similar question through the glasses of probability. I guess then it’s why you enter into it, as lotto can be fun, just so long as you know there is a good chance you could be wrong.

If reason represents 'good odds' and reason dictates that there is a natural law; then living a life that is aligned with reason is going to lead to a moral life and thus presumably rewardable life if by extreme odds such an entity did in fact exist or otherwise. Thus the reasonable agnostic is no more hedging his bets than the reasonable Christian or reasonable atheist. The problem for atheists is that they often forget that they are betting, or otherwise they would call themselves agnostic.

Faith therefore must have some other benefit, and ultimately I think it has to be the sugar that makes the medicine go down, the cascading style sheet or perhaps the queer eye for the straight guy. That’s really, really, really important, but I honestly don't believe that someone is going to punish you if you don't get the right one, particularly if the odds are really bad, if you lived a morally good life. Otherwise he's just running a cruel lotto that potentially doesn’t punish bad moral behaviour, or otherwise there wouldn’t be many winners at all. This does stray into Calvin (basis of the English tradition and thus the American puritans) area though.

And for Catholics, there is always the last moment conversion, which is possibly always a good bet if it turns out the Christian God is the Big Red Ball that makes dreams come true and permits such things.

So yes it is entered into by hope, but when hope goes into believing you will win lotto, and then you are into desperation territory. And it certainly need not be hope, but practicality in the sense of induction, or that other minds exist, or clear favourites such as evolution and the dinosaurs. If the faith can’t sit on the base, then there is a problem as faith is telling you something that is wrong despite high probability and a) is important, such as causation, b) is related to morality/ethics, or c) is clearly irrational to the point of insanity.

Virtualprimate said...

Sam D: I must admit, you have a good point. The devil most certainly is in the detail and the term 'certain degree' does cover a wide spectrum of beliefs.

But when you get right down to it, I'm not really talking about faith in a religious context. To be perfectly honest I don't claim to know much about the religious context. I am, as you have noted in stating that, "Faith should be an act of hope," more inclined towards talking about the concept of faith in a moral context. Yet from here I then go on to apply it to religious belief.

If faith should incorporate humility and doubt in the sense that I stated originally then to claim, without doubt, that ones faith is True is contradictory to what seems to be morally reasonable about having faith. Often it seems faith is equated with knowledge. Yet, if one accepts the premise that knowing precludes faith, for in knowing one has no need for faith, then it is unreasonable to say that faith can be certain.

At this point, the acceptance of not being able to know with certainty is what interests me about the concept of faith. In my befuddled mind, it resembles something akin to the Tao when it is described in the Tao Te Ching that "The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao."

As Rowan has pointed out, in the religious context it could be described, and seems often described, as an odds game. Yet, like Rowan, I'm not concerned with the outcome (and I plan to have a long debate with St Peter about the juvenile nature of Jehovah if it turns out that the heaven and hell dichotomy is correct), yet I do think that faith, as a moral concept can have relevance to living. And if this is true, it certainly does have relevance in the religious sphere wherein it seems that faith is often used in incongruous ways?

What I find plausible about this myself is the lack of division between the idea of having faith in a friend, or having faith in God. In either case you might be wrong, about either the expectation of certain responses/behaviors or about the expectation of the existence of a certain being who can't be a thing. This maintains a consistency by recognising and maintaining a difference between the concepts faith and knowledge. For I still don't see how I can have faith if I am certain?

I guess, that the argument is a form of religious skepticism, yet there is no argument herein that shows that faith itself has no value. Rather, in a sense, the argument runs that acknowledging that faith cannot be equated with certainty is what might make faith invaluable?

Thanks for the feedback, cause there are always plenty of kinks, and being allowed to think that you are right without the need of revision is dangerous (just look at the liberals)

:)

sam db said...

There seem to be a few unclear or questionable points in my first post, and perhaps also in those by others.

Some my first response is based on the apparent misapprehension that Andrew's post was intended to question faith in the form Christians generally know it. Statements like "To demand faith is to demand ignorance" and "to believe without questioning is to give up the idea of though" somehow (I can't imagine how) suggested (to me, and apparently only to me) that Andrew was claiming that faith had some necessary connection to logical invalidity. This mistake, incredible though it seems, accounts for any smugness in my response. While I do regret any misreading I must ask: what relation do his words (which seem to be advancing a sort of moral idealism) have to the original post, which concerned the place of Christianity in the modern world?

Faith isn't, as far as I know, intended to deny atheists and agnostics their usual lines of argument. The way in which faith in the existence of subatomic particles is different from faith in God has probably already been explained to me, but I have forgotten the substance of the explanation now escapes me; a repetition would be appreciated.

The statement “Faith is the certainty of things not seen” may be poorly constructed; perhaps the pope should have cut verse 11:1 out of Hebrews, before the Protestants could get hold of it. And I must admit that the idea of faith as a justification of a claim puts me at something of a loss. What I would say at the moment is that faith functions as the justification of a claim, or as the certainty of things not proven. And could VP clarify what kind of uncertainty is necessary for faith?

My statement "faith is an act of humility because it involves reliance on something outside of the self" looks more questionable every time I look at it. It also looks irrelevant, at least if we are dealing with the question of faith in God. To return to the example of the sunbather and the grain of sand: it may appear arrogant from one perspective for the grain of sand to believe that the sunbather cares about it. On the other hand it looks a fair bit more arrogant for the grain of sand to deny the existence of the sunbather. Also, (to further question my original claim) if faith is to be humble, it must involve submission to another ego for one’s own ego to lessen; I don't see how trust in inanimate objects or facts could involve humility, as theses things have no consciousness to submit to.
Most importantly, if God is defined as the supreme moral being definitions of pride and humility must be subordinate to concepts of God.

I'll put up a separate post about Catholicism if I can get that function to work. I would like to say however that I have had no involvement whatsoever in giving Guy Sebastian a career.