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Is blind faith immoral?

On Faith vs. Reason

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Quotations:

bullet"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use." - Galileo Galilei
bullet"A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything." - Friedrich Nietzsche

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"Is blind faith immoral? On Faith vs. Reason" by Robert Kaiser

Judaism (among other faiths) affirms theism - the belief in God. In practice, while religious people claim to affirm this belief as true, most have never seriously considered the question "What is God?" The problem is that merely stating that God is real says nothing about what God is; claiming to believe in something without precisely defining what that something is, is close to believing nothing at all. When pressed to describe specifically what they believe in, the average person only can repeat claims about God's actions, or about God's love for humanity. Even assuming that said actions actually happened, or that said relationship actually exists, this says little about the nature of God; it really only tells us about a particular historical incident, or about how people describe their relationship to the divine.

Since the dawn of rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish people have produced many of the world's greatest philosophers. Showing great intellectual courage, they met the question of "What is God?" straight on, and have produced a voluminous and inspiring literature that proposes answers to this question. Not surprisingly, all of their efforts have been continually challenged by lesser minds, as many people are afraid that philosophical inquiry posed a threat to simple faith. When early medieval Jewish philosophers accepted Platonic philosophy as a way to help understand God, some responded with claims of heresy. When later medieval thinkers such as Saadya Gaon and then Maimonides accepted Aristotelian philosophy as a way to help understand God, some responded with claims of heresy. When modern day thinkers such as Joseph Soloveitchik used a Kantian take on Platonic philosophy as a way to help understand God, some responded with claims of heresy. When modern day thinkers such as Max Kaddushin and William Kaufman used Albert North Whitehead's concept of process philosophy as a way to help understand God, some responded with claims of heresy.

Yet in all these ages, the spirit of rational inquiry prevailed. "Most medieval Jewish philosophers considered intellectual inquiry essential to a religious life, and were convinced that there could be no real opposition between reason and faith. Thus, Saadiah Gaon held that, 'The Bible is not the sole basis of our religion, for in addition to it we have two other bases. One of these is anterior to it; namely, the fountain of reason...' (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 3:10). Bahya ibn Paquda believed that it is a religious duty to investigate by rational methods such questions as God's unity, because, of the three avenues which God has given us to know Him and His law, 'the first is a sound intellect' (Hovot ha-Levavot, introduction; cf. 1:3).... This attitude toward the relationship between reason and faith dominated medieval Jewish philosophy. It reached its highest, most elaborate, and most familiar expression in the thought of Maimonides, and was reaffirmed by later philosophers, such as Levi b. Gershom and Joseph Albo. ["God", "in Medieval Jewish philosophy", Encyclopaedia Judaica, hence "EJ"]

However, in all of these cases Judaism teaches that God - however defined - certainly exists, and we must believe this to be so. But should we believe in God just because we are told to?

Most forms of Judaism (as well as the various forms of Christianity and Islam) say "Yes", but many modern people no longer will blindly accept such claims. In fact, as shown above, even most "believers" in God don't actually believe in God, as they have no particular definition of God in mind. They merely affirm that a statement (e.g. "God is real") is true without having any idea what the content of that statement is, if any.

Many people, like this author, require a firmer basis for their beliefs than a blind appeal to authority. In fact, one can go further, and point out that it may well be immoral to have beliefs without a logical basis. Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn discuss why this is so:

'Everybody's entitled to their own opinion' goes the platitude, meaning that everybody has the right to believe whatever they want. But is that really true? Are there no limits on what is permissible to believe? Or, as in the case of actions, are some beliefs immoral? Surprisingly, perhaps, many have argued that just as we have a moral duty not to perform certain sorts of actions, so we have a moral duty not to have certain sorts of beliefs. No one has expressed this point of view more forcefully than the distinguished mathematician W. K. Clifford: 'It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.' "

Others of similar stature have echoed this sentiment. Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, for example, declared, 'It is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.' And Brand Blanshard has proclaimed that where great human goods and ills are involved, the distortion of belief from any sort of avoidable cause is immoral, and the more immoral the greater the stakes.

These men think it wrong for belief to outstrip the evidence because our actions are guided by our beliefs, and if our beliefs are mistaken, our actions may be misguided, As Blanshard indicated, the more important the decision, the greater our duty to align our beliefs with the evidence, and the greater the crime if we don't. Where not much hangs on the belief, it
might be thought that what one believes has little importance. But Clifford claims that even in trivial matters we have a duty to proportion our belief to the evidence:

'Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to.... But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent.'

According to Clifford, responsible believing is a skill that can be maintained only through constant practice. And since responsible believing is a prerequisite for responsible acting, we have a duty to foster this skill.

["How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age (second edition)", p.102, Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn, Mayfield Publishing Co., 1999]

While this line of reasoning goes against what most religious people believe, I am firmly persuaded by the logic. Thus, we should not believe in God without reason. It seems, then, that we would be obligated to search for reasonable arguments to believe in God. Finding such reason we would be obliged to believe in God; lacking such reason we would be obliged to dismiss God's existence as a unproven hypothesis.

Many Jewish medieval theologians accepted this above argument to some extent; the difference is that they assumed that proof for God's existence would be found; they never considered the possibility that such proof wouldn't exist. Since then, theologians have endeavored to find ways to prove that God exists; the effort has continued unabated to this day. Over the years, all of the earlier proofs were dropped as they were seen to be unsatisfactory; other arguments for the existence of God were revised in light of criticism by those who saw weaknesses in said proofs. The most popular and convincing arguments for God's existence that, in various forms, still exist today, are listed below:

  1. The ontological argument: God's existence follows necessarily from a definition of what He is.
  2. The teleological argument (aka argument from design). It is highly improbable that the balanced order of the universe arose accidentally.
  3. The cosmological argument: The world must have been put together at some point in time; it could not have made itself, therefore, it must have been created, and the creator must be God.
  4. The cosmological argument from motion. Maimonides held that "since things in the world are in motion and no finite thing can move itself, every motion must be caused by another; but since this leads to an infinite regress, which is unintelligible, there must be an unmoved mover at the beginning of the series. This unmoved mover is God." [EJ]
  5. The contingent existence argument: "Another of Maimonides' arguments begins from the fact that the existence of all things in our experience is contingent, i.e., their existence begins and ends in time, so that each thing can be conceived as not existing. Contingent existence is unintelligible, unless there is at least one necessary existence, one being whose existence is eternal and independent of all cause, standing behind it. Maimonides laid great stress on the conception of God as necessary existence." [EJ]
  6. The Kuzari argument: God revealed His existence to man in a public historical event. "Saadiah and Judah Halevi offered a non-philosophical argument. Since the revelation at Sinai took place in the presence of 600,000 adults [according to the Torah] there is public evidence that places the fact of God's existence beyond all reasonable doubt." [EJ]  This argument is one of the most popular arguments accepted in the Orthodox Jewish community, but most people have long rejected this as a case of circular reasoning: This logic is only convincing if one assumes that that this event took place as described in the Torah, but that is precisely what people need to prove to make the claim tenable.

As Prof. Marvin Fox points out "Atheism was known in the Middle Ages, and was countered by the various proofs for the existence of God that were common to all medieval philosophical theology. Yet, since the dominant medieval culture was overwhelmingly religious, atheism constituted only a minor threat. In modern times atheism became a significant and widely held doctrine, based on and reinforced by naturalistic scientific ideas and scientifically oriented philosophy. The classical proofs for God's existence have been largely discredited and no longer provide a satisfactory ground for theism." [EJ]

However, all is not lost. "Modern theists usually offer arguments for the existence of God, but do not claim that they have proofs. These arguments, though not decisive, provide a justification for the theistic option, since it is claimed that these are matters about which no demonstrative certainty is possible. In the 20th century theistic belief usually rests on a combination of admittedly incomplete intellectual evidence and personal faith and commitment." ["Conceptions of God", EJ]

Thus, while there is no one proof that proves that an omnipotent God exists, there are a set of proofs that, taken together, may be used to construct an argument that it is at least reasonable to believe that God exists. Perhaps the best constructed argument for God's existence, that takes into account the weakness of the individual classical "proofs", is "The Existence of God (Revised edition)" Richard Swinburne [Clarendon Press.]

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References:

  1. Robert D. Kaiser is webmaster Judaism FAQs -- "a place for both Jews and gentiles to learn more about Jewish theology and philosophy. It also is the home of the Conservative & Masorti Judaism FAQ." See: http://communities.msn.com/judaismfaqs

Copyright 2001 by Robert Kaiser
Originally published: 2001-NOV-20
Latest update: 2001-NOV-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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