This post concerns the work Concluding Unscientific Postscript (of pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus) written by existentialist Soren Kierkegaard and the discussion by Robert Adams in “Kierkegaard’s Arguments against Objective Reasoning in Religion”. It also touches on some ideas raised by Lara Buchak in her paper “Can it be Rational to have Faith?”
Kierkegaard holds that faith is an intense psychological state of religiosity (i.e., conviction in some sort of religious proposition) that cannot be justified by objective reasoning. Furthermore, as characterized by Adams, it must be significantly likely that at least one of the person’s beliefs absurd, or that there is no certainty provided by historical evidence. The faith must exclude possibility of doubt, and faith must be a continually repeated and decisive act of will. Moreover, the person must feel a great deal of risk in his decision to have faith and also believe it is the morally thing to do, thereby making it a courageous act. In regards to this, I would point out that the person must have a great deal of passionate attachment to the state of affairs that he has has faith in, for example, that God exists. That state of affairs must really matter to him, and such as in Kierkegaard’s view that infinite happiness is riding on that state of affairs.
Can admittedly irrational belief be rational? I am convinced that faith – as the term is defined by Kierkegaard and including the implications of personal despair and passion – might be rational, but only if it is justified on pragmatic grounds as a psychological tool that makes suffering in life more bearable. Yet even in the case that some people will find faith useful, it seems that the pragmatic grounds must be acknowledged to be supporting an unnecessary and curable psychological weakness and use (”abuse”) of faith might perpetually reinforce a moral error. While this might sound harsh, it seems to me that proclaiming faith is akin to an addict of an obsessive compulsive behaviour openly indulging in his habit and informing his companions the he does so because it is the only thing that helps him feel better. The addict justifies the behaviour as a necessary one, but those around him can see that not only is it not necessary, but there are alternate options/remedies and that that his behaviour may even be morally harming him. My point is that faith is not an admirable trait, but rather like is a psychological crutch. Moreover, faith and belief are mutually exclusive in that we cannot hold a belief and a faith about the same proposition that are in direct conflict. We cannot simultaneously believe the p(X) and have faith that p(~X). In the quest for intelligence and reason, faith requires us to forgo believing in some true propositions, and therefore, hinders us.
What psychological weakness and moral defect is making life intolerable? All of us experience guilt, shame, anxiety, insecurity, and self-loathing. We suffer immensely due to these emotions that are either innate or raised into us. For some people, these feelings combined with church teachings that we all have sin in us from the beginning give us empirical evidence that these feelings are natural and should be heeded. Kierkegaard recommends utter humility when considering Jesus and God, considering ourselves as unforgivable. And for someone who is not raised in the Christian faith, it might be the combination of punishment for doing things that we like to do or reward for following some other person’s orders or law that teaches us that we are unworthy. Therefore, sin seems built-in, and we become caught in a cycle of value-judgments and the feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety when we try and fail to “correct” our behaviour. Life becomes a constant stretch of self-denial and self-loathing, and we feel existential insecurity because, for what purpose have we been given lives of endless suffering? It is no wonder that faith becomes necessary for Kierkegaard and infinite happiness a lure of utmost importance.
I acquiesce to the belief that faith might be a tool to combat the psychological suffering in life and can make it more bearable. In that way, faith in irrational beliefs can be rational. I return to my example of the obsessive compulsive person who, like the person of faith, relies on relatively innocuous behaviours and thoughts:
Jane has a feeling of doom about leaving the house. Before she leaves and even when she just thinks about leaving, she needs to flick the light switch exactly twenty times. It is of utmost importance to her because the feeling of doom reminds her that her life is at stake. Whenever she flicks the lights, she feels reassured that she will be safe if she leaves the house. It’s unclear about where the truth of the number twenty came from, but so far twenty has been the right number and there is no desire to question it (never mind that 19, 18, or just “off” might do the trick). All that matters is that leaving the house becomes bearable when Jane flick the lights.
Compare compulsive Jane with religious Mel:
Mel has a feeling of doom about missing out on infinite happiness unless she wills herself to have faith in the forgiveness of God. Anytime she feels doubtful or if she chooses her own internal reasons instead of the Bible’s reasons she quickly corrects herself. After all, her eternal happiness is at stake! It’s unclear about where truth of the Bible came from, but so far she feels better when she believes so there is no reason to doubt it (never mind that she could have been brought up Hindu or Muslim). Living life with guilt and insecurity becomes bearable when Jane has faith.
To Mel, faith has pragmatic justification and therefore it is rational to believe. However, Jane may give the same justification. As a community, are we sympathetic to Mel’s faith but describe Jane’s attitude as a psychological defect?
If faith is defined as Kierkegaard defines it, I do not see any reason to classify Mel’s and Jane’s beliefs differently. If the feeling of doom about leaving the house is unnecessary and can be removed, then the simplest solution would be to remove that feeling rather than resort to unnecessary obsessive compulsive behaviours. If despair, anxiety, guilt, shame, and insecurity of existence are unnecessary parts of human life and can be removed, then likewise, faith is unnecessary. (Because of the space limitations in this assignment, I ask the reader to simply grant for sake of argument that psychological states are unnecessary for morality and undesirable.)
Faith being unnecessary does not imply by itself that it is irrational though, just as buying a manual car rather than an automatic is not irrational. The manual transmission car is more complicated to operate, but de gustibus est non disputandum. If a person chooses to perform extra religious behaviours in order that they can indulge in the cycle of guilt, shame, insecurity, then that seems to be a simple matter of individual disposition. (Some people might like the carrot of infinite happiness and the stick of self-loathing.) However, in the case of strictly irrational faith (defined as a conviction not based on objective evidence), what makes faith immoral is that it is detrimental to us as humans, qua essentially rational beings. Standards must be defined with regard to the thing that they apply to. Human moral standards must be defined with regard to the people they apply to. If the reader admits that humans are in essence rational beings, then irrational behaviour is immoral. Therefore, faith is immoral.
Thanks for joining me!
Faith: belief in God arising spiritual apprehension rather than rational proof