Brainstormin’: The Problem with Faith


Years ago, I was enjoying conversation with a religious friend. The subject of gay marriage came up, and he asserted his opposition to its legalization. “Why on earth,” I asked him,“would you want to interfere with the freedom and happiness of consenting adults who want to sanctify their commitment to each other?” He replied that homosexual union runs counter to God’s design: the Creator evidently meant for men to marry women, and women men. I took a slow breath. Careful to keep the incredulity out of my voice, I affected a tone of sincere curiosity. “How do you know that?” I asked mildly.

My friend shrugged. He couldn’t really explain it, he said. It was just one of those things he knew. That men aren’t meant to marry men, and women aren’t meant to marry women, was, he supposed, an article of faith. It wasn’t the kind of truth you could evidence or argue for. It was too basic, too fundamental for that.

My friend said this with no hint of apology or embarrassment. For him, it seemed quite proper to have such articles of faith, and to invoke them in the context of a debate over public policy. I was surprised at this, and asked if he recognized the problematic nature of his stance. “Problematic?” he replied, evidently puzzled. “How so?”

The Problem With Faith

I had been thinking about this very question, and was tempted to answer it directly. I wanted him to discover the reason for himself, though, so instead, I took a Socratic approach: “Do you agree that we should treat others the way we want to be treated?” I asked. “Of course,” he replied.

“And that we should not treat others in ways we don’t like to be treated?” He smiled and nodded, apparently confident that the Golden Rule put him on firm dialectical ground. “Well,” I persisted, “How would you like it if someone invoked an article of faith to limit your freedom? Surely, if you’re entitled to invoke faith to buttress your positions, others may invoke faith to justify theirs. Their position could be diametrically opposed to yours, even morally repugnant, and you’d be compelled to grant that it rests on an equally strong foundation. Play the “faith” card if you want to, but then, you can hardly object if others do the same.”

My friend hadn’t thought about it in this light, and I let him chew on the point for a good minute. Then, I asked him to simply notice what happens to a conversation that yields conflicting professions of faith. “Prior to the ‘faith card’ being played,” I said, “a joint commitment to reasoning held the promise of amiable, persuasion-based resolution. But once the two parties retreat to their respective articles of faith, the dialogue can’t help but break down. If we treat professions of faith as legitimacy-conferring (or even legitimacy-protecting), we radically compromise the civilizing, consensus-building power of reason-giving dialogue.”

“A truly mature civilization must outgrow faith,” I concluded. “Civil harmony requires it.”

The Dilemma of Ultimate Commitment

My friend, though, had also experienced religion’s power to bind co-religionists together, and he wasn’t ready to concede. “The fact that reason proves inadequate to the task of resolving fundamental differences is not the fault of religion!” he exclaimed. “It’s just the way things are. Reason can only take us so far, and where it leaves off, faith is all we have left.”

My skeptical expression persuaded my friend to continue. “Look,” he said, “All reasoning must end somewhere. The arguments of the so-called ‘faithless’ are no different from those of anyone else: they rest on premises that themselves remain unargued. Even if one did argue for them, those arguments would themselves rest on unargued premises. So everyone takes something as basic. In fact, they must, on pain of having no firm conviction whatever. And these basic convictions are, for all practical purposes, their articles of faith.”

“Let me see if I understand,” I said. “You’re saying that there’s no relevant difference between a believer’s articles of faith and a humanist’s core principles?” “That’s right!” he replied, evidently relieved that I had grasped his point.

He must have felt that he had gained the upper hand, for he decided to press his advantage: “Of course, there is one difference: we believers are candid about our reliance on basic commitments. By contrast, you non-believers pretend that you are somehow immune from the need for them. But of course, you aren’t. You either have such commitments—in which case you’re in the same, faith-bottomed boat we believers are in—or you don’t, and you’re adrift in a sea of possibilities. Sure, you can subject everything to question if you want to, but then the bottom falls out: conviction wanes, resolution evaporates, and purpose disappears. You lose your moral bearings. Without commitment, there is nothing to stand on. For my part, give me unshakable commitment and the sense of purpose that brings.”

I recognized this as a very sophisticated reply—one worth careful consideration.  Decades ago, W.W. Bartley, an acolyte of the late Karl Popper, had published a fine book on the problem, naming the problem (and titling the book) The Dilemma of Ultimate Commitment. The book had prompted me to think hard about the differences between religious faith and rational commitment. And it led me, by degrees, to the realization that humanism had long ago come upon, and quietly integrated, a solution to one of humanity’s most profound challenges.

The problem might be expressed this way: How can we gain the civilizing benefits of commitment without the de-civilizing costs of dogmatic tenacity?

My friend had pointed out that the standard rationalist answer to this question (the one that says, in essence: “By embracing reason!”) is not, in itself, a sufficient answer. For the very same problem—call it “the problem of ultimate commitment”—arises within the “space of reasons.” Either we humanists have “ultimate” rational commitments, too, in which case we appear to be relevantly similar to the faithful, or we don’t, in which case our lives display a pitiable lack of commitment, resolution, and purpose.

In the columns to come, I will show how deep this problem runs. I will also make humanism’s solution explicit, and show how it points the way to a civilization “beyond faith”—one that truly unleashes the power of reason to bring harmony and well-being to humanity.

In the meantime, I urge my fellow humanists to ponder the dilemma deeply.

What’s your solution? Which horn would you recommend we take on? And how do we avoid being gored by it?