Naturalism and Faith

In a recent discussion in the Metaontology seminar I am taking, (for reasons I don’t remember) I described one large problem in contextualizing religious tolerance; there is a tension between anyone who thinks that their religious view is the correct one (which is presumably just about any religious person) and the idea that religious people of different beliefs should come together in peace. One solution which drives at least some of the associated rhetoric that one sometimes hears is that all religions have the concept of faith in common (which is at least true enough for all Western religions). Religious people from a variety of different backgrounds can then come together under the mutual banner of faith. I then said that there is a problem for this view of religious toleration because there are people who lack faith, and how are we to understand them?

Later during the seminar, another student — we’ll call him D since I don’t know if he’d want his name on here — commented that he thought a naturalistic viewpoint was another kind of faith that one could have, so “couldn’t we all just get along?”

There are several responses that I have to this, but putting aside the philosophical issues, there’s a problem with thinking that this could be an account of tolerance at all. One very important part of tolerance is acknowledging the differences between groups of people. If group A thinks of their worldview as involving faith and of faith as a virtue and group B thinks of their worldview as lacking faith and of faith as an evil or a mistake, then group A cannot simply demand that group B takes on their view of faith. Understanding and dialogue cannot occur if one group simply disregards the feelings of the other group. Of course, B might simply be wrong about their lack of faith, but if the point of such dialogue is not to debate but to come together in mutual understanding, A should not object to B’s position or values.

As far as philosophical objections are concerned, it’s hard for me to see how naturalism could be another kind of faith or involve some species of faith. One thing that makes this kind of argument hard to respond to is that there are multiple definitions of ‘faith’ in the literature and in current English usage, so it’s not at all clear what religious people have in mind. One possible definition of ‘faith’ is that it is the acceptance of or assent to beliefs even when one lacks epistemic justification for the belief. But surely naturalism cannot be a view of that kind; there are arguments of various kinds for naturalism and on the basis of which people come to accept naturalism. Naturalists might be mistaken about the strength of their own arguments, but it would seem strange to say that a belief is a faith just because someone was mistaken about the arguments which convinced them to take on the position.

Another definition for ‘faith’ is that it is a kind of trust. But it seems hard to make a case that naturalists simply trust science. There are plenty of naturalists who produce skeptical arguments concerning science and the degree to which we can be epistemically justified in believing any of the results produced by science. When science is said to produce facts, these are always understood to be only tentatively and approximately true. Naturalists fully expect that our present understanding of the universe will be modified and changed as we discover new things about the world. Naturalists might be subject to various human fallibities, and they might be less epistemically justified than they presently realize, but that’s not the same thing as having anything recognizably like faith.

Nonetheless, some modern theologians have introduced new interpretations of ‘faith'; Alister McGrath, for example, seems to have a reading of the term which would make it simply refer to abductive inference (or inference to the best explanation). That’s a rather odd thing to do and I doubt that this is what the term ‘faith’ means for most religious people, but if that’s how he wants to define ‘faith’, then certainly there is such a thing as scientific faith. Nonetheless, one may very well wonder whether or not and to what degree Christianity (for example) involves faith if we accept McGrath’s definition of the term.

One comment

  • Brad
    April 28, 2013 - 7:31 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen it used, and been in discussions, where it is simply that the ‘gap’ between reasons and premises in inductive arguments makes for the ‘faith’ that naturalists have. So that’s a bit like McGrath I suppose.

    But I have never heard anyone argue the following. Look, you guys have no (agreed upon) response to Hume’s Problem, and frankly, until you do, this little theoretical problem your buddy Hume laid out shows that none of your conclusions are justified. You accept them, but only on faith, such as that Hume’s Problem can be solved. How would you respond? I mean, maybe you would reject the first premise, but…well, I wouldn’t.

  • Leave a Reply