Faith as pseudo-justification

Yesterday on Channel 4 television there was broadcast a documentary – Revelations: How do you know God exists? – in which leading figures from the principal religious communities in Britain were asked to discuss their spiritual journeys, and explain how they reconcile their beliefs with reality.

The programme I found interesting, but the religious leaders featured – Rowan Williams, Vincent Nichols, Jonathan Sacks, Tariq Ramadan and Swami Pramtattvadas – all failed to answer the core question put to them. Instead they engaged in the kind of obfuscation discussed in the following talk given by physicist Alan Sokal to humanists in Stockholm…

Sokal does ramble on a bit, and his political prejudices show through in places. For those of you who for whatever reason are disinclined to sit through the entire 40 minutes of Sokal’s delivery, I shall spell out his key point…

“Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife. But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but they ultimately boil down to one: because our holy scriptures say so. But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are free from error? Because the scriptures themselves say so.”

“Now, theologians specialise in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all ‘faith’ is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: ‘By the authority of His absolute transcendence, God who makes Himself known is also the source of the credibility of what He reveals.’”

“It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this. ‘Faith’ is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. ‘Faith’ is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.”

The religious leaders featured in the Channel 4 documentary are for the most part sincere and good men, and one of them in particular – Rowan Williams – is a moral philosopher of some standing in the secular world. But on the fundamental issue of the existence of a supernatural reality, all of them fit the “lazy” description given above by Sokal. All that filmmaker Antony Thomas could do when faced with such muddled thinking was focus instead on the actual manifestation of religion in the world. Damnation by works, if you like. The core question remains, however, and it should continue to be posed to those who pretend to speak for their deities.

Hat tip for Sokal talk: David Thompson