This is going to be quite a short post, since I have to go see the doctor this morning. Before reading further, first listen to Giles Fraser’s “Thinking out loud” from the Guardian for this morning, 27th February 2012.
Giles Fraser on the Dawkins – Williams “debate”
Now that you’ve done so, you can see, I hope, how hopelessly adrift Fraser is. It’s not because he says something outré, or anything like that. The problem is that he didn’t listen to the so-called “debate”, which was about as far as you get from what he calls a boxing match style set-piece debate, and the misperception that the truth lies in some sort of ”intellectual muscularity”. Even more difficult, Fraser suggests, is the idea that faith and unfaith exist in some sort of binary opposition, for he cannot see how faith can exist without doubt.
Now, there’s some good sense here, because, for a thoughtful faith, at any rate, is always coupled with doubt, the kind of doubt, for example, expressed by Job, or even, as Fraser suggests, by Jesus on the cross. This sense of having been betrayed, that at least one of the Passion narratives in the gospel expresses in the famous words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” shows, suggests, as Fraser claims, that doubt not only is the constant accompaniment of faith, but is an integral part of it.
So far so good. I, for one, have never doubted this. Faith and doubt are not opponents in religious faith — or at least Christian faith — but correlative and inseparable parts of the “faith experience.” There is always an element of doubt, and it simply won’t go away, no matter how hard you try. You can close your eyes and say over and over again, “I believe,” and the residuum of doubt will always remain. It’s a part, as Julian Baggini might say, of the tone of religious utterances and religious discourse. “I believe, help my unbelief,” as the father of a demon possessed son in the gospel of Mark says to Jesus. It is the response, however, of someone who was not quite sure, and this prompts Jesus to respond with a criticism of the man’s faith. So the man, paying proper obeisance to Jesus, pleads with him to help his unbelief, if belief is what is required for his son’s recovery.
Fraser doesn’t mention this. And it should also be recalled that the words from the cross, from Psalm 22, expressing the kind of doubt that Fraser wants to couple with belief, goes on with these confident words:
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises.In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
Again, the emphasis is placed on an appeal for belief. We are weak, unable to keep our beliefs sure and strong. This grace, to believe with all one’s heart, is a gift of grace. But this is something that Fraser ignores.
Yes, I agree, in every “act” of faith, there is an admixture of doubt. It is natural, since, when appeal is being made for faith, one is usually, like Jesus on the cross, or Job on his ash-heap, in a situation which makes faith almost impossible to bear, it after all seeming to have been betrayed. But the doubt here is expressed in the context of a renewed expression of faith, which, by the grace of God, we are to suppose, will be purified and indeed vindicated. No one need question this dimension of religious faith, and still oppose the desire to be more certain, the desire to be given, indeed, the grace of certainty that will subvert the natural unbelief that the religious believer must feel in the face of all the contrary evidence that his senses and goodsense everyday supplies. Like Thomas, who saw and believed, Jesus calls those fortunate who have not seen and yet believed. This story is addressed to doubters in the flock, who are given an example of believing doubt, and are being told, you are blessed if, not seeing, you still believe. The story of the doubting Thomas is an invidious example, designed precisely for people who doubt and are called upon to believe more firmly, without any evidence.
That is the context of the believing and doubt that Fraser sees as lying at the heart of faith, though he leaves the context out. And no doubt there are elements of doubt in faith, so that they are nested together. But this still doesn’t resolve the binary opposition between faith and doubt, for doubt is expressed in faith precisely to ask for grace to believe without this doubt. Indeed, as I have said before, I have a book by an Old Testament scholar entitled, The Faith to Doubt. It’s stored away on a shelf in the garage at the moment, but it was important to me as my own sense of the inadequacy of faith was in the process of breaking down, a process which took several years, until the doubt that had once nestled so comfortably with faith began to supersede it, and replace it with a doubt that overthrew faith.
But to return for a moment to the “debate” between Dawkins and Williams. As I said, Fraser not having listened to the “debate” could scarcely know that it was not at all like a boxing match, but much more like a conversation between two people who regarded each other with respect. There was no pyrotechnic rhetoric, mostly just a quiet reflection on the questions that were being discussed, mutually respectful, and with scarcely an intellectual muscle to be seen in evidence for the whole discussion. Fraser didn’t listen, because he had already decided what it would be like; and it wasn’t in the least like that. There were disagreements, but the disagreements were glossed over as they moved on from one topic to the next. It did seem to me that when the archbishop introduced his theology, it always seemed in the nature of a non sequitur, for there was nowhere that the discussion could go, once the word ‘god’ had been introduced in any sort of robust sense. As the philosopher Richard Rorty said, God is a conversation stopper, and so it was in this context. But, so long as God was left out, the discussion went on in a very reasonable context of point-counterpoint.
What’s the problem? The problem is simply that Fraser is not being completely open about the role of doubt in faith. Certainly, as he says, there is always an admixture of doubt in religious faith. How could there not be? We are, after all, dealing with things that we can never see, and never be confident that we know or experience. There is enough doubt, even at a fairly rudimentary level of faith nowadays, to make doubt an essential adjunct to faith. We need not question this. However, this is a very different kind of doubt from the doubt of the scientist, who addresses his or her doubts to the world, and prods and pokes the world until an answer to the question, until a clear answer yes or no is given. And where the answer is, “I’m not quite sure,” then judgement is suspended until there is a greater degree of certainty. When Darwin left the Beagle after five years, he had an idea that the natural world was much more complex than he had had first thought it to be, but he wasn’t quite sure in what that complexity consisted. It took him several years to find out, test, and then express with great confidence, his belief that life had evolved through natural selection. This process of doubt and testing is entirely different to the role that doubt plays in the context of religious faith, which is always trying to overcome doubt, but not by the means of testing and verifying, but by means of stilling the doubts within instead, so that one can express faith unreservedly and with reverence and devotion.
So the binary opposition between belief and unbelief remains, notwithstanding the role that doubt plays in faith, and it disingenuous, I think, to neglect this striking difference between the two kinds of epistemic approach to the question of believing. And the reason it is disingenuous is because the religious beliefs that Fraser is talking about, however much doubt may be admixed, have real world consequences for real people, as I suggested in a recent post. If Tom Collins, the new cardinal, has any doubt about the “ultimate” issue of pro-life, he’s not letting on, and that belief of his and the pope and the rest of the official Roman Catholic Church has dire consequences for a lot of people, for women who will die because they are refused an abortion, for young girls and boys, hormone driven, who, without intending the consequence, end up with a baby on the way before they are out of their own childhood, and no remedy in sight, because the church has made it impossible to terminate the pregnancy so that they can get on with their lives. Tom Collins might say that playing with sex is playing with fire, but that’s only true where playing with sex and getting pregnant is not permitted the resolution of abortion, but instead holds the young woman, barely an adult, if that, to ransom for her choice to respond passionately, if thoughtlessly, to a situation when hormones just cried out to be expressed. It even applies when the woman has no choice, like the 9-year-old in Brazil. Tom Collins would no doubt prescribe with undue certainty what that young woman should do, and even if it would wreck her chances of the future she had planned, he’d bind her to that decision, because of the certainty that he feels. And if Fraser doesn’t like this pugilistic context, where belief and unbelief very often meet, then he’s going to have to understand how religious faith gets expressed in such a way that it doesn’t hold people to ransom in this way — and I doubt very much that he can do it.
Fraser’s failure is a failure to consider the context of doubt, and how doubt functions in different contexts, and when doubt figures in the context of faith, it is very different to the situation where it is being expressed in the context of science, where it is looking for an empirical resolution. The faith to doubt is one in which faith does everything it can, without the evidence, to subvert doubt in favour of faith, for doubt is, in this context, a failure to believe, and thus a sign of the imperfection of the human soul. It is in many respects, a moral failure, and the effort of faith is to overcome that doubt so that the believer can have joy and peace in believing. Fraser’s contextualising doubt in faith, as though doubt in that context is just like doubt in scientific contexts, is simply a category mistake. Doubt is, as Fraser says, integral to faith, but it is integral to faith because we are fallen creatures, not because that is the nature of human cognition, that demands evidence for an answer. No, for faith, blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.