In an article titled The Nature Of Faith, I explored what faith is, and sought to show that at its core faith is a voluntary commitment to perceived truth. I suggested that someone can be a person of faith, even in the absence of belief in God, or the certainty of this belief. As a part of the development of this position, I presented an understanding of faith which Richard Swinburne designates using the term Pragmatist Faith. (1) This is a faith where the agent exercising belief in God does so tentatively, based on the assumption of God’s existence, rather than its certainty. Such a person acts as if God exists, even if he is unconvinced this is the case.
Usually Christians want to say that people are obligated to acknowledge God in their life. A fruit of the modern recognition of metaphysical ambiguity is that it makes this kind of claim less cogent. How can someone be obligated to believe, if the basis of belief is not obvious? In articles titled Intellectual Probation and The Element of Mystery, I offer reasons why God might allow the kind of metaphysical ambiguity we find ourselves in today. There may indeed be good reasons why God would veil himself from us.
Of course some would claim that God is not veiled, but would rather insist that God’s existence is obvious, and that the modern claim this is not so is the fruit of sinful rebellion and self-deception, rather than genuine ambiguity. This latter assertion finds its basis in a common understanding of Romans 1, where Paul appears to claim God has made his existence plain to all men, so they are without excuse for their unbelief. I examine this interpretation of Paul and other related passages in a further essay titled Does The Bible Claim The Existence Of God Is Obvious? There I offer an alternative understanding of such passages, that would potentially harmonize them with what appears today to be non-culpable unbelief on the part of many people.
Pragmatist Or Moral Argument For Faith?
What I wish to do in the present article is look more closely at this concept of Pragmatist Faith itself. I want to see whether an argument can be developed that implies even if belief in God cannot be substantiated, agents still ought to act on the assumption of God’s existence. In other words, that they are still reasonably required by God to exercise faith in him, even if this can only be action based on the assumption of God’s existence, and that they are culpable for not doing so.
I will also argue that although pragmatic considerations do enter the picture in such a view, it is moral considerations that provide the potential for a sound basis for this conclusion. As such, I will attempt to move beyond a concept of pragmatist faith, to a moral argument for faith. If successful, this will offer an alternative path to the usual accepted Christian belief that men are obligated to worship and acknowledge their creator. It will point to reasons Christians can offer for such a position, even in our current context of metaphysical ambiguity.
I mentioned briefly in The Nature of Faith that I find Swinburne’s use of the term “pragmatist” unsatisfactory. It suggests that the individual in question is motivated primarily by concerns of self-interest and self-absorption, rather than by moral considerations.
Swinburne’s use of this phraseology is in keeping with the philosophical literature. The type of view of faith he presents is represented most famously in the Wager Argument found in the writings of Pascal.
Pascal’s wager essentially says that in a context where belief in God cannot be established through Reason, a rational person ought still to act as though he believes in God. This is so because if she wagers God exists and this turns out to be mistaken, she loses nothing. If she wagers God does not exist and it turns out he does, she loses everything, since God only rewards believers with eternal life. So it is pragmatic to wager God exists on the chance that he does.
The structure of such pragmatic arguments is problematic because they picture God as some kind of cosmic terrorist who is threatening the lives of his creatures if they do not ‘act like God exists’. Clearly if God is of such a personality that he would condemn people for not acting like he exists when this is not clear, we have much bigger problems on our hands than solving the ultimate metaphysical question. How could we trust a God who rewards dishonesty with one’s convictions?
If this is God’s character, there is certainly no guarantee that betting on the wager will result in the outcome it promises. Someone who would condemn his creatures for honest disbelief is not likely to make good on a promise of salvation. If someone really thought such things were the case, it might be pragmatically worthwhile to take one’s chances rather than get the terrorist mad. But that the outcome is sure to be the one hoped for is clearly not the case.
How Pragmatic Reasoning Works
Pragmatic reasoning usually constitutes acting on an assumption, rather than certain belief. Though some might claim belief is like an on/off switch where we either believe, or disbelieve, this does not appear to be the case in most of our practical reasoning. Usually we find ourselves more or less convinced about any number of things.
When I take my umbrella with me, is this because I believe it will rain, or because I believe it could rain, or because I believe it is likely to rain? Usually it is one of the latter two, rather than the former. But if my reasoning is based on one of the latter two reasons, this means I do not believe it will rain. And given this disbelief, would it not be more rational to act on my disbelief and not take my umbrella? How could it be rational to act on the basis of something one does not believe? Yet in such a case we usually would suggest that the rational course is to act on the assumption it will rain, even though this may end up mistaken and it is not presently believed to be certain it will rain.
This is how pragmatic reasoning works. The basis for the rationality of acting on the assumption of something one is not certain of is clearly not the belief the outcome will happen (which we are admitting does not exist). Instead it is the belief that the implications of what will follow if the ‘not believed’ outcome does happen are sufficiently negative, that leads to the rational conclusion one should act on the assumption it will happen.
This is the type of reasoning Pascal offers us for faith. One acts on the assumption of God’s existence, because one anticipates pragmatically bad consequences from failing to do so. Although such reasoning is familiar enough in our practical day-to-day lives, something seems fundamentally amiss with this type of reason for belief in God. A relationship with God is supposed to be one of love and friendship and worship. How can this be had in a context where the person doing the loving does so only to ensure his own self-interest?
Where Pragmatism Finds Its Place
If pragmatism cannot be central to relationship with God, this does not mean it cannot have any place in our motivation. The way self-interest can enter the picture is the believer may well perceive that if he acts on the assumption of God’s existence, he is more likely to maintain a good heart than if he does not act on this assumption. He must believe having a good heart is necessary if he is to be the type of person he really, morally ought to be. If acting on the assumption of God’s existence is instrumental to this end, he can be validly pragmatic in seeking his own good in this regard.
Living on the assumption of God’s existence in such a case will make me a morally good person, which I must be if I am to have the state of will God must morally require of his subjects, if they are to be ultimately saved. So I have pragmatic reasons for becoming more than solely pragmatic in my motivations.
Dishonesty a Virtue?
But the question remains, how can it be argued that it is morally right or obligatory to act on something that is less than certainly true? Would this not be to encourage people to live contrary to how they really think things are, and make dishonesty a virtue? Of course one immediate answer is the pragmatic one that nothing is certainly true, but we must act nonetheless. But the concern is, is there sufficient evidence to support belief in God, or at least in the likelihood of God’s existence, to justify assuming it to be so? And if there is not, then must I not be immoral to pretend to believe in God when I really don’t? Am I not lying? And if God is moral, ought he not actually to punish me for acting dishonestly in this manner?
What complicates this question is, once we admit that certainty either way is not attainable, we are left with that rather nebulous question of how much evidence is sufficient evidence to justify acting on the assumption of the truth, either of naturalism or theism? And what criteria can be suggested to justify the scale we will use to weigh the evidence? But here I think a case can be developed that theism is inherently to be preferred, due to the moral implications associated with it.
Within our moral arsenal is a concept that can be referred to as ‘precautionary reasoning’. Essentially, this concept states that when one is in a position where one’s action may cause harm to another being of moral considerability, or may result in one’s failing to fulfill some of one’s moral obligations toward such a being, one ought to refrain from such action, or take such positive action as would be necessary to meet one’s possible obligations.
Even if we assume naturalism and theism stand on similar ground of likelihood evidentially, with neither more plausible than the other, there are clearly important moral issues involved in acting on the assumption of theism, nonetheless. If the universe is all there is, there is no moral considerability to my acting as if this is so. If I act like the universe is not all there is, when in fact it is all there is, I do not wrong the universe by failing to acknowledge its person. It is not a person and hence has no moral considerability.
But if I act like God is not there when he is, I wrong God. I also wrong all his moral subjects, by failing to acknowledge his rightful lordship of the universe of moral beings. Outside of certainty God does not exist, and given the very real possibility he does exist, I ought to opt for the belief there is a being there to whom I owe moral recognition and submission. Precautionary reasoning requires me to give to the God who may be there, the honor that would be due him if he is there, because I have reason to believe he just may be there.
So the reason such ‘acting as if it is so’ does not constitute immoral dishonesty toward perceived truth in the face of my lack of certainty this is so, is because whenever there is some question I might through my actions fail to meet my obligations toward another being of moral considerability, I must take the course of action that most likely will fail to produce such wrong, but will instead fulfill my possible obligations. In the case of theism, I have potential obligations to all moral beings, to recognize the lordship of God.
Morally Rational Behavior
Given the above considerations, it becomes rational for a person to perform actions we might otherwise consider odd, given a lack of belief in God. For instance, even though a person may doubt whether God exists, he might still justifiably believe that he would more likely maintain a good heart in the context of a religious moral community that supports one another in the pursuit of living a life pleasing to God. And so he might also pursue such fellowship despite his reservations.
He also might pray to a God he is unsure exists. There is nothing essentially irrational in praying a prayer like, ‘Lord, if you are there, please help Aunt Susan’s operation to go well.’ And there is no reason such a person must continually add these conditionals to his prayers. He may reasonably simply pray, ‘Lord please help Aunt Susan’s operation go well.’
In the case of prayer, there might also be the real fact that if God has decided to work through answers to prayer, he really will not act if we do not ask. This would not be impacted by whether we are certain God exists or not, but by whether we seek God in prayer. Both certain believers and uncertain believers can choose whether or not to pray and seek God’s help in any given situation. God might act in certain ways in an uncertain believer’s life because he prays and not act in those ways if he does not pray.
Rational After All
So the reason all this behavior is rational even though one does not certainly believe, is the same reason that taking one’s umbrella out seems rational even though one is not certain it will rain. It is simply the better way to live. If theism ends up being true, it would be better to have lived one’s life as though it is true, than to live one’s life as though it were not true. And one must commit one way or the other in a practical sense, since not praying and seeking God is essentially acting on the assumption naturalism is true.
If one lives like God is real and this turns out to be mistaken, no great loss will have ensued. On this Pascal was right. A God fearing life is not a bad life. But if one lives one’s life as though naturalism is true, and this turns out not to be the case, then one will have failed to fulfill important moral ‘obligations’ and values of worship and trust in God.
So it is true that we should wager God exists. But not as Pascal says, so that things will work out better for ourselves. It is true we will be better off, for we will become morally better people if we do. But we ought to wager God exists because it is really the most worthwhile thing to do, and also because it will ensure we fulfill obligations we may indeed have.
Degrees of Commitment
Of course we must recognize there are degrees to which all this is so. The level of persuasion one finds oneself under regarding God’s existence will impact the degree to which one will act on the assumption this is so. Here also belief is not an on/off switch. To sell all one’s possessions and live in poverty because one believes this is God’s will, would certainly require a greater degree of confidence that God exists than I am envisioning a person of assumptive faith to be in. This is not to criticize those whose personal confidence allows them this degree of commitment. But we each must live within our intellectual means.
One will also live according to what God one finds believable, and so associate with the religious community that most closely fits this perception. Theistic commitment must exist along a scale from non-existent (if one is virtually convinced God does not exist) to virtual life sacrificing conduct in the context of firm conviction. Along the scale between these two extremes we all must find ourselves.
Obligation To Believe
I think good arguments can be put forth that men perceive themselves in some sense morally obligated (see Moral Foundations). This entails a perception one should honor these obligations, whether or not God exists. Most of us would also believe that if God exists he would have us honor our moral perceptions. So at least a moral life is what most people would surely be held accountable for by God, even if they did not find themselves able to act on the assumption of God’s existence.
Praying for guidance and help in one’s life, possibly some kind of religious observances like church attendance (if one finds the Christian religion rationally influential), scriptural reading and meditation or such, personal devotional time of some sort, etc. These are all things that would be more or less beneficial to one’s continuance as the kind of person one must believe one ought to be if God exists. These latter also reinforce the foundational moral life that one must believe oneself obliged to, whether God exists or not.
Faith is commitment to perceived truth. I have acknowledged that for some people, their perception of truth does not include the belief God exists. As such, they cannot be under obligation to act from the conviction this is so. But such people can still be obligated to act on the assumption of this belief, if the moral reasons for doing so are perceived to be of greater importance than any reasons not to do so. I have suggested above that these reasons are greater.
We are seeking a rationale for what commitment is appropriate, given the metaphysical ambiguities before us. It is not persuasive that this is simply a matter of either/or. The evidences are not that straight-forward. Yet we find ourselves faced with the fact that, at least to a degree, we must choose between a practical naturalism or a practical theism.
While there are degrees within theism, there does seem to be a sense in which one is either going to act as though God has something to do with one’s life, or one is not. There appears to be no genuine argument for assuming naturalism, simply because theism is not certain. Theism does seem the more compelling viewpoint, not simply because of the general evidences in its favor, but also because of the reasons that can be offered for the moral value of assuming its truth. As such men can still be held accountable for acknowledging God in their lives, even when his existence is less than plain to them.
1. Swinburne, Richard, Faith And Reason (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981.), pg. 115-117.
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)