Thursday, June 3, 2010

some explorations of the definition of faith

Greg Clarke - defender of the faith

Endless distractions and matters of interest.
I was going to have a look at philosophical and methodological naturalism and the apparent debate between Chris Mooney and Jerry Coyne on accommodationism, but someone has sent an email letting me know that, via the public library system here in South Australia, I can now now gain full access to Australia's and the world's best known [and some not so well known] newspapers. So I've been exploring that this morning and with my interest in religious apologetics, I couldn't go past a new Christian paper, non-affiliated apparently, called Eternity. It comes out of Sydney, unsurprisingly, the home of Arthur Stace and his 'eternity' scribblings, and it first appeared late last year. The most recent issue has the irresistible headline article 'Taking on the new atheism.' Have just glanced through a mildly interesting piece on Marcion, the murderous Old Testament god, and the soi-disant 'true gospels', by Michael Jensen [don't know if he's related to the unpleasant Anglican Jensen brothers]. It's a typical mixture of history, dogmatism and propaganda. Now I'm onto the main piece, by one Greg Clarke, who along with John Dickson - remember him? [also here] is a director of the Centre for Public Christianity, in other words a Christian propagandist writing for a Christian propagandist newspaper. The title of his piece is 'the f word', and that's faith. Which reminds me that in my own 'big work', The Faith Hope, there's a big essay missing, one making an attempt to define 'faith' from the perspective of believers and of non-believers.
Clarke himself gives definitions of faith provided by Harris, Dawkins and Grayling, and unsurprisingly, says he doesn't recognise any of these definitions. The Grayling one, which provides as good a start as any, is 'a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason'. Clarke then counters with a more positive definition. Faith is 'a conviction that grows out of an 'encounter' with God'. By 'God', Clarke means the 'the god called God', or 'the god formerly known as Ywh', one of many many deities worshipped by people, past and present, on this planet. Clearly, his preliminary definition of faith doesn't contradict Grayling's, as claims of personal 'encounters' with deities, or ancestor spirits, or fairies, have never yet been backed up with evidence of the kind generally recognised, and the faithful generally see no point in trying to provide such evidence.
Clarke tries to elaborate this 'encounter' further, as an encounter with the Biblical god, an encounter with Jesus, either personally or through the revelation of scripture, but it all amounts to the same thing, some kind of subjective experience that supposedly reveals some kind of objective truth. He tries to smuggle in the idea that this constitutes 'knowledge' of some kind, thereby blurring if not obliterating any boundary between knowledge and belief. His claim that 'this fits remarkably well with contemporary theories of epistemology' is ridiculous. No theory of knowledge worthy of the name counts belief per se, no matter how fervently held, as knowledge. Clarke invokes good ol' Al Plantinga to back up his claim. As Plantinga describes it, these kinds of revelatory encounters involve 'no leap in the dark, not merely because the person with faith is wholly convinced but also because, as a matter of fact, the belief in question meets the conditions for rationality and warrant.' Unfortunately, Clarke doesn't elaborate on this extraordinary and dubious assertion, but I'm confident, in spite of not having read Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief, that it won't stand up to much scrutiny. In fact, we can get a taste of Plantinga's attitude to the calls for evidence from this quote:
Must my criteria, or those of the believing community, conform to their examples? Surely not. The theistic community is responsible to its set of examples, not to theirs.
This might be termed the 'we're taking our bat and ball and going home and inventing our own game with our own rules' theory of knowledge. Or the 'self-serving claptrap' theory of knowledge.
Clarke goes on, as if he's somehow clarified the meaning of faith, - as if by mentioning words like 'reasoning' and 'reliable testimony' he has shown that believers employ these things, which he manifestly has not - to shake his head at critics' misunderstanding of the faith concept. In doing so, he entirely misrepresents the critics of faith. Non-believers, new or old, do not argue that believers are wrong in claiming their beliefs are logically or evidentially true. Their arguments are more or less entirely devoted to the unlikeliness - that's to say unreasonableness - of any particular version of revealed religion being true, bearing in mind that these beliefs contradict each other and have particularities that make them irreducible to mere deism. Not that there aren't sound arguments against deism too.
The rest of the Clarke piece contains no philosophical arguments to speak of, it simply asserts that people of faith are called on to do this, that, or the other - presumably whatever your interpretion of scripture, or your local holy person's interpretation of scripture, calls you to do. This, of course, gets us nowhere. I will mention one more claim, though - a well-known one. 'Christianity teaches us that we are all people who have fallen from grace...'
Of course, Christianity doesn't really teach us this, it tells us this. The difference between teaching and telling is essentially the difference between encouraging people towards insight, and indoctrination. I can't accept that we are people who have fallen from grace. I love the word 'grace', it's one of my favourite words, but it holds no religious connotations for me. Homo sapiens sapiens are the products of a long process of evolution. We have never been perfect, and whatever grace we have attained has never been other than fleeting and all the more precious for that. The best we can do for ourselves is to go on working at working out who exactly we are and how we can strive to make ourselves and our world better, whatever that might mean exactly.

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