"Faith is the substance of things hoped for..." -- Hebrews 1:11
I found myself quite struck by Helen De Cruz's recent post over at NewAPPS on Howard Wettstein's "practice-based" attitude toward religious faith. As Wettstein explains in this interview in The New York Times,
My thought is...that “existence” is...the wrong idea for God.
My relation to God has come to be a pillar of my life, in prayer, in experience of the wonders and the awfulness of our world. And concepts like the supernatural and transcendence have application here. But (speaking in a theoretical mode) I understand such terms as directing attention to the sublime rather than referring to some nonphysical domain. To see God as existing in such a domain is to speak as if he had substance, just not a natural or physical substance. As if he were composed of the stuff of spirit, as are, perhaps, human souls. Such talk is unintelligible to me. I don’t get it.
In other words, for Wettstein, his "religious faith" consists in practices, rather than beliefs with ontological commitments.
Although I find something about this idea attractive (more on this momentarily), I have to confess that I'm not sure Wettstein's view is coherent, even as a practice (De Cruz and Wettstein's interviewer, Gary Gutting, have similar doubts). For, the way Wettstein puts it, he sees his practices -- of prayer, etc. -- as involving a kind of relationship with God. As he says,
My relation to God has come to be a pillar of my life...Religious life, at least as it is for me, does not involve anything like a well-defined, or even something on the way to becoming a well-defined, concept of God, a concept of the kind that a philosopher could live with. What is fundamental is no such thing, but rather the experience of God, for example in prayer or in life’s stunning moments. Prayer, when it works, yields an awe-infused sense of having made contact, or almost having done so.
The problem, of course, is this: how can one claim to have a "relation to God", "experience of God", or "make contact" with God without presupposing (and, in some sense, believing) that God exists?
I want to suggest that either Wettstein really does believe in God (as some kind of spirit, substance, etc.), or something else is going on: he is gesturing toward quite another conception of "faith" that is worth thinking more about philosophically, and which has increasingly begun to play a role in my life -- the idea of faith as a kind of hope (viz. Hebrews 1:11, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for").
I'd like, at this point, to share a little bit in the way of autobiography. For most of my life (until just a couple of years ago), I considered myself the hardest-core, most militant type of Atheist imaginable (viz. Dawkins, Dennett, etc.). I was also pretty much taken by W.C. Clifford's argument that faith (belief without sufficient evidence) is immoral. Then, however, a couple of things happened to me. First, I fell in love with (and married) a woman from a religious background. Second, I started learning a lot about quantum physics and cosmology.
The first of these experiences lowered my emotional defenses against religious practice quite a bit. I agreed to be married in a church, began to attend church on occasion for my wife's sake, and found much to my surprise...that I not only enjoyed it, but found it helpful philosophically. Now, I had been to church a few times earlier in life, and pretty much recoiled in horror each time, resolving never to go back. This time, however, things were different. The pastor at this church was really thoughtful, and I found his sermons meaningful. I also began to appreciate the time for contemplation, and even some of the religious material. Indeed, I began to meditate more on things like forgiveness, unconditional love, etc. -- and, as time went along, my meditations on these subjects worked their way into my research (I'm writing a book right now on the notion of unconditional goodness). In other words, I found the religious practices I was suddenly engaging in to be -- much to my surprise -- good for my soul, and good for me philosophically. (A side note: I do not think the Philosophers' Cocoon would even exist today were it not for these experiences. Engaging in religious practice -- reflecting more on goodness, on who I am, etc. -- made me, I think, a better person; a person committed to trying to help others more than, say, I used to. Which I think the Cocoon emerged out of).
My research into physics and cosmology, on the other hand -- in addition to arguments in the philosophy of mind -- have increasingly led me to be openminded to the idea that there could be a "God" of some sort (and that it is not epistemically irresponsible to "hold out hope" that some form of the God Hypothesis may well be true). The short story is this: the more research I've done in physics, the more I have been led to doubt naturalism, at least in its traditional form (reducing the world to forces, particles, etc.). I am increasingly coming to believe, on physical and philosophical grounds -- much like people like Chalmers -- that mind must be a fundamental feature of reality. And I think it is important to be aware of the fact that it is not just philosophers who go down this road. First, it is arguable that quantum physics itself necessitates some form of dualism (the great Werner Heisenberg -- developer of the uncertainty principle -- thought that it does, and so have others). Second, developments in cosmology suggest that our universe may be a small part in a vast multiverse of alternate possibilities -- in which case is an epistemically serious question whether something like Anaximander's ancient picture of the world is right. Perhaps the world, in some sense, just is "the boundless" -- an infinite, unending array of possibilities. Furthermore, some physicists have proposed that the world itself just is a giant quantum computer projecting computations backward in time (which, if mind is also a fundamental component of reality, implies that all of space and time are in some sense the projection of an infinitely powerful mind). Finally, of course, I think there is some very serious evidence that we are, quite literally, living in a videogame (which in turn begs the question: whose game?).
Anyway, is all this crazy? Absolutely! But that's the thing about physics: the more you study it, the more mad it all seems.
Here, then, is my situation. I have found myself emotionally and intellectually more open to the possibility that there may, in some sense, be a "God." At the same time, I do not believe. I think, philosophically, that that would be irresponsible of me. I don't have enough evidence. But now what is the right way to respond to this situation?
Again, the situation is: (1) I think, intellectually -- given my understanding of philosophy and physics -- that the God Hypothesis is one worth taking seriously, (2) I do not think I have enough evidence for belief in the Hypothesis; but (3) I derive emotional and intellectual goods from engagine in certain types of religious practices (going to church, praying, reflecting on unconditional goodness, forgiveness, etc.).
Here is the conclusion I have tentatively reached: I am intellectually, emotionally, and philosophically justified in hoping that there is a God. When I pray, I do not pray because I believe there is someone listening. I pray because I hope against all hope that there is, somehow, someone listening. I also hope against all hope that, in some sense, this life, for all its evils and horrors, is worth it, and that there is some sort of salvation at its end.
Is this attitude -- having a kind of religious faith as hope -- morally and philosophically legitimate? I think it is. First of all, to respond to classical worries about the ethics of belief (viz. W.C. Clifford), there seems to me a morally momenetous difference between, say, believing Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior or Mohammed the Messenger of God, and hoping that something like this is true. To believe something without evidence is, I think, potentially dangerous in all the ways that Clifford held. Belief in religious teachings/scriptures goes beyond our evidence, and has a horrific track record (viz. religious intolerance, etc.). Hoping, though, is very different. If one merely hoped that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior, one would not, I think, insist to others, intolerantly, that he is, that all of his teachings are true, etc. I think that religious hope, in other words, promises the goods of religious practice -- community, prayer, etc. -- without the (moral and psychological) costs.
Is religious hope, as I am calling it, religious? When I first broached the subject with my wife, she wanted to deny that it is. Religion, she wanted to say, is defined by belief. But I see no reason to believe this. When I pray, I pray to God. Not, again, in the sense that I believe God is there, but in the sense that I hold out hope. And that, I think, is not only a form of religion. It is a kind worth thinking more about.