Faith, Foolishness, and Fanaticism


Last week I chided the CBC’s Neil Macdonald for his outburst against people of faith whom he clearly would prefer to keep out of sight in the privacy of their own delusions.

I have been assured that Mr. Macdonald is a seasoned and celebrated journalist. So what would prompt such an intelligent person to say such questionable things?

Perhaps we can clarify the central issues at stake by examining three key terms: faith, foolishness, and fanaticism.

Everyone exercises faith, not just religious believers. Faith is the everyday experience of putting trust in something or someone on the basis of what one thinks one knows about that thing or person.

I plunk my considerable bulk down on this chesterfield in our living room. I do so without a second thought, and certainly didn’t pause to examine it for critical defects.

I am not, however, as stupid as I might appear.

I have entered a familiar room stocked with furniture I have used daily for years.

In such a context—which is to say, knowing what I know—it actually would be irrational for me not to put faith in this chesterfield: “I’m not sitting on that thing until it’s undergone a full structural work-up!”

That’s how faith works. I think I know my motorcycle mechanic well enough to trust him literally with my life as I crank open the throttle.

That’s how science works: I trust my pharmacist and the instruction manual to my new appliance. That’s also how religion works: I trust my pastor and my holy book.

Stop! one might exclaim at this point…especially if one’s name is “Neil Macdonald.” Science and religion are totally different. One is based on facts and the other on beliefs.

But this is a false choice.

Science and religion have the same basic cognitive structure. We acquire what we think are adequate warrants from which we then carefully derive correct outcomes: Grounds (Facts) + Inference = Conclusions (Beliefs).

Thus science equips us for faith: to trust electricity, internal combustion engines, radar, pilots, surgeons, and many other phenomena we don’t fully understand but take for granted as reliable on the basis of what we think we know.

Religion likewise equips us for faith: to trust God, priests, holy books, rituals, and many other phenomena we don’t fully understand but take for granted as reliable on the basis of what we think we know.

But just a second. Science is based on what everyone knows—or at least what everyone could know if everyone underwent the correct training and pursued science in the right spirit.

Well, many religions say the same thing. They, too, are based on what everyone could know if everyone underwent the correct training and pursued religion in the right spirit.

So how about this distinction instead? Science can be proven, while religious statements can be merely asserted and believed on the basis of faith.

Yet no scientific statement can be “proven” if by that one means it can be conclusively shown that it is impossible for X to be wrong. All science can ever do is pile up enough evidence to indicate that it seems extremely unlikely that X is wrong. We might find the proverbial black swan tomorrow. Science is only ever a progress report on the state of our current knowledge.

Religious beliefs, for their part, are certainly open to critical judgment. Take one famous example: Jews traditionally believe that their God rescued their ancestors from Egypt in the Exodus. So what are the rationally defensible grounds to believe that?

Note that this is a historical statement and would need to be subject to historical inquiry, not natural science. (One can hardly “replicate” Pharaonic Egypt in a lab.) But it is indeed a historical statement, and therefore liable to the tests we run on any historical claim.

That’s what keeps religious belief from being mere foolishness: testing by appropriate means. Failing such testing is what lets someone plausibly pronounce a belief to be unworthy of belief.

“Faith” cannot magically insulate a belief from such a test. The evidence for justifying faith in this thing or that person is always open to serious question: Is it, or is he or she, truly deserving of our trust?

And if religious people refuse such testing? Then their faith has become fanaticism.

The faithful, however, should always welcome challenges. Since their faith is based on what they believe is actually the case, then if they’re wrong, like any other responsible people they would like to be set right.

And that should be true, of course, whether one is a scientist, a journalist, or a theologian.

Facts aren’t alternatives to faith. Facts are the grounds of faith. So the person of faith says, Bring on the facts. Only fools and fanatics resist them.

And let’s see where they point.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).