Hume, Penn Jillette, and faith v reason
I mentioned I’d been reading Hume the other day. He characterises “religious people” in a slightly well-poisoning way in the midst of his discussion in Dialogues on Natural Religion…
“And here we may observe, continued he, turning himself towards DEMEA, a pretty curious circumstance in the history of the sciences. After the union of philosophy with the popular religion, upon the first establishment of Christianity, nothing was more usual, among all religious teachers, than declamations against reason, against the senses, against every principle derived merely from human research and inquiry… The Reformers embraced the same principles of reasoning, or rather declamation; and all panegyrics on the excellency of faith, were sure to be interlarded with some severe strokes of satire against natural reason.”
This characterisation has become a bit of a meme. It treats all religious belief as outside of human reason, a case Hume attempted to make in his seminal ‘Of Miracles’ in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, Hume argues that because miracles don’t happen, because they are outside of nature, and are almost impossible to verify using a naturalistic framework (a somewhat circular approach to the supernatural), religious belief operates in the world of faith, not reason. He pushes a form of fideism. The belief that reason and faith are in conflict. He does this because he needs to maintain some veneer of being an orthodox Christian, because not being an orthodox Christian in 18th century Scotland is pretty difficult – fideism is a cop out, Hume probably didn’t hold to it – given that his entire academic program contradicted it, and it’s pretty sloppy arguing, on behalf of modern atheists to characterise faith in this way.
Fideism is dumb. Faith might be the belief in things unseen or hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), but it is also based on experience and observation, and not a little reason. That’s pretty consistently been the Christian approach to faith and knowledge since, well, forever. That’s why science was a product of Christians trying to read and understand God’s world better. Seriously. Google Francis Bacon. And it’s why atheistic naturalism’s sweeping claims are devoid of anything that looks like history or philosophy
It’d be great for the thinking, intellectually honest, atheists out there to break free of the group think shackles of this meme, and start admitting they don’t have a monopoly on reason.
But no. It continues. Enter Penn Jillette’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Penn’s a smart guy. He’s funny. He’s been reasonably nice about Christians in the past – while clearly disagreeing with people of faith. But this article perpetuates a false meme. To be fair, he’s answering an equally annoying meme from our side – the claim that atheism is a religion…
Here’s what he says…
Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share.
Faith is a hypothesis, as is atheism, about the question of God’s existence on the basis of evidence – like revelation, history, philosophy, and not a little bit of reasoning on the basis of our own existence.
It’s a positive hypothesis, while atheism is a negative hypothesis. There are plenty of less than good systems of religion built on varying types of faith – but faith itself should never be maintained contrary to actual evidence. It’s just that the evidence that naturalists put forward is so dissatisfying on anything but a purely material level, and in its modern form (possibly since Hume) it fails to consider any alternative frameworks and anything that has come before it. Hume was pretty good at characterising or ignoring the people who made good arguments against what he was saying, his whole project in Dialogues and Enquiry essentially ignores 1,700 years of Christian thought that is relevant to the natural theology exercise. Christians have something to say on how we read nature based on the Bible – and I’m not talking about accounts of human origins, but accounts of human nature, and the application of a Christian anthropology to the scientific endeavour had been serving us pretty well since Christians kicked the scientific process off because they believed God supplied a guarantee that the natural order would continue in the way that he created it to operate.
That is all.