In a previous post, I reflected on some recent interactions I’ve had over an apparent conflict that exists between a rational analysis of religious belief and the nature of that belief from the perspective of some inside the religious community. I’ve since recognized that the reactions I experienced were frustrations based on an ostensive recognition that at some level giving a voice to the atheist criticism is giving credence to a position that misses the entire point. Presenting atheism as a rational attack on a faith that is essentially not rationally grounded is creating a false juxtaposition and presenting it as a fair or valid one. I’ve come to believe the reactions I experienced were not reactions against atheists per se but a reaction against atheism-that-rationally-criticizes-religion-as-if-religious-faith-were-rationally-grounded. It is a frustration with the method of public debate not with the difference of opinion itself (though there certainly is a fundamental ideological disagreement).
When a person comes to religion by way of an existentialist leap of faith, they may be confounded by the relational nature of their basis for faith with the rationalist criticism over the apparent lack of reasons for that faith. For the religious existentialist, belief in God is an act of relational commitment and has little to do with rationally-based truth claims. This is why there tends to be a strong and emotional disconnect between an atheist critique of religion and the religious rejoinder. Religious existentialists respond to these critiques with a frustrated sense that the atheist simply doesn’t get it.
Yet Western religious thought is not existentialism writ large. Existentialism is the alcove just before the main, rationalist Grand Hall. It grounds faith on existential individualism but once inside attempts to embrace a fully rationalist epistemology. This is a complicated and not altogether clear epistemology but the attempt to blend these two seemingly disparate positions explains, I think, the modern person of faith. I will need to treat the impact of this rationalist dynamic in later posts. First we need to better understand how existentialism grounds faith and how central this grounding is for understanding modern religious commitment.
To say that religion is grounded on an existentialist commitment is to claim that the basis for religious belief is not a product of an examination of physical or rational evidence for the beliefs that make it up. Certainly the epistemic environment in which faith is seeded and germinated is, in general, a complex one involving years of pedagogical and communal influence that may involve a spiritual “encounter” at some point which firmly establishes the beliefs inculcated through that influence resulting in a deep-seated psychological ownership of those beliefs. From the perspective of the believer, this epistemic environment appears to have provided a foundation in which they later realize “fits” with the way the world actually is. The eventual adulthood commitment to religious ideas is, for them, a willful act of submission to a God they have come to experience personally.  Because religious belief flowers either during a person’s most formative or vulnerable time in life, and this flowering is not done in the soil of reason, the ground or foundation of faith takes on enormous psychological weight even if intellectually it appears to carry very little by way of conscious influence. This is the existential side of the modern religious mind.
When it comes to cultural debates over the rationality of religious belief, the existential grounding protects the individual religionist from any epistemic requirements or duties that might place the individual open to criticism. Since the foundation is not rationally based, any rational criticisms of that faith are viewed as misguided at best and viscous or evil at worst. Atheistic and even doctrinal polemics have no teeth because the polemicist is going after a straw man by attempting to unseat one’s faith using argument or evidence. If one’s faith is based on a fully individualized relationship to God, critics who attempt to attack that faith are committing something close to a category fallacy.
The existential grounding also removes significant barriers to entry. Since one does not require mastery (and in most cases even awareness) of any rational grounding for relating to God, becoming a part of the religious community is epistemically resistance-free. On many protestant models, it involves only a decision to believe and commit. With almost no epistemic requirement, any person of any age, intelligence, history, future, or socio-economic status can become a part of the community. The road may turn out to be narrow but the gates that provide entry are wide open.
But a worldview of such psychological magnanimity could not survive in a world where rationalist epistemology is the reigning intellectual paradigm (and it certainly is that). In order to maintain faith, religious shepherds (in both protestant and non-protestant Christianity) have had to adopt the rationalist epistemology in full. This applies to both praxis and ideology. Practically, one would have to look long and hard to find a worldview that is as structured and nomological as modern religion. Strict ethical principles, strong doctrinal allegiance, regular and consistent community participation and committed financial support are all expected by most modern monotheisms in the West and Middle East. And these expectations are based on firm rationally-based principles found in the sacred text which was parsed and interpreted by what appears to be close-to-infallible scholarship. Further, modern religion is replete with apologists–theologians, philosophers, scholars of all stripes that are dedicated to demonstrating the rationality of a particular religious belief. I’ve interacted with dozens of religious individuals who can rattle off any number of names of scholars who demonstrate the rationality of their religion and who, at the same time, possess almost no ability to articulate even a single argument by those scholars.
The result is an individual who knows very little about the philosophical, historical, scientific, or theological basis for her faith and can both avoid criticism by claiming that her faith is her faith individualized to her relationship with God while and in the same breath claim, on rational grounds, that everyone other religious and non-religious person either has it wrong or is evil (or both). Admittedly this broad-brushed assessment is much too oversimplified for any practical purpose and so a more nuanced evaluation is very much in order. However it does, as a generalization, capture a common profile of religious belief that has at least a popular referent–and one that is not limited to western Protestantism– and will serve as a jumping off point for the study that makes up the core of this series. In the next few posts, I will explore the essence of religious existentialism and examine how it diametrically opposes the scientism of the modern atheist. We then will look at the religious assimilation of reason and look at what that might mean for the make up of the modern religious mind.
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