An atheist’s defense of faith

I recently had a brief exchange with a Stoic, where I asked what he thought of the three “theological” virtues (benevolence, faith, and hope) as possible supplements to the four cardinal virtues the Stoics adhered to (justice, wisdom, temperance, and courage). He essentially blew off faith and hope, pointing out that Stoicism is a rationalist philosophy. I don’t want to put too much weight on this interaction, as I just let the point rest there. But it did make me think about why I take these virtues seriously. I am, after all, an atheist, and not given to religious or supernatural beliefs of any kind. What kind of faith can I possibly support?

I think of faith as coming in three different flavors: epistemic faith, faith as trust, and transcendent faith. These categories aren’t crisply delineated, and indeed I think they are founded on a unifying idea to such an extent that I am not tempted to think of three separate virtues, but one cardinal virtue with three aspects.

A brief interlude: the structure of a virtue

I think of virtues as kinds of reasons that the virtuous person employs in everyday moral life. Take courage, the willingness to do the right thing even when it is inconvenient or scary. We can all think of acts of courage. Running into a burning building to save a person trapped inside. Telling your spouse you have cancer earlier rather than later. Confronting your business partner with their profligate use of the enterprise’s funds. Coming out to your friends and family as gay (or maybe Republican).

When you construe an act as courageous, that is prima facie a good reason to do that act. We treat others with justice, giving them their due. If we understand something to be just, that’s a good reason, all else equal, to do it. Temperance is self-control (roughly); not letting inappropriate emotions or reactions get the better of you is laudable in itself. Prudence is being savvy, exercising good judgment, not being taken advantage of, etc. Virtues are kinds of reasons we take seriously in conducting our lives, and they are reasons we find intrinsically worthwhile.

But there is the pesky matter of “all else equal”. All else has to be equal in light of the other virtues. So running into a burning building to save a human being, even at great personal risk, is clearly courageous and thus virtuous. Running into a burning building to save your CD collection is just stupid, and thus not really courageous. Confronting your business partner about their use of company resources is unjust rather than courageous if they’re actually acting in the business’s best interests. Careful judgment, or phronesis, is the master virtue that must be cultivated to make the virtues work together in harmony. This is one way of describing the “unity of virtue” thesis.

If an act or feeling is virtuous, that’s reason enough for the virtuous agent to do that act or have that feeling. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop there. Why is courage a virtue? is a legitimate question. Given what we understand about the human life as one characterized by innumerable hard choices and countless opportunities to take the easy way out of sticky situations, a disposition to do the right thing even when it’s hard, and to find intrinsic value in doing so, is conducive to the life well lived. Without courage, morality would evaporate. And without morality, life would be nasty, brutish, etc.

Let’s get back to faith. For faith to be a virtue then, it must not inherently conflict with the other virtues, and it must contribute to the flourishing moral life.

Epistemic faith

Epistemic faith is the willingness to put skepticism aside for the sake of rational thought. To be a little Cartesian for a moment, there is no purely logical reason to believe anything. Global skepticism (How do we know we’re not just brains in vats? How do we really know logic is even valid?) has no rational retort. There is the stock answer, that global skepticism also undermines itself. But that doesn’t undo the damage. We still have no compelling reasons to form any positive beliefs. Only a leap of faith – acknowledging that we need to form some kind of beliefs, at least provisionally, to make any kind of progress in the rational life – provides any way out of the Sarlacc pit of skepticism.

Skepticism devours everything.

Another kind of skepticism is solipsism, or the belief that other entities do not have internal mental states or narratives like my readers do (I’m just speculating). As far as I know, there’s no way to be really sure that other people are really experiencing life rather than just responding to stimuli as really convincing zombies. All the relevant sensory data could support either conclusion. One could argue that this is exactly where Occam’s Razor comes in handy, that the existence of other self-narrating, ensouled (for lack of a better word) beings is obviously the simpler explanation. I agree. But an interesting counterpoint is the persistent resistance to the idea that complex animals have something similar to our moral self-awareness, despite the accumulating evidence of morally salient features and behaviors. Or one could point to the targeted solipsism achieved when a hated minority has been successfully dehumanized in the minds of the general populace.

If global skepticism and solipsism were the only things faith was good for, then I would be content to just wait for the solipsistic infants and dorm room philosophers to grow up and I’d call it a day. But epistemic faith is needed on a smaller scale all the time, as Adam keeps reminding us. I was trained as a physical chemist, so I have more reason to believe in the validity of science than most, having actually performed experiments and seen the data match the theoretical expectations with my own eyes. But I haven’t performed all the experiments, or proven to myself all the theorems, and no one else has either. And that’s just one small field of physical science, itself just a small part of the whole of human knowledge.

Faith as trust

Faith also means trust in other human beings. And you can already see the blurred boundary between these different kinds of faith: we trust scientists, mathematicians, and other scholars as authorities and as human beings for our epistemic purposes. But we also constantly place ourselves in vulnerable positions and trust countless other people – friends, acquaintances, and strangers – to not hurt us or exploit us. The market vendor leaves their wares on display, unguarded, and trusts customers to buy them rather than steal them. We trust cooks not to poison us and teachers not to lie to us. I could go on and on.

But it’s not just about vulnerability. We trust others to do the right thing whether it directly impacts us or not. Having a child is a giant leap of faith. We bring a new, par-baked child into the world who is not only physically vulnerable, but also not yet an autonomous moral agent. And yet we have faith they will turn out well – physically, mentally, and ethically. We teach them what we can, but eventually we let them loose into the world, trusting them not to hurt themselves or those around them too much.

In the supererogatory extreme, we believe in the goodness even of total strangers even when we literally know better. In one of my favorite scenes in Les Misérables a saintly Bishop redeems Jean Valjean. Valjean, an escaped convict, is taken in and cared for by the Bishop. Valjean returns the favor by absconding with some silver artefacts. Apprehended by some constables, Valjean falsely claims the Bishop actually gave him the silver. The constables haul him back before the Bishop, obviously expecting a denial. Instead, the Bishop confirms Valjean’s tale (our Bishop is no Kantian) and then gives him a couple expensive candlesticks to go with the other loot.

But my friend you left so early
Surely something slipped your mind
You forgot I gave these also
Would you leave the best behind?
So Messieurs you may release him
For this man has spoken true
I commend you for your duty
May God’s blessing go with you.
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

A dark night of the soul follows for Valjean, after which he indeed does go on to become an honest man.

Yet why did I allow this man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate this world
This world that always hated me

Saved by candlesticks.

The Bishop has every reason to believe that Valjean is not trustworthy. He places his faith in Valjean anyway. And it’s not just another virtue coming into play (perhaps compassion). He volitionally – not passively – believes in Valjean’s capacity to heal his soul and become honest.

Transcendent Faith

We have faith in those things “bigger than ourselves”: our families, our political movements, our nations, churches, and traditions. This is faith, rather than mere prudential preference, because we conceive of the value of these as going beyond us. This is the faith that enables people to die for their countries or their gods, but more importantly to live for them. This faith allows us to make sense of respecting the natural environment. Again, having a child is an act of faith: it is a commitment to the continuance of the human project itself. We act in order to improve and protect our various institutions and other transcendent objects and we hope that our efforts will be effective long into the future, beyond the lives of our children and grandchildren, beyond even memories of us.

Morality itself is a commitment of transcendent faith. Morality certainly involves constraints on our behavior, even if the virtuous person learns to make moral purposes truly their own purposes. Many virtue ethicists believe that living according to the virtues is rational as it constitutes probably the surest path to the flourishing life. But many  also admit that some kind of flourishing is also possible for the especially lucky immoralist or bad actor. Just think of Donald Trump or your favorite Roman emperors. Philippa Foot observed, “We are not conscripts in the army of virtue, but volunteers.” Finding value in morality is a choice, an act of transcendent faith.

The unity of faith

The three kinds of faith I’ve identified have one thing in common. They all involve a commitment to something, some value, outside of yourself. Epistemic faith is the leap outside of Cartesian certainty-of-your-own-mind-only. Faith-as-trust is the belief in external beings equal in dignity to yourself. And transcendent faith is a belief in the existence of value outside of your own narrowly construed interests. It’s what would prevent us from defacing the last tree on earth if we were earth’s last, soon departing inhabitants. Faith altogether then, is a looking outward from the self to the broader world.

A cardinal virtue

But is faith a virtue? The atheist or rationalist may still be skeptical. Isn’t faith literally “belief without evidence”, and is that not contrary to the virtue of honesty? I hope nothing I have said above suggests that believing in something in contradiction to credible evidence is either virtuous or permissible. It is not. But there is a difference between evidence against something and lack of sufficient evidence for it. In moving beyond extreme skepticism and solipsism, we merely find ourselves in a domain of insufficient evidence where we nonetheless are forced to act.

Trust in people is also subject to prudential and other considerations. If someone steals from you or lies habitually, trusting them isn’t virtuous faith but vicious naïveté. Having a child is an act of faith, but it comes with tremendous obligations, and bringing a child into the world when you cannot nourish and protect them is an act of cruelty. Transcendent faith in institutions is required for us to have institutions of any quality at all. But we still must choose those institutions and those transcendent values wisely. In short, faith does not inherently conflict with the other virtues, but like all virtues must be harmonized by wise judgment (phronesis).

But perhaps a Stoic might argue that the virtuous aspects of faith as I have described them are more appropriately understood as acts of the original cardinal virtues. To be fair, one could argue that faith-as-trust could be an aspect of justice. Trusting someone in the absence of strong reasons to do otherwise is an aspect of acknowledging their dignity as a rational, moral human being – giving them their due. But consider again Valjean and the Bishop. This kind of faith goes as far beyond justice – usually thought of as what is strictly owed – as does benevolence. And epistemic faith and transcendent faith don’t seem to fit with justice or any of the other virtues at all.

The final question then is does faith contribute to the life well lived, and is it necessary for such a life? I think the answer is clearly yes, if faith is as I have described. Epistemic faith and trust are necessary to make decisions and to interact with other humans, so really they are necessary for any kind of recognizably human life. Trust and transcendent faith underpin morality itself. If phronesis is the master virtue, then faith might be thought of as the first virtue, making the initial step into virtue possible. Finally, the flourishing life must be the life with purpose, and transcendent faith provides the very values and projects that we ultimately choose to adopt as our purposes.

4 thoughts on “An atheist’s defense of faith

  1. I agree with the thrust of your thesis, but I have a couple of objections. First, the content of your comments indicates that you are an agnostic rather than a true atheist. For, yea verily, atheism is itself a leap of faith! An atheist ‘knows’ there is no God, just a person of faith ‘knows’ that there is. Agnosticism is the intellectually honest position of conceding that in the final analysis this is an open question (and may in fact be unknowable).
    The second point is a semantic one. You use ‘faith’ broadly and impressionistically. This is fine for ordinary conversational purposes. For serious analytical uses, a metalinguistic approach (a one-to-one relationship between term and definition) would cut more cleanly. Faith, at its narrowest definition, is an emotion, a conceptualized form of joy. The concept is its conceptual corollary, belief. Belief is, in contradistinction to knowledge and fallacy, a proposition of unknown or indeterminant truth value. Faith used as a count noun is a synonym for religion or some other form of spiritually-based doctrine. Faith is also used as a synonym for trust, but trust is actually based on at least some level of knowledge rather than pure belief.

    1. Atheism isn’t a declaration of knowledge, it is a statement of (the absence of) belief. There is nothing intellectually dishonest about atheism. I’d counter that the level of “agnosticism” described in your comment is intellectually dishonest since it applies equally to obviously absurd concepts like moon men, unicorns, and yeti. A consistent agnostic would be forced to shrug his shoulders and say, “Gee, I guess you’re right, I don’t know for certain that unicorns don’t exist.”

      But if that seems satisfying, then I can push it even further. I just made up something in my own imagination. It’s called a “Floj,” and it has the head of a beaver, the tail of an ox, and the body of a beautiful woman. It makes a sound similar to a cicada. An agnostic would be forced to admit that even a Floj may exist – he doesn’t know for certain that it doesn’t. Even though I just made it up, right here, on the spot.

      That doesn’t strike me as an intellectually honest position, it strikes me as an unreasonable level of obtuseness. The whole point of Crider’s discussion of “epistemic faith” is to acknowledge the simple reality that in order for the human brain to function correctly we have to take certain things for granted despite the inability to determine anything *for certain*.

  2. christhenottopher

    I find this an interesting view of faith, and one that seems to link it to the act of gambling. For the epistemic faith, clearly the gamble is you’ve hit upon the right positive description of existence. For faith as trust, also very clearly you are gambling that people will be helped by your actions. Finally, for transcendent faith, it is gambling that by trusting things outside of your control, you (or the world) will be better off for it.

    Now I don’t mean this as an attack on the concept of faith presented here, but as a means of illuminating it through the potential related vice. Any good virtue placed in a bad context or applied in the wrong way becomes a vice after all. The courage of a suicide bomber is really madness and the scientific reason of a Mengele is really a twisted immoral cunning. The same seems true of faith. Starting with epistemic faith, accepting some basic axioms needed to function in the world may be a very good thing, but expanding the axioms one has faith in seems like it could rapidly descend into absurdity. A faith in others that is not grounded in some sense of probability is naivety that could cause more harm than good. While the bishop’s kindness to Valjean pays off big, sociopaths can exploit such sentiments in their drive for redistribution from trusting people to themselves. Finally, transcendent faith in Mao’s People’s Republic or in the Inquisition’s treatment of heretics seems like pure blindness from the outside.

    All this indicates to me that the interesting thing about a virtue is recognizing when it shifts to a vice. I’m not quite sure how to do that with faith at this point, but conceptualizing the point of faith can only help with that.

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