Questioning Faith


Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a inactive to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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118 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    after completing an inquisition into their own religious beliefs

    “Inquiry”, or did it include tortured logic?Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      If they left their faith, their inquiry couldn’t have been that logical.


      • Couldn’t it be, rather than merely tortured logic, an unwillingness to face the conclusions of a logical outcome? It seems that inquires lead a person to one of two actions, but that is a gross negation of the variety of options a person has. If a person strives to delve into their faith by inquiry and finds something they simply aren’t prepared to face, whether as a result of their immature development or some other cause, the truth which they discovered as a result of properly employed logic may very well be denied on account of outside pressure-for instance family, media, personal need for growth. It seems to me that this article certainly gets the ball rolling with regards to keeping a healthy skepticism in mind, but where to from there? And from whom do we learn the technique of balance between such a skepticism and firm beliefs needed in the life of anyone looking for greater trust in God or in their own personal structure of belief?Report

  2. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I loved this post, Kyle. I wish I’d known more people like you when I was a Christian. I’m sure I would have still ended up in my present strong agnostic position, but I would at least have had people I could really talk to along the way.Report

  3. Avatar Shazbot5 says:

    Do you think there is a good argument(s) for believing in God?Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      If we’re talking about proofs for God’s existence, I personally would have to say “No.” I’m not persuaded by any of them. I tend toward the view that the existence of God is not about argument but about apprehension, and this apprehension, if it every really happens, is rare and uncertain and fleeting.

      If you mean reasons for believing in God, then I would personally say, “Yes.” I believe in God because I have an inkling that my love for my friends and family is a kind of participation in something transcendent, as if love itself has or is being into which I enter by being in love. This inkling could be mistaken, of course, and anyway it is anything but certain, which is why for me it’s a matter of faith.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

        So this is your argument (not a mathematical, deductive proof), i.e. your set of reasons for believing the existence of God.

        Premise 1: We experience love,
        Conclusion: God exists.

        You recognize that this is an awful argument, because it is altogether plausible that love exists even if God doesn’t, so love’s existence doesn’t make God’s existence more likely. That is, you admit you have no good reasons whatsoever to believe in God. Your reasons for believing in God are weaker and worse than the fact that a homeless guy told you you’d win the lottery is a reason to believe that you will win the lottery.Report

        • Avatar Maribou says:

          No, man. That’s not what he said. That’s the difference between an argument and an apprehension, right there, in what you said he said vs. what he actually said.

          Kyle, fwiw, I think you and I have the same answer to that question – and I think you are the first person I have heard frame my own intuitive understanding so clearly. So thank you.Report

          • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

            The argument/apprehension distinction I got from the novelist Mark Helprin. He didn’t invent it, of course, but I like his framing.Report

            • Avatar Glyph says:

              Leaving aside Helprin’s politics (seriously, I don’t want to get into them) which of his novels would you recommend most? I read Memoir from Antproof Case and really enjoyed it.Report

              • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

                Yes, let’s leave those aside. 😉

                I enjoyed Memoir and also A Soldier of the Great War. His short fiction is very good and I’ve heard praise for Winter’s Tale though that one’s still on the to read list.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Cool, thanks!

                Also, good post. I personally self-identify somewhere in the mushy middle of the agnostic spectrum, despite being raised in a very religious environment. As a child I was told in no uncertain terms that to have any doubts whatsoever (which is another way to say “questioning one’s faith”) indicated that one was not truly “saved” – a premise I argued vehemently against even then from the religious perspective – to my mind at the time, if humans are in fact created in God’s image, then our natural human tendency to question and seek answers must be considered a reflection of His nature as well, and as such should not be considered incompatible with faith.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Indeed, Judaism treats this much better.
                “Doubt is the handmaiden of truth”.
                One is allowed to hate g-d, to doubt him, to even be convinced that he doesn’t exist. One is merely asked to not go out and preach that g-d doesn’t exist…Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                What are the odds there’d be a Mark Helprin and a Mark Halperin, both with politics it’s best not to get into?Report

          • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

            You mean you can see God?

            How do you apprehend him? Your eyes or ears?Report

        • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

          My inkling is not an argument, Shazbot5, and I’m not presenting it as such. There’s no premises and no conclusion. As Maribou correctly observes, it’s an apprehension, and for me a very cloudy one.Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        Proof is a term that’s only applicable to question of logic. When testing an empirical hypothesis i.e. H1: God exists then what you are looking for is evidence, not proof.Report

        • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

          There are a handful of “proofs” for God’s existence offered by philosophers going back to Aristotle. They’re not evidence-based but exercises in deduction. I would say they’re attempted proofs based on their form, but I don’t find them conclusive as they’re premised on questionable metaphysical assumptions.Report

          • Avatar James K says:

            Yes, those would be proofs, and I’m not surprised you find them unconvincing, many of the ones I’ve encountered amount to linguistic games.

            Fundamentally, it’s a category error to attempt a logical proof of an empirical hypothesis.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          Proof is a term that’s only applicable to question of logic. When testing an empirical hypothesis i.e. H1: God exists then what you are looking for is evidence, not proof.

          Well, that sorta begs the question against the theist, doesn’t it? If someone thinks that apriori and aposteriori truths are coextensive with necessary and contingent claims respectively, and they also think the claim “God exists” is necessary if true, then they’ll believe that a justification of God’s existence can be arrived at via a priori reasoning. So if those premises are correct the existence of God should be amenable to something like a proof.

          But I think that type of reasoning begs some important questions, one of which is the assumption that God is a necessary being.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Shazbot, from a certain Jewish perspective belief in God is irrelevant to following the requirements of Judaism. Daniel Bell, in the documentary Arguing the World, recounted how when he told his father that he was an athiest and didn’t want to go to Synagogue anymore, his father gave a mystified look that amounted to that God’s existence doesn’t really matter if you’re Jewish than you have to do these things no matter what. The ritual and ethical practices are seen as more important than any sort of belief in God. More than a few Orthodox Jews are athiests and agnostics.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Most of this stems from Maimonides… The first guy who actually sought to quantify “what is a Jew?”Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq says:

          I think it actually stems from the opponents of Maimonides. Maimonides attempted to create a creed that would distinguish Judaism from Christianity and Islam. His critics argues that Judaism is based on action rather than doctrinal beliefs.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Yes. Proof through SCIENCE! (if you can’t hear the spoonyone saying that, you need to get out more).

      I kid.Report

  4. Avatar zic says:

    This is beautiful, Kyle, and eases the concern I had with your previous post.

    We live in a culture that frowns on doubt and skepticism, yet they are very valuable traits. And when it comes to gnosticism, I’m always suspicious that those teaching others not to question have an ulterior motive of control and power that questioning might threaten. To me, it seems that lack of questioning the devine puts an impossible gulf between the believer and the believed; you don’t believe because you’ve struggled to belief, then, but because you’ve been told what to believe.

    Thank you.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      That’s a good suspicion to have, even if you accept some kind of religious authority. Clerics and the like claim to speak for God and in the name of God: that’s a frightful power ripe for abuse. Religious authority is ever in danger of becoming authoritarian.Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      Hm. I think “real” gnostics (ie, gnostics I personally feel drawn to 😛 ) are more mystics than dogmatics. I would expect them to say that they are not in the business of telling other people what to believe, that they can’t actually help believing what they believe, because they experience it as an unshakeable reality, and that there are things that can’t be explained but only experienced, and that those experiences cannot be forced (either externally or by one’s own will).

      Which is actually not so far away from doubt as one might think, if it isn’t pushing anything on others? Maybe?

      When I was more religious, I spent a long time feeling as though
      a) I was utterly emotionally / spiritually certain of my religious beliefs, because my empirical experience of them was so clear
      b) I was intellectually completely averse to my religious beliefs, because, while coherent, they were completely without rational proofs

      I got a lot fuzzier and less dichotomous somewhere along the way, but the end result / my effect on the world in either case is pretty much the same?

      I dunno, maybe none of the above makes much sense. I should be writing my paper, not rambling at you :).Report

      • Avatar kenB says:

        Not to take you away from your paper, but have you seen Scott Peck’s four stages of faith? It may not exactly describe your progression, but it sounds similar, perhaps, roughly…? I think much of the debate here is between Stage III-ish people and Stage IV-ish people.Report

        • Avatar Maribou says:

          I’m familiar. It seems to be of use to him, but it doesn’t suit me very well. Ken Wilber suits me better but even then I get twitchy. Poets fit okay sometimes.Report

          • Avatar Maribou says:

            Oh, and in terms of my own progression, no, it’s not a very accurate fit. It might be … well, less wrong at least, to say I was stage 4 and stage 3 at the same time for a lot of years. I’m still stage 4 and stage 3 at the same time sometimes, but then other times I’m not.

            (See, messy, confusing, and not particularly accurate. This is why I only talk about this stuff when I’m all disinhibited. Wish it was from gin instead of not having slept last night. The paper is done though.)Report

            • Avatar kenB says:

              Yeah, as I was typing that, I was already realizing that it didn’t really fit what you described, but I couldn’t stop my momentum at that point. I’ll check out Mr. Wilber – thanks for the reference.Report

        • Avatar zic says:

          Thank you for that link kenB.

          I am atheist, yet I am also stage four. There is good, evil, mystery, wonder, and miracle. I just don’t think God has anything to do with it; except that it religious faith seems the human way of dealing with those things philosophical, metaphysical, inexplicable.Report

          • Avatar kenB says:

            No problem, glad you liked it. I don’t know if his opinion is supported by any research, but the categories make sense to me.Report

            • Avatar zic says:

              I liked it very much; it describes a spectrum of behavior; in this case, the spectrum of religious belief in humans.

              For that’s pretty much how I view all human behaviors — they occur across a range, with each individual holding their own spot somewhere in the rainbow.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

                I much prefer CS Peirce’s discussion of the four methods of fixing belief (from which Scott’s work appears to derive).

                The methods are:

                A priori

                I believe faith is an example of the method of tenacity, which Peirce describes as follows:

                “If the settlement of opinion is the sole object of inquiry, and if belief is of the nature of a habit, why should we not attain the desired end, by taking as answer to a question any we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief, and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything that might disturb it…”

                On Peirce’s account, faith (tenacity) is not compatible with taking doubt seriously. If faith is tenaciously clinging to a belef and going into psychological denial about what reason and evidence show, then not being in denial would destroy the faith.

                Anyway, I really recommend the whole essay or at least section V. It is an American classic by one of the most underappreciated philosophers of all time.


  5. Avatar PPNL says:

    I dunno it just seems like you are torturing logic and language in order to advance a mushy liberal version of religion. For example:

    As I see it, faith is the willingness to act when one doesn’t have all the answers, when certainty hides behind a cloud of unknowing.

    By this definition of faith I’m practicing faith when I play chess. After all I can’t reason my way all the way to the end of the game. When the definition of faith is simply “best guess” you have destroyed any utility the word had.

    Courage may be the word you are looking for. Your choices have consequences and you must make them despite limited knowledge and limited analytic resources.

    But then believing that you have an all powerful big buddy is probably not an example of courage.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      But my definition of faith isn’t “best guess.” Where guesses are concerned, it’s the willingness to make them. Sometimes there is no best guess. All options seem bad, but you you choose anyway. It takes a kind of disposition to make such choices, and I call that disposition by the name of faith. The higher the stakes and the harder the choice, the more faith may be needed. Courage is related, as all the virtues are. I might even say that faith is a kind of fortitude.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

        So, if you aren’t guessing, then you have a good argument that shows that God exists.Report

          • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

            So you are guessing.

            You don’t believe that God exists. You are makng a guess.

            I don’t believe that such and such a number will win the lottery, because I have no reason to do so. I might guess. But I don’t believe.

            You don’t believe in God. You guess that he exists.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

                If you don’t have a reason (argument) to believe it, then you don’t think you should believe it.

                And you only believe something if you think you should believe it.

                You hope God exists,like youhope a certain number that you guessed will win the lottery. Butyou don’t believe it will winbecause you don’t havea reason to believe it.

                Whatyou arecalling”faith” doesn’t give you belief, just a guess and a hope.Report

              • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

                I reject your equating a reason with an argument. A reason could be an argument, but it could also be an intuition or a sensation or a feeling or an act of trust or something else.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot4 says:

                That you had such an intuition is a reason/premise in an argument.

                Reason/Premise 1: I had an intuition/sensation that God exists
                Conclusion: God exists.

                The problem is that this is a pretty awful argument.

                An act of trust is not a reason.

                That you think you should be trusting could be a reason:

                Reason/Premise 1: I think I should trust that God exists
                Conclusion: God exists.

                This is also a pretty awful argument.

                All reasoning is a series of arguments.Report

              • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

                No, dude, it’s really not. You’re putting a vague apprehension/intuition of mine into a syllogistic form (minus a second premise), a place it doesn’t belong and doesn’t work. Look up the definition of intuition. I’m not making an argument for the existence of God, not an explicit one, not an implicit one. You’re obtusely creating a straw-man.Report

              • Avatar Patrick says:

                I don’t think this is straw-man creation and I don’t think it’s obtuse.

                I think Shazbot isn’t getting what you’re saying, but I think there’s an attempt to put what your saying into a framework that Shaz groks, and the result is that the conversation isn’t working.

                One of the difficulties with formal logic practice is that it gets hard to stop applying it to everything, and when you do that, you wind up rejecting a lot of things that you don’t really have a good reason to reject.

                Shaz, you can’t prove everything (this is something known to be true, point of fact). You can’t even put the framework of bivalent logic on every sort of problem, because your assumptions are going to drive everything anyway.

                Do we have to prove that something exists to believe in it, or do we have to prove that something *doesn’t* exist to reject it?

                The answer is, you already lost. Because no matter what system of rules you use, there are going to be things that exist that you can’t prove or things that don’t exist than you can’t prove. By demanding either standard of proof, you’ve eliminated the possibility that you can ever understand those things.

                Maybe they’re not relevant to you, and that’s fine. The noncomputables aren’t relevant to the practice of most math, but that doesn’t settle the question of whether they’re there or not.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot4 says:

                You have an intuition that God exists, therefore God exists.

                That is your argument?Report

              • Avatar Shazbot4 says:


                Are you saying that Kyle assumes that God exists as a kind of obvious axiom that he can then use in other proofs?

                Just assume God exists. That is easy.Report

              • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

                No, Shazbot, that is not my argument. An intuition is NOT an argument. It is an insight or apprehension of something without evident rational thought and inference. My intuition doesn’t prove that God exists or demonstrate that God exists. I’m not making an argument for the existence of God.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot4 says:

                So you recognize that there is no good reason to believe in God, then? Your belief is unjustified.

                Your intuitions are irrelevant if they don’t justify beliefs.Report

              • Avatar Kevin Rice says:

                Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas. “The heart has its reasons, that the reason doesn’t know.” – Blaise Pascal.

                It is not the case that all reasoning is, or consists, of arguments. Such a position is almost a parody of rationalism. It cannot be thought through discursively because it leads to infinite regress: if all reasons are arguments, every premise is the conclusion of a prior argument, with premises that are conclusions to prior arguments, and so on and so on, endlessly deferred. But as no argument is advanced to support that position, it is potentially self-defeating on that ground alone.

                Intuitions are foundational reasons, and the source of fundamental premises. An axiom is the formulation of an intuition.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

                Sure there may be some (particularism) or one (foundationalism) basic claims that are axiomatic that do not need an argument, which are themselves used in arguments. (I’d say the regress you’re worried about is tolerable too. Maybe there are more and more premises all the way down, infinitely.)

                If Kyle thinks we can assume the existence of God and the Trinity like we assume, say. the law of non-contradiction, let him say so. That’s pretty insane, IMO.

                Epistemically, you’re not allowed to assume some things. It is wrong of me to assume that there are 1000000 planets, say.Report

              • Avatar Kevin Rice says:


                I’m surprised that you find an infinite regress of premises tolerable, since, taken with your insistence that all reasoning is a series of arguments, would render all reasoning impossible unless the infinity is purely a potential infinity, not an actual one.

                I sympathize with your frustration with Kyle’s lack of confidence in arguments for beliefs that he holds, but perhaps you are talking past each other.

                To the both of you I offer the following as sheer speculation, take it for whatever you think it is worth or leave it if you find it to be of no value. I suggest as a possibility that when Kyle is faced with the question of whether there are “good arguments for believing in God”, he, perhaps, understands that phrase as referring to sets of statements that, if presented to a typical reasonable atheist, would convince him that he or she is wrong and that God does, in fact exist. He is rightly skeptical that any such set of statements exists. I suggest that when Shazbot5 asks Kyle if he thinks there are any good arguments for believing in God, he is asking whether Kyle believes what he believes for reasons, or for no reason at all. I suspect that if Kyle were so inclined, he could reflect on his apprehension of God’s existence and formulate an argument from it, but he is not, because he thinks (again, rightly) that such an argument would not be more cogent then his unanalyzed intuition, but less, the way a map is less real than the territory. Since it would not be likely to convince anyone who did not believe in God’s existence to change his or her mind, and since it would do nothing to strengthen Kyle’ hold on his faith and might even weaken it some, what would be the point?Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:


                “an infinite regress of premises tolerable, since, taken with your insistence that all reasoning is a series of arguments, would render all reasoning impossible unless the infinity is purely a potential infinity, not an actual one.”

                How does it follow that all reasoning would be impossible?Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

        Also, are there some faiths that are really bad options? Worse than the one you chose?Report

          • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

            And there are reasons that make some worse than others?

            Wouldn’t one reason be “This religion is committed to immaterial, metaphysical entities that don’t make sense, and about which we have no good reason to believe in? Thetans, for example?”Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              Certainly, there’s “this faith has produced much literature and philosophy that’s of value and is known for its charitable works” vs. “this faith produces nothing and is known for fleecing its adherents and suing everyone else.”Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

                If Scientology weren’t so litigious and they roped in novelists instead of actors, it would still be a ridiculous religion…

                …is what I’d say if I didn’t think Scientology was great and I wanted to get sued.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                They rope in actors for publicity, not art. Battlefield Earth was awful in all dimensions, as would be any Scientology-based novel.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 says:

                It’s hard to know what religious belief causes. Sure, there is a lot of great art from religious people. There is also a lot of great art from non-religious people.

                I don’t think there is much of a case that religious belief “produces” (in any causal sense) great works of art.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                … or assassinated.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

                Also, isn’t a lot of negative influence good for literature. Sexism produces a lot of good novels about sexism and a lot of tragedy in literature, That’s hardly a good thing for what sexism has produced.

                I really think the question of how much good religion has done in the world of art and literature is questionable (and probably unanswerable). What would art and literature have looked like without religion?

                Maybe more human. That can’t be all bad.Report

              • Avatar zic says:

                As someone who knows many starving artists — religion often pays for production of art when/where individuals/state will not.

                There would have been fewer non-starving artists is a pragmatic answer. I leave faith aside here, for I know many jazz musicians (and other artists, myself included) who feel that when they are in creative mode, distinct from production/refinement/technical competency mode, that something ‘flows through them. They do not know where the creation comes from; and I’ve often heard this described as a religious experience.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

                Art can be a substitute for religion, yes.Report

              • Avatar zic says:

                That creative state, something akin also provoked by scenic beauty, meditation, shared group experience, the sense of accomplishment hard work can produce, or a sense of having something profound revealed, often from outside and passing through self, is among those human tendencies that, I think, prime us for religion.

                Certainly the closest I get to something someone who believes in God might call divine. Combined with social compacts that promote stability and safety (food safety, for instance, is embedded in the rules of Kosher,) there is ample reason for religious belief in human cultures.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                But a religion’s cultural merits doesn’t speak to the probability it is true. Good fiction can beget more good fiction.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                The horrific awfulness of Ayn Rand’s novels stems largely from her inability to depict recognizable people, which in turn comes from the disconnect between Objectivism and human nature. It’s the same reason that Stalin’s Russia produced no great literature except for works opposing it. I don’t believe in the literal truth of Catholicism at all, but that doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of, say, Brideshead Revisited, because Catholicism is very compatible with how people think and feel, which is why it’s been around so long.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                And Quiet Flows the Don,Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                Interesting point, that does suggest that certain types of cultural output should be weak evidence in favour of the inspiring religion being true.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 says:

                Not so sure.

                Often great works of art shine through, despite the ideology of the people who came up with them.

                Wagner is a good case.

                This is a cool article:


                It makes 2 relevant suggestions. 1. Artists live for their art. This may mean that being uncharitable and cruel and violent and egotistical may make you a better artist. So good art may come from bad people more often. So if good art comes from religion, that is a problem for religion, not something in it’s favor.

                It also suggests anti-semitism was extremely common amongst great 20th century artists and novelists. We wouldn’t want to move from that correlation (or the correlation between being Catholic and being a great sculptor) to inferring that being anti-semitic causes you to be a better artist. Moreover, we certainly shouldn’t infer that anti-semitism (or Nazism or Feudalism or sexism) has some truth or goodness in it, even if were the case that it lead to a lot of great art.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                And that is also a good point.Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        Sometimes there is no best guess.

        Yes there is, if you know little you use what little information you have. If you know nothing, you default to your life experience to date.

        Sure there may be a small set of guesses that are nearly indistinguishable, and your confidence in your best guess may be low, but there is never a situation where it is epistemologically correct to believe whatever you want.Report

      • Avatar PPNL says:

        Courage is related, as all the virtues are. I might even say that faith is a kind of fortitude.

        Yeah, you are still wallowing in language. You define faith as courage, patience, wisdom and all things good. By expanding the definition to fit your emotional needs you have made it fuzzy and nearly useless as anything other than a teddy bear.

        We all face the necessity of making hard decisions with limited information and limited analytical assets. Faith is the teddy bear we clutch as we face the darkness. Decisions can be hard, true. Teddy bears don’t actually help.Report

        • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

          Wallowing? Well, maybe. Another possibility is that the traditions of religious each have a vocabulary peculiar to them by which their believers make sense of and try to live in the world. Religious language doesn’t always translate well into secular language, particular in our age that frowns on mythos. I’m trying such a translation here, suggesting a broad but limited notion of faith to which religious faith may in a sense and to an extent belong.Report

          • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

            If a language doesn’t and can’t translate into others’ language, it is meaningless.Report

            • Avatar Kimsie says:

              Not exactly. One can still use it to analogize (abstract) the world around you, to conceptualize and remember that which you don’t remember fully.

              It’s still a pretty poor language.Report

            • Avatar kenB says:

              Religious language doesn’t always translate well into secular language
              If a language doesn’t and can’t translate into others’ language, it is meaningless.

              The language that Kyle’s using here is understandable to those who have the requisite background and experience — he’s not talking about a private language.

              Have you ever tried to explain what romantic love feels like to someone who has never experienced it? I think that’s the sort of difficulty that Kyle’s talking about.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 says:

                I’m okay with Kyle saying he has a hard to explain feeling about God.

                But he says he believes in God and he seems to think he ought to believe in God, despite not having reasons (aka an argument) for believing in God.

                Even if he has some hard to describe feeling, that shouldn’t effect his beliefs, unless he is willing to use that feeling as a reason (piece of evidence in an argument) for believing in God.

                Is this his argument? (If not, what is?)

                Premise 1: I have a hard to explain feeling that feels somehow related to God.
                Conclusion: Therefore God exists.

                If that is his reasoning, let us discuss that in plain and simple terms. To start, I would point out that emotions are not a reliable guide to claims about existence. I feel that this number will win the lottery is not a good reason to think that it will win. I feel X about Santa or ghosts is not good evidence that they exist.

                But I suspect his reasoning will always remain elusive, and thus his position will forever be immune to refutation, will only convince those who already accept it, and there is no point in any of us debating it. He will never say in plain terms why he holds (what reasons and arguments he has for) the beliefs that he does, because that would open those reasons to refutation. (Indeed, I suspect he will agree that he is not arguing about God’s existence and his position cannot be defeated with argument, because it is a feeling.)

                There is nothing wrong with playing a hunch, but you shouldn’t believe that the hunch is correct until you have good reasons ( a good argument) to believe it will work out. Kyle is playing a hunch that God exists, but he shouldn’t believe that the hunch is correct until he has good reasons to believe that the hunch is correct.

                What he is calling belief via faith is just a hunch. IMO.

                Anyway, I believe I am now sounding like a jerk, so I will stop commenting on this issue for a while.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I dunno, Shaz. Does personal experience reduce to principles and properties, or is there something fundamentally ineffable about the taste of pineapple? Surely there’s an aspect of actively experiencing a mental state (or whatever!) which cannot be captured in words. (This is standard fair in analytic phil., isn’t it?)

                So it seems to me there’s two things going on. THe first is subjective and intensely personal experience of the sacred (for lack of a better word). The other involves using that experience to justify a force or entity or being external to oneself. I don’t think the second follows from the first (even assuming that an experience of the sacred is real), but inference to the best explanation and some other stuff might get you at least past the halfway point.Report

              • Avatar Maribou says:

                If I live my life experiencing the same hunch more often than not, and my moral judgment tells me that the effect of the hunch on my life is more positive than not, it’s an incredible amount more pleasant to accept it as part of my experience of the world than to spend a lot of time Getting Very Upset that I am stuck with it. YMOV.

                (Yup, this is the same logic I use to be just fine with things that other people I love believe that seem intellectually ridiculous to me. If I’m okay with it for them, I’m okay with it for me too. I get the same compassion my dear ones do.

                (I don’t think this is Kyle’s argument – he’s a “the truth, not a truth” kinda guy, right? – but it is mine. And I am apparently in the mood to share.))Report

              • Avatar Maribou says:

                Um. S/ argument / apprehension / story / whatever.

                *needs sleep*Report

              • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

                You could say I’m both a “the truth” and “a truth” kind of guy. I believe in what we might call essential or factual reality, but I also think each of us understands that reality by way of convention and interpretation. Since no one has direct, unmediated access to the world of fact, we have to go with what seems to make the most sense given our experience and what our senses and reason and orientations tell us.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                If that is his reasoning, let us discuss that in plain and simple terms. To start, I would point out that emotions are not a reliable guide to claims about existence.

                I have two examples to illustrate why:
                1) The most popular religion in the world is the Catholic Church. It has over 1 billion adherents, but that is still less than 20% of the world’s population. That means we know for certain that at least 80% of the world’s population are following the wrong religion.
                2) Even the oldest extant religions didn’t come into being until (at minimum) thousands of years of human civilisation had occurred. This means that we know for certain that there have been periods of millennia where everyone on earth was following the wrong religion.

                Consider the mass amount of wrong people, everyone of whom no doubt sincerely felt they were right. With that in mind, how reliable can a person’s feelings (or even a billion people’s feelings) be about whether their religion is the true one?Report

              • Avatar Kevin Rice says:


                FWIW, I find your style of argumentation appealing, and, assuming it remains civil, I would welcome it at my blog (my name is hyperlinked).

                The following can remain here, or you can take it over to my place:

                Kyle is playing a hunch that God exists, but he shouldn’t believe that the hunch is correct until he has good reasons to believe that the hunch is correct.

                Can you support an argument for your imperative statement above? Can you argue that “he shouldn’t believe that the hunch is correct until he has good reasons to believe that the hunch is correct”? Or, to put it another way, can you make an argument that atheism should be the universal default position in the absence of any compelling arguments for or against the existence of God?Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

                Thanks Kyle, I’ll take a look at your blog place.

                There’s a general epistemic principle that we shouldn’t believe in the existence of objects unless there is a reason to do so. Russell’s teapot analogy is meant to illustrate this. There is no reason for me to believe that there is a teapot floating around outerspace on the other side of the moon, so I shouldn’t believe it. I should be an aTeapotist, just as I should be an atheist or a-spaghetti-monsterist, etc.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

                Sorry, I mean, thanks Kevin.Report

            • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

              If a language doesn’t and can’t translate into others’ language, it is meaningless.

              Nonsense. I can’t translate the language of mathematics into the language of the human sciences, but that doesn’t make either or both of these fields of discourse meaningless. It just means that different fields of inquiry and analysis have their own language. If you want to learn calculus, you need to learn its language. Same for history or literary criticism or medieval philosophy. And same for religions, which tend to utilize a language of myth and ritual to explore the ineffable and mysterious.Report

              • Avatar PPNL says:


                Language of myth and ritual? Language of things that aren’t true and actions done simply because they have been done for a long time?

                Have you ever noticed when a politician speaks very often he winds up never actually saying anything? That is because he does not intend to say anything. He chooses words for their emotional content. What he is doing is more like a mating dance or a dominance display than an attempt to communicate verbal information. It is just behavior with no actual verbal content.

                You are doing the same. You are choosing words for their emotional content for you and those who share your particular display motifs.

                Myth and ritual are about emotions. They contain no rational or logical arguments and no verbal information. They are not and cannot be an argument for or against anything.Report

              • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

                Emotions are involved in and evoked by myth and ritual, but they’re also about disclosing, through the creativity of story and action, a sense of life that escapes other uses of language such as logical argumentation. There’s more to life than syllogisms, you know. Mating dances, for one. You don’t have to believe in the myths and rituals to see that they convey/create verbal information for those who do believe. For Christians, for example, Jesus Christ is not an emotion, but an actual person, both fully human and fully divine, whose existence and teachings inform who they are and how they understand themselves. Fictional or real, the figure of Christ gives meaning to their lives and shapes their story, as individuals and as a people.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot4 says:

                “they’re also about disclosing, through the creativity of story and action, a sense of life that escapes other uses of language such as logical argumentation.”

                The seas of language are running high here again. Please speak more plainly so we can evaluate and test your claims with reason and evidence. (Or are you claims immune to tests of reason and logic? If so, doesn’t that bother you?)

                Either you believe that the Bible is true (or mostly true) or you think it is a cool and uplifting almost entirely fictional story. If you want to say the story has an emotional resonance like Star Trek has for Trekkies, that is fine. But Trekkies don’t believe that there really are Vulcans and warp drives and guys named Captain Kirk. They get something out of a fictional story.

                Is that what you are saying about religion? You get that there is no reason to believe it is true, and you don’t really believe it, but there are some cool stories in there (though not as good as (say) Star Trek)?

                Surely not.Report

              • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

                Religion and religiosity are deep subjects, so, yes, the seas of language will run high. As it is, I’m writing as plainly as I can concerning these questions. You may need to swim a little in the study of these waters before you’re able to evaluate my claims. Or perhaps I’ve failed to communicate as plainly as someone else knowledgeable in these matters could.

                The bible is a pretty complicated text, filled with different genres (law, mythology, poetry, fiction, epistle, history, etc.) even within the same books. There are also various and conflicting traditions of interpretation surrounding this text, even within the same religious communities. The question of its truth, therefore, requires an in depth and comprehensive study its its parts, in historical context, in the context of the whole, and in the context of the history of interpretations surrounding it. This, even if you’re looking at its truth simply from a sociological standpoint, i.e., what it means to people in various Christian societies.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot4 says:

                This is a very roundabout way of saying that the Bible can’t be evaluated as true or false because you can’t figure out the correct interpretation of the Bible. That is, whenever person A points out that claims X, Y, and Z (factual, biological, moral, metaphysical, etc.) are false, that just means that A has the wrong interpretation.

                I have swum deeply in these waters of the abuse of language and have seen all the people whose sense of evidence and logic drowned. There they are floating along in the sea of nonsense along with Deleuze and Derrida.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot4 says:

                If something can’t be evaluated as truth, there are only two possible explanations.

                1. It is fiction and therefore it is stipulated as false. But even fictional stories could be evaluated to see if they were true. If we could travel back in time to galaxies far, far away, we could check to see if Darth Vader truly existed and wore black.

                2. It is nonsense. You can’t check to see (by looking for empirical evidence or pure a priori logic), for example, whether “The absolute is infinite” is true because the sentence is meaningless.

                Similarly, you can’t check to see if the following sentence is true:

                “Emotions are… also about disclosing, through the creativity of story and action, a sense of life that escapes other uses of language such as logical argumentation.Report

              • Avatar kenB says:

                Shazbot, it’s like the folks here are gathered around the table playing Apples to Apples, and you’re a chess player who’s stumbled onto the wrong table, and Kyle has just decided that the best match for “bathmat” is “Elvis Impersonator”, and you’re insisting that unless he provides a 15-step deductive proof conclusively demonstrating that this is indeed the the best match, he should withdraw his ridiculous decision.

                It’s OK that you’d rather play chess than Apples to Apples, but it’s also OK that other people prefer the latter. If you’d rather play chess, perhaps you should find a table where chess is being played.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                The problem with your analogy is that this isn’t a game. Either God exists or he doesn’t. And there are better and worse ways of trying to figure out which of those is true.Report

              • Avatar PPNL says:

                Emotions are involved in and evoked by myth and ritual, but they’re also about disclosing, through the creativity of story and action, a sense of life that escapes other uses of language such as logical argumentation.

                That’s what most people call writing fiction. Yes the narrative can be used to express a point of view. But they don’t have to be true to do that.

                For Christians, for example, Jesus Christ is not an emotion, but an actual person, both fully human and fully divine, whose existence and teachings inform who they are and how they understand themselves. Fictional or real, the figure of Christ gives meaning to their lives and shapes their story, as individuals and as a people.

                And Jesus is pretty much a work of fiction. Whatever the value of his supposed teachings, pretending that your image of him is real is pretty much like a professional wrestling fan who must pretend that wrestling is real because the narrative is so enticing.

                Fiction is powerful. Fiction is useful. But fiction is not true. A narrative may be an expression of what you think may be and hope will be or fear could be. But it is not and never can be an argument for what is.

                If you lose the distinction between narrative and truth you risk losing whatever truth there is in the bible. You start believing in things like a 6000 year old earth, global flood, virgin births and walking on water. As a result you risk losing whatever value there is in the narrative as well.Report

  6. Avatar North says:

    Ahh gnostic talk.. that takes me back *sigh*

    Great post, though as a quite faithless agnostic I have very little to add.Report

  7. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I have to admit that I’m not a fan of gnosticism even though I consider myself a religious person. The teachings of gnosticism run counter to the teachings of Judaism. In basic gnosticism, there is a distinction made between the evil of the material and the good of the spirit that Jewish teachings does not support. The Jewish argument is that religion should be about the here and now and this world rather than some time of spiritual world to come. Its why the afterlife plays a very little role in Jewish thought beyond the vague idea that something exists after death but we shouldn’t fret about the details to much. In the Talmud, some Rabbis even argued that the Messiah is not going to bring about world peace but simply restore the Jewish people to sovereignty over Eretz Israel and that he is simply a political figure.* I think the focus on the here and now material world rather than any sort of afterlife or alternative to the material world makes Judaism somewhat unique among world religions.

    *This minimalistic view of the Messiah is a minority position. I also realized that under this defintion of the Messiash, either David Ben-Gurion or Theodore Herzl count as the Messiah. So if the minimalistic defintion is correct than we are already living in the Messianic Age.Report

  8. Avatar Citizen says:

    Over the years I have watched faith change in many people. As their faith is placed on the anvil of life and the hammer of experience repeatedly strikes with force. Some faith immediatly shatters like glass, Some are beaten flat quickly, and some slowly. Sometimes the hammer strikes on many sides and produces a well rounded faith with very few rough corners.

    On rare occasions, you find one that shatters any hammer that strikes it and damages the anvil beyond use.

    I find it of little use to judge where a person is with their faith. It to often is a brutal life. I only hope that there is faith that allows to not be afraid, because the decisions you make when you are afraid are not the same decisions you make when there is no fear.Report

  9. I walk past a church pretty much every day on my way to work (actually, I walk past at least three). This church has a little message board outside. For the past week or so, it has read something to the effect of “Doubt is not a challenge to faith. Doubt is a part of faith.”

    I think that kind of jibes with your post.Report

  10. Avatar Morat20 says:

    In the old days, I used to start any conversation about religion (well, any one that looked like it was inevietably going to boil down to proofs, whether atheism is a religion, what’s true, problems from evil, and frankly an entirely predictable set of back and forths)..

    well, I used to start it with my personal definitions of theism, atheism and agnosticism.

    In my head, theists are those who have faith in the existance of God/Godlike Entities/Etc. Atheists are those who don’t (atheism came in two flavors, depending on your reasoning. Some disbelieved in a given God, others didn’t see a reason to believe — which I think are rather crucial differences). Agnostics are those who think you can’t be sure either way.

    Agnostic wasn’t a third choice, agnostic was a “modifier”. An agnostic atheist is one who thinks the existance of God is unknowable, and thus doesn’t believe. An agnostic Christian would be one who thinks the existance of God is unknowable, and has faith he (in the Christian mold) does.

    I can see shades of that here — but the word ‘faith’ still does a lot of heavy lifting, and means different things itself. Like “theory” — it means very different things to different folks, and it’s easy to talk past each other.

    I have faith that my wife won’t steal from my wallet — that’s a type of faith, but it’s more simply “trust” to me. There’s the faith my mother has in Christ — that’s something…more, to her. Way more. Something I don’t get. Something I don’t think I’m wired to get.

    And it’s important to her. And some people toss around ‘faith’ so casually, as if my faith in my wife not to steal (or my company to pay me, or my current chess gambit to work) is somehow even comparable. Which I think is a grave insult to the word ‘faith’ as used in the religious context.

    But still, people do it. And it muddles up conversations like this a lot.

    About the only thing I really kept from any of my philosophy classes was the notion that you can’t discuss ideas without language, and that language often has to be exact. I think terms like ‘faith’ get into some hairy territory often because, well, multiple definitions or meanings get used interchangeably and everyone just gets darn confused.Report

    • Avatar Kevin Rice says:

      As someone who has used the word “faith” in just the sort of way that Morat20 considers “a grave insult”, I would like to offer a quick defense of that usage. I do it when I see ridiculous statements about faith that deny it the status of virtue and label it as a form of stupidity and nothing more than a culpable refusal to think critically. The distinction between the kind of natural faith that Morat brings up, and which he prefers to call trust, and supernatural or religious faith, is a distinction that I almost never see recognized unless I have bring it up.Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        I do it when I see ridiculous statements about faith that deny it the status of virtue and label it as a form of stupidity and nothing more than a culpable refusal to think critically

        This is precisely the problem I have with that usage of faith, it’s equivocation. The problem I have with faith, the problem that leads me to label it as a vice and not a virtue is that it fails to apportion belief to evidence.

        Let’s take Morat20’s hypothesis – “My wife isn’t stealing from my wallet”. Why would you believe that? Well, for one thing spouses don’t typically steal from each other, and if your marriage is typical, your wife won’t have a track record of stealing from you. If she’s never stolen from you before, why would you believe she will in the future? Sure, nothing in life is certain, it wouldn’t be right to say “it is absolutely impossible that my wife would steal from me”, since there’s no way you could have enough knowledge to figure that out, but since the potential loss from any such theft is low, it’s simply not worth paying any real cost (including possibly straining your relationship with your wife), to avoid such a small chance of having a few dollars stolen from you (if you had something like The One Ring in your wallet, that would be different).

        Now if your wife has a habit of stealing from you, we’re in a different world, and you would indeed be mistaken to assert “my wife won’t steal from me”. You might pretend she’s not stealing from you to preserve your relationship, or you might call her on it. But either way, you should me making your decision based on what is true, not on what you want to be true.

        Note that I generated the result you attribute to faith using a rational decision-making model. If you want to call that “faith” I can’t stop you, but if you do then we’re going to have to distinguish between faith that approximates rational decision-making and faith that doesn’t. Because it’s that second kind of faith that I have a problem with.Report

  11. Avatar Shazbot4 says:

    I should say that I have a lot of respect for a certain kind of Kierkegaardian fideism.

    Choosing to believe in God while recognizing that it is irrational to do so is… authentic and maybe very beautiful in some hard to define way. But I would say the same thing about any other existential commitment too, including a commitment to moral values without God or a commitment to live life believing things that are rational, a la Socrates.

    What I find inauthentic is believing in God, while not defending an argument for the conclusion that God exists, but refusing to accept that you are a pure fideist who believes in God without any good reason. There is no mushy middle ground here. We can argue that God exists or you can be a fideist who believes admitted that there is no reason to do so.

    If you are a fideist, there is no point trying to say anything rational about religious belief, because the belief itself is irrational and absurd.Report

  12. Avatar Kevin Rice says:

    I have a question that I would welcome an answer from anyone here about, and multiple points of view are welcome.

    To frame faith as a kind of Gnosis or special, unassailable knowledge by which every truth claim must be measured and judged does a disservice to faith.

    In what way or ways does this do a disservice to faith?Report

    • Avatar Patrick says:

      Anyone who is a skeptic at any level (including being of another faith tradition) must reject it entirely.

      The believer therefore abandons the possibility of spreading the faith, unless the believer has the ability to transmit the unassailable knowledge.

      This isn’t exactly a disservice to faith, but it could be a disservice to a Faith.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      For one thing, it implies there is no faith without certainty. Faith built on certainty (rather than, perhaps, the other way around) is no faith at all. It’s certainly not the sort of faith that Christians generally celebrate.Report

      • Avatar Kevin Rice says:


        I am afraid I have no idea what “faith built on certainty” is. I do not see the implication that certainty is necessarily tied to faith, only that doubts or certain questions are not entertained, or, perhaps, not given the consideration they are due.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Gnosticism builds faith on knowledge, certain though mysterious and personal (direct, not something you can share) knowledge. In other words, it doesn’t include faith at all.Report

          • Avatar Kevin Rice says:

            Faith is not excluded categorically. I build my faith in my wife’s fidelity on the certain knowledge that she exists. If I encounter God personally, I may know that He exists, but believing what He tells me (i.e, that the wafer in the priest’s hand is Him), that is another matter. Faith can enter in there. I submit that it is precisely there where it properly does come in.Report

  13. Avatar Kevin Rice says:


    Thanks for the quick feedback.

    What if a believer were satisfied with spreading the faith to the next generation (children of those brought up in it) and to people who do not style themselves as skeptics, but as seekers who have been dissillusioned by their previous faith, no longer believe it, and are looking for another one?

    I can see a possibility where all truth claims are evaluated from the point of view of a single faith, and arguments adduced from that evaluation, argument that could convince people who were open to being convinced. Beyond that, and maintaining the faith held by those who already have it, and passing it on to the next generation, and, if it is a part of that faith, doing good in this world (acts of charity, corporal works of mercy) what more is lacking?Report