Faith and Its Defenders

July 18, 2011

The paperback edition of David Fergusson’s book Faith and Its Critics (Oxford, 2011) has been published.  It will probably reach many readers who remain intrigued by the God debates. 

The book is well-titled, as Fergusson is vastly more concerned about faith rather than God.  God would be able to take care of Himself, one might suppose, should He care to undertake any direct self-defense in these troubled times.  No, it is the welfare of religious believers’ faith that has Fergusson’s full attention. 

Fergusson is deeply troubled by recent atheist criticism against faith, and he judges that criticism as misdirected, unfair, and unhelpful.  Atheism misdirects its criticisms against faith, in his view, because religious belief is not really based on knowledge that God actually exists.  Atheism is unfair towards faith, because faith permits so many beautiful things like appreciation for religious music and art.  Atheism is unhelpful about faith, because religion generally keeps people healthier and more virtuous than they otherwise would be.  On the last point, this book is especially disappointing.  Fergusson offers no real evidence that people would be generally worse off without religion, aside from the truism that religious people would be unhappy if their religion were taken away.  Whether the world as a whole would be a better place without religion’s fractious and violent disruptions — not to mention religion’s reliable capacity to keep people ignorant and unthinking about their lives — is not a question taken up by Fergusson.

By selecting the “New Atheists” as his opponents, especially Richard Dawkins, Fergusson is standing up as an intellectual against rival intellectuals, battling for the soul of religion.  There is an intellectualized sort of faith to be defended, in Fergusson’s view.  No blind, intuitive, or inspired faith is defended in his book.  What is it about faith that Fergusson finds so valuable?  It isn’t the usual sort of religious faith that one might suppose must be involved, the sort of devout faith that arises from some personal communion with the divine.  There is no defense of mystical religious experience or miraculous revelation forthcoming – no “born again” conversion or communication from God holds any interest for Fergusson.  Direct contact from God by Word or Deed seems either ruled out or just ignored.  Mysticism does not help faith in this book, and scripture is treated as just wisdom literature.  

Fergusson helpfully informs his readers in chapter six that no intelligent person should take anything in the Bible literally.  What, then, is faith to do with such a strange book?  As a good Protestant, he can’t recommend any established church (even his own) to authoritatively interpret the Bible for the flocks.  But believers aren’t entirely left on their own to deal with this confusing and messy Bible.  We still have “the church,” apparently. Fergusson doesn’t exactly say which “church” or denomination he has in mind.  However, he does seem to know what this “church” is good for.  The best that “the church” can do is to pick out high ethical ideals from the Bible and then use these as hermeneutical “hooks” to fish out similar Biblical passages to round out an ethical lifestance.  Not surprisingly, Fergusson expressly favors the high ethical ideals that one can vaguely locate in a few of Jesus’s sayings, but are easily found in recent humanistic and progressive liberalism.  Fergusson’s “church” evidently is one that has only existed since the late Victorian Age.  Fergusson even admits that enlightenment and secular ideals of human dignity and equality have proven necessary to drag Christianity decisively away from approvals of aristocracy and slavery in the Bible.

His confession that Christianity’s ethics needed guidance from humanist ethics and secular politics is the only appreciation for non-religious thought that Fergusson can muster.  When it comes to faith, nothing atheism has to say has any value.  Although Fergusson complains at length about the New Atheism’s denial that God exists, this book is not a theological tract explaining valid arguments for the existence of God.  Fergusson defends “belief in belief” rather than belief in God.  A defender of “belief in belief,” as Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have pointed out, highlights the many supposed benefits of sustained belief for the believer, quite apart from the question of that belief’s truth.  It just doesn’t matter if belief in God is actually false – it only matters that staunch believers can keep believing that it is not false.  And in Fergusson’s view, religious believers don’t ever have to worry about being proven wrong about God.  They needn’t worry, not because God-belief is rationally supportable in itself (it isn’t, as Fergusson at length comes to admit), but rather because those pesky rationalists and atheists remain unable to prove their case that God does not exist.

Fergusson’s defense of faith as a personal worldview and commitment revolves entirely around faith’s seeming reasonableness and practical utility for each believer.  Whether a believer might actually be correct in thinking that God exists is an entirely secondary matter.  Where the question of God existence has Fergusson’s attention, in a few pages scattered across the book’s second chapter, God actually receives very little help. Even the better theological attempts at arguing for God (of the sort examined in my own book The God Debates) aren’t supplied.  This book only gives the most simplistic arguments for God, far less sophisticated than even the arguments for God examined by Dawkins, for example.  Fergusson won’t really argue God, because his advantage lies in superficiality.  Fergusson most strenuously defends agnosticism – God is not a knowable entity, yet no one can know that God does not exist.  How convenient for faith.  Faith therefore obtains a special privileged place among worldviews – it enjoys the unique advantages that it supplies “explanations” for everything, and it cannot be proven false.  Fergusson sternly complains against atheism that there is no single vantage point that privileges one worldview or explanation over the rest (p. 70). But just a few pages earlier (p. 57), he happily privileges the explanation that “God did it” over any other account for the universe’s existence.  

Proud that everything about the world, even its intelligibility, points to a divine creator’s hand, Fergusson thinks that theology holds a permanent evidential advantage over science.  However, he is blissfully unaware of atheism’s logical point that any “explanation” that supposedly explains everything actually explains nothing.  Where no possible evidence could ever count against a hypothesis, that hypothesis not only loses any possible truth-value, it loses most of its intelligibility.  All that is left to the “God hypothesis” is a vaguely intuitive need for something, anything, to take care of this universe, and Fergusson accordingly elevates this juvenile emotional instinct to high intellectual status. Fergusson repeatedly praises religious believers for supposing that their faith and only their faith holds all the answers to the biggest metaphysical and existential questions.   

Needless to say, Fergusson has no specific advice about which religion might be more right than the rest, although he is happy to quote from t
he usual assortment of Catholic and Protestant theologians when convenient.  The fact that all their theologies have severe disagreements among them doesn’t disturb Fergusson in the least.  Truth is not at stake, when it comes to theology.  Not even theological coherence really matters.  For example, Fergusson has no difficulty accommodating a God who loves life and loves diversity, yet decides to use the bloody and wasteful method of evolution by natural selection to eventually produce human beings at the pinnacle of all life, who promptly kill each other for having diverse religions.

Thank goodness for intellectuals like Fergusson, who contribute nothing new to the God debates except the repetitive drumbeat that God is unknowable and no one can win the debate.  With metaphysical doubt enshrined in place, and no truth anywhere to worry about, religious believers can just keep their faith in belief.  Fergusson does not exactly defend blind faith, but he does defend shadowed faith, where people can keep dimly blundering, feeling confident that no one can point to the light.  Deep in the shadows, only inertia matters, not direction. Everyone can ultimately be a skeptic about God, but that’s fine for Fergusson, since lack of knowledge about God is precisely what keeps the faith enterprise going.  The difference between Fergusson’s shadowy faith and atheism’s skepticism is not actually a difference about God, but about the overall value of “belief in belief.”

Fergusson is a confirmed pragmatist about religion – he looks to the steady practical value of religion for life, and anything that lacks sound value by his high church standards isn’t really religion.  Fergusson’s theological stance falls within the worldview of liberal modernism. Modernism demands that each individual’s own personal intellect should largely have its way about matters of ultimate concern such as religion, and its liberal wing holds that one’s committed lifestance should enjoy respect and tolerance, unless it involves breaching proper social decorum or the law.  Liberal modernism has long been an option, standing between conservative theologies demanding exclusive validity and social reign on the one side, and progressive humanisms entirely liberated from religion on the other.  Christian liberal modernism takes in what it can from western science, and modifies religion in light of enlightened ethics.  That is why Fergusson only cares to defend the “right” sort of faith, one that has intellectual privilege and good breeding.  Other kinds of faith, the kinds that hate and destroy modernism, don’t count as faiths worth defending, since they must be just barbaric aberrations.  Fergusson’s admission that it has been modernism’s humanistic ideals and secular protections which has dragged Christianity in the better direction is not ironic so much as honest.  Fergusson is a modernist intellectual at heart, after all.

In summary, the New Atheist criticisms against faith still stand, and they even receive confirmation from Fergusson’s own admissions.  God cannot be known.  Agnosticism ends up as the default foundation for religious faith.  The lingering “belief in belief” can only be judged for its practical effects on believers and the rest of the world.  And the standard of judgment upon belief must ultimately be ethical humanism, not divine revelation.  Atheism’s epistemic skepticism and humanism’s wise ethics constructed the raised pulpit in which Fergusson stands to taunt the New Atheism.  Despite his borrowed intellectual height, he cannot see as far.  With his rose-colored glasses firmly atop his nose, Fergusson can only see a little beyond his own nose, as he gazes approvingly upon that enlightened realm of intellectual Protestantism that was always good enough for the Church of Scotland and its brightly puritan and middle-class bourgeoisie.  Fergusson is best advised to take off those glasses and look deeper into the darkest realms of faith to perceive the dangerous monsters that still lurk there.