Monograph: Faith in Evidence
Chapter 1 then addresses some worries that might be raised about the project as a whole: that it operates within a Western Judeo-Christian framework, that it is committed to realism about religious truth and to cognitivism about religious beliefs, the worry that religious epistemology is overly fixated on the cognitive aspects of faith, and the suspicion that analytic philosophy lacks the resources to talk sensitively about matters of deepest human importance. The chapter finishes with a summary of the rest of the rest of the book.
I clarify the epistemic norm, situating it in the contemporary epistemological debate about whether evidence can be interpreted in only one way or in a plurality of ways. I then clarify the faith norm. This involves sketching the account of faith I’ll develop in chapter 7, and discussing how the faith norm applies when a person’s evidence speaks against belief in God.
I then present the way in which I understand respect for evidence. This has two components: a synchronic proviso about how you should respond to the evidence that you have at a given time, and a diachronic one about how you should go about acquiring new evidence over time. I finish by showing how religious evidentialism mitigates some worries that religious believers might have respect for evidence.
PART I: The Epistemic Norm
This chapter taps into the philosophy-of-religion debate on evidence-weighting, which I argue can be read as a debate over how best to handle bias: whether to avoid unreliable biases about religion or foster reliable ones. One view, which I call impartialism, recommends ascribing the greatest evidential weight to evidence that meets criteria drawn from scientific reasoning and is thus less likely to be affected by unreliable bias. A second view, which I call partialism, recommends giving greater weight instead to certain forms of evidence that fall short of these criteria and can thus be expected to exhibit reliable and unreliable biases alike. The third view, which I call egalitarianism, recommends weighting both kinds of evidence the same. I argue that egalitarianism is the best evidence-weighting policy for negotiating the effects of bias.
Philosophers of science have long realized that epistemically responsible evidence-acquisition involves engaging in disagreement. Religious communities, however, tend to discourage disagreement, regarding it as a potential threat to their beliefs. This makes sense when we think of religious beliefs, if divinely revealed, as a treasure that one must at all costs safeguard. But I argue that discouraging religious disagreement is counterproductive even with respect to this aim, and engaging in it is beneficial. I do not argue this by comparing science and religion, however. For scientific hypotheses are ideally held with a scholarly neutrality, and my aim is to persuade those who are committed to religious beliefs that religious disagreement can be epistemically beneficial for them too.
Chapter 5 elaborates on the way in epistemically responsible evidence-acquisition involves disagreement, highlighting that different forms of disagreement yield distinct epistemic benefits. One relevant sort of disagreement arises between people in different social locations in a community, since social location shapes our emotional and perceptual dispositions and values, and through these our belief systems.
In religious communities, disagreement between religious authorities and people at the margins of the community can yield special religious insights. Religious authorities occupy a social location that in some ways is epistemically privileged, with access to education and a religiously centered life. But in other ways religious authority confers epistemic limitations, since authorities are used to being epistemically deferred to. The social location of the religiously marginalized, I argue, can yield insights that complement these deficits. Religious marginalization may reveal certain problematic aspects of the community’s beliefs and practices, and it can involve a certain sort of suffering that may generate religious wisdom. Religious communities, then, should embrace the epistemic benefits of religious disagreement, including between those who are authoritative and those who are marginalized within them.
PART II: The Faith Norm
When the righteous Job is visited by awful suffering, his companions urge him to believe that God is just and good in spite of this strong evidence to the contrary, and therefore that he (Job) must deserve his suffering. But Job refuses. Instead he seeks more evidence about God’s justice and goodness, in the only way that he can: by demanding that God explain himself. Whereas some would see in this an abandonment of Job’s faith, I argue that Job is expressing it admirably. For Job’s loyalty to what God represents prevents him from worshiping a God whom he does not rationally believe to be just and good. Appealing to God for evidence is a last-ditch attempt to save his faith, and Job takes it on faith that God will provide the evidence he needs.
I situate this view in the context of alternative accounts of faith, notably Matheson’s account of faith as grit (i.e. passion and perseverance). I argue that grit is an excellent account not of faith, but of faithfulness, and that these two notions must be distinguished. Faithfulness is to faith what trustworthiness is to trust. Both are standardly had in the context of a relationship of faith, which is at its best when each party has faith in the other and is faithful to her. I buttress this account by appeal to the Biblical Hebrew and Greek notions of faith, respectively ’emuna and pistis. I then argue that faith, in keeping with recent discussions, does not entail belief that God will come through for you, or even belief that God exists.
With this I finish my defense of the faith norm and thus of religious evidentialism. From the viewpoints of both epistemology and faith, a person should respect her evidence when forming or holding beliefs about religious matters. Doing this promotes religious knowledge and helps cultivate one’s faith relationship (should God exist). Religious evidentialism achieves these results by declining to compromise on epistemic norms in the way that some other religious epistemologies have done; yet the robust epistemic norms that it posits remain sensitive to the realities of human cognition and the distinctive features of the religious domain.
To make this case I show first that the Hebrew and Greek words for faith, respectively ’emuna and pistis, mean roughly to rely on something that is reliable and seen to be reliable – as opposed to something that one harbors any doubts about. But why should this reliance and perception of reliance involve beliefs that are evidence-respecting? To answer this question I draw on the biblical texts themselves. Narrative portrayals of faith in God are typically, and normatively, accompanied by God’s providing evidence on which this faith can rest (for example, the God of the Jewish scriptures does mighty works expressly so that his people may know that he is the LORD, a tradition that Jesus takes himself in the New Testament to be continuing with his miracles). Prophets continually exhort the faithful to trust God on the basis of his character revealed in his past works (think of Moses and Isaiah), and New Testament authors exhort faith on the basis of the history they have meticulously documented (the gospels of John and Matthew).
There are of course apparent counterexamples, such as Abram, who to all appearances leaves his homeland on the basis of a command out of the blue and then keeps his faith against the evidence that God wants him to murder his son; the letter to the Hebrews, which calls faith the “conviction of things not seen”; Job, who is held up as an exemplar of faith for maintaining his faith in God’s goodness and justice in the face of disastrous counterevidence; and of course Doubting Thomas, whom Jesus chastises for refusing to believe in Jesus’ resurrection without tangible proof. I address these and other apparent counterexamples.
On the basis of these and other considerations from religious sources, I argue that something like the evidentialism defended here is the norm in at least the Judeo-Christian religious tradition.