In Praise of Unquestioning Faith and Unthinking Obedience

Published August 29, 2020

One of the things that can instantly raise the hackles of post-moderns is the suggestion that critical thinking is anything other than an unalloyed good.

The assumption which lies behind this comes, of course, from bitter experience, particularly the experiences of the 20th century where lack of critical thinking led to multiple bloodbaths.

Many postmoderns assume that unquestioning faith and unthinking obedience are fundamental criteria for religious belief, particularly Christian religious belief. And some strains of Christian preaching, like the famous Jesuit enthusiasms of piety which declared that “if the Pope said white was black then so it would be for an obedient Jesuit” give that perception oxygen.

But of course, when you’ve met one Catholic, you’ve met one Catholic. Every Dominican in the world–and above al St. Thomas–would regard such a crazy proclamation thusly:

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For Thomas, all truth is God’s truth because God the Creator who is the Author of Nature is also God the Redeemer whose miracles transcend, but do not contradict, what he reveals to our senses. Black is not white and it is silly to say it is. Indeed, Thomas will argue that the Argument from Authority (he means merely human authority obviously, not Divine Authority) is the weakest of all arguments.

That is why, though Thomas will cite sundry authorities as a lawyer might cite corroborating testimony, he feels no obligation to bow to authority when it seems to him to be wrong. Consequently, lots of people don’t realize that he begins his entire discussion of the question “Does God Exist?” by dynamiting the argument offered by St. Anselm, who claimed that the existence of God was self-evident and there was no need to demonstrate it.

Such critical thinking is, in fact, one of the marks of the medieval Latin mind, so it isn not terribly surprising to find medieval Latin Europe inventing three of the foundational institutions of modernity out of its inveterate love of questioning and arguing about stuff: the parliamentary system, the university, and the scientific method.

Yet still and all, I would argue that there remain ways in which, despite our prejudices, we have all experienced the benefits of unquestioning faith and uncritical obedience.

Perhaps the most foundational way is in language learning. Thanks be to God, he has designed our brains in such a way that our very capacity for critical thinking simply is not there yet when the process of language acquisition begins. Were it not for that, no mortal would ever learn English. Children do not critically examine grammar and spelling and rigorously interrogate why it is mouse/mice but not house/hice. They do not criticize that I drive and I drove but I thrive and I thrived. The plural of sheep is sheep and moose is moose, but the plural of cow is cattle and they simply take it in without question.

And all this results, not in mind-numbed slavery to Big Brother or the drooling acceptance of a soul-crushing dogma, but in mastery of language, ease of communication, and the free exchange of ideas that can lead to Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Indeed, much of human learning proceeds much more quickly when people do not insist on re-inventing every wheel and trust that the bulk of what they are told is passed on in good faith by decent people who were not lying to us. As Chesterton wrote in his Autobiography:

Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. 

In the same way, there is the curious trut that even the sciences run on a certain amount of unquestioning faith and blind obedience. If you don’t believe it, just try sitting through a science lecture in a room filled with people familiar with the material while one “WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!!!!!” type keeps “asking questions” about every single detail being discussed and driving everybody mad. Absolute skepticism about the trustworthiness of Everybody but Me, is the most effective sand in the gears of learning that postermodernity has yet devised and it has released a bumper crop of deeply stupid fake clever people into the world, wreaking incalculable harm.

The sciences, like everything else, depend on unquestioning faith in a few unprovable axioms such as “Yes, Something exists” and “My senses are accurately reporting that Something to me” and “Other somethings called ‘people’ are also capable of accurately perceiving the same Something my senses are perceiving” and “All that Something is governed by laws that determine how its parts interact with each other” and “the three pound piece of meat behind my eyes can understand those laws.”

None of that is provable. All of it is taken on faith and then we go from there.

I have no problem with that.

42 Responses

  1. > “Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment…”
    Like so many, many things Chesterton wrote, a marvellously catchy soundbite that zings the right people (take THAT, protestants! none of YOU can remember your own births, can you?? So by what authority do YOU, o lone individual, obdurately reject the Donation of Constantine?!) but it doesn’t really hold up when analysed rationally as to what he’s claiming to assert.
    The whole point about age/ birth date (at least to the year) is that you can test it by “experiment or private judgment”. Orphans from war zones, for example, who’ve lost their birth certificates, can have their age determined to within a few months by checking the growth of their teeth or bones.
    And as for actual date of birth, we don’t rely on oral tradition with all its grave risks of data corruption over time. Instead we have a medical professional make a written record right away of the birth, and (in past centuries) a religious professional make a written record of the baptism a few days later.
    Where the rabbit goes into the hat (watching GKC’s shell games closely is excellent mental exercise – he really is a master) is conflating “could not test at the time” with “therefore should never challenge at any time”. Of course a baby or young child cannot second-guess an adult’s insistence that they were born on X day in Y year. But if your mother is still insisting that you were born only 15 years ago – even though you now have grey hair, wrinkles, and missing teeth – then yes, you really would be blindly credulous to accept that on faith. Whereas Chesterton, of course, didn’t think anyone ever should ever say “But how you address your biological father is not the main point here: it’s, why choose to call your priests the exact title that Jesus specifically singled out as forbidden for religious leaders?” to the Vatican, whether aged 18, or 28, or 58, or 78.

    1. In one of the various alternative universes where Chesterton ricocheted from Unitarians and ouija boards into Protestantism rather than Catholicism, he would instead have been writing along the lines of “What, you use the Gregorian Calendar? So you acknowledge the infallible authority of that Man of Sin, which sitteth enthroned at Rome, to define for you the very times and seasons? Shame!” – which is the opposite error, from the other side of the Tiber.
      The sensible approach is “[provisionally] trust but [eventually] verify”, but this requires case-by-case judgments rather than blanket trust/ distrust of visible institutions, so it makes a lot of people’s heads hurt. “My clerics, right or wrong” is as foolish as “my mother, drunk or sober”.

      1. @Neko:

        I throve when I wove through the traffic and drove to the beach where I dove into the water.

        Talk about yucky!

  2. Oh, and ‘cattle’ is a mass noun, not a plural. The plural of ‘cow’ is ‘cows’ – unless you’re speaking Scots, in which case it’s ‘kye’

  3. I don’t see the science must rest on faith.

    (1) First, I agree about the irrational skepticism of “Wake up Sheeple” but let me clarify: it ignores background information a la Bayes’ Theorem: it’s a waste of time to question claims that are already so well-founded that it is inconceivable how they could be wrong (that DNA is the chemical of genetic inheritance; that gravity exists; etc.) – I’m not talking about the details of those claims, for which there is plenty to discuss and dispute and discover.

    This is what “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” means. An extraordinary claim is one for which we have an extraordinary amount of evidence against it already. Any other definition of “extraordinary” makes no sense in this regard.

    (2) Science doesn’t have to take “Yes, Something exists” on faith. It is the more parsimonious conclusion than the claim that we’re in the Matrix. Therefore, it’s more rational than the Matrix. That doesn’t mean we proved it, though.

    (3) “My senses are accurately reporting that something to me” – Science does not take that on faith, as it explicitly requires that perceptions need to be confirmed by others (at least in principle). Even in our everyday lives, what we take for granted – that things exist, etc. – is something that is built up empirically, even if unconsciously, from the time we can perceive the outside world. Babies eventually understand object permanence, for instance, based on what the world tells them empirically (even if they do so subconsciously). They don’t take it on faith,

    (4) Similar considerations apply to your other examples.

    (5) Lastly, there are a few things that cannot be evidenced empirically, I think. This does not give us license to assume whatever we want, though. Such assumptions should, parsimoniously, be limited to only those strictly necessary. For instance, the three foundational laws of logic (law of identity, law of non-contradiction, law of the excluded middle – did I get those right?) are necessary in order to even say a single word about any topic. I think perhaps the experience of qualia are also something that is not evidenced empirically. But that might be it.

  4. @JJ,
    I’m appalled. I have lived a lie. For the first five decades of my life I thrived and now you insist that I throve. Even spell check begs to differ.

    1. @Mark:

      Blame it on that unquestioning faith. You are right, however, about spell-checkers. It’s even worse than that. Spell checkers think I dived, when I know I dove.

      I now have a mission in life.

      1. @Artevelde:

        But you would go as far as to say it’s dive/dove/diven?

        I am hoist(ed?) with my own petard. I must say I would draw the line at ‘diven’. Sad, to see loud-mouthed people like me so inconsistent.

        I do say ‘sneak/snuck’ – does that pull me out of the mire of my own mudpit? Should I stop digging?

      2. @JJ

        I am now utterly convinced that only Dutch and German still resist the decline of West Germanic into barbarism.

  5. For the first five years of my oldest daughter’s life we celebrated her birthday on the wrong day. We celebrated on her due date instead of her birth date. It wasn’t until we registered for kindergarten that the school secretary caught the mistake.

    The only explanation I can offer is that my poor brain was trying to right a grave wrong. The girl was due on the 12th, but wouldn’t come until the 15th, at which point she tipped the scales at nine pounds. This was after the doctors made me get into all kinds of unholy positions to unstick her. She was stalled at 10 centimeters for TWO HOURS. There was no epidural.

    She finally made her grand entrance with a hand stretched out first, next to her head. The delivery room nurse exclaimed, “Awwwww look! She’s already reaching for the credit cards!”

    Her six brothers were all a respectable six to seven pounds. They came on or before their due dates. We celebrated properly. I don’t want to talk about the last one, another girl. I think I have a positive balance somewhere, to cover the deficits of my purgatory account. I have no problem believing in the reality of purgatory.

  6. “Science depends on faith” – that’s the kind of thing someone says when they are trying to draw equivalence between an empirical self-correcting enterprise that continuously learns and improves, and a 2,000 year old institution still clinging to the same unverifiable beliefs it had at the start.

    1. @ joel

      Science rests on a few small bits of faith— the faith that there Is something called reality, that it can be known through the gathering of something called evidence, That there is a process which is replicable by independent observers, That new evidence may change that description of reality or even reinforce it. The process allows us to make a prediction: If X, then Y. And if X occurs,butYdoesnot, then we refine that proposition: if X, and not Y, then…WHY?

      In short, the faith that a scientist exercises is vastly different than the faith that a religionist exercises. Wecall the faith a scientist exercises “ EXPERIENCE“. To the extent that anything can be known – in this case, 99.9999999999% likely— The sun will rise every morning. That’s not faith, its near certainty. The evidence is overwhelming. The scientist will say it is possible it won’t, but only an idiot would place a bet on it. Hiding out in a light-proof room may make it look true, but the sun still rose.

      Evidence is the homage that faith pays to science. Religions are always anxious to prove that their faith reflects reality, because faith Either only takes you so far, or skips the boring part in the middle and goes right to the end. Last year, JD St. George was presenting the eucharistic miracles as “proof” that his faith was true— a claim that fell apart with even the slightest bit of examination, which he had to admit. Ironically, his request for all-caps TRUTH yielded a different truth. He applied science, and his faith/fact fell apart. His faithful response was not to question his faith, but to insist it was still true.

      Thatks the difference between the faith of a scientist and the faith of a religionist. If I told you I was sleeping with your wife — or given that its me your husband, but please don’t tell mine, he doesn’t need that kind of evidence— You would demand evidence. Unless, ironically, you already had evidence that he is a slut. That might lead you to believe me.

      But let me tell you that I have a secret to the entire reality of the universe, and no evidence at all is required. In fact, just tell me where to send my check.

      1. “there Is something called reality, that it can be known through the gathering of something called evidence, That there is a process which is replicable by independent observers, That new evidence may change that description of reality or even reinforce it. The process allows us to make a prediction: ”
        We don’t need to posit reality to see how whatever-it-is (like, maybe the Matrix?) works. Science demonstrates – not assumes – that evidence leads to knowledge and its process is replicable and new evidence can change things and that we can make predictions. All those things are demonstrable by watching reality (or whatever-it-is) and seeing how it works.

    2. @ bensnewlogin

      But here’s the thing, the trust that we give to the scientific process and the assumptions that go into it, is provisional. Its also contingent on their continued ability to produce reliable results. When either our scientific theories or our senses fail to accurately reflect reality, then we revise them and correct them until they do.

      Put another way, I trust my eyes right up until the moment when I crash into something I couldn’t see.

      That is almost the exact opposite of the unquestioning blind obedience that faith, in a religious sense, demands. Its also the reason why the things that do demand that kind of faith, like believing in the power of prayer, divine revelation and the authority of scripture, are entirely useless to science.

      Look, I like Mark, but I think that by conflating of these different usages of the word “faith”, he’s being misleading, even if not deliberately.

      But as long as we’re talking about different kinds of faith, I must point out that faith is also the stat that enables my character to attune and use miracles like “Heal”, “Replenishment”, “Lightning Spear” and “Sun Blade”. It also increases lightning and fire damage, and improves defense against lightning, fire and bleeding effects.

      Its been pretty reliable so far; my prayers for miracles get answered all the time.

    3. Actually it’s a thing I say when I note that one of the biggest struggles of our time is the fact that science depends on faith and the death of faith (that is, ordinary personal bonds of trust in institutions and ordinary human authorities) has led to the insanity of the WAKE UP SHEEPLE! subculture of idiots whose lack of faith is making it harder and harder for science to function. Science is done by humans. Destroy the human capacity for faith and science, like every other human endeavor, goes under.

      1. @Mark Shea

        The “WAKE UP SHEEPLE!” crowd are just the equivalent of the “kid who did not do his homework and is disrupting the class to hide that fact”; its really intellectual laziness masquerading as skepticism. The true skeptic, is the one that goes: “I studied the research done on X, and it doesn’t seem to account for Y. Wouldn’t Z be a better solution?”, and then proceeds to win a Nobel Prize.

        I don’t disagree with the substance of what you’re saying, its just that I’m somewhat leery of the usage of the word “faith” in this context, especially given the way so many Christian apologists use it as a way to deflect valid criticism to their worldview.

        Its one thing to say that your belief in the supernatural is justified, even if those justifications may not be accepted as valid by other parties, but its quite another to try to deflect away from an unjustified belief in the supernatural by trying imply that the trust we have in the scientific process is unjustified as well.

        And maybe I read too much into some of what you wrote in the article, but I got the impression that you were hinting at that kind of rhetoric, which has been used more often than not to denigrate science in an effort to elevate religion.

        Sure, you can’t “prove” science, or any of the other things we colloquially refer to as having “faith” in, but that doesn’t mean that our trust in those things comes out of nowhere. One of the main reasons why we have “faith” in science is because we know that at any time we can “look up the receipts” so to speak, even if its not practical to do so at every single instance for every little thing.

      2. I don’t think I agree. There is active and radical refusal to trust the trustworthy from a fear-driven populace who are working rather hard to trust the untrustworthy. As folly often does, these people actually wind up working very hard to be intellectually lazy. The sensible thing to do is to have faith that Anthony Fauci did not spend a life in public health in order to kill us all. But because these people have destroyed ordinary human faith in ordinary human things, they are now working incredibly hard to believe nonsense.

        I haven’t said a word about the supernatural in this discussion. I’m talking about the ordinary human capacity to trust. Without it, reason stops working too, as we are seeing in the Age of Trump. Science is being defeated by morons who lack faith in reason.

      3. There’s “faith” as in “well, a whole lot of people with different agendas and interests seem to agree, and if they were faking they would need to have done an incredible amount of due diligence and been very lucky”, and then there’s faith as in “This one guy reckons an angel appeared to him and told him God had chosen him as a prophet. – And he was definitely right about the health downside of [alcohol/ coffee].”
        That said, Bletchley Park did stay a secret for decades, although that was with the full resources of the British state behind. Look how long it took Eamon Duffy to expose the truth that pre-Tudor shrines, altars and statues were actually popular with the commonfolk.

      4. @ mark “ The sensible thing to do is to have faith that Anthony Fauci did not spend a life in public health in order to kill us all.”

        This is what 3vil was saying. No, the sensible thing to do is not to have faith in this, but to have skepticism, instead. dr. fauci has been in the public eye for 40 years. He has never done a single thing to give anyone the idea that he spent a life in public health in order to kill us all. In fact, he is recognized by our political leaders as someone who actually knows things. He is recognized internationally as someone who knows things. He could not of reached the point he has without performing a massive, trump like con job. He’s never given anyone the slightest reason to believe it, unlike a certain orange anus.

        I don’t need faith in this case, I need some skepticism about such outlandish claims. They all seem completely unlikely, bordering on the impossible. And as Sherlock Holmes once observed, he had no trouble believing the impossible. It was the improbable that irked him.

        This is the very nature of science. Let’s have evidence. Let’s look at probabilities andinprobabilities.

      5. There is a Spanish saying that aptly describes that mindset: “El vago pasa doble trabajo”, which loosely translates to: “The lazy person has to work twice as much”.

        I think we can go back and forth on what animates such behavior: whether its ignorance, stupidity, dishonesty or just plain tribalism and the desire to “win” at all costs. I’m currently inclining towards a mix of all of the above.

        But I think the one thing that ties all of it together is that these people are currently inhabiting an ecosystem where such behavior is rewarded.

  7. “Children do not critically examine grammar and spelling and rigorously interrogate why it is mouse/mice but not house/hice.”

    Actually, for a while during my childhood I refused to use the letter C on the grounds that it was phonetically redundant. My parents eventually convinced me to conform for the sake of practicality, but it took some doing.

    1. Indeed, if anything children are more likely to query “Why do we say “brought” and not “bringed”? They want to learn a small number of rules, not a large number of conflicting examples.

    2. “Thou wh#reson C! Thou unnecessary letter!”
      Zhirinovsky and some other Russians want to abolish their letter bl, which is a very short i/ u sound like a Greek ypsilon, or a French “u”. The Bolsheviks after 1918 did in fact abolish the hard sign, roughly the Russian equivalent of a silent “e”.

  8. This is all more or less correct as far as it goes, albeit irrelevant to Catholicism or the self described “magisterium.” It’s not clear what your point is.

  9. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem as applied to religion: within any formal system of religious doctrine within which a certain amount of critical thinking can be done, there are statements within the formal system of religious doctrine that can neither be proved nor disproved and that might as well be accepted as true based on faith and obedience.

  10. I just read a comment that’s both very stupid and a very interesting in the context of this article and in the larger context of the pandemic.

    A person says:
    “Nuclear weapons don’t exist. It’s just another lie to keep sheeple in check.”
    (There’s a longer discussion where somebody asks what was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to which the reply was, how do you know anything was dropped on them, and an appropriate side comment that Hiroshima and Nagasaki don’t exist. They weren’t there, so they know that for a fact.)

    In a way, that comment is the result of skepticism taken to the extreme. Indeed, we take the existence of nuclear weapons on faith. With the moratorium on nuclear testing in place, no tests have taken place and nobody can attest to nukes existing, let alone their destructive power. And if you get to truly experience their power, you’re not in any place to tell others that they indeed exist.

    Once you start to question everything, it gets very easy to believe conspiracy theories that best suit your anxieties and are the most comfortable to believe in.

  11. It has been so beautiful here. The heat wave has broken. Seven of my children were here. One of them boarded a plane today with the puppy I raised for her, both bound for Brooklyn. Is there a word for ecsaticsorrow?

    I was casually looking at the 60 foot giant Bird of Paradise that was planted around the year of my birth waving in the breeze today, and needed to pause and reflect on how magnificent it is.

    I honestly can’t wrap my brain around anyone who says it all came from nothing. Irrational.

    Also, gratitude is integral to happiness. I can’t wrap my brain around looking at it all and not being able to say “thank you” with sincere honesty. How sad.

    1. @ taco

      We were up your way on Saturday, driving up Highway one. By the time we got to Olema, the smoke was so bad that I said to Paul that we needed to turn right and get away from it.

  12. I’m a big STA fan, but his thinking on the ontological proof is just plain wrong, He uses his usual method here in that he states the proposition he wishes to prove false, and though he has a well deserved reputation to never “straw man” when he does this, here he just screws up what the ontological proof in fact says.

    The ontological proof doesn’t prove that God is self evident, it proves that atheism is logically impossible which sounds the same but isn’t.

    1. @j mct

      Perhaps you can give me an explanation of why atheism is a logical impossibility, because that argument is one thay is basically a straw man. no atheist I know – and I know a lot of them – asserts that God doesn’t exist as a positive fact. That would be an anti-theist, not an atheist. Most atheists would say, as I do, that I have no belief in God – not your God, not his God, not in any god that has ever existed, Or has been claimed to exist. We would also say there is no evidence for God, which is not the same thing as saying that there is no God. We might even say that the evidence against the existence of your particular God is all of the evidence that other faith said that their particular gods are the only gods.

      We might even say, as I do, that the existence of God is simply something that doesn’t matter. As the Bible says, not a sparrow falls but God knows of it. And yet, the sparrow still falls, so what use is there for God?

      And even were you able to prove that there is a God, Any god, all you have is faith that it is the three in one Christian God— not the islamic god, not the jewish god, not the any particular god of the multitude of buddhist or Hindu gods.

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