A Lament for Skepticism

It seems to be a common assumption that religious believers are somehow irrational for holding the beliefs that they do. The claim, simply put, is that there just isn’t enough (or any) convincing evidence for the truth of many Christian beliefs, such as the belief in God, especially in light of the discoveries of modern science. As such, a believer’s belief in God is ungrounded in evidence and should be held loosely, if at all, and doing otherwise would be failing to measure up to the standards of rationality. Putting aside the question of whether this evidentialist objection to religious belief is justified or not, it’s nevertheless interesting that this accusation – a charge that somehow, religious individuals are morally lax in their intellectual obligations because they have failed to believe in proportion to their evidence – exists in the first place. In response to such a charge, Christians of all stripes have attempted to show that their faith is actually a lot more reasonable than their interlocutors may suspect, either by attempting to provide evidence for their faith – think about the attempts of apologists to demonstrate such things as the reliability of Scripture as a source of divine revelation – or by revising their faith commitments so as to make them better align with what is considered acceptable for intelligent individuals to believe. For the former, faith is rational, and they know so because there are various sound proofs of God. For the latter, faith is rational because what’s most important are the key principles like loving your neighbor or seeking justice, and such issues as whether Jesus rose from the dead are peripheral.

All of these differing positions, whether that of the “rational” atheist who accuses Christians of being irrational or of the Christian apologist who attempts to rebut the charge, hold the same assumption, that there is a uniquely intellectual – in philosophy-​​speak, we say epistemic – duty for individuals to properly govern the way they know and believe things so as to be proper, functioning moral agents. The fact that we have epistemic duties at all should not be too surprising to anyone: that there are right and wrong ways (or virtuous and less virtuous ways) to go about believing things seems to be fairly uncontroversial. To properly live up to these duties would mean that you were living rationally. The problem with the evidentialist objection, however, is that the evidentialist purports to know exactly how every individual should go about fulfilling his or her epistemic duty: you should examine each of your beliefs to see whether you can come up with sufficient reasons to believe what you do, and if the evidence is found to be lacking, you should discard those beliefs. In other words, you should assume that all of your beliefs are guilty unless proven innocent. You can only be considered rational after careful reflection upon all your beliefs.1

There may not seem to be anything wrong with this position until one asks why all our beliefs should be guilty until proven innocent, as opposed to the other way around. Isn’t it a quite pessimistic picture of the way our intellectual faculties work? Indeed, under this picture of humanity, the skeptic seems to be given more epistemic credence than someone who just takes things at face value. We even have a name (and indeed, a whole category of jokes that go along with it) for the person who naïvely takes beliefs to be innocent until proven guilty: gullible. How did things get this way? Why are we so pessimistic about our abilities to know things about the world?

One might be able to tell a philosophical story that started with Aristotle and ended with John Locke.2 For Aristotle and those who followed him – namely, Thomas Aquinas and much of medieval philosophical theology – the pursuit of epistemological questions existed in the context of trying to establish a body of knowledge somehow set apart from ordinary beliefs, scientia. The connection to our modern word, “science”, should be quite obvious, although the way that we use the word “science” today is quite different from how Aristotle and the medievals would have used it. For both Aristotle and Aquinas, scientia was important because they thought that the highest good one could achieve in life (happiness) came through the intellectual contemplation of truth (for Aquinas, God).3 Scientia, then, was supposed to be a sort of communal enterprise whereby humans could move beyond the clouded and confused nature of ordinary beliefs to that of authentic knowledge. The central question which bothered these thinkers was how such a science was possible. To Aquinas, science consisted of the body of propositions that have been deductively demonstrated to be true from premises that were evident to someone working in the scientific community. So the ethic of belief for someone participating in his scientific project would consist of making sure that he advanced to the rest of his community only those propositions which met these criteria. It is important to note, however, that the pursuit of science was an optional exercise. No one could be blamed as morally deficient for not seeking his or her own highest happiness.

By Descartes’ time, however, the hopes of succeeding in this scientific enterprise were low. Descartes recounts, in his Discourse on Method, his despair over attaining knowledge via the traditional scientific fields, because of the radical disagreements among experts in the fields over what was supposed to be fixed and certain knowledge. In response, he turned to his very own individual method by which he attempted to secure the scientific ideal: by systematically doubting everything and reestablishing his knowledge of the world on the sole basis of what he himself saw to be absolutely self-​​evident, he could rescue the scientific project from its obvious biases and flaws. Having established a firm foundation, he could then reconstruct science from the most fundamental indubitable truths – the most fundamental being his famous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

Now recall that, for Aquinas, the goal of scientific inquiry was to be able to contemplate God. In other words, the goal was to establishtheology as a science. One has only to remember that the Protestant Reformation occurred between Descartes and Aquinas to begin to understand why scientia was in such dire straits. By John Locke’s time, after a long series of religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, Locke was convinced that the project of scientia was much overrated and, if any beliefs could be considered scientific at all, only a few mathematical, logical, and moral truths could be affirmed, little else. Faced with a Europe weary of war but just as religiously divided as before, Locke was confronted with the task of articulating a way forward that could encourage tolerance between disagreeing interpretations of Christianity.

In order to do so, he effectively borrowed the strategies and methods of scientia and applied them to all beliefs in general, especially religious beliefs. In other words, he essentially made the claim that everyone has the uniquely intellectual obligation to make sure that their beliefs meet the criterion for scientia.4 No more was scientia an optional means by which one could become happy via the contemplation of God. Rather, everyone was required to apply reasoning to all of one’s beliefs so as to make sure that one did not believe things out of proportion with the evidence for said beliefs. This, it was insisted (even more so by writers after Locke), was in accordance with our dignity as intellectual beings. Locke himself happened to think that he had enough evidence to justify his particular brand of religion: indeed, he wrote a book to that effect,The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures. He was also quite certain that many others – especially those he referred to as religious enthusiasts – would not. In light of this difference, he hoped, the myriad social and cultural conflicts of his time period, resulting from an inordinate trust in unexamined traditions, would cease.

One of Descartes’ strategies for attaining to genuine scientia was to ignore many of the ordinary ways in which we form beliefs (e.g., our senses, our faith, the testimony of others) and apply a certain sort of deductive reasoning that would ensure that one’s beliefs were built on solid foundations. Locke proposed a similar method of inquiry: it was no longer enough to believe things on the basis of faith or the testimony of others. Rather, one had to go through the test of reasonin order to legitimize one’s beliefs. In short, the evidentialist objection to religious belief was raised for the first time. Various thinkers after Locke would formulate it in different ways, but the central concern remained the same: the faculty of reason was given elevated place above all our other belief-​​forming faculties, and the supposition that all believers had the epistemic duty to use it to evaluate their beliefs remained firm.

Given that the idea had originally arisen in the aftermath of a long series of conflicts, it makes sense that evidentialists might feel justified in claiming that our beliefs should be held guilty before proven innocent. On the other hand, because it is the ugly specter of war and schism that gave rise to the evidentialist objection, it also seems the case that we should long for a day in which these conflicts don’t exist and the skeptical stance loses plausibility altogether. Indeed, it is not exactly clear why Locke’s particular solution to the problem of pluralism ought to be the commonly accepted one. There are all sorts of signs that finding evidence or suspending belief in the lack of appropriate evidence is not getting us farther along in helping us deal lovingly with one another. At any rate, it is only a temporary solution to a temporary problem. The rise of classical liberalism was the rise of an anti-​​perfectionist politics that differed from all previous forms of government in that it sought not to create a unified polity in which the highest human goods could be sought together, but merely to create a space within which no unified politic could pursue its goods at the expense of any minority. It is, to be frank, a politics of imperfection, of division, of a fallen human nature and the mechanisms devised to counteract the ways we fall short. Evidentialism is an epistemology of distrust, with the specter of skepticism looming behind every claim and assertion.

That we are alienated from one another should be no surprise to the Christian, for whom the reality of the Fall is all too evident. Even Adam and Eve lost their trust for one another after consuming the forbidden fruit, each searching to cast the blame elsewhere. The first part of the book of Genesis culminates in the scattering of mankind at Babel, a depiction of the ways in which we are desperately alienated from one another. In a sense, Locke’s proposal serves as one of many human attempts to overcome these divisions, and many of the evidentialists who have followed him share in that hope. Once upon a time, we all uncritically believed various things that were passed down to us by our forebears. A lot of these traditional beliefs turned out to be quite silly (thanks to modern science), and had led to many of the stupid conflicts we now have in this world. If only we all thought rationally, the story goes, we would get beyond all our petty disagreements over things we do not really have evidence for, to arrive at a new enlightened age where violence, exclusion, and marginalization no longer existed.

The Christian, however, does not trust in the promises of any particular theory of rationality for the hope of reconciliation (although this by no means implies that reconciliation will not involve a particular ethic of belief). She has a greater hope than that. Indeed, immediately after Genesis has given us the account of Babel, the story turns to God’s call of Abraham. In the midst of the scattered nations, God promises to make Abraham the father of a people through whom all the nations would be blessed. Hundreds of years later, the Apostle Paul ecstatically celebrated the fact the promised son of Abraham had arrived. Christian hope lies in the fact that, in Jesus Christ, God is reconciling all things to himself. In the church of Christ, all the things that may divide people from one another – differing beliefs included! – must be subordinated to the law of Christ, the law of love. In proclaiming the news of Jesus’ lordship over all things, Christians long for the day in which all of the hostile divisions between humankind will have disappeared, and all sorts of radical skepticism along with it. In that day, there will be no need for fancy epistemological theories to defend our dignity, for the father of lies will have been defeated and the various ways in which our beliefs pit us against one another will have been redeemed. In the meantime, however, we lament, for unfortunately we still live in a world where we cannot believe anything we hear or unthinkingly trust everything someone else says. In a way, we must all be skeptics.5 In the church, Christians ought to strive for the sort of communities in which the redeeming power of the Spirit is evident even in their beliefs, but we still live in the already-​​but-​​not-​​yet, when the signs of God’s rule are present but the promises have not yet been fully fulfilled. We long for that day.


  1. To be more precise, there is a kind of double standard with respect to this criterion. All too often, the only kind of beliefs that are actually evaluated according to this standard are religious beliefs. People, for instance, seem to have no problem holding radical political beliefs without much evidence. []
  2. I am roughly following Nicholas Wolterstorff’s scholarship in his essays “Epistemology of Religion” and “The Migration of the Theistic Arguments” found in vol. 2 of his collected essays. See Nicholas Wolterstorff, Practices of Belief, ed. Terence Cuneo (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). []
  3. So that you don’t get the idea that the highest happiness comes from just sitting in a library somewhere and thinking happy thoughts about God, Aquinas seemed to see this contemplation as a part of the project of living with absolute wisdom, wisdom that transcended the individual ends of any particular occupation to the task of ordering all occupations within a society. In other words, with the contemplation of God came the knowledge of the telos of all mankind. See Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). []
  4. This is a huge oversimplification. Wolterstorff makes the claim that Locke actually came up with his own method for what a person ought to do with his beliefs on “matters of maximal concernment”. See Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Locke and the Ethics of Belief(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). []
  5. Though not necessarily in the ways prescribed by evidentialists. []


Image: Descartes.

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