The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Faith As Insanity

Everyone who’s ever been or raised a child should immediately understand epistemic regress. This is the idea that it’s possible to ask an infinite number of ‘why’ questions for any proposition. Why is a bird not a fish? Because we have a mutually agreed framework of criteria for deciding what species animals belong to. Why should I agree to that framework? Because if you don’t you’ll make me really cranky. Why should I care if I make you cranky? Because I’ll probably throw you out the window.  Why do you defenestrate people when you’re cranky? And so on.

Epistemic regress isn’t just an annoyance, however – it’s a serious epistemological problem in that it calls in to question the idea that we can know anything at all. If knowledge is meant to rest on some kind of foundational truth, then there has to be a proposition which cannot be queried with a ‘why’ question – that is, a proposition which does not require justification. If we go with the alternative idea, that knowledge can rest on inference – that there’s things we can know because we know other things – it’s pretty easy to see that the problem gets even worse.  And it seems that it’s not just philosophers and toddlers who are aware of this. Perpetually asking ‘why’ will almost always get the same, essentially foundational response: “It just is,”  or possibly a punch in the mouth. What both of these responses really refer to is the idea that we must be justified in believing certain things – that we have to draw the line somewhere – so that we can get on with more important things than the nature of reality and truth, like earning money so we can buy craft beer and Ikea.

The point is, there is an undeniable hole or void at the bottom of what can be known or understood, so everybody must eventually draw a line somewhere, and this really isn’t an issue. Which is why I’m not going to make any cheap cracks about believing in magic or listening to disembodied voices. Epistemologically, there’s not a lot of difference between believing in ‘Justice’ and believing in ‘God’. But there is, however, a world of difference when it comes to the methods and motives behind any conscious decision to hold religious faith. In the case of a randomly chosen atheist (me), said atheist understands the nature of the problem, and is happy to accept that operational assumptions are required in order to live a life which occasionally involves going outside and interacting with people. I know that I can’t know things, so I make up my own mind about what to do about that. In my case, what I mostly do is complain and share nihilistic memes. And, most importantly, I accept that there is an area of real uncertainty in which I can go on asking infinite ‘why’ questions in the hope that perhaps, at some point, some thought will occur which will solve all or part of this problem. Or not. I don’t really care, as I understand that the point of the process is not to find answers to impossible questions, but rather to conduct validity audits on my own consciousness and thought.

Let’s compare this with the religious viewpoint. For the purposes of this discussion, I define ‘religious faith’ as belief in the existence of a god or gods who are responsible for the creation and operation of some or all of the universe. I am also limiting this to those who believe in a god that is not entirely abstract and transcendent, which would seem to be the vast majority of the faithful – there would be no point in trusting, ‘listening’, or praying to a completely transcendent god, so I therefore assume that those who do those things do not believe in one.

The religious (amongst others), faced with the inescapability of the aforementioned void or absence, respond by personifying it before attempting to establish a personal relationship with this personification.  If we take Christianity as a case in point, this is what is meant by the fact of it being a ‘mystery’ religion. The central tenet of connection with the Christian god is that, as a being, this god is unknowable and ineffable, which is fine, and that furthermore this god has agency, will, concern for the faithful, and an ability to communicate with them. Which isn’t fine at all, on any level. As an insane proposition, this goes far, far beyond the concept of having an imaginary friend. It is a decision to view the whole universe as inhabited with sentience, and furthermore, with a sentience that is somehow cognisant of a tiny bag of meat and water crawling across the surface of a speck of dust within it. This would be the cognitive equivalent of deciding to start a romantic relationship with a dining room table, and then worrying that the sun might find out about the affair and become jealous.

Now I’m not saying that all people who believe in some god or other are clinically insane – as a proposition, that doesn’t hold up to even a second’s examination. And it’s just as easy to argue that my own acceptance of the void and futility, and decision to proceed with my pointless and unimportant life in any case, is also insane. In fact, I’d agree with that argument. I think that the whole business of being a self aware mortal human is loopy and irrational in a deeply likeable way. But what really does separate me from a religious viewpoint is the fact that I have not wilfully decided to anthropomorphise the yawning pit underpinning our knowledge of reality. Because that’s really what most religious faith boils down to – a projection of the human self onto the faceless id of the universe. Love, forgiveness, approval, disapproval – god is basically a way of turning the entire sum of reality into an imaginary friend who is in fact a reflection of ourselves. So when I look at my version of insanity, and compare it with the narcissism and anthrocentrism of most major religions’ interpretation of reality, I find it pretty easy to decide which of the two is more morally and intellectually acceptable.

 

Category: Religion

Tagged:

Leave a Reply