The mania of faith

Faith, says STA, is like opinion so far as both are the assent to a proposition that is less than evident, but faith differs from opinion by being unwavering and completely certain. But this seems like satire – isn’t this exactly the sort of New Atheist account of faith that an apologist is supposed to dismiss as silly and uninformed? STA is literally defining faith as absolute certitude in the absence of evidence! Who wrote this part of the Summa? Richard Dawkins?

That said, faith is an inescapable part of human life. Every sports fan has faith in his team,  not in the sense that he always thinks they will win or that everything they do is good, but because his commitment to them is unwavering. That your team is to be praised or loved is not a belief formed from a cool-headed evaluation of its merits, and it is not to be thrown out by a careful evaluation of a team that might be more worthy of your devotion. Students develop the same sort of faith in schools, along with a corresponding hatred for the school’s rivals. Faith can have reasons, but never ones that could justify the sort of devotion we give to the team or institution.

Faith is responsible for the better and more personal parts of life, since every vow and every pledging of one’s life is an act of faith. A cool-headed evaluation of reasons could not justify the unwavering and absolute commitment that spouses make to each other, citizens make to their regime,  or soldiers make to their country. As Chesterton put it, no soldier will die for pay. This degree of fixity, commitment, and certitude does not arise from seeing that the object of the vow in merits the degree of assent but because, as John Paul II said somewhere, love can’t be entered into on a trial basis. You either commit to the whole thing before you know the whole thing, or you’ll neither know it nor love it.

So faith turns out to be the fullest flower of the teaching that Plato gives in Phaedrus: The highest gifts are the convictions that come to us from the gods as mania, beyond the reach of reason or evidence.

There’s a large scholarly consensus that one lasting legacy of WWI was the destruction of faith. Love of country, honor, and patriotism all became conditional commitments tinged with irony. Faith was for rubes and suckers – nothing more than buying into to a self-interested propaganda campaign of the rich and powerful. My own generation (I’m as Gen-X as they come) prides itself on “knowing” this too, but this is probably related to living through the highest divorce rate ever (and a corresponding dip in the marriage rate). Both of these generational facts have a dynamic relationship with the losing of religious faith. The Nietzschean death of God is both cause and effect of a corresponding death of God and family, i.e. the belief that faith in the fatherland or in fathers is no longer believable.



  1. Peter said,

    November 29, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    The sports fan’s commitment to their team, spouses to each other, soldiers and citizens to their country etc does seem faith-like but I’m having a hard time imagining what propositions are being assented to.

    • November 30, 2016 at 7:50 am

      I hesitated to use the word “proposition” for just this reason – STA uses the word “object”. I kept it since the opening sentence made more sense when it was about propositions. Nevertheless:

      1.) The proposition is just the words of the vows or oaths one takes, especially considered as absolute and perpetual. If we try to explain the perpetuity of marriage by giving reasons like the amount of time it takes to raise children or whatever it is impossible to explain why it would be perpetual and absolute for everyone. Ditto for the oaths the soldier takes. There are no oaths involved for the sports fan, but his judgment about the value of his team and the wickedness of its rivals is of a similar character. If we’re talking about the Olympics, it seems to be a logical implication of nationalist faith.

      2.) The Abrahamic faiths demand faith in the existence of the object assented to while the other sorts of faith only demand it to the way in which the object is considered. Still, to judge any of these things as an act of faith will have a proposition-like character, as will any truth that is logically implicated in it or any truth that follows from it (so if some guy judges “I shouldn’t flirt with this woman, I’m married” or when a soldier judges that he ought to bring back a body at all costs.)

  2. December 2, 2016 at 12:45 am

    S. Thomas does not write about ‘absence of evidence’, but about the intellect’s assent ‘not through being sufficiently moved to this assent by its proper object, but through an act of choice, whereby it turns voluntarily to one side rather than to the other’ (‘Alio modo intellectus assentit alicui non quia sufficienter moveatur ab obiecto proprio, sed per quandam electionem voluntarie declinans in unam partem magis quam in aliam’, ‹secunda pars secundae partis›); in the reply to the 2nd objection to the 4th article, q. 1: ‘he would not believe unless, on the evidence of signs, or of something similar, he saw that they ought to be believed’ (‘sunt visa ab eo qui credit, non enim crederet nisi videret ea esse credenda, vel propter evidentiam signorum vel propter aliquid huiusmodi’). And: ‘by the habit of faith, the human mind is directed to assent to such things as are becoming to a right faith, and not to assent to others’.

    • December 2, 2016 at 6:21 am

      Faith is opposed to everything self evident to us and to what follows from it rationally. That’s enough to justify a robust sense of “absence of evidence”, even if it doesn’t rule out every sense of evidence or use of the much more general Latin term “evidentia”, which, in the reply you quote, means something more like “announced” or “shown”.

  3. December 5, 2016 at 1:24 am

    ‘est autem fides sperandorum substantia rerum argumentum non parentum’ (Hebrews 11.1); S. Thomas analyzes it in q. 4, a. 1 of the S. Sae, and writes about ‘evidence taken from Divine authority’, argumentum quod sumitur ex auctoritate divina, which suggests levels of evidence. Maybe we should begin with the gifts of grace and the gifts of nature (Secunda Secundæ Partis, q. 8, a. 1); faith isn’t predilection based on sympathy, on affinities, on occasional knowledge, i.e. on opinion, one can have many predilections, but not many faiths at once. The fact is that faith has to begin with some evidence; it is a gift of grace, and not a gift of nature, because it implies absolute certitude about what can’t be known absolutely certain by the gift of nature. It is a question of degree, not of opposition. The divine light goes further than the natural one: ‘this supernatural light which is bestowed on man is called the gift of understanding’.
    The form of faith is charity, not preference.

  4. December 5, 2016 at 2:35 am

    The question revolves around what S. Thomas calls ‘the common aspect of credibility’, communi ratione credibilis.

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