Faith and rationality

Locke denies toleration to atheists since

Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.

Promises, covenants and vows are all acts of faith, i.e. pledges of categorical or absolute fidelity to another person. Such fidelity can only be reasonable for one who judges that there is no possible future circumstance or fact about the world that could make it unreasonable, and human beings are not in a position to make such a judgment. As Nietzsche put it:

What do you know of the character of existence in all its phases to be able to decide whether the greater advantage is on the side of absolute distrust, or of absolute trustfulness?

The “so help me God” proviso at the end of an oath is not hollow formality, it’s a recognition that fidelity is only reasonable by participation. Unless God co-signs on an oath it is unreasonable to take one.

Nietzsche recognized that the claim Locke made about oaths was nested in a larger reality of faith, or the absolute commitment that human reason demands in order to be moral at all. Even if we make a “provisional oath”, the provision itself can only be made relative to some value taken as absolute, like a commitment to truth over self-deception (the oath of the scientist) or to the living and sublime over the stale and quotidian (the romantic oath) or to the advance of freedom over oppression, etc.

This is not a hypothesis that predicts that those who take oaths will be any more successful in keeping faith then those who don’t. It’s a development of Nietzsche’s claims that fidelity makes it “necessary that there should already be a conviction, and in fact one so imperative and absolute, that it makes a sacrifice of all other convictions” and that  everything rational demands such fidelity. The rationality of science is just as implicated in a participation with divine judgment as oath taking. Whether we recognize this participation for what it is or keep our oaths once we take them is irrelevant to the rational and ontological dependence we have on an act of judgment that transcends our own.

A Nietzschean übermensch might be rational with no such dependence or might be able to live without being rational (even Nietzsche couldn’t resolve what the new man would look like). We, like Raskolnikov, can’t experience life like an übermensch but only as persons who need to make absolute commitments, and can get these commitments wrong.

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