In the first chapter titled ‘Is Belief Wishful Thinking?’ Herbert McCabe throws light on the evolution of faith. According to McCabe, one of the lazy pretexts for religious belief is its comforting illusions. People have a tendency to want to believe in a fair and wise God who dispenses justice to all. But this is nothing more than wishful thinking. Yet, the validity of religious belief does not stand negated just because some of the faithful indulge in wishful thinking. Unlike scientific facts, religious beliefs have two components – fact and interpretation. So a combination of literal truth and metaphoric suggestion is at play in the system of beliefs that comprise a religion. In Christianity for example, “beliefs do entail certain simple factual historical beliefs, and in their case it is certainly possible to show what scientific evidence would count against them.” (p.2) McCabe cites the resurrection of Christ as an example of a belief that can be scientifically verified – either to be true or false. However, since the event had occurred two millennia ago, and surviving evidence are scarce, the chances of verifying the claim are rather remote. Even for a reasoned evaluation of faith, the protracted timescales of some of its historical beliefs acts as a deterrent. Likewise, many historical details of major religions do not lend themselves to be empirically tested. A similar protest is made by logical positivists who saw “traditional religious doctrines as meaningless and metaphysical”. (p.3) Hence McCabe identifies a conflicted relationship between faith and reason.
There are two major problems facing staunch faith. The first is logical inconsistencies and the second is factual falsities. Further undermining a believer’s disregard of reason is their intrinsic bias toward favourable propositions. In other words, “believers do not even predict that they will personally be unconvinced by specious arguments against their beliefs; they merely believe that they would be in error if they were so convinced.” (p.6) This suggests that believers put faith not only above reason but above themselves. In this mindset, reason inevitably suffers.
The fact that religion is a product of history should make it accessible to factual evaluation. But one of the major barriers undermining reason is the concept of ‘converging probabilities’. (p.7) Arguments of this class, while not being totally convincing, and not making the truth absolutely clear, do yet point in that direction. It is easy for believers to take this lack of clarity as vindication of their faith. Amid numerous challenges to a believer’s adherence to faith, one has to concede some merit in the arguments for articles of faith. They, in the least, show that the faithful is not “crazy or eccentric or unreasonable in holding his view”. (p.9) Christian faithful, even while believing that all objections to their faith can somewhat be answered, are not yet insulated from contact with evidence. This is an area the faithful are most vulnerable to the power of reason.
McCabe goes on to speculate how religious belief might have taken firm roots in the human psyche. One of the preconditions for making faith central to our ancestors’ social lives is the threat posed by scientific technique. In pre-medieval times when science was still in its infancy, it was fairly natural to believe and upkeep faith without persuasion. Faith offered plausible solutions in the face of vexing vagaries of primitive human societies. There was no need for institutions such as the Church to impose their authority. It was not until the instruments of science started questioning their credibility that institutions of religion joined hands with institutions of power. Ever since, religions have grown more dogmatic and become intolerant of dissent.
As McCabe notes, the sanction of divinity to the species of humans is problematic. Unlike other animals which are considered lacking in divine grace, humans are made in the image of God and hence share His divine nature. We are, religions claim, capable of the supernatural. This means that “our divinity must always come as a surprise, something eternally astonishing”. (p.21) Yet Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection dispels any such elevated view of humans. Recent advances in forensic and archaeological techniques have only confirmed the theory to be true. The treatment of what is contained in holy texts as literal truths prevents reason and fact from taking upper hand.
Hence, what we repeatedly see in McCabe’s book is how reason is circumvented through numerous means. By maintaining an antagonistic position toward reason and scientific fact, religious faith has thwarted its own development in the contemporary milieu.
Herbert McCabe OP, Faith Within Reason, Edited and Introduced by Brian Davies OP, Published by Continuum.