Monday, November 14, 2011

Two Questions About Certainty

The one thing that always impresses me about protestants and atheists is how sure they are of themselves. They might not provide a good argument but they sure leave the impression that there is a convincing one lurking somewhere. Sometimes that is called the phantom argument fallacy. That is acting like there is an iron clad proof for something but never actually giving it. You run into this a lot in religious discussions. People don't want to take the time to wade through all the evidence. Still they don't want to say they are unsure or that they accepted a position based on a few superficial arguments.

The reality is that is what happens. Nobody will admit it but it is true. I know I would never have admitted it as a protestant. That I never really gave all the non-Calvinist forms of Christianity a fair hearing. I had my proof texts and I was confident. I knew the truth. I was not rude like some protestants but it took me a long time to even start to doubt that it was true. Even when I could see the philosophical foundations were weak. Even when I could not find a principled difference between my position and those I considered obviously wrong. Still I was sure Calvinism was very close to the truth.

So I asked myself two questions. The first was, how does that happen? How do you get people so sure without actually giving them solid reasons for being sure? Is it something about biblical exegesis? That trying to get truth from the bible without sacred tradition is going to produce many contradictory doctrines but it is also going to produce camps with rock solid certainty about the truth of each of those doctrines. Is it the nature of human reason and religion? That we need certainty and therefore our minds manufacture it. So we declare controversies to be settled. We pretend it is a matter of faith but the object of our faith is not God or even the scriptures. It is ourselves. It is the discernment of our faith community. This is why you can have this phenomenon among atheists. They can have faith in themselves and in their fellow atheists just as much as Calvinists can.

The second question I asked was, is it a good thing? Should I wish Catholics could be as sure of themselves as protestants and atheists. Sure some Catholics have a lot of confidence but I don't see the phantom argument thing happening. Most of them are converts and they have sweated the details. That is a different kind of confidence. But should we have faith in ourselves and our fellow Catholics? Sort of. The Church is a proper object of our faith. So if our faith is in the Church and not some fringe element within the Church then it is healthy. Faith in the church is ultimately faith in God and the promises He has made regarding the Church.

Somehow our legitimate faith in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church often pales in comparison to a Protestant's or atheist's faith in his community of human tradition. Why is that? When the church teaches something we have very good reason to believe there is a solid argument backing it up even if we don't know that argument very well. Yet most Catholics don't act like they expect the Church's explanation to make sense. They are afraid. They think the atheists and the protestants probably have better arguments. They often don't want to convert but they have lost their faith anyway. By not believing the Catholic doctrine is logical and defensible they are essentially doubting it's truth. You even hear talk about religion being true in a different way. That is nonsense. There is only one kind of true. The kind that stands up to any questioning and not only survives but shines. Do you believe the Catholic church has that or do you not? If you do then act like it. Assure people answers are there. Learn how to find them when you need to find them. Do not be ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for our salvation.


  1. "The one thing that always impresses me about protestants and atheists is how sure they are of themselves."

    Something has actually hit me the last few weeks, and that is accepting the fact most people are ill equipped intellectually to make the right choices on our own. It's funny that when it comes to medical advice for our physical well being, we don't pretend to be a doctor, we rush to a trained physician; when it comes to legal advice for our legal needs, we don't pretend to be experts, we rush to a good lawyer, when it comes to financial advice, we don't pretend to know tax codes, we rush to a CPA, etc, etc,........but when it comes to spiritual and religious advice, everyone suddenly acts like they're an expert. And that's a problem. The idea that everyone is on the same playing field in religious matters is a joke, but it stems from our Enlightenment-Protestant culture in which truth comes down to the individual.

    So you are right, the problem doesn't exist in Catholicism, because we turn to the religious experts and authorities, not pretending we're expert enough. We acknowledge we don't have to do all the heavy lifting the Saints have done for us. When Catholics shy away from the smug confidence of Protestants and Atheists, it's because they know subconsciously that there is something fake and dangerous. Most Catholics would prefer to keep silence in ignorance and not pretend to know, than to pretend to have the answers.

  2. You make good points Nick. I think many would prefer to let the experts give them advice. The question is which set of experts have the right answers. Think of going to a hospital and having different treatments recommended by different doctors. You have to choose. If you choose wrong you could die. What will you do? You might try and educate yourself on the medical issue involved. You will never know as much as a doctor but the doctors disagree. You could make your choice based on feelings. Which doctor gives you the most confidence. Maybe you choose the treatment that will cost the least or cause you the least pain. Or maybe you figure the most expensive or most painful choice is more likely to be right. Something to be said for all of those but what you want is what is true. What will save your life.