A Factual Faith: Response to T. M. Luhrmann

Note: I originally wrote this short piece on May 15, 2015 as part of an assignment for a writing for publication class this last semester.

In a provocative New York Times Sunday edition opinion piece entitled, “Faith vs. Facts,” T. M. Luhrmann, professor of anthropology at Stanford University, attempts to explain the differences between factual belief and religious belief, and why she thinks many religious people ignore the facts. Relying upon the work of a group of scholars that have investigated the cognitive nature of belief, Luhrmann presents three pieces of evidence. First, the very language used by religious adherents when they talk about their beliefs supposedly reveals the irrelevance of facts for those beliefs. Saying, “I believe in God” reveals that God is not self-evident and that others might not believe in God, neither of which are necessary when apprehending the material world around us. Second, she suggestions that with religious belief, the truth of a belief matters less than the pragmatic mileage one can squeeze from that belief. As opposed to caring about the way things are, religious folk are more invested in shaping their destinies, creating purpose, and constructing a world they want to exist. Third, Luhrmann posits that religious and factual beliefs represent different ways of interpreting the same occurrence, as factual beliefs seek to explain how something happened and religious beliefs try to explain why it happened.

Luhrmann’s analysis evidences a number of problems that the reader should be aware of. First, she inexplicably treats all religions monolithically, as if each religious tradition and belief were chiseled from the same homogeneous rock. While some mindless fringe religions would fit her descriptions, many other religions would not, such as Christianity and Judaism. Luhrmann seems unaware that some of the major world religions present themselves as knowledge traditions that rest upon historical and factual events, and that members of these faiths have gone to incredible lengths to defend the factuality and credibility of their faith. Second, Luhrmann’s positions seems to rest solely upon an empirical epistemology, as she thinks factual beliefs relate to the material world, are evaluated with perceptual evidence, and explain how the world works. Yet what empirical evidence is there for the fact that seven is a prime number or that something cannot both be itself and not be itself at the same time? There is no sense evidence, no scientific experiment, that can be run on these (and many other immaterial) beliefs, yet we consider them to be just as factual and knowable as anything that can be immediately apprehended with our senses. In addition, Luhrmann places too much confidence in empirical knowledge, as people often come to opposing and mutually exclusive beliefs using their senses, and scientific analysis has hardly produced consensus about everything it has tested.

Thirdly, there are deficiencies in each of Luhrmann’s three points. Regarding the language used to express factual and religious beliefs, once we realize that empiricism is not the only legitimate means to knowledge, we can see that the statement, “I believe that Jesus Christ is alive,” can be based on reasoning and evidence that is just as valid. Using arguments from natural theology, we can come to the warranted belief that God exists. Using arguments from the historical reliability of the Bible, we can justifiably believe Jesus when he claims to be God. And using both ancient and modern criteria for determining historical events, we can know without a doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. What all of this means is that claiming to believe that Jesus is alive is just as factual as claiming that your dog is alive. Even though the qualitative evidence for these facts at times diverge, they are equally valid. In addition, if we take the biblical witness as historical, we are aware that God has indeed revealed himself to people in tangible and material ways, such that they had no choice but to accept the fact of his existence – and stand in awe (Ex. 20:18-21; Isa. 6:1-5). What this shows is that Luhrmann has no basis for her dichotomy between “facts” and “faith,” for many religious beliefs are, in fact, factual beliefs.

Luhrmann’s second example about the function of religious beliefs in giving us a sense of destiny and purpose, and for constructing an alternate reality, fails to realize that a belief cannot be held unless the believer truly thinks that it is true (whether or not it is), and that it is impossible for someone to hold a belief they know to be false. Even if religious beliefs bring purpose and meaning to our lives, they still must approve themselves to the individual as being plausibly true before they can be embraced. Therefore, what the believer considers factual does matter, even when the belief is false or if the person is primarily attracted to the belief because of its impact on their life. In addition, beliefs that go beyond material and ephemeral beliefs of daily life, and that touch on issues of purpose, destiny, and ultimate reality, require even more evidence because of their high value and import. For if one goes wrong in these beliefs, the fallout is far more significant and costly than if I failed to believe my dog existed for a day. Thus, it is not only likely, but evidentially true, that everyday people require greater evidence for their religious beliefs than for what they can know through their five senses.

Luhrmann’s third example on the why vs. how simply fails to take into consideration the wide range of religious beliefs that exist. The belief that Genesis 1-2 historically recount God’s creation of the world explains to us the how of the origins of the universe. God spoke the universe into existence, and this means it did not come into being though purely material causes: long ages, random chance, and spontaneous generation of life from non-life. The crucifixion of Jesus and his rising from the dead three days later explains not only the how of God’s redemption of the world, but also the why of the origins of early Christianity and its eventual spread and triumph over the entire Mediterranean world. We can see, therefore, that religious beliefs have an edge over empirical and scientific beliefs, for they explain not only the how, but also the why. Scientific beliefs can only tell us what and how; they are effete in explaining why, which, in the end, is the only question that truly matters.

The rest of Luhrmann’s article is just a problematic. Her comments about older people relying on supernatural beliefs more than younger people commits the genetic fallacy, for the validity of a belief is not determined by how or under what conditions that belief arose. Her assertion that people who hold religious beliefs fail to use rational reason is demonstrably false (as already shown), and those who wager belief (according to Pascal’s Wager) put the lie to her contention that religious beliefs and sacred values preclude cost-benefit analyses. In addition, had she read the Gospels, she would have found that Jesus does appeal to material incentives to convince people to believe in him, for those who have faith in this life will find their reward in the life to come (Mt. 5:12; 6:19-21; Jn. 14:1-4). Finally, Luhrmann compromises her own argument about sacred values when she admits that they can be particular (e.g., “I believe abortion is murder”). Surely Luhrmann herself would adhere to the supposedly sacred belief, “I believe murder is wrong”; but if so, then she has unwittingly placed herself within the religious camp and by her own criteria cannot apply rational argumentation or cost-benefit analysis to this belief (and many others like it). In summary, her arguments are weak and evince a certain rational and epistemological confusion and naïveté. If Luhrmann were truly concerned about the nature of Christian faith, she would do well to ponder Hebrews 11:1: “For faith is the reality of things that are confidently hoped for, the proof of deeds not seen” (my translation).

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