The Faith of Children

The other day, John Hobbins linked to “For the Love of Reason” by Louise Antony in Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, a collection of essays that she edited. Antony’s largely autobiographical essay reflects my own pilgrimage but in a rather abnormal way. She tells the story of her inquisitive childhood and the various ways in which her parents and teachers offered faith when she was seeking reason and how her continued embrace of reason eventually liberated her from faith. In the context of her childhood experiences, she makes this observation,

Equal in importance to what I now assigned as to the having of reasons was my explicit commitment to the providing of reasons. I came to understand that my earlier frustrations had been as much with my teachers’ and parents’ refusal to engage in rational discussion as with my inability to discover what I wanted to know. And I saw clearly the nature of the conflict between the rhetoric of individual worth inherent in my childhood education and the grownups’ retreat to dogmatism and authoritarianism in response to my questions: the refusal to give reasons is disrespectful to the person who asks for them. We will not all agree with each other, and given that, we cannot all be right. But if we are to treat each other properly as equals, we must be willing to explain ourselves. I owe it to someone with whom I disagree to show her the basis of my position, so that she can evaluate it for herself. [p. 52]

To understand my own story one must tolerate considerable role reversal. My young children were the questioners asking for reason and I was the more or less Kierkegaardian fideist trying to avoid reasoned explanations for my beliefs. How I got to fideism is another story. Also, I was committed to telling my children the truth as best I understood the truth. And the truth was that, while I had faith that there was a God, I had no reason to believe this or to believe many of the other things that I believed. Worse, I had no reason to believe that there were two ways of knowing, one dependent on observation and reason, the other dependent on faith. Worse yet, I had no reason to think that my faith positions were any better than anyone else’s. Early on, and I mean before age five, my kids saw that this led to relativism with regard to belief. They didn’t use the word relativism; they did grasp the concept. And in trying to help them see that faith didn’t lead to relativism, I came to see that it did. Because I had rejected relativism long before, actually I never embraced it, I had little choice but to reject faith.
Antony’s words reflect the conclusion that I reached as I tried my best to answer faith questions with reason.

“Faith” presents a paradox: if a doctrine can be defended on rational grounds, then it needn’t be taken on faith. But if it cannot be defended on rational grounds, why should you believe it? [p. 52]

Of course, this is very similar to Dennett’s conclusion. It differs primarily in formulation and intensity. On reflection, I think I prefer Antony’s formulation and intensity.
PS: I appropriated the title of this post from a sermon that Martin Luther gave on September 7, 1522. That’s a few years before I was born but on the same month and day.

When we baptize, then we see the faith of Children; when the children stand there completely naked in body and soul, they are without faith and without works. Now here comes the Christian church and prays that God would pour faith into them. The intention is not that our faith or our works should help the child, but that the child should receive his own faith. [As translated by Paul Althous, The Theology of Martin Luther, p 365]

Yep! That pretty much sums up the faith of children. But then, “Here comes the Christian (or any other) Church.”

3 thoughts on “The Faith of Children”

  1. Duane – I don’t believe doctrine without reason either. I don’t believe God without reason – but stating the reason turns the faith into something else. A bit like observing Schodinger’s cat. Whatever terror, confusion and ambivalence can be read out of the old texts, the invitation in Psalm 34 to taste and see – is just that. No one else can taste for me. If I think it’s good, I will continue to feed.
    I admit that all my reasoning is therefore personal and circular. But that there is water in the well – is sufficient for me. I am pleased still to hear what is not sufficient for you. You are justified in your position with respect to believing stuff without reason.

  2. Great post. I love stories about people recognizing “salvation” through Logic. As someone born into the Jehovah’s Witness cult, I quickly got tired of the limiting, fundamentalist “6,000-year-old universe” model that conflicted front-on with my love of history and languages. Oddly enough, Star Trek gave me early exposure to objectivism (via Spock) and helped me find my way out of the underworld labyrinth of irrationality that religion snares hapless children in. For all the talk of a God of Love, there can be no true love without reason.

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