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Belief, Knowledge, and Certainty Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 04 December 2011

Even atheists believe in at least one thing:  God does not exist. The recent best selling screeds against religion and faith penned by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens excoriate theists for believing “without evidence,” i.e., without scientific proof to support their claims. Of course, neither can the atheist empirically verify his claim against God’s existence. But since the scientific naturalism of these authors is the reigning outlook of the world today, the atheist has nothing to prove; the onus probandi lies instead with the theist who believes in a transcendent and immaterial Being in a world that only admits immanent and material evidence.

Scientific naturalism is the most recent form of rationalism, which, beginning in the eighteenth century, declared that human beings can know only objects and phenomena that can be measured by reason or science. Claims of belief in God or in an objective moral order cannot be proven scientifically, so they are excluded from the realm of knowledge. Thus Sam Harris in The End of Faith can call theology “little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.”

As secular society and religious critics make further inroads against faith, the believer is compelled to consider:  Is belief an authentic form of knowledge, or just irrational superstition? Joseph Ratzinger, in his profound exegesis of the nature of belief in Introduction to Christianity, identifies the rationalists’ error:  in coming to worship factual knowledge as the only type of human knowing, they have failed to realize that belief and knowledge differ in kind, not just in degrees of certitude. Belief and knowledge, in Ratzinger’s words, “are two basic forms of human attitude or reaction to reality, neither of which can be traced back to the other because they operate on completely different planes.”

For Ratzinger belief is not a lesser or incomplete form of knowledge, as in, “I believe that it may rain, but I do not know for sure.” Rather, “belief is ordered, not to the realm of what can be or has been made, although it is concerned with both, but to the realm of basic decisions that man cannot avoid making.” Belief, then, is not essentially about content and facts (though there are surely reasons for believing), but about meaning, “without which the totality of man would remain homeless, on which man’s calculations and actions are based, and without which in the last resort he could not calculate and act, because he can only do this in the context of a meaning that bears him up.”


              Ratzinger: to Stand for Faith is to trust in God, 

To say, “I believe,” therefore, is not a casual remark about the weather, nor is it a sheepish disavowal of morality, as politicians and presidential candidates tend to use the phrase today. To say, “I believe,” according to Ratzinger, is to take a stand on a ground within reality which one trusts completely. This chosen ground for belief is the source of meaning in one’s life, and it cannot be verified by empirical data because it exists outside the realm of the quantifiable. Yet this ground, since it has meaning, has truth, and only in standing on truth can one understand belief, and with it, meaning.

The atheist and the scientific naturalist reject belief, and in doing so they reject meaning and overall purpose in the world. By limiting reality only to what can be known through measurement, they posit that the meaning of the world is nothing more the sum of its chemical processes and physical laws. Knowledge, which is limited to facts and functions, is incapable of generating meaning since it cannot explain the reasons behind the facts. Meaning lies beyond the empirical, and it cannot be created by human beings. In Ratzinger’s words, “meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning. Meaning. . .cannot be made but only received.”

But how can you find the true ground of meaning if it cannot be verified empirically? What if your meaning differs from your neighbor’s? The Christian, according to Ratzinger, takes his stand on the truth of being itself, on the reality of existence. A corollary to this belief is the fundamental intelligibility of the universe, a belief shared a priori by scientific naturalists even though they cannot ultimately prove this belief empirically. For a century modern philosophy has tried to destroy the truth of being, but any attempt at discrediting it – including attacks on theism – require belief in truth and intelligibility before uttering a word. A common ground does exist –literally and figuratively – even if some deny it.

For the Christian, taking a stand on the truth of being itself means entrusting oneself to the Logos, to the God who is meaning and reason, and therefore creative love. The Christian, according to Ratzinger, does not entrust himself to a “something” but to a “Someone” who, because of love, came into the world to make eternal meaning, truth, and love visible to all. The Christian therefore confesses, “I believe in you, Jesus of Nazareth, as the meaning (Logos) of the world and of my life.”

Scientific naturalists, having closed the door to the true meaning of belief, will never see the rationality of the Christian stand. Christian belief will never be proved empirically, yet it remains a powerful force even in a secular world: it provides an attractive and comprehensive account of the meaning of existence in a scientific age that, for all its knowledge, is still searching for meaning.


David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
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written by Other Joe, December 04, 2011
Those who put their faith in the accidental formation of DNA, that desire can't exist because it isn't empirical, that good and bad are non terms and that truth = material relationships piled up by accident are foolish by definition. But such a faith allows one to get about doing what one wishes, obedient only to one's whim, so it is an extremely seductive religion. Many have been sacrificed on that cold and empty altar.
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written by Manfred, December 04, 2011
Prof. Bonagura: Thank you for this well written essay. After the recent Bishops' conference in Baltimore, an ordinary who attended explained to a priest friend of mine (in a diocesan group) that 80% of "Catholics" in the U.S. do not not defer completely to the authority of the Church. I believe these "Catholics" are referred to as "cafeteria Catholics", i.e., they pick and choose what they will believe and follow. Messrs. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens whom you cite are not, in my opinion, the problem, but rather "Catholics" who are not Catholic. These "Catholics" are lost in this world and the next and the fault lies in the Church which has abdicated Its responsibility to teach them. Does any reader of TCT want to hear one more "Catholic", candidate or not, explain on TV when life begins? Fides Quarens Intellectum-Faith seeking understanding. The Third Edition of the Novus Ordo Mass? How about courses in MORAL THEOLOGY and APOLOGETICS every week from the pulpit AFTER the priests themselves have been trained. BTW, this might be one explanation as to why Immaculate Conception Seminary is being incorporated into St. Joseph's in Yonkers. Thank you once again for your thoughts.
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written by Ben Horvath, December 04, 2011
One interesting side effect of rise of materialistic positivism has been the disregard shown to personal experience. After all God is not just 'proved' by philosophy but has made himself known by the experience of Saints and Prophets in private and public revelations (what we have are accounts of these experiences). Many 'lesser' people also have religious experiences as well.

Naturally the materialists disregard this experience (because it goes against their narrow philosophy). Yet the personal experience still exists the same way a recorded measurement using a ruler or thermometer exists.

Somehow we are supposed to believe the record of the thermometer reading regardless of the character of the scientist reading it but not the personal experience of the Saint of sterling character.

Naturally pointing this stuff out to atheists is a waste of time as they are generally cranks, but its worth repeating so normal people don't fall under their spell.
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written by Patrick, December 04, 2011
Manfred, I agree that Catholics have been a less than stellar witness in recent decades, much too eager to ingratiate ourselves with Protestants (in the US) and Marxists (in Europe), and so there is little point in attacking atheists when we do not have our own house in order. If the Catholic Church is seen as just another "believe whatever you want to" social club, then it's not surprising that people chose to join other social clubs (sport team fans, rock'n'roll cults, political parties, etc.) that are more glamorous and fun. We need to make it clear that there is indeed "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church," namely, the Catholic Church, or else we have little to offer to anyone.

Of course, we must be able to give an intellectual justification for the Catholic faith, as this article does. But that will only go so far without a true, living, vibrant alternative to relativism and secularism. I detect some dismissiveness toward the new English translation, but a more elevated language is a step in the right direction, isn't it? Hasn't Benedict XVI done more than we could have hoped toward the restoration of the sense of the sacred in Catholic liturgy? Don't be over-critical -- Rome wasn't built in a day ;)
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written by Joe Hammond, December 05, 2011
It strikes me that scientific naturalism collapses on itself when it asserts there is no creator or first, supernatural cause. If the universe has no creator, then it and everything within it are an accident. It just popped into existence - and the corrolary is that it and everything within it could just as easily pop out of existence for no reason and without any natural cause. In such a world, where Nothing suddenly and without cause or reason became Something, how can logic ["A equals A and does not equal not-A"] cohere? How could science, which is the search for natural causes, ever make sense in such a random universe? The fact that science does make sense - i.e. we can accrue scientific knowledge about natural things - is to my mind proof or at least evidence that nature and the material world cannot be all that there is.
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written by Manfred, December 05, 2011
@Patrick: A sincere thank you for sharing your thoughts. If you "detect some dismissiveness toward the new English translation," it is because this "new" translation has been in use for hundreds of years. In fact, with perhaps a very small tweak here and there, it is the English translation of what was the universal Mass prior to Vatican II. As the chapel I attend uses the 1962 Missal, our Mass did not change at all!

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