Belief, Knowledge, and Certainty

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. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.