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A Philosophical Explanation of my Conversion to Catholicism, Part 1

October 24, 2015

Philosophy has been important to my personal life, since it was in large part for philosophical reasons that I turned away from atheism and converted to Catholicism. Insofar as people who know me are unaware of the nature of the philosophical issues and thoughts that have interested me, there is an important part of my recent history and my current identity which must be at least somewhat mysterious to them. This is unfortunate, and it would be nice to remedy the situation.

Another problem is that many people consider religious belief and conversion to involve some kind of subjective, irrational leap of faith. In my case, though, I tried as much as I could to avoid any such thing. I also want to explain that I did not convert because of a sudden change in my attitude or personality, but instead that I came to believe that theism, and Catholicism in particular, provided a more coherent framework in which to accommodate many of the views that I already had as an atheist (especially moral views).

So, I have resolved to write a number of posts which I call a philosophical explanation of my conversion to Catholicism.

I mentioned above that I attempted to avoid making my decision on the basis of subjective or irrational considerations. Indeed throughout the entire process, from the beginning of my questioning my atheism to my confirmation, I tried to base my decisions on rational grounds. But since this was the basis of my approach, it itself stands in need of scrutiny. Thus two questions are raised: A) is it right to follow rational grounds when it comes to questions about religious belief, and B) how do we tell what “rational grounds” are?

In the remainder of this post I will try to answer question A, arguing that one should always attempt to base one’s beliefs on rational grounds.

Various philosophers, such as Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and, more recently, Alvin Plantinga, have disagreed with me on this point. But I believe that to some extent all these philosophers have put question A in the wrong category. The question is essentially a moral one. The question is whether it is morally problematic to believe without rational grounds. If it is not morally problematic, then why should we care about whether people have rational grounds or not? But the above-mentioned philosophers do not, to my knowledge predominantly address the moral aspects of this question.

Modern philosophers are sometimes (justly) critical of appeals to “moral reasons”. This is largely because in some modern ethical traditions, such as Kantianism, morality is presented in such a way that it becomes a kind of “optional extra” which is often irrelevant to practical interests and concerns. Thus Kant infamously rules out acting in certain ways in any circumstances on moral grounds, even in situations where acting in the purportedly morally prohibited way would appear to have much better consequences. As well as this, modern moral philosophy is dominated by consideration of cases of emergencies, e.g. where we can divert a train carriage so that it kills 1 person instead of 5.[1] (My objection to this approach is that philosophers start with the hard cases before working out what they ought to do in easy cases). All this gives the impression that morality is something which applies only in special cases, rather than in everyday life.

I believe that this conception of the ethical is fundamentally damaging and wrong, and this is not the sense in which I shall be using the words “moral” and “ethical”.  I have found Aquinas’ approach to ethical matters to be much more useful and realistic.

Aquinas begins his account of ethics (the Prima Secundae of his Summa Theologica) by noting that every human being has certain goals. To some of these goals we may attach mere instrumental value – they are valuable only because they help attain something else – but some of them we must attach genuine value to. The reason for this is that otherwise we would be unable to answer the question: “why are you doing something, rather than nothing?” As Aquinas says, we act because we intend to achieve something, and we choose to strive towards this because we think that achieving whatever that is will be better than not achieving it.

It has been suggested to me that Aquinas’ argument is mistaken, because there could be a person who is indifferent about everything, but decides to act (to do something rather than nothing) on a completely arbitrary basis. But arbitrary can mean either “based on the will or inclination of the person involved” or “random”. If we take it to mean the former, then the person acts because they want to, and hence we can say that they attach a certain value to doing what they want over doing what they do not want. If we take it to mean the latter, then I would call into question whether it is humanly possible to make every single decision on a completely random basis. Secondly, if somebody did manage to do this, then they would attach a certain value to acting randomly over not acting randomly. Hence, you cannot escape attaching value to something or other.

What this means is that we all have our goals, and when we have our goals, we are also in need of strategies to achieve them. For Aquinas, ethics has two tasks: to tell us which goals we should have, and to give us the best strategy for achieving them. On this way of looking at things, ethics cannot be sidelined or irrelevant; it is, rather, heavily related to our everyday practices and to our goals and our (prospects of) happiness.

From this we can see why question A is a moral one. The strategy of attempting to justify one’s beliefs as best as one can differs from the strategy which says that we can neglect that attempt, at least in some areas. Which strategy is better?

Here is the problem for the second strategy. Beliefs which are not supported by reason or evidence are more likely to fail to accord with how the world is. For example, if somebody asks me to count the number of chairs in a room, and I guess a number without having looked in the room recently, then in all likelihood the response I will give to the enquirer will be false. If they trust me, then they will form the belief that x chairs are in the room, when in fact (say) there are not x chairs in the room. This is an example of a belief that fails to accord with how the world is. We categorize beliefs which do not accord with how the world is in this direct way (i.e. the belief says something which just isn’t the case) as false.[2]

Recall that we all have our goals to pursue; goals which we think there is some intrinsic value in achieving, and that we need strategies to reach these goals. It is not easy to reach our goals and be happy, so we need a plan. This is where beliefs come in. We do not just have one strategy, but many strategies, most of which relate to shorter-term goals, but which are designed with our ideal goals in mind. When constructing these strategies, our beliefs are the raw material. Going back to the chair example: on the basis of coming to believe there are x chairs in the room, we will then continue to act and plan on the basis of our belief (e.g. by deciding whether to fetch more chairs or not). If our belief is false, this is likely to have the result that we will not take the appropriate action; either we won’t have enough chairs for everybody or we will waste time fetching more chairs.

False beliefs hence need to be guarded against. If we scale up from trivial examples, we can see that the more false beliefs one has, the more likely it is for one’s strategies to fail. A good strategy takes us from being in a starting state S to an end state E. If we know the nature of S, then sound knowledge of which actions are likely to cause certain outcomes can give us what we need to take us from S to E. But if we have false beliefs, then we may lack not only in this vital causal knowledge, but in knowledge of the state we are currently in. If we misperceive S, then we may end up constructing a strategy which would be effective in taking us from S to E, but since we are not in S, it will be useless to us. Unless we are very lucky, or our estimate of our own situation was not very far off, we will not end up at E. As E is our ethical goal, guarding against false beliefs is ethically imperative.

Beliefs can be bad in ways other than being false, as in the number of chairs example. For example, a bad idea can also be misconceived (based on a misunderstanding of one of the concepts which constitutes the belief). Misconceptions are especially pernicious because they can lead us to either i) nonsensical beliefs or ii) interpret a piece of evidence is an unhelpful, wrong by applying a bad concept to it. For instance, if I wrongly thought tables to be types of chairs, the answer I would give in the above case would more likely be wrong. We can see that misconceptions, too, could give us a bad understanding of S, E, or of how to get from S to E. Hence, we have a very strong moral reason to avoid them.

It is obvious enough to anybody that having mistaken beliefs about matters of commonplace empirical fact needs to be avoided. But I used the number of chairs example simply for ease of exposition. The more important question for my purposes here is whether there is good reason for thinking that religious beliefs are also of the kind which we must take measures to ensure are not false. I have been informed that some religious people claim that even if their religious beliefs turned out to be false (e.g. God did not exist), they would still continue adhering to their religious way of life, since it simply happens to be, in their view, the best way of living, regardless.

I am happy to accommodate the view that many religious practices, such as taking time for reflection and personal thought in prayer and charity, are ethically good, useful and constructive. There is hence a grain of truth in the objection. Nevertheless, I do not think that religious beliefs escape the moral argument for trying to make sure that one’s beliefs are justified, for the following reasons.

An initial point is that religious beliefs are always connected with one’s moral beliefs, and in particular for our purposes we can see here that a religious believer will have a somewhat different conception of E to an atheist or agnostic. This is because the ultimate end that religious people believers pursue will surely have something to do with standing in a certain relationship with God. But if God does not exist, then their goal, E, will be impossible to achieve. It just seems intrinsically bad to live with one’s primary goal being something which is in fact impossible, because it will lead to inevitable frustration. This, however, is a minor point, and I want my argument here to be accessible to persons who have very different conceptions of E.

The more serious point is that religious belief must have a significant effect on our assessment of S, the state we (collectively) are in. For example, if I believe God exists and is benevolent, there is good reason to expect that God will, in the long term at least, do what is best for us. Then suppose we reason to the belief that what is best for us is to have an eternal life. Then we conclude on this basis that we will have an eternal life. Our perception of the state we are in would thus be radically changed, since Earthly death is no longer the end, in this view. I believe that this is bound to have some effect on our moral reasoning, particularly concerning questions of life and death. My detailed reasons for believing this will be explained in a later section of this project. But it should be clear enough that our view on whether there is an afterlife affects our view of the state we are in and hence affects our planning. For example, a Christian friend of mine is of the belief that if he was in an emergency situation where he could save the life either of an atheist friend or a pious Christian friend but not both, he should save the atheist because if the atheist died, they would not go to heaven, but the Christian would.

Another example of how religious beliefs affect our perception of S is that the religious person holds that one important feature of S is that we bear some relationship to God. If we bear a relationship with God, then, one might say, we need to sustain and nourish that relationship through an active prayer life focusing on communicating with God. But if God does not exist, then while it may be useful to reflect in quiet, the time of the prayer that focuses on God would have been better spent focused on some worldly matter more relevant to genuine ethical concerns.

A final point is that most religious believers think that certain persons and texts should be treated as having special authority (though not necessarily complete authority) due to divine significance. If, however, God does not exist, then there is absolutely no reason to grant such authority. If we give views of certain persons or texts a special authority, this will affect our other beliefs about S, E, and how to get from S to E, even if for no other reason than that it leads us to spend less time investigating alternative belief systems.

The examples I have given of how religious beliefs could affect our views of S will not apply to every religion, or every possible kind of religious belief. They are instead being used as illustrations of how religious beliefs will affect S. If anybody has some counterexamples of religious belief systems which do not affect S in a similar way, I would be interested to hear of them, but I must say I find it difficult to conceive of such possibilities.

Before concluding, I need to consider a final and important objection to my response to question A. It might be thought that by insisting on taking a rational approach to religious belief and its justification, I am thereby beginning my project with a methodology that is bound to distort the proper nature of religious belief and experience, and therefore lead me either to scepticism or to a narrow, impoverished vision of theism. This line of objection is motivated by the thought that an emotional response to experience of life is an important aspect of what it is to have faith. This part I agree with. What I disagree with is the next premise that this objector would need to make that claim incompatible with my argument, namely that my approach lacks the tools to take emotional experience into account. It is easy for me to maintain that while defence of religious doctrines must in part based on rational argument, for the reasons discussed above, rational argument is not the only tool that I will need for my explanation of my decision to convert to Catholicism. Moreover, I reject the idea that rationality and emotionality are separate spheres, which have nothing to say to each other. On my view it is rational to love, and it would be a mistake to think that either love or rationality is somehow more fundamental than the other. My reasons for thinking this will be made clear in the next section, in which I treat of the nature of rationality (answering question B).

I take it I have established that the strategy of attempting to ensure that one’s beliefs are justified is considerably more ethically satisfactory than the alternative. False or misconceived beliefs interfere with one’s strategies for attaining goodness and happiness, and so they must be guarded against. For this reason I disagree with Plantinga’s view that the religious believer does not need to produce evidence which favours her beliefs in order for them to be justified.[3] The rightness of my decision to convert hence lives or dies with the success or failure of the arguments I will put forth in the following sections. Before presenting those arguments, however, I need to further elucidate and justify my method by considering the nature of rationality itself.

[1] Cf. David Wiggins, “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life”, 1988.

[2] I am not hereby subscribing to what is called the “correspondence theory of truth”. I concur with Wittgenstein that the meaning of a word is not equivalent to some object which the word stands for. My conception of accordance here does not mean correspondence in any direct sense. But there is an important sense in which the belief “2+2=5” does not accord with reality, simply because if we go about things with the view that if we add 2 objects to a group of 2 thinking that there will be 5, our ideas about what to expect will consistently be frustrated by how things turn out. I am not thereby committed to the view that mathematics (or any other branch of knowledge) is “mind-independent”, or that true mathematical statements represent states of affairs, only that how the world is has some bearing on the justification of such beliefs. For more explanation of my position here, see my essay “Objectivity and Subjectivity” recently published on my blog.

[3] Alvin Plantinga, “Warranted Christian Belief”, 2000.

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