knowing versus believing, knowledge and faith
Modern man does not want the burden of working at his faith, of having to work at gaining faith. He wants to know. But, we as humans have serious limitations that are part of the human condition. Can we really “know” that our religious and/or spiritual beliefs are true and correct?
We can believe these to be true and correct, but can we really know these are true?
Our purpose here is not to put forth an answer, but to help to stimulate thinking.
Western philosophy has had its rationalists, idealists, empiricists, materialists, obscurantists, existentialists, (and a few mystics) etc. Many “proofs” have been put forward to convince us that this or that postulate must be true. Once such a postulate is “proved” to be true, it becomes part of further proofs (arguments) to convince us of other truths (certainties). Many mental gymnastics are endured while reading some of these philosophical writings. After the review of western philosophy, one still does not have certitude or certain knowledge, and must still choose what to believe and what not to believe. As well, science cannot help us here as science is concerned with and limited to the physical, material plane of existence and cannot penetrate to the spiritual plane. (That is an inherent limitation of science.) Many who are fond of science choose to deny the existence of the spiritual.
At this point, some readers may say “What about the spiritual experiences that some individuals have? Can these be a basis for moving from belief to knowledge in this area?” We do not disagree with the observation that bona fide, authentic spiritual experience can be and often is transformative of one’s viewpoint, of one’s “certainty” as to spiritual truth. (We have touched on this in an earlier essay.) However, it seems that not many people have authentic spiritual experiences. (For these people, it comes down to having faith or not having it, of believing but not knowing.) And, a complicating factor is that the interpretation of such experiences can be highly subjective and can also be conditioned by one’s prior religious instruction. Having said that, it is worth noting that among the accounts of those who claim to have had true spiritual experiences, there is much commonality.
It is important to consider that for those who have a strong belief in something or who strongly belief something is true, that strong belief is, in a sense, knowledge for them. And, they will base decisions and actions on such certain (for them) “knowledge”.
There are many among us who give lip service to belief in a particular religious creed, and then proceed to live their lives no different from anyone else. (This was Nietzsche’s criticism of Christians in late 19th century Germany.)
Each of us must make decisions in our lives as to what we choose to believe (or not believe). And, we must decide what values we are to live our lives by. (Even those who do not consciously consider what values to live by are living by some values, or anti-values, as the case may be.)
There are many who claim to be in possession of spiritual knowledge and truths. However, this claim is as old as mankind, and there are many charlatans in the world. Beware of “New Age” cults. Many, if not most, are dead ends and some are even (very) dangerous.
Let us consider knowledge and belief from a different perspective – that of truth contrasted with the perception of truth. The 2 are not always the same. (Every politician, political operative, propagandist, objective historian, and sales person knows this. Probably every attorney (barrister) does as well.)
The most poignant examples of the difference between knowledge (as in verifiable facts) and popular (as in widely held) belief comes up when wars (and the events leading up to them) are examined honestly, objectively and dispassionately. Whole nations have been incited to go to war by the use of misinformation and disinformation. Peoples have been driven to want to make war on other nations because of widely circulated and often repeated lies and falsehoods (such as atrocity propaganda that has no basis in reality). People thought that they knew (i.e. believed) a certain people in another country were doing truly terrible things and/or were planning on attacking them, and this fired these people up, incited them to follow their political leaders into war with that other people in that other country. (As an example, one recalls the outrageous lies told about the German soldiers’ conduct in the Low Countries during World War I prior to the US entry into that war in 1917. Such malicious propaganda served to help condition Americans into hating Germans and thus more easily (readily) following their leaders into war against Germany. The perception of truth, spread by the news media of the time, was that the Kaiser’s troops had committed terrible atrocities against civilians, even children. The truth was that they had not.)
We may deal with this a little more in a future essay. But, for now, we say that it is very important and really necessary for individuals to try to maintain a calm and detached mental perspective when evaluating what they are told by their nation’s leaders and by the nation’s news media. Appeals to emotion in the speeches of the politicians and in the reporting by the media ought to make one wary. A healthy skepticism is justified.
As for me, I choose to believe in God and in a life after bodily death. Even though I have studied some other religions and found worthwhile insights in some of these, I am still a Christian. But, probably not a good one. To have faith does require some effort. A person does not just wake up one morning and suddenly have a strong faith or belief. Such strong faith or belief usually comes to one after some time and effort was put in to cultivating that faith. It does appear that the human soul craves spiritual connection, spiritual communion with God.
Here is one of our earliest essays that may be of interest to some more recent readers.
Best wishes to all.