Anselm "Faith Seeking Confirmation"

I think Anselm's dictum "faith seeking understanding" is to be understood in the history of theology and philosophy to be equivalent to "Faith Seeking Confirmation." If that's how it's historically used then that's what it means. Below is an updated edit from chapter 2 of my my book, Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End.
There is a common theme among St. Anselm's work and the work of other obfuscationist theologians and philosophers that needs to be highlighted. It’s called faith seeking confirmation. We see this in Anselm with regard to his new atonement theory and his ontological argument.
Anselm therefore is exhibit “A” in defense of what atheist philosopher Stephen Law said: “Anything based on faith, no matter how ludicrous, can be made to be consistent with the available evidence, given a little patience and ingenuity.”1 If I could pick one sentence, one aphorism, one proverb that highlights the main reason philosophy of religion (PoR) must end, it’s Law’s. I’ll call it Law’s law of faith.
Faith Seeking Confirmation
Anselm’s most enduring legacy just might be his statement, credo ut intelligam (“I believe in order that I may understand”), or in its most famous form, Fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”).26 While others have expressed this idea, the point is that people first believe then seek to understand. First they believe then they seek data. First they believe then they seek to confirm their beliefs. No one in the history of the confessional church probably said anything different, or if they did, faith was surreptitiously smuggled in the back door. Few if any Christian intellectuals ever said “understanding seeks faith,” because the obvious sequitur is that if they achieved understanding they wouldn't need faith. Seeking confirmation of one's religious faith rather than truth reverses what reasonable people should do with one's religious faith. In fact, it goes against science since science is based on the search for truth. So in this sense, faith should be recognized as a known cognitive bias sure to distort any honest inquiry into the truth, confirmation bias.
In 1987 a large-scale US antinarcotics campaign by Partnership for a Drug-Free America launched. It featured two televised public service announcements (PSAs) and a related poster campaign. The original thirty-second ad showed a man who held up an egg and said, “This is your brain.” Then he showed a hot frying pan and said, “This is drugs.” Then he cracked the egg and put it in the pan. It immediately began to cook. He brought the pan closer to the camera and said, “This is your brain on drugs.” He ended the PSA by saying, “Any questions?” It was a very powerful commercial.
I want people to consider the drug metaphor for faith, taking our cue from Karl Marx, who described religious faith as the opiate of the people. When you think of the commercial you need to hear the actor say, “This is your brain on faith.” That’s what I think. Here then are five ways faith makes the brain stupid:
1. Faith causes the believer to denigrate or deny science.
2. Faith causes the believer to think objective evidence is not needed to believe.
3.Faith causes the believer to deny the need to think exclusively in terms of the probabilities.
4. Faith causes the believer to accept private subjective experiences over the objective evidence.
5. Faith causes the believer to think faith has an equal or better method for arriving at the truth than scientifically based reasoning.
Any questions?
Christian, before you mindlessly quote mine from the Bible or the theology based on it, consider what you think of other brains on faith, like those of Scientologists, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, pantheists, and so on. Clearly you think their brains are on the opiate of faith just as I do. Watch some videos about these other faiths. Study them. Talk to practitioners of them. Try to argue with the best representatives of them and see if you can penetrate their brains with reason and science. Can’t do it? Why? Why do you think their faith makes them impervious to reason and your faith does not make you impervious to reason?
I had a discussion with a person of faith not long ago where she said there was nothing I could ever say to change her mind. I simply replied that no scientist would ever say such a thing. I went on to say she should think like a scientist and recommended that she read Guy Harrison’s chapter in my anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science, titled, “How to Think Like a Scientist: Why Every Christian Can and Should Embrace Good Thinking.” I recommended it because thinking like a scientist is the antithesis of thinking with the drug of faith on one’s brain.
Scientifically minded people argue we should reason like a scientist. Believers in different faiths will demur, saying we cannot justify our own reasoning capabilities, since we accept the fact of evolution. I think my evolved brain can make reliable (though not perfect) judgments based on the evidence of course, and that should be good enough. But ignoring this for the moment, what if these believers are correct? Then what? It gets them nowhere as in no-where. They still cannot settle their differences because they are left with no method to do so. They will argue for faith over reason, which leaves them all back at the starting gate, with faith. They are special pleading and that’s it, thinking that if they can deny reason in favor of their particular faith then it follows their particular faith ends up being the correct one. No, if they deny reason in favor of faith the result is there’s no way to settle these disputes between people of different faiths. My claim is that religions debunk themselves and because this is clearly the case, the only alternative to know the truth about the world is through scientifically based reasoning.
The fact that I can say nothing to convince most of them of this is maddening. They are impervious to reason, almost all of them. This is what faith does to their brains.
Randal Rauser is an associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary, Edmonton, Canada. He and I coauthored a debate-style book together titled "God or Godless?"27 He is a Christian believer. I cowrote the book to reach any honest believers since I consider him impervious to reason. I could say it of any Christian pseudo-intellectual to some degree, depending on how close he or she is to the truth (liberals are closer than progressive evangelicals who are closer than fundamentalists). I admit Rauser reasons well in other areas of his life unrelated to his faith. He could even teach a critical thinking class. So he’s rational, very much so. But like all believers his brain must basically shut down when it comes to faith. When it comes to faith his brain must disengage. It cannot connect the dots. It refuses to connect them. Faith stops the brain from working properly. Faith is a cognitive bias that causes believers to overestimate any confirming evidence and underestimate any disconfirming evidence. So his brain will not let reason penetrate it, given his faith bias. Some people have even described faith as a virus of the brain (or mind). It makes the brain sick. Maybe Marx said it best though. It’s an opiate, a deadening drug.
Alvin Plantinga has argued that what’s essential to have a “warranted belief” is “the proper functioning of one’s cognitive faculties in the right kind of cognitive environment.” I actually think he’s right. But faith, like an opiate, causes the brain to stop functioning properly in matters related to faith. Christian apologetics is predicated on a host of logical fallacies. Take away the logical fallacies they use in defense of their faith and they wouldn’t have any arguments left at all. They certainly don’t have good objective sufficient evidence for what they believe. A critical thinker like Rauser, who thinks more rationally than most others in every area unrelated to his faith, cannot see this, but it is the case. Now why can’t Rauser see this? Why can’t he come to the correct religious conclusions? Why can’t he think rationally about his faith? Because his faith, like an opiate, will not let him. The opiate of faith deadens those areas in his brain that are related to his faith. Rauser surely sees this with regard to other believers in different religious faiths. He will say the same things about them that I say about him. But he refuses to see the same drug deadening his own brain. Once again, faith is a cognitive bias, a virus of the mind, an opiate. It prevents people of  faith from connecting the dots.
Rauser admits that like everyone else he depends on “motivated reasoning” to some degree. Well then, why won’t he apply the antidote, which is to require sufficient objective evidence for what he believes? That’s the only way to overcome the cognitive bias of faith, the only way to kill that virus in his mind, the only way to nullify the opiate of faith, and the only way to stop being swayed by his own motivated reasoning. Yet he questions the need for sufficient objective evidence apart from a private subjective ineffable feeling. Who in their right mind would do this after admitting he depends on “motivated reasoning” to some degree? No reasonable person, that’s who.
Subjective private ineffable religious experiences offer believers the most psychologically certain basis for believing in a particular divine being or religion. When believers have a religious experience it’s really hard, if not psychologically impossible, to argue them away from their faith. How is it possible then for believers who claim to have had such experiences to look at those experiences as an outsider might? We can point out the mind often deceives us and provide many examples of this phenomenon (brainwashing, wish-fulfillment, cognitive dissonance). But believers will maintain their particular religious experience is real because it was experienced, despite the odds their brain is deceiving them. We can point out that countless others of different faiths all claim to have the same type of religious experiences, whether they are Mormon, Muslim, Catholic, or Jew, but believers will still say their experiences are true ones (or veridical), despite the odds that what others believe as a result of their experiences makes it seem obvious they could be wrong too (and vice versa).
Sometimes in the face of such an experiential argument I simply say to the believer, “If I had that same experience I might believe too. But I haven’t. So why not? Why doesn’t your God give me that same religious experience?” At this point the believer must blame me and every living person on the planet for not being open to such a sect-specific religious experience. Depending on the religious sect in question that might include most every person, 7.4 billion of us and counting. But even this realization doesn’t affect believers who claim to have had such religious experiences. Calvinists among them will simply say, “God doesn’t want various people to have a saving religious experience.” It never dawns on any of these believers what this means about the God they worship, that only a mean-spirited barbaric God would send people to an eternal punishment because that same God did not allow them a certain type of religious experience.
Believers will always argue in such a fashion in order to stay as believers. No matter what we say they always seem to have an answer. What they never produce is any cold hard objective evidence, convincing evidence, for their faith claims. Ever. They are not only impervious to reason. They are also impervious to the evidence. They even see evidence where it doesn’t exist because they take the lack of evidence as evidence for their faith. When it comes to prayer they count the hits and discount the misses.
There is only so much a person can take when dealing with people who have lost touch with reality. Must we always maintain a patient attitude when we already know their arguments? Must we always respond in a dispassionate manner to people who are persuaded against reason to believe something delusional? We know this about them based on everything we know (i.e., our background knowledge). They are pretending to know that which they don’t know when they pretend to know with some degree of certainty their faith is true. If it’s faith, how then can something be known with any degree of probability at all, much less certainty? Faith by definition always concerns itself with that which is unsure. Something unsure involves lower probabilities. So faith is always about that which has lower probabilities to it. So again, how can something based on faith be known with any degree of certainty? It can’t, and only deluded minds think otherwise, minds that are impervious to reason and evidence. We can only hope they can function in life. It can be quite surprising they can.
Concluding Thoughts
Anselm of Canterbury’s key theological contributions in philosophy of religion highlight what reasonable people see as the need for philosophy of religion to end. He holds a preeminent place among the best philosophical theologians the Church ever produced. And yet, as we’ve seen, even among the best of the best there’s nothing here but rhetoric without substance based on his faith and the social climate of his day. His best contributions didn’t solve anything. Almost no one accepts his atonement theory today. His idiosyncratic perfect-being conception was based on nothing more than special pleading on behalf of his parochial Western concept of god. His ontological argument does not work either. Further, we’ve found that when Anselm’s perfect being is compared to the biblical god Yahweh and his supposed son, it doesn’t make any sense nor can it be reconciled. So the only reason to study Anselm seems to be one of historical curiosity. Anselm’s key contributions did not advance anything since we are no closer at getting to objective knowledge about anything than we would be if he never wrote a thing. When it comes to the history of philosophy he made no contributions that furthered understanding, the very thing he sought to do.
It does no good to say we’ve learned from Anselm what is false and cannot be defended, as if by learning what isn’t the case he advanced our understanding. He sidetracked our understanding for a millennium. He was doing obfuscationist puzzle-solving theology unrelated to the honest desire to understand. If we proportioned our intellectual assent to the probabilities based on sufficient evidence (per Hume), we would know all we need to know to know that Anselm and many other unevidenced beliefs are false and cannot be defended.
Karl Barth, considered one of the greatest theologians of the last century, who rejected natural theology with a big fat “Nein,” argued Anselm’s ontological argument was an example of his faith seeking understanding, rather than an argument proving God exists. Anselm did not seek to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, Barth argued, but to understand it.28 Anselm’s ontological argument in chapter 2 of the Proslogion comes after asking God for help to understand his faith in chapter 1. There he prays, “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, — that unless I believed, I should not understand.” Then just before developing the argument in chapter 2, Anselm prays, “Lord, do you, who do give understanding to faith, give me, so far as you know it to be profitable, to understand that you are as we believe; and that you are that which we believe.” So while there is disagreement about what he was doing, Anselm at least tacitly acknowledges his argument comes from faith rather than leading to faith. And that’s exactly what we find. The ontological argument depends on his Christian faith, which subsequently seeks to confirm his faith, what he already believes about his parochial god. There’s a recognized informal fallacy here I’ve mentioned a time or two. It’s called special pleading. It's also the mother of all cognitive biases, something to avoid if we want to know the truth.
Philosophers of religion who have dealt with Anselm’s argument and developed their own versions of it, such as Charles Hartshorne, Norman Malcolm, and Alvin Plantinga, should take note. They don’t know their own theology. Or, perhaps more correctly and importantly, they fail to realize they’re doing the same thing Anselm did. He sought after arguments that confirmed his faith rather that seeking out sufficient objective evidence for his God.
What we’re led to conclude is that the problem of philosophy of religion stems from faith. If faith is trust then there is no reason to trust faith. Anything based on faith has lower probabilities to it by definition. Christian pseudo-philosophers do no more than build intellectual castles in the sky without any solid grounding to them. There doesn’t seem to be any good principled reason for not getting fed up with the pretend game of faith with its ever-receding theology.

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