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Faith, Reason, and Conspiracy Theories

April 15, 2021


Credo ut intelligam—I believe in order that I may know. While St. Anselm, following St. Augustine, said this in speaking of Christian faith, what is articulated in this tight Latin turn of phrase does not apply only to the truths of the Christian faith. Rather, it highlights that no knowledge is ever fully available to the one who does not trust. This is why we can speak not simply of faith as a theological virtue but also of natural faith. As John Henry Newman pointed out, if we do not trust our senses or our intellects, we cannot even begin the process of knowing. Everything we know—or even think we know—we know by some combination of faith and reason.

It is not that, as is perhaps easier to imagine, we know certain truths by faith (for example, that God became one of us in Jesus Christ) and others by reason (e.g., that the earth orbits the sun rather than vice versa). Faith and reason both play a role in each of these kinds of knowing—and in any kind of knowing at all.

Christian faith is not, as is sometimes asserted, blind. From the beginning, Christians have presented evidence for their claims—the Resurrection of Jesus first and foremost. Consideration of this evidence might lead a person to believe or to doubt, but evidence is offered. No one is invited to believe without reference to some argument that belief is reasonable. But evidence does not compel belief. Instead, it makes the choice of where to put one’s faith clearer. Reason clears the ground for faith.

This basic pattern is what the Christian tradition has meant by the praeambula fidei. And much of apologetics is devoted to just this work: positing good reasons for faith and responding to reasoned objections to faith. But when that work is done, only faith can believe.

Scientific knowledge is not, as is sometimes asserted, purely rational. Instead, it relies on certain unproven—even unprovable—presuppositions. Indeed, science only ever emerges in a culture that takes for granted things like the possibility of a true correspondence between the human mind and physical reality. Such “natural faith” does not do the work of science. It is the foundation that makes science possible.

One reason why modern science emerged when and where it did in world history is precisely because medieval theologians had spent centuries carefully considering and articulating the roles of faith and reason in human knowing. Only Christian theology has produced the epistemological prerequisites for the development of science. (The role of the hypothesis in the scientific method is of particular interest. It says, in effect, let me take something as true and then see if it works. The truth only becomes apparent after a kind of commitment. The analogy with Christian faith here is not perfect, but it does not need to be perfect in order to make the basic point that, even in science, understanding follows believing.)

In Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of Being Paranoid, Emma A. Jane and Chris Fleming float a provocative idea. Perhaps, they suggest, the current crisis of shared public knowledge, as evidenced by ever wilder and more disorienting conspiracy theories, has its roots in weaknesses in Enlightenment epistemology.

The Enlightenment gave short shrift to the role of trust in human knowing. Is it possible that part of the breakdown of our ability as a society to come to compatible interpretations of public events lies in the Enlightenment’s rejection of faith as necessary for knowledge?

Though it has Augustinian roots, Descartes’s famous cogito, ergo sum—I think, therefore I am—is a kind of antithesis to credo ut intelligam. Descartes is not satisfied that his belief should have any root other than the rational. And so he ends up, intentionally or not, disguising the act of faith in his knowing. But it is there nonetheless. In the end, his famous syllogism relies on faith in his perception of his own rationality, one of the most important elements of natural faith.

Faith will have a role in human knowing, for good or ill. But that role is much more likely to lead to knowledge of the truth if it is acknowledged. The conceit that one operates out of reason alone leads quickly to credulity and falsehood. Faith in pure rationality does not simply lack justification; it is oxymoronic, a performative contradiction. It is the wholehearted commitment to the idea, absent any evidence, that one should not wholeheartedly commit to ideas without evidence. Such incoherence at the root necessarily leads to bad fruit on the branches.

Faith, when it is acknowledged for what it is, leads to a kind of epistemic humility—not of the agnostic sort, where one hedges one’s bets, but of the sort that acknowledges that others come from different starting presuppositions and so might reach other conclusions in good will. The naïve presupposition that my own position is somehow neutral and purely rational leads me to imagine that there can be only two reasons that anyone would take a different position than my own: stupidity or ill-intent. Or both at once, if the state of comments sections on the internet is any indication.

At the root of conspiracy theory thinking is often precisely this refusal to acknowledge one’s faith commitments. But in conspiracy theory thinking, this takes on a kind of inverted form. The conspiracy theorist on your social media feed is, at one and the same time, both the loudest in their assertion to be a critical thinker and also the least likely to have their mind changed by evidence.

A critical thinker is skeptical of various claims made by all kinds of media outlets. It is healthy and necessary to double-check claims, investigate sources, distinguish between facts and interpretation. This is what conspiracy theorists imagine themselves to be doing.

In reality, however, the conspiracy theorist has crossed the line from healthy skepticism into unhealthy suspicion. This leads to the ironic situation in which they reflexively reject any and all facts that do not comport with their preconceived notions and accept almost any claims at all, even mutually contradictory claims, provided that those claims counter what they take to be the mainstream narrative. They become what René Girard would call the mimetic doubles, the mirror images of those they imagine themselves to be least like, the “sheeple” who believe everything the mainstream media publishes. 

In a way analogous to the new atheism, conspiracy theory thinking’s commitment to skepticism and doubt leads not to truth but to a naïve and unreflective faith. Moreover, this faith can make itself nearly impervious to evidence by a series of stock rhetorical ploys. As G.K. Chesterton saw, conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable. Evidence against magically becomes evidence for: it is just what you would expect the conspirators and their dupes to say if it were true! 

And one never needs to wrestle with troubling data that challenges one’s narrative. One can simply ask, with rhetorical flourish and smug self-assurance, “Who fact checks the fact-checkers?” It is remarkable that many faithful Catholics, who in other contexts will rail against the evils of relativism, can be found on social media declaiming, “How can we even know what’s true?” when it suits. 

In A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, Nancy Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead point out that such moves are making the “theory” part of conspiracy theory thinking obsolete. What they call “the new conspiracism” is satisfied with straightforward assertion. It is now enough to simply state what we would like to be true and to deploy clever distractions calling our capacity to know anything at all into question when challenged. This does not prove we are correct, of course. But it doesn’t have to. It has immunized us from the truth, and that is enough.

This is, of course, the epistemological endgame that Nietzsche foresaw for modernity. What matters is not truth but power—the ability to assert what one likes with no criteria beyond the self by which one might be checked.

The deep irony in all this is that the Enlightenment believed (i.e., had faith) that faith needed to be sidelined in order for humans to finally shed superstition and pursue truth. As it turns out, openly acknowledging the role of faith in human knowing is a much safer route to the truth than denying that role.