This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

Faith vs. facts: Trust but verify


George W. Bush makes no secret that faith is an integral part of his presidency. Some close to him suggest that President Bush believes that if he earnestly carries out God’s will, God will insure that he leaves a good legacy.

Others are not so sure. They believe that while the president’s personal faith may be sincere and admirable, it should not be a substitute for critical inquiry, intellectual curiosity and the kind of meticulous planning worldly endeavors require if they are to succeed. Trusting Providence to tip the scales in Iraq, for example, may be asking too much.

The great American philosopher and psychologist William James made a very convincing case that “faith can create facts,” a notion many moderns seem to have lost sight of to their detriment. But there are pitfalls of relying too much on faith or Providence, and they are well illustrated by an early thought experiment designed by the 19th-century mathematician and philosopher William Clifford.

Clifford asks us to imagine a ship owner who knows his ship could do with a costly inspection and repairs but sincerely believes that Providence will see the ship and its passengers through on a difficult voyage. Clifford argues that the ship owner’s belief was not acquired “by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.” When the ship sinks, its owner’s guilt is not absolved by the sincerity of his faith. Indeed he is culpable precisely for substituting belief in place of practical measures.

Clifford’s little thought experiments get at the heart of what so many, secular and religious thinkers alike, find so disconcerting about President Bush’s tendency to invoke his faith to explain some of the most momentous decisions in his tenure. For instance, when Joseph Biden, a Democratic senator from Delaware, asked the president how he could remain so optimistic on Iraq, given all the recent difficulties where the administration’s predictions had been proven wrong, the president calmly put his hand on Sen. Biden’s shoulder and said, “My instincts.”

Such blithe certainty in the face of adversity is exactly what troubles the president’s critics, and even some of his supporters. But a large segment of the electorate is clearly enamored of this style of leadership. In many ways this approach to leadership harkens back to the pre-Enlightenment ideal, one that values the personal virtues of the head of state rather than the intellectual, deliberative or rational faculties of an officeholder. Is this necessarily a bad thing? To answer that question it might be helpful to go back in history and compare the two leadership styles.

The philosopher Karl Popper undertook such a challenge in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies. Written during the height of the fascist threat during World War II, Popper argued that human progress was far from certain, and that successful political institutions had error-correcting checks and balances. Governments that fostered social progress had relative transparency and accountability, and leadership decisions were subject to critical and empirical evaluation.

Less successful societies, Popper claimed, involved leaders and governments that claimed to govern according to timeless principles that could not be questioned, used obfuscating concepts or slogans like “historical inevitability” to justify their policies, and relied on the charisma of particular leaders whose judgment was deemed more or less infallible. These kinds of societies, Popper argued, were closed, stagnant and sometimes tyrannical.

If closed societies and charismatic leaders have such a poor track record, why do so many of the world’s citizens fall prey to this form of governance? The cognitive scientist George Lakoff provides a compelling explanation, arguing that competing parenting styles foster radically different political outlooks and notions of citizenship. For instance, Mr. Lakoff suggests that child rearing styles breakdown into two basic types -- the “Strict Father” and the “Nurturant Parent” models.

According to Mr. Lakoff, the model of the “strict father” engenders citizens who value discipline and a rigid adherence to rules and who equate questioning authority with disobedience. In contrast, Mr. Lakoff contends, the nurturant parenting model encourages self-expression, empathy and citizens who believe questioning authority is a necessary ingredient of democratic self-governance. In Mr. Lakoff’s view, the strict father style of parenting tends to produce political conservatives, while the nurturant model gives rise to liberals.

Most developmental psychologists agree that both parenting styles can generate healthy, well-adjusted and productive citizens. But Mr. Lakoff contends that more extreme cases of the “strict father” parenting model -- what psychologists call the “authoritarian” model -- can breed docile citizens unwilling or unable to question authority. If there’s anything to the views of Mr. Lakoff and Popper, the synergy between a leader who eschews reasoned deliberations and an electorate that avoids asking tough questions and holding their leaders accountable may be a dangerously flawed combination.

The United States is far from a closed society, and President Bush may not be as averse to empirical evidence and opposing arguments as some of his critics like to imagine. Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons why both a president’s supporters and critics need to insist that their leader justify decisions on more than just faith. After all, faith and reason are not necessarily antagonistic as a great Scholastic philosopher like Thomas Aquinas demonstrated. Reason may be barren without some degree of faith, but faith without some degree of reason risks blindness. The wisest leaders, one could argue, rely on both.

Scott D. O’Reilly writes frequently about philosophy and psychology. He is a contributor to the book The Great Thinkers A-Z and is working on a book called Socrates in Cyberspace that examines traditional conceptions of the soul in light of the latest neuroscientific findings.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: