Knowledge, religion and the hard work of faith

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 16, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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allen In my early 20s, I suffered from an affliction I suspect is common among people that age: I felt great uncertainty about the world, what I believed and how I would ever understand it all.

I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree, cramming my head with sciences and humanities, soaking up facts, figures and ideas in the hope that examining them would provide not only answers but certitude.

Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the more I learned, the less I actually knew.

It wasn’t a novel theory. Socrates supposedly opined that true wisdom is limited to the awareness of our own ignorance.

But that seemed an indifferent if not cynical approach to my college education.

In my frustration, I confided in a philosophy professor who reassured me that an inverse relationship between scholastic study and the requisite possession of knowledge is not an unconventional proposition but one common among the most erudite people.

He found that for many highly educated people, the only thing that can fill the void between what we think we know and the corollary acknowledgment of how much more we don’t know is faith.

Faith, he postulated, and related religious practice increase proportionately with a person’s level of education.

The assertion of a positive relationship between religious belief and educational attainment seemed counterintuitive, even to a practicing Catholic.

And the zeitgeist of modern culture seemed to argue that the opposite is true — that religion is a vestigial institution of a less educated society and primarily the purview of the intellectually incurious.

Surveys and studies seem to affirm that in our increasingly rational, highly educated society, the shedding of traditional religious belief and practice is a foregone conclusion.

Consider, in 1972, only 5 percent of Americans reported no religious affiliation. But a recent Pew public opinion survey found that 20 percent of Americans and a third of adults under 30, a growing proportion, identify as a “none” — a person claiming no religion.

Some proponents of the secularization thesis have tried to prove that educational attainment reduces religiosity.

A 2011 working paper by Notre Dame economist Daniel M. Hungerman tried to quantify this theory, concluding that “An additional year of education leads to a 4-percentage-point decline in the likelihood that an individual identifies with any religious tradition.” (Although he concedes that his study looked only at compulsory education and not higher levels of academic study.)

But the prevailing argument for those who believe that religious practice declines as education increases is that belief is an abstraction, easily disproved by study and rational thinking.

As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in the Huffington Post in 2008, “Attacks against religion are replete with phrases about the ignorance, pettiness and ‘mania’ of religious people. Belief is derided as a psychological symptom.” It is anathema to the pursuit of knowledge.

But from my own experience and observation of others, unbelief is often the result of the same lack of curiosity and lack of effort that so many attribute to the faithful.

Perhaps that is why my professor observed, however hopefully, that intellectually rigorous people also tend to be the most religious.

Sociologist Charles Murray, a self-described shaky agnostic, told readers in a recent Wall Street Journal piece that “Taking religion seriously means work. … It can easily require as much intellectual effort as a law degree.”

And in a world of shortcuts, where we are prone to avoid the difficult in favor of the easy, where we prefer what feels good to what forces us to grow, it is more likely than not that the decline in faith is driven by the fact that fewer and fewer of us are prepared for or interested in such rigor.

Faith practiced well is like any other discipline worth pursuing: It requires work, commitment and study.

As Thomas Aquinas said: “We can't have full knowledge all at once. We must start by believing; then afterward we may be led on to master the evidence for ourselves.”

Cynthia M. Allen is a Star-Telegram editorial writer/columnist. 817-390-7166. Twitter: @cjmallen12

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