Marble Surface

To Believe or Not to Believe

Updated: Aug 5

Whenever a believer breaks union with God, that is a tragic thing. I read today from the former editor of (an online publication of good articles for Catholics on timely issues) that he has left the Church. I feel the tragedy even more with Steve Skojec, because I’ve read his articles for years, we communicated on the possible publication of an article of mine, and he continues to send me generic emails.

I do not know him apart from what he says, but Mr. Skojec claims that he never really believed; rather, he was supposedly brainwashed as a child and threatened into submission with fear of hell. He writes:

“I left a somewhat lengthy comment on the piece in the hopes of better explaining my departure: my issue was that I was fighting for the preservation of an illusion. When I realized that's what I was doing -- fighting for something that wasn't even real -- I also realized I was doing it because I had been brainwashed from infancy to see it not just as real, but as the most real thing. I didn't believe in God because Christianity made sense to me. I believed in God because I was told from the youngest age a child can understand anything that I must do so. I understood that to make any other choice was to lead to eternal perdition.” [1]

Any good Catholic might possibly claim something similar, but with a contrasting sense of gratitude; namely, that as thinking adults, they have learned and developed reasonable explanations for what they believe. Faith is not irrational; it is not opposed to reason; but it stands with its own reasons until reason and experience can support it. Faith, St, Thomas teaches, is an assent to divinely revealed truth. It is a kind of knowing, based on the authority of someone who is teaching us. And isn’t that how we all learn? Aristotle’s philosophical axiom rings true: “every learner must first be a believer.”

I don’t start with an awareness of self-evident, logical principles like the principle of non-contradiction which says that something can be and not be in the same way at the same time, 1 always being 1. On the contrary, as a child I learn from experience and extract absolutes from particulars, generalities from specifics. And I learn by listening and adopting what others teach me that are consistent and coherent with my own experiences. We learn about God’s truth and come to see it as the absolute truth, but one cannot deny truth itself. To do so is will only bring truth back the stronger, by establishing that there is at least a truth that truth has been denied. About faith as learning, St. Thomas says:

“Faith does not involve a search by natural reason to prove what is believed. But it does involve a form of inquiry into things by which a person is led to belief, e.g., whether they are spoken by God and confirmed by miracles” (S.T. II-II, 2,1, ad. 1).

It seems to me that Skojec’s complaints are emotionally-based and still being sorted out, for, while he contends that he has left the Church over ecclesiastical abuses, he still struggles with perennial questions about the faith:

“I continue to pursue the answers to the questions of "does God exist" and "what is God like" and "does any religion have him right" because I think those things are very important. But the Catholic Church made clear through her institutional structures that she no longer wishes to be taken seriously, and so, I have obliged her.” [2]

Here we have a fallen brother to pray for, an apostate who is looking for truth but in too much agony to recognize it when brushing up against it. But I don’t want to end on a sour note without noting for my readers what faith is exactly, and why St. Thomas concludes that in essence, faith consists only in knowing. What follows is dry but exceedingly important.

Religious belief is specifically related to man’s intellectual capacity, and not, say to his will or feelings. Faith is the cognitive element in the Christian life. But what makes it our specifically to be an intellectual affair, when many of Aquinas’ contemporaries held that faith is the substance of faith consists in sentiment or emotions, is that, by belief, one means that a statement is considered true, and because it is true, it is a matter objectively real, for truth in the intellect consists in the fact that things are known to be as they are. “Belief is immediately an act of intellect, because its object is truth, which is the proper concern of intellect” (S.T. II-II, 4, 2).

Religious belief, or faith as it is called here, St. Thomas distinguishes five different ways of knowing, one of which is complete, the others unfinished. First are the mental acts which include a firm assent to the truth of something without pondering. This is what Plato referred to as the science of certain and necessary conclusions.

Opposed to this kind of simple understanding are four voluntary mental states: voluntary in the sense that what the intellect grasps is not sufficiently apprehended to bring the questioning mind to full knowledge; that is, the evidence is not fully evident to the mind. The first of these is doubt, where the evidence does not incline one to either affirm or deny, like I doubt whether there is life on other planets. Secondly, suspicion is that state in which one’s judgment leans more heavily towards one alternative, but only tentatively, like when one spouse suspects the other of infidelity. Opinion falls short of absolute conviction or certainty; that the opposite may be true, as the way economists opine whether or not we are currently in a global recession. An opinion is a judgment which falls short of absolute conviction or certainty; it is a conclusion that certain facts are likely to prove so, and not otherwise. Finally, the act of believing is characterized by a firm adherence to one alternative, with none of the reservations proper to doubt, suspicion, or opinion. In this respect, belief attains the same mental conviction as that of one who is said to know, in the strict sense of the term. In all of this, we realize that some truths are self-evident, and we cannot choose not to see their truth: A=A, sugar is sweet, all cows eat grass. St. Thomas’ point in bringing out these technical distinctions is to show that knowledge is coercive, while belief is voluntary. [3]

Faith is grounded in divinely revealed truths by God who can neither deceive nor be deceived. It is not knowledge, but one can attain absolute moral certitude through the Catholic Church by freely willed assent to these truths revealed in Scriptures and Tradition. In a sense, faith is better than knowledge, because it carries with it the merit of belief in what is unseen on the authority of God who reveals. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). [4] As for a brother or sister in need and floundering in their faith, that is when the even more exalted theological virtue of charity can be extended with life-saving support.


[2] The same

[3] Aquinas, “De Veritas,” 14, 1.

[4] I'm reminded of a quote by the Scottish Christian author George MacDonald in his classic children's book, "The Princes and Curdie": "Seeing isn't believing; it's only seeing!"

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