Philosophy — Religion


Faith and Reason

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit. Colossians 2:8

Philosophers have traditionally approached religious belief by examining its rational and evidential claims. Thomas Aquinas offered Five Ways to God based on reasoning from our experience; Descartes insisted that the existence of God could be proven through deductive reasoning alone; Hume wrote at length about the arguments for God and the evidence of miracles; and in recent times, the logical positivists have claimed that without evidence, religious concepts can have no meaning. This study of religion on the basis of reason and evidence is referred to as natural theology.

But the theistic tradition has always recognised faith as distinct from reason and considered it an essential part of religious commitment. Philosophers usually distinguish between ‘belief-that’ and ‘belief-in’. Belief that something is the case implies a claim of objective truth: to believe that the door is closed is to claim that the door is, in fact, closed. This is called a propositional belief. Religious belief, however, is a different sort of belief: belief-in. To believe in something is to express a psychological attitude of commitment or trust that is usually absent in propositional belief. Belief-in also contains an existential element, of course: it makes no sense to believe in something that does not exist. Nevertheless, the distinction is important for the different value that belief-in seems to place upon reason and evidence. Some philosophers have gone so far as to deny the role of reason in religious belief altogether.


The term fideism derives from the Latin for faith. It is an epistemological theory that questions the power of reason to reach certainty and argues rather that truth can be attained only through faith. Most forms of fideism conceal a distrust of reason, particularly in the areas of morality and religion. In this context, therefore, faith can be understood as belief despite the absence of conclusive evidence: it also implies an emotional attitude of trust or reliance towards its object. Fideist thinkers consider such faith to be essential to religious commitment.

The strongest exponent of this view was Søren Kierkegaard who rejected objective reasoning outright as a basis for faith. For Kierkegaard, faith is a fundamentally different process from objective reasoning, a matter of passion rather than reflection. He opposed the notion of proof to that of faith, arguing that faith is only possible when faced with uncertainty:

Without risk, no faith... If I am able to apprehend God objectively, I do not have faith; but because I cannot do this, I must have faith. Concluding Unscientific Postscript p.204

Faith is therefore a commitment in the face of uncertainty: and the greater that uncertainty, the greater the faith that is demanded. The greatest faith of all is belief in the impossible and that is exactly how Kierkegaard saw the Christian faith. Christianity, he argued, is a paradox and ‘absurd’ in its claims of God becoming Man. To believe therefore in this absurd God requires a monumental act of will, a passionate commitment, a leap of faith. Unlike those philosophers who seek to explain such paradoxes away with subtle reasoning or linguistic analysis, Kierkegaard embraced the absurdity of religious claims as a demonstration of the strength of his commitment. Such a faith does not depend upon facts or reasons and is therefore immune to argument and uncertainty. In fact, since reasoned truths seem to be only ever provisional and factual claims are constantly subject to revision, any belief based on reason will always be far from certain. Certainty comes from the subjective passion of the believer, not from objective reasoning.

As an example of this type of passionate commitment, Kierkegaard offers the story of Abraham who was told by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac (the biblical story is in Genesis 22; Kierkegaard’s discussion is in Fear and Trembling). The pathos of Abraham’s total acceptance of God’s command – his willingess to perform a dreadful and personally devastating act – astonishes Kierkegaard who describes Abraham as a ‘knight of faith’. This level of commitment and obedience to God transcends even ethical considerations: for Abraham it is not a question of right and wrong, but only of God’s will. Kierkegaard goes on to note that up until the last minute (when God substituted a ram for Isaac) Abraham believed that Isaac would be saved, even though it was God’s will that he be sacrificed. This, of course, is irrational and absurd: but that, for Kierkegaard, is the nature of religious faith.

The case of Abraham raises a troubling issue. How are we to distinguish between a true knight of faith and a psychopath who believes that God is ordering him to murder? Kierkegaard’s answer to this is that we can’t, but there are clear differences in the psychology of the subject: while Abraham was tempted by the ethical course of action (not killing Isaac) but refrained in obedience to God, a murderer is tempted by the unethical course. Only the faithful can tell the difference as it is entirely a matter of pathos. As a result, the knight of faith cannot communicate his commitment:

... in the loneliness of the universe [he] never hears another human voice but walks alone with his dreadful responsibility. Fear and Trembling 80

Kierkegaard’s faith therefore is wholly interior: not a matter of reason or argument, of ritual or dogma, but a dreadful existential choice that each of us must make alone.

Many of these ideas have a long pedigree. Fideism has sometimes been associated with the phrase credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd). This phrase is often attributed to Tertullian (c.160-220) but wrongly. His actual words were:

et mortuus est Dei Filius, prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est; et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile.
(The Son of God died: it is wholly believable because it is absurd; he was buried and rose again, which is certain because it is impossible.) De carne Christi V.4

Like Kierkegaard, Tertullian draws attention to the paradoxical nature of Christianity (the death of God, resurrection) and insists that the paradox be embraced. This denial of the role of reason has remained a minority view in most forms of Christianity. While those of a Protestant persuasion are equivocal about fideism, it has been condemned by the Catholic Church which insists as a matter of doctrine that God can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason.

Martin Buber, the Jewish existentialist, insisted that the rational approach to God is misguided: reason may lead to a belief-that, but only through belief-in can God be understood. In Buber’s thinking, people relate to the world and each other in either of two ways. In what he calls the I—It relation, people see each other as objects or things, or as a means to an end. But in the I—Thou relation, this is transformed into a sacred encounter, an affirmation of each subject’s whole being: we develop trust and a commitment to each other as ends rather than means. Reason and evidence may allow us to prove that this person is a doctor or this one a teacher, but to see people in those terms is to understand them in an I—It relation. On the other hand, reason cannot prove that this person is my friend: friendship is a product of the I—Thou relation and can only be experienced directly. All rational approaches to God lead to the I—It relation: but God is the ‘eternal Thou’. Only through belief-in – through total commitment to a relationship with God – can he be known. Buber’s work has been hailed by many theologians but it makes assumptions about God that are themselves questionable. And it should be noted that even in our most fulfilling relationships with other people, there are times when the I—Thou relation is occasionally suspended. It should at least be possible to show God as an ‘It’.

Pascal’s Wager

The seventeenth-century French mathematician Blaise Pascal also denied that reason was able to confirm or deny the existence of God. He therefore argued that we must choose to believe, and he couched his argument in terms of probability theory. As a result, this approach has become known as Pascal’s Wager.

Without reasonable certainty as to God’s existence, the only option that remains is effectively a coin-toss. But the consequences of this decision are of the utmost importance – no less than eternal happiness if the theists are right. Pascal weighed the various options against each other in the following way. If we choose to believe in God then we have very little to lose (some worldly pleasures) and everything to gain (eternal happiness). If we choose not to believe, we have everything to lose (eternal happiness) and very little to gain (worldly pleasure). Since the reward of happiness for the believer is infinite, the non-believer has nothing to match it. The sensible choice, therefore, is to hedge our bets and choose to believe in God.

At first glance it seems strange to suggest that we can choose to believe. In normal circumstances belief follows from an existing state of affairs: evidence, good reasons, indoctrination. To choose faith is like choosing to believe that the number of stars is an even number: it is not within our power. But Pascal’s recommendation is more subtle than this. He recognises the difficulty but argues that we can decide how to live our lives, and if we choose to live as a believer – attending church, praying, joining religious communities – then we will come to experience the faith we have chosen. The emphasis here is on living as if we believed; an act of commitment that will, in time, lead to an authentic experience of God.

This fideist belief in the power of commitment has troubled many thinkers. Despite Pascal’s assurance that we have little to lose by believing in God, the choice of non-rational belief inevitably involves suppressing our critical faculties. We are being asked to play tricks on our reason. The wager seems somehow dishonest – or at least self-interested. In fact, by this thinking the best strategy seems to be a life of atheistic pleasure followed by a deathbed conversion. Some have argued that God places more value on honesty than on the act of worship and is more likely to reward open doubt than Pascal’s rather mercenary faith. Moreover, the wager does not advise which God we should choose as the object of our belief. To believe in the wrong God may well lead to a loss of both worldly pleasures and eternal happiness, a risk that Pascal’s original formulation does not take into account. Nevertheless, the psychology behind the wager is startlingly modern, and anticipates twentieth-century interest in the pragmatic view of faith.

The Pragmatic View of Faith

William James, the American Pragmatist, was deeply interested in the practical effects of faith and religious experience. Pragmatism is a school of thought that argues that the truth of a belief should derive from the tangible difference it makes to our lives – the measure of truth, James liked to say, is its ‘cash value’ or practical payoff. If a person adopts a belief, and that belief proves useful, helpful and productive, then in the Pragmatist’s sense it becomes ‘true’. Understood in these terms, there may well be a real value to religious faith that is not diminished by uncertainty about its rational claims.

In The Will to Believe James makes the case that belief in the religious hypothesis is reasonable. For certain propositions, he argues, it is right – perhaps even imperative – that we use our ‘passional nature’ and believe them because we want to, because they will bring us practical benefit. Such propositions must be live (that is, current in a way that belief in Zeus or Anubis is not); forced (that is, unavoidable: to marry or not to marry is a forced dilemma because whatever you do, you will have to endure one or the other); and momentous (by which he means of personal significance). For such a proposition, in the absence of determining evidence to settle the matter, we can reasonably choose to believe for the practical benefits that the belief will bring. According to James, the religious hypothesis is just such a proposition.

Religious belief, in this analysis, is not so much true as useful. James’ argument has been considered persuasive by many and it appeals to those who feel that scientific scepticism is unfulfilling and see faith as a practical, rather than rational question. There is no doubt that strong belief can sometimes alter a state of affairs: James describes a mountaineer who has to jump over a ravine and argues that belief in a successful jump may indeed be required to bring it about. Such an example suggests that it is reasonable to allow your desires to influence what you choose to believe. Living as if you have religious faith may in fact bring significant changes to your life: a new optimism, a deeper humanity, moral certainty and so on.

This approach – that religious belief should be appreciated not in terms of its truthfulness, but with reference to its effect and the pathos of its commitment – is essentially fideist: it accords only a secondary role to reason and demands a more psychological understanding of faith. But the faith that it leads to seems watered down: deciding to live ‘as if’ the religious hypothesis were true is very different from the degree of conviction and commitment advocated by Kierkegaard. In this respect James’ Pragmatism more closely resembles Pascal’s recommendation to hedge our bets. Moreover, the standard realist objection remains persuasive. A useful belief is not necessarily the same as a true belief, and there is no escaping the fact that most faiths make substantive claims about reality which are highly doubtful, whatever the advantage that belief in them brings. It is the truthfulness of these claims that fideist approaches appear to sidestep.

Modern Approaches to Faith

Taking as his starting point Kierkegaard’s concept of ‘the infinite qualitative distinction’ between man and God, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth has argued that we can never develop a knowledge of God through natural theology. That knowledge is disclosed only through revelation. Revelation is God’s self-unveiling to humanity – through scripture of course, but for Christians primarily through Jesus Christ and the doctrine of atonement. This modern form of fideism rejects the ‘God of the philosophers’ whose nature is the subject of rational debate, and returns instead to the God of the Bible whose existence is never in doubt and whose nature is not up for discussion. Of course, claims of revelation beg the very question of God’s existence: for sceptics, the assertions of the scriptures and particularly the evidence of miracles are not considered reliable. We need good reasons to believe in such claims, as if God does not exist then such revelation is meaningless. It is also worth noting that there are many religions in the world that offer revelations of eternal truth; but it seems that we may not distinguish between these claims through reason alone.

Barth’s position draws attention to the problem of deciding what exactly counts as reasonable evidence. This point was clearly articulated by R M Hare who coined the idea of a ‘blik’. A blik is a way of seeing the world, a framework of assumptions that determines our standards of evidence. As an example of this, Hare offered the following:

A certain lunatic is convinced that all dons want to murder him. His friends introduce him to all the mildest and most respectable dons that they can find, and after each of them has retired, they say, ‘You see, he doesn’t really want to murder you; he spoke to you in a most cordial manner; surely you are convinced now?’ But the lunatic replies, ‘Yes, but that was only his diabolical cunning; he’s really plotting against me the whole time, like the rest of them; I know it, I tell you.’ However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is still the same. in Theology and Falsification

The lunatic will accept nothing as evidence against his conviction. His blik filters everything until it seems to confirm his paranoia. Hare suggested that religious belief is just such a blik: this is why evidence that seems persuasive to a sceptic has no effect on the believer; and why believers find evidence for God where sceptics see nothing of the sort. As a result, the arguments of natural theology carry no weight with the faithful: the project of objectively weighing evidence for and against God is doomed from the start. For Hare this is a neutral observation. Faith is only one blik among many, and the scientific blik (for instance) is equally biased in its assumptions about evidence.

Hare is certainly correct that our assumptions affect the value we place upon argument and evidence. But it is difficult to resist the conclusion that some frameworks, some bliks, are better than others at representing the nature of things. Paranoia is not a flattering analogue to religious belief. Moreover, such an analysis implies that believers should never have to suffer doubts about their faith: but for many people, the experience of loss or evil does give rise to uncertainty. We should also remember that scientific theories are by definition provisional and the scientific blik allows for falsification by new evidence. The world offers more than mere confirmation of our beliefs.

Alvin Plantinga has drawn attention to the fact that we all hold certain beliefs that are immune from rational criticism: these are called ‘basic beliefs’ and they provide the foundation for all other beliefs. Our more complex ideas are justified with reference to these self-evident basic beliefs, which include logical laws (an orange is an orange, red is not blue); immediate mental events (I am reading); and incorrigible beliefs (I am in pain). This model of knowledge is called foundationalism and Plantinga makes two important claims in this respect. Firstly, he notes that some key common-sense beliefs are rendered irrational by this theory, including belief in an independent reality, other minds and past events. Secondly, he claims that belief in God is itself a ‘properly basic’ belief and therefore needs no rational justification. For theists, their faith is the self-evident foundation of other beliefs.

If Plantinga is right, then theism needs no argument or evidence to support it and can be held rationally without justification. Historically, however, philosophers and theologians have felt that this is not the case. The arguments for God’s existence that have dominated natural theology suggest that theism is far from a basic belief and needs significant justification to be considered reasonable. It is also difficult to see how belief in God differs in this respect from belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, since any existential claim might be held as a basic belief. Whatever the flaws in our theory of knowledge, belief in God seems to be too controversial and elusive to be considered properly basic.


This emphasis on non-rational faith represents an important reaction against the traditional principles of reason and evidence. Confidence in these principles has been shaken in the last century or so: only a Victorian thinker like William Clifford could have asserted that:

... it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. The Ethics of Belief

James’ argument in The Will to Believe was a direct response to Clifford’s position and in many ways anticipates contemporary thinking about faith. Modern philosophers are understandably unwilling to reject reason outright as Kierkegaard did, but the role of subjective experience and the psychology of belief are now important to any discussion of faith and reason.

Robert Adams in Kierkegaard’s Arguments against Objective Reasoning in Religion has identified in Kierkegaard’s works three distinct arguments against reason as a basis for faith. These are: the approximation argument, that empirical conclusions are never certain but are only ever approximate and thus unsuitable grounds for faith; the postponement argument, that such approximate truths are provisional and subject to revision, and therefore commitment to these conclusions must be continually postponed; and the passion argument, that faith is in fact a passion and can only be exercised in the face of uncertainty. These categories however are not generally employed in the literature. [back]


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