Unreasonable Faith

There has been much philosophical discussion regarding knowledge and how we attain it. In these discussions and debates, reason and faith have both been mentioned and often pitted against one another. So my interest in this discussion is with the efficaciousness of both and their compatibility with one another. Few philosophically minded people are inclined to say reason is not a pathway to knowledge, but many on the theological spectrum hold that faith is equally (or more so) valid. There are clear and distinct differences that we must be critical of when faith is juxtaposed with reason in this manner. I will argue here that not only are they incompatible, but that faith is not a claim to knowledge at all and can even have very real consequences. Considering that it is commonly argued, by the garden variety theist and scholarly theologian alike, that faith provides us with knowledge and understanding that reason cannot, it is an issue that must be carefully examined (especially with whats at stake, which I think is quite a lot). It is a difficult task primarily because it’s never quite clear as to how they take this to be the case exactly. I have yet to encounter clear examples as to when reason is not sufficient, nor how can faith fill this supposed deficiency, and I strongly suspect that there aren’t any.

First we must examine each and determine just how they function in relation to knowledge and the compatibility they have with each other. Then I will address the problems and harms that faith present when it is relied upon to (supposedly) replace reason. Now reason has been widely understood as the key to our expanding understanding of the world around us and how we apply the knowledge we gain[1]. It is the faculty by which we arrive at truth through logical inquiry and validated through scientific evidence and how to practically apply that knowledge. Reasonable, relevant beliefs inherently necessitate the presence of empirical evidence as well as being logically consistent. Reason and logic are synchronous in this regard. While reason is the process of thought, logic, essentially, explains the rules from which reason operates. Arguably, if a relevant belief cannot meet the criteria of logic and supporting evidence, then can it really be considered rational? I say not. If this is not the criteria, then we would need to re-evaluate all that we have come to know about the reality we live in. Faith on the other hand, is purported to be the evidence of things not seen[2], or in other words, let’s just cut to the chase, the supernatural. The supernatural is, by definition, unexplainable by natural  law. Supernatural, as is typically used in relation to the theists position, means beyond or transcendent of natural laws (time, space,etc.) and is a crucial characteristic of God which allows for the “omni”[3] attributes ascribed to him. It is in this lack of supporting empirical evidence that faith does most of its work. It is how appeals to strong emotional “revelations” and anecdotal accounts become all the support needed for faith based beliefs to be vindicated to the believer. It is in defense of these kind of religious beliefs that we see haphazard attempts at reasoning, faulty logic, and misrepresentations of science. It is when pressed to defend these beliefs that the semantical games begin.

In the absence of verifiable empirical evidence for the existence of God, it is postulated that one is still justified in holding this faith-belief as being reasonable because, by their own definition, “God” is rendered unfalsifiable and therefore, cannot be disproven. This claim of unfalsifiability often takes on the vacuous assumption that God is self-evident and necessarily true (and thus escaping the burden of needing to be proven).While this seems to fly in the face of reason, it is nonetheless passed off as such. This is the beating heart of faith and as we will see, without it, religion ultimately fails. Therein lays the irreconcilable schism between reason and faith. In determining whether any proposition is true, we subject it to investigation and it must be considered with the relevant evidence available. Through recourse to our ability to reason, we accept truth and falsity. Religious claims ought to be no exception. But yet, religious claims are giving exemption through the benefits bestowed by centuries of respect and privilege freely given to faith. But this is getting more and more difficult for religion to maintain with the progress of modernity. In the light of modern science, the apologist and theologian must resort to great lengths to keep their beliefs (and the beliefs of the religions faithful adherents) from being falsified in the face of contrary evidence, even resorting to declaring it heresy. It is an act of intellectual dishonesty indeed to suppress relevant evidence that opposes a favored proposition and more-so to disregard altogether evidence that may provide the proverbial nail in the coffin for that favored proposition. But this is not above the devout believer who has committed theirself to a dogmatic and exclusionary belief system. Most won’t even venture to subject their beliefs to this process at all; let alone to do so objectively. Why not hold these supernatural claims to the same standard of truth that we hold all other claims to? Why should we allow for separate criteria exclusively for religion? This seems odd considering the theist holds all other beliefs to the same standards he now rejects as being valid for his religious beliefs. The answer is simple, it’s because a belief based on faith cannot stand under the weight of reason. The two cannot coexist. Otherwise it ceases to be an article of faith. I’ll elaborate a little more on this later. But first, let’s look at how many theologians and apologists attempt to reconcile the contradiction by simply interpreting any conflict out of the argument altogether. As we will see, this is usually done at the expense of reason. Francis Parker, Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Purdue University and a Thomist, admits as much in his book, Reason and Faith Revisited. He states:

“It is clear by very nature of the case that there cannot be any reason for accepting faith in the standard of reason which we have been talking about. This is so simply because, as we have seen, articles of faith are not principles, they are not first-order beliefs; there are not second-order beliefs which follow from first order beliefs. Or, to put the matter more obviously tautologically, there cannot be any reasons in our rationalist’s sense of reason for accepting an article of faith because if there were it would then be a rational belief, albeit a religious one and not an article of faith at all. Hence if there is to be any reason for accepting something on faith, it must be a reason in a broader and looser sense than any given to that term by our rationalist. A broader sense perhaps better expressed by the word justification than by the word reason.”[4]

Parker then attempts to reconcile faith with reason by proposing that the “justification for accepting an article of faith must somehow lie within the context of faith itself.“[5] In this attempt to justify faith through reason (or giving the appearance of such) he is claiming here that we must essentially widen our meaning of reason to provide room to accommodate faith. But if we are to grant that this treatment of reason ought to be the case when faith is introduced, that reason should allow for such accommodation and flexibility, it surely would carry with it some disastrous consequences. For one, wouldn’t truth merely reflect an arbitrary conclusion with no tangible means of verification? We could then afford any and every belief the same luxury, thus rendering truth meaningless in any practical sense, since reason would now shift its purpose to slavishly work to support faith itself instead of the proposition at hand. This would quickly fall into special pleading to gain acceptance for a predetermined conclusion. No matter how much the apologist tries to dress up their particular case, there simply wouldn’t be a reliable criteria from which to judge one truth value of any claim from another. No, this is NOT the way reason works! If the theist is unable to provide a convincing argument that can stand up under critical scrutiny without completely eviscerating reason in this manner, then they can’t reasonably bestow the value of truth to their claim. They can’t reasonably expect others to accept it either. Why should faith-based beliefs be treated as sacrosanct? Well, as Parker alluded to, the answer lies in religion itself. Faith is a construct of religion and is inherently shielded from any criticism outside of that particular religion. And it appears to be so even from within. Bible studies are not designed to question, they are designed to bypass any objections and to instill a “stay the course” mentality through exegetical (or eisegetical) study. This is portrayed as the way to truly understand ones faith, but in actuality, reason is shut out as the whole exercise is ultimately one of confirmation bias. The sole purpose of bible studies, apologetics, and the like is to safeguard faith from any contradictions. In fact, contradictions are treated as a way to strengthen one’s faith, a test of one’s commitment to God. The more a religious belief is challenged, the stronger the faith must be to retain them. To deviate from one’s belief is a sign of weakness and evidence of a sinful nature. It is to fall to trickery and temptation and thus making one deserving of God’s scorn. To the believer, finding the conclusion false carries a sentence of eternal damnation. This is reiterated over and over like a mantra throughout the holy books and implicit in the sermons and practices of worship. The best reason can accomplish here is to be an unwilling servant of sorts, exponential, a way to confirm ones faith, but never to supersede it.

As I alluded to earlier, faith-based beliefs cannot be reasonable beliefs. Once there is reason to believe in a proposition, it is no longer an article of faith. In this context, it becomes a contradiction. In other words, once there is evidence, there is reason. George H. Smith puts it eloquently:

“With the preceding groundwork, we now arrive at what may be termed the central dilemma of faith: insofar as faith is possible, it is irrational; insofar as faith is rational, it is impossible. This dilemma is a consequence of the fact that reason and faith cannot simultaneously be offered as grounds for belief. A belief can be based on reason or faith, but not both. This makes it impossible for the Christian to maintain the rationality of faith, because as soon as a belief is rationally demonstrated, it ceases to be an article of faith.”[6]

While this distinction may not deter the believer from conflating faith and reason, it does force the believer to choose a side, even if they refuse to acknowledge that this is essentially what they are doing. It serves as a demarcation between moderates and fundamentalists. As with moderates, this means an attenuation of their religion as opposed to fundamentalists which is the abandonment of reason altogether. With either though, on some level, they both rely on the common excuse that reason cannot be applied to matters of faith, matters they deem to be beyond reason. This is problematic for several reasons. One major problem is that this ultimately creates an “anything goes” mentality. It puts us at the mercy of having to accept any proposition anyone comes up with. One must ask how one can possibly discern which is to be believed when two contradictory propositions are offered at the same time if both can be said to be articles of faith? This is the insoluble problem we face when we commit the egregious offence of rejecting the efficacy of reason. This undermining of our own cognitive abilities just to allow the believer an excuse from the obligation to carry out investigations, which are likely to discredit their presupposed conclusion, is inexcusable, but necessary for faith to survive. The theist must grievously convince theirself that reason has some deficiency with regards to religious propositions. Reason must be found to be deficient, or otherwise faith doesn’t have a purpose. The celebrated assertion by Thomas Aquinas, that faith puts man on a path that he will come to know through reason later, often serves as justification. But what this is essentially saying is that the road of reason is abruptly cut off and we’re detoured down the path of faith. But the problem is that the traveler on the path of faith presupposes a common destination that either road will arrive at. While both roads claim to lead to understanding, to the one that takes the road of faith, that understanding will, and must, arrive at God. Ultimately, once the detour is taken from the road of reason, we are traveling without a map. It is the reliability of faith as a road to truth that is inadequate, and not reason. Smith echoes this sentiment, “Faith cannot rescue us from the inadequacies of reason simply because reason is not inadequate.”[7] How could it be if we are to claim to really know anything at all? To say reason is inadequate is to cast into serious doubt, and even dismiss, all we have accomplished. These glaring problems simply cannot be brushed aside as the faithful hope to do. Not to mention, it still takes a certain amount of reason to even allow for faith to operate at all in the first place.

In the case of fundamentalists and moderates alike, both claim it necessary, whether blatantly or tacitly, to transcend reason to gain knowledge that is supposedly inaccessible by our own cognitive capacity and only by virtue of faith is this esoteric knowledge of God revealed. This spiritual revelation is revealed in various ways, such as a “swelling feeling in their heart”. These kinds of anecdotal accounts serve as vindication to their belief. But this has little semblance to the scrutiny of reason the theist expects other beliefs to be held to. So I reiterate, if this is unacceptable in other areas of discourse, why not here? Well, this leads to another common tactic, and that is to give an appearance of an appeal to reason in an attempt to muddy the waters and to take advantage of our own ignorance with statements like “there are things we don’t know about” and with terminology like “our finite minds”. This seems to be all the reason needed to grant faith the validity it so desperately wants. But in reality, all this does is confirm that we must investigate further, and is, in no way, a means to verify the truth value of a claim. Obviously it is true that we don’t know the answers for everything, nor doesn’t it require any level of “faith” to say that science may one day know. In fact, it is reasonable to admit as much. But we must be clear; the faith theists are referring to is not just the “unknown” mysteries of the universe, or having “faith” the sun will rise tomorrow. Faith is religion, and a faith in God is specific, no matter how cleverly faith is hidden behind the veneer of reason. It is a claim from a position of knowledge. Gods nature and will are assumed as part of having faith. Nevertheless, these attempts to equivocate the matter are ultimately beside the point. We have since unlocked many mysteries that were once taken on faith centuries ago without the need for such conjecture. This is a product of our reasoning capabilities to follow the evidence to its logical conclusion, not steer it to the conclusion we hope for. Any “faith” (if we wish to construe it as such) in a hypothesis that may have been present at the beginning is soon diminished into nothingness through scientific inquiry and intellectual honesty. While some aspects of theistic beliefs may claim to have grounds in reason, they all eventually fall victim to the pitfalls of faith the closer they get to their conclusion. The closer the examination and the sharper the scrutiny, the less coherent faith-based beliefs become and the greater the divide from reason is apparent. So to make such an assumption that reason is insufficient, or unreliable, is to undermine our intellect at it’s very core. And it ultimately undermines the veracity of all that we have come to understand.

While some theists claim that faith can be reconciled with reason, or both are equally valid pathways to knowledge, others are openly hostile to it. These theists, following in the tradition of who is referred to as the founder of Western theology, Tertullian, declare that reason is the enemy of faith. “The devil’s bride” is what reason is according to another prominent religious figure, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Which he goes on to further drive a wedge between faith and reason with declarations like “faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees it must put out of sight, and wish to know nothing but the word of God.“[8] Firmly establishing human reason as an enemy of God. I posit that even those that attempt to reconcile faith and reason still hold to this view in some degree. Meaning faith must supersede reason, and ultimately usurp reason as the authority. There is a deep correlation with the fideism of Luther and Tertullian that is present in the faith of today, and one primary example is the traditional thinking that “reason is of man and faith is of God”. The  problem with creates is it forces the theist to divorce theirself from any scientific cogitation and honest rational inquiry and turns our reason against himself. Deeming our ability to reason useless and untrustworthy, thus eliminating the need for it when legitimizing doctrinal propositions. This segregates religious beliefs from other beliefs and delegates reason to a subservient role. Religion is unique in this way. Faith-beliefs thus purportedly do not need to be substantiated by the requisite evidence that reason demands. Even though they are beliefs that one would fashion a life around and pass on to their children. This ultimately creates a self-serving standard of how one attempts to acquire knowledge while simultaneously shielding this perceptual illusion of knowledge from our ever-expanding understanding. Whereas reason has led us to a greater understanding of the world around us, faith attempts to stifle such progress and keep us in the dark ages. Protecting a belief from falsity becomes more important than progress.

This brings us to my last point, faith can be dangerous. The propitiations that must be made to honor a particular faith is where the consequences really start to surface. Once reason as been deemed unreliable, one diverges from the core principles of reason altogether. This leads to fundamentalism, and ultimately extremism. Once this happens, faith becomes the only operating principle for acquiring knowledge and becomes absolute truth for the believer, consequently removing reason from any justification for action. Faith essentially becomes reason. The belief inevitably becomes more important than the people holding them; and far more so than those people that don’t. When these faith based beliefs are guarded as sacrosanct, any alternate belief is viewed as a direct affront. This paves the way for intolerance and essentially shuts out any new knowledge, and with it, the processes for acquiring it. The war of ideas that follows has the potential for very real consequences. The further from reason, the deeper into madness, which often metastasizes into the atrocities we have seen historically ans to this very day. As Sam Harris quite accurately puts it, “You can almost never quite anticipate the danger of un-reason. When you affirm truths that you are in no position to affirm, the liabilities of that are potentially infinite.“[9]

The dangers become evident in faiths intrusion on science, public policy, and education and the way faith impedes progress in these areas. The faithful opt instead for the preservation of the sanctity of their holy scriptures and see progress as anything but. The disastrous results of this kind of religious thinking can be seen in the resulting oppressive conditions in the most religious societies and communities, where the overall quality of life is diminished. Where bomb blasts ring as loud as church bells and where thousands suffer and die from aids because of the anxiety the church has about contraception. Where women are brutally gunned down for attending school or dancing. When a child is denied life-saving medical treatment because of how much faith the parents have in the healing power of prayer. Where potentially life altering stem cell research is banned and a persons basic human rights are infringed upon, such as a couples right to marry. Or where one is ostracized by their own family for reasons stemming from the families religious beliefs. All of these are actualized by faith overshadowing reason to the point where our very humanity is lost. Reason gives us the means of escape from the abysmal shroud faith would keep us under. Now this may sound extreme to some, but the simple fact cannot be ignored that this is the reality for countless people around the world and just around the corner. But let’s not only address the violence and bigotry promulgated by faith, what about the mental and emotional damage caused by this dogma? Take the concept of hell for example, eternal damnation is an entirely faith-based concept that has struck terror into the hearts of children for generations. Fear of not only the possibility of them spending eternity there for not loving God enough, or not being thankful enough, or not serving God properly, but also the fear of their loved ones being tortured for eternity for similar things, or simply having a different belief.  How much insecurity and anxiety has the notion of an ever watching eye, and the punishment of thought crimes, caused? Or the anxiety about sex and sexuality, as well as the fear of being ostracized by loved ones and by a community as a whole for not living according to a particular religious doctrine?

Alternatively, the moderate believer will often argue that “this is why faith must work with reason” or “that is a misguided faith”. This appeal to reason doesn’t help to defend faith at all and is actually an argument against faith. It must be acknowledged that if reason is used as justification of faith and to keep faith in check (considering the possible danger), then why rely on faith in the first place? This would necessitate that reason take precedent over faith because faith needs “guidance”. This proposed compromise further reveals that, as Smith says, “even the Christian is forced to acknowledge the supremacy of reason if he is to avoid pushing his beliefs beyond the limits of absurdity.”[10] I propose that given this realization, faith ultimately has no purpose as an epistemology and actually has an adverse effect on our understanding. Moderation is a result of science and reason continuously winning out over faith. We now hear many Christians exclaim how God’s magnificence and brilliance is further revealed in our awe-inspiring scientific discoveries. Some believers even go on to say God works within evolution, which is at least a concession to reason of sorts. But let’s not forget that it was the church that condemned the heliocentric theory as heresy and imprisoned Galileo; forcing him to renounce his theory under the threat of torture. This was a common threat (and worse) for many scientists and philosophers for centuries under the rule of the church. This was due to a lack of understanding combined with an over abundance of pious faith. One must ask how much faith played a role in the 911 attacks as opposed to reason? Which has more influence regarding the subjugation of women? There is no denying the intolerance resulting from faith in the veracity of the holy books. No amount of exegesis can change what those words clearly say in a literal sense, and how exactly they should be interpreted. Faith doesn’t allow for that… only reason does.

Having “faith” is simply not the way we arrive at truth and understanding. Reason cannot be elbowed out this way. Insofar as it is a path to knowledge, we have seen that faith fails miserably. Insofar as it is useful, it is an impediment and potentially harmful. And as for being compatible, it is the very antithesis of reason. Faith is ultimately an excuse for holding the unsubstantiated belief in God. Simply a way for the believer to accept an unreasonable presupposition and still feel justified in doing so. It’s contemptuous attitude towards reason is reason enough to see that the two are not compatible. We ought to suspend judgement on any proposition that is said to be taken on faith and investigate it further if the proposition warrants it. However, not all do. Furthermore, we must acknowledge the potential dangers of the irrationality faith can lead to. The best faith can hope for is to be a starting point, or to pique an interest into further inquiry. Faith must give way to reason before any proposition can be justifiably held as a logically coherent, supported belief.  I reject faith out of hand as a cognitive process for acquiring knowledge, not simply because I do not want to accept God so I can live my own sinful life, as many theists charge those who do not share their belief. But for the reasons I’ve outlined here. Nor is it simply having “faith” in science, which is merely a tu quoque apologists recklessly throw about. It is my commitment to reason that I say I will not accept anything on faith. So in light of the severe inadequacies of faith to provide us with even a hint of knowledge, it can be asserted with all confidence that reason is not only superior, but they don’t belong in the same conversation. I think I have conclusively shown that while science gave us the technology to build a car and reason gave us understanding of how to operate it safely, the surest way to drive off of a cliff is to let Jesus take the wheel.

– Rich

Sources and notes:
 [1]See http://www.importanceofphilosophy.com/Epistemology_Reason.html
While this is largely my position, it isn’t without controversy within philosophy. But it doesn’t affect all that much the argument being presented as I am merely comparing reason and faith as claims to knowledge and their compatibility with one another.
[2] Hebrews 11:1 (ESV): “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
I will be referring to the religious usage of the term “faith”throughout.
[3] Referring of course to the Omni-God (omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omnipresent, etc.) of classical theism
[4] Francis H. Parker, Reason and Faith Revisited: The Aquinas Lecture p.32-33
[5] Francis H. Parker, Reason and Faith Revisited: The Aquinas Lecture p.33
[6] George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God p.123
[7]George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God p.126
[8] Martin Luther quoted in Walter Kaufmann’s, Critique of Religion and Philosophy pp.305-307
[9] Taken from an interview with Sam Harris
[10] George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God p.113
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One thought on “Unreasonable Faith

  1. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” When I would ask in Sunday school, this is the quote I would get. I think it is in the New Testament somewhere. I wanted to know why mine wasn’t good enough, and thought that if I knew exactly what it was, maybe I could study up.

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