Just a little faith...(part 1 of 2)
Dateline: May 06, 1999
Is faith a sufficient or even a good justification for a religious belief, like a belief in a god? I see such attempted justifications quite often - and in fact, it almost seems to be increasing in the chat room and on the bulletin board. It is worth examining the issue of "faith" in order to see just how far it can go and how much it can really justify.
What is "faith," anyway? Dictionaries offer a number of different definitions, but even a cursory examination will show that theists, especially Christians, use it in a very particular manner. This is very important to remember, because you will often find Christians attempting to claim that other people have "faith" in things just as they have "faith" in the existence of their god - thus, their "faith" is acceptable. But if they use "faith" differently from others, then this claim loses all validity.
Paul & Jesus
If we accept what Paul has to say on the matter, which mainstream and fundamentalist Christians themselves should be doing, "faith" is clearly a concept which is antithetical to reason. He first defines the concept as "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1) In another letter, he writes "Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees." (Romans 8:24-15) Clearly, empirical evidence must be rejected from the picture if faith is to have room to breathe. Faith is something that one hopes for, not something that has a solid foundation upon convincing evidence.
Jesus, unfortunately, does no better. Although he does not say a great deal about faith, he is unequivocal about what he thinks of believing with and without evidence: "Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20:29) This was directed at Thomas, who wanted evidence of Jesus' resurrection before accepting its truth (thus the phrase, "doubting Thomas"). Presumably, Thomas was not blessed, because he needed to see in order to believe. This is a direct assault upon the basic principle of rational skepticism: no belief without rational and/or empirical grounds.
Jesus' actions regarding faith also aren't very admirable. In the infamous story about him cursing a fig tree and causing it to wither merely because it did not happen to have fruit for him (even though it was out of season!), he explains what faith can be used for. He tells his astonished listeners that if they have "faith and do not doubt," then they will be capable of doing exactly what he did. Unfortunately, millions of Christians have had faith and did not doubt and did indeed do what he did: cause death and destruction for incredibly petty, selfish reasons. Any consideration of the value of faith must keep such matters firmly in mind.
Later Christian leaders took these statements very seriously - perhaps more seriously than some contemporary Christians would like to acknowledge. Tertullian is one of the most famous of irrationalists, made so by his statement that his religious position "is certain because it is impossible." Protestant reformer Martin Luther was even more explicit in his opinion of reason, labeling it a "whore" and "God's worst enemy." In Luther's final analysis:
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.
It is certainly true that not all Christians are or have been guilty of such gross, overt irrationalism - indeed, the attempt to reconcile reason and faith has long been a huge industry. Leaving aside the question of whether or not such efforts would earn the approval of religious notables like Jesus and Paul, we must ask if the efforts have been, or even could be, successful.
Points of Agreement
Although people of other religions won't necessarily follow Paul or Jesus in their definitions, all theists seem to use "faith" quite similarly - as something which is not based upon evidence, reason, or logic. Perhaps Bertrand Russell said it best:
Christians hold that their faith does good, but other faiths do harm...What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm. We may define "faith" as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. When there is evidence, no one speaks of "faith." We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.
Obviously, Russell was paying close attention to what Paul said on the matter. Faith, then, is what religious people say they have when they don't actually have any reasons for a belief. They are told week after week by religious leaders that they have no need of rational reasons for belief, and that the total lack of reasons - which they label "faith" - is in fact a virtue.
There is some degree of agreement here between such theists and skeptical atheists. To say that one believes because they have faith is essentially the same as saying that one believes without rational reasons - and skeptical atheists will be quick to agree whole-heartedly on this. The theist, then, is simply saying that the skeptical atheist is correct: their theism exists without reason. Thus, we find that there is no actual "argument" from faith - it's simply an admission that one has no argument, but insists upon believing anyway. Such theists would probably do well to remember Friedrich Nietzsche's admonishment "A casual stroll through an insane asylum shows that faith does not prove anything."
Faith & Reason
When we look closely at attempts either to justify faith or to reconcile faith and reason, we come upon one common theme: reason is judged to be inadequate to some crucial task, and so faith must be brought in to take up the slack. The area most commonly cited for reason's failures is that of acquiring justified knowledge.
Merely having an idea in one's mind does not automatically qualify as knowledge - first, that idea must have some justification. Normally, that justification takes place by using rational standards. This in no way means that rationally justified knowledge has achieved certainty. It may only be probable to some degree, and might in fact turn out to be false. But the key to good, rational standards used in judging ideas is that they eliminate more falsehoods than they permit to remain.
|Quote of the week:
Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.
William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), p. 36.
It must remembered that in every instance, faith is something added to the use of reason. Very few, if any, theists attempt to rely exclusively upon faith in their lives, dispensing with reason entirely. It is a fact that every sane theist also accepts reason and ordinary experience when evaluating the truth values of ideas, while the reverse is not the case. The theist and the atheist already agree upon using reason and experience most of the time. For this reason, the burden rests with the theist to demonstrate that the further step of faith is not only necessary, but will not take us beyond truth.
The area cleared away for faith is fundamentally that of agnosticism in its literal sense: the unknowable realm of an unknowable god with an unknowable nature. The theist claims that there is this god-thing out there that is just so infinite and so incomprehensible that our puny minds and limited reason simply cannot cope. Thus, faith must enter the picture and rescue us from the natural conclusion of rational, skeptical atheism.
Clearly, such faith cannot be anything but irrational.
Does faith ever conflict with reason? Some theists will deny this quickly, but for it to be true, it must first be established that this faith of theirs is capable of distinguishing truth from falsity. In particular, it would be nice to know if their faith is any better than, say, simply flipping a coin. If faith can produce a good record, then we may indeed be able to admit it as a companion to reason. But if faith proves unable to regularly separate true ideas from false ideas, then it cannot possibly be matched with reason as a means of justifying our beliefs.
Don't miss the other section: