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John Locke on Reason and Faith

Why Resort to Faith with Reason Fails?


Debates about religion often end up becoming debates about reason and faith — in particular, whether faith is a valid means for acquiring knowledge and what the limits of reason might be. Religious believers often say that faith is important, but this seems to be contradicted by the extent to which they rely on reason. What’s the point of only using reason when it seems agreeable, then switching to faith as soon as reason is inconvenient?

    Every sect, as far as reason will help them, make use of it gladly; and where it fails them, they cry out, “It is a matter of faith, and above reason.”
    - John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)

At times, there seems to be an interesting double-standard when it comes to how religious groups and religious believers will rely upon reason if it suits them. In the modern world, most people at least pay lip-service to the idea that beliefs should be rational and based upon reason — few defend the position that irrational and unreasonable beliefs are just as good as any other.

This leads, naturally enough, to people trying to defend religious doctrines by the use of reason as well. Whether it is the inerrancy of the Bible, the special creation of human beings, or even the very existence of God, it is common to find people offering what they believe to be rational, logical arguments. And, as long as they think that their arguments are sound, they continue to use and rely upon them.

As soon as flaws and weaknesses in those arguments are pointed out, however, do believers then adopt a more critical, skeptical stance towards their religious doctrines? That’s what people would do in most situations, but not when it comes to religion. No, should their rational arguments fail to provide support for the doctrines they wish to defend, reason itself is almost entirely abandoned in favor of faith.

Faith is not simply an “alternative way” of coming to sound conclusions, equal to reason but applicable in different situations. Faith is only admissible, if at all, as a basis for beliefs if reason cannot be used at all — but if that were really the case, then why was the use of reason being defended when apologists thought that it would benefit them? If the doctrines in question really were a matter of religious faith all along, then they should have said so right from the beginning instead of wasting everyone’s time by pretending that it was an issue that could be settled either for or against via reason and logic.

This, of course, is a critical issue when it comes to the difference between reason and faith. When a position is based upon reason, then the adoption of that position should be determined by the strength of reason — i.e., the strength of logic, evidence, and arguments. When the reasons are strong, then belief should be strong; conversely, when the reasons are weak, then belief should be weak as well. Ultimately, a person should allow reason to decide either for or against the position in question — their beliefs should go wherever reason leads them.

The same, however, cannot really be said for faith. When a position is based upon faith, it is ultimately arbitrary. At most, it might be required to be consistent with other positions also adopted on faith, but even that cannot be a strict requirement. After all, religious mysteries are accepted on faith as well, and it may simply be a “mystery” why two or more contradictory positions are simultaneously “true.” Religious faith cannot reliably decide either for or against a position — some people have it, some don’t, and there’s simply on way to discuss the issue.

When religious groups or people try to use reason to defend a position and then leap to “faith” when their arguments prove ineffective, they are not being entirely honest and forthright with us. If their rational arguments were never really considered adequate reasons to begin with, then they shouldn’t be brought up. If acceptance of a religious doctrine requires faith, then religious believers should make that clear and defend the use of faith right from the beginning.

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