Faith and reason – what are they, and how do they relate to one another?
Faith is believing something you know ain’t true – Mark Twain
Is it? Twain’s statement reflects a very common view of faith as “believing without evidence.” This approach to religious belief is called fideism, according to which belief in God involves a “leap of faith” (a phrase invented by Kierkegaard). Some people go so far as to affirm that one can’t have evidence for faith, for “how can I have faith if I know it to be true?”
I would suggest that this understanding of faith is not only problematic, but simply mistaken. Why is it problematic? Because we ought to aim at having as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as we can. This is why in epistemology (a branch of philosophy which studies knowledge), beliefs are evaluated in terms of justification. A belief is justified for a person only if that person has some good reason to think that it’s true. If one doesn’t have any reason for accepting a belief, then it’s not justified. Now, it follows from this that according to fideism, religious beliefs by definition cannot be justified, because they are believed without evidence. So understood, faith and reason are incompatible. This is a big problem, because if faith implies unjustified belief, then there is no reason why anyone should have faith.
Thankfully, there is no good reason to accept a fideistic approach to religious belief. Which is to say, there is no reason to define faith as “believing without evidence.” Why do people adopt fideism, then? Many Christians are under the impression that the Bible teaches it. It says, for instance, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). But nowhere does it say to believe without reason. According to John, Jesus even says “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (7:17, my emphasis), which implies that one does not simply believe without justification – rather, one will have a reason to do so.
But if faith does not mean “believing without evidence [or reason],” then how is faith different from any other belief? The difference is that the biblical term “believe” does not just mean accept as true. It also has a component of trust. Paul Moser explains:
The kind of faith ascribed to Abram in Genesis 15 is no mere intellectual or psychological matter. It involves the central purpose and direction of Abram’s life relative to God’s promise to call to him. The best language for such faith is “entrusting oneself to God” (The Evidence for God, 91).
Hence, faith is not just believing that God exists; it also means believing in God, putting one’s trust in God and aligning one’s will and purpose with his. Moreover, one can (in principle) have good reasons to trust God in this way, just as one can have good reasons to trust a friend or a parent. This is the difference between faith and blind faith.
The title of this blog is “God, Faith and Reason”. As such, I should say something about each of these terms, at least by way of definition. I’ll begin with the first.
What do we mean by “God”? St. Anselm defines God as “a being than which none greater can be conceived” (Proslogion). This means that God is the greatest being that one can think of. Or similarly, God is the greatest being there could be. This is one sense of understanding God as a perfect being – if a being, x, could be any better than it already is, then x is not perfect.
All philosophers agree with this definition, or some form of it. What they may not all agree on, however, is what properties such a being would have. What is a property? A property of an object is anything that is true of that object. For example, I have the property of being a Tennessean, because it is true that I am from Tennessee. I also have the properties of being bipedal, of rationality, and animality (since I am a two-legged rational animal). Every existing thing has properties.
So, what properties would God have? According to Alvin Plantinga, God is “an all-powerful, all knowing, wholly good person (a person without a body) who has created us and our world” (Warranted Christian Belief, 3). Similarly, Richard Swinburne defines God as “a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things” (The Existence of God, 7).
God, then, is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, immaterial, eternal, personal being, worthy of worship, and creator of all things other than himself. The belief that God exists is called theism. God may have other properties as well; according to Christian theism, for example, God is a Trinity.
Now, what do those properties mean? I will give a quick definition of each one. Omnipotence means that God has the ability to do anything that is logically possible. Creating a square circle, or a married bachelor, would be logically impossible. Omiscience means that God knows everything, every true proposition and no false proposition. Omnibenevolence means that God is morally perfect, does only what is good, and wills what is good for all things. Immaterial means “not material,” i.e. does not occupy space or have a body. Finally, a being is worthy of worship if and only if it is morally perfect.
While people may mean something different by “God” (the term is used in many ways), this is the definition used in the philosophy of religion, and the one I will be using in this blog.
Welcome! WordPress has suggested that I use this post to tell readers [A] why I started this blog and [B] what I plan to do with it. So here goes.
Why did I start this blog? There are a number of ways to answer this question. One way is to explain what caused or led me to do this, and another is to explain what purpose it serves. As to the first, I got the idea to start this blog from my friends and family. And while I was initially somewhat reticent–because I know very little about blogs, and have little experience reading them myself–upon reflection, I decided that it would probably be a good idea. As to the second, the purpose of this blog is to provide answers and explanations to common (and perhaps uncommon) questions about the philosophy of religion, and to offer my own studied opinions on those issues.
What do I plan to do with it? I take this to be a question about how I will go about achieving that purpose. How will I decide what to post, what topics to address, what philosophical concepts to explain, what questions to answer, what opinions to give, and so on? This is more difficult. I’m not really sure. I think I’ll just play it by ear, at least to begin with, and perhaps a more structured method will present itself later on.
It occurs to me that a third question readers might ask is [C] why are you qualified to speak on these topics? (i.e., why should I listen to you?) I won’t claim that I am qualified, or even that people should listen. While I did get my MA degree in philosophy, there are plenty of people more knowledgeable about these things than I. That said, I will claim that there isn’t any other topic I’m more qualified to speak on than the philosophy of religion. So, if I have anything to offer the reader, it will likely be in that domain.