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.