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Philosophy of religion » Faith and reason » Faith, reason, experience

The view that "faith inevitably contradicts reasoned argument" is not one that just characterises the radically secular scientific approach of, say, Dawkins. Many people of faith would argue that faith is not really faith if it can be supported through argument and evidence. Fideists maintain that faith must be based on trust and cannot be induced through argument. Tertullian famously described fideist faith saying, "The fact that it is certain is because it is impossible!" What makes faith real and valuable is the fact that it cannot be created and is not dependent on evidence or experience like other common beliefs. Fideists would agree with the title and confidently assert that faith inevitably contradicts reasoned argument.

The rational arguments for the existence of God are hardly conclusive and it certainly seems that some "leap of faith" or movement beyond the rationally supportable is necessary to arrive at a recognisable faith position. Even Aquinas acknowledged that arguments alone are not enough to engender faith – they just make faith more likely by removing potential challenges to its development. Whether they can do even this is somewhat debatable. The criticisms of, for example, Hume, Kant and more recently, Mackie, have shown the flaws in the supposedly rational foundations for faith and have made a propositional faith position more difficult – unless these objections and evidence which may undermine the conclusions are simply ignored.

Rational arguments for the existence of God are today advocated chiefly by reformed epistemologists – those who do not base their faith on rational propositions but who seek to "defeat the defeaters", to show rational arguments against their faith position are not valid. Plantinga and Hick are scholars of this type; they would disagree with the idea that faith is necessarily anti-intellectual, arguing that faith does not contradict reasoned argument but that faith is not based on it either.

Foundations of faith apart from reason

The view that faith cannot be based on rational arguments but that there is some reason for maintaining it anyway is referred to as "non propositional". Abelard suggested that faith stems from a lifetime's experience of worship and from the experience of beauty created by church worship in particular. Kierkegaard argued that real faith arises out of a despair with living in relation to oneself or one's community; he noted that some people realise that there must be more to life than petty concerns and that there is an imperative to live in relation to the truth, as Luther put it Coram Deo. While neither suggested that an argument could convince them to have faith, both provide a sound reason to believe. Interestingly the views of God presented by these advocates of non-propositional faith are neither abstract nor encumbered by the baggage of a particular religious tradition. Faith in a personal God may then derive from experience; it would then be difficult to form a reasoned argument against those who possess faith in this way.

Pascal would have agreed with the sentiment that faith cannot be arrived at through reasoned argument. His so-called "wager" does however provide an argument to support living as if God exists in the absence of possible evidence to confirm or deny the proposition. Like Kant later, Pascal felt that metaphysical arguments about categories of existence beyond the framework of time and space, beyond possible experience, were pure speculation. Pascal simplified the choice people have to make, arguing that either we live as if God existed or we do not, and he simplified the possible outcomes to either God exists or he does not. Given two courses of action, Pascal recommended that everyone choose to life as if God existed because, in his experience, this offered a better life and the possibility of an afterlife if God does exist.

Good faith, bad faith

Pascal’s voluntarist approach to faith and his recommendation that people choose to live as if God exists is mirrored in the work of James, whose "will to believe" argument weighs the advantages of a life in faith against those of living as an atheist and provides a rational argument to support a faith-choice. The aim of most scientific research is to accumulate knowledge and understanding which can then be applied so as to raise the standard of living for many people. If it is reasonable then to do something because it increases human happiness, to have faith could well be reasonable.

Dawkins provided a devastating critique of this position however. He noted that the current belief, that faith increases social stability, is not supported by evidence of the social exclusion, the discrimination, the violence and even terrorism that faith may foster. If this more sceptical, even pessimistic, approach is taken then it may seem that there is no reason to believe, that faith does inevitably contradict reasoned argument.

Mutually exclusive?

It seems that the view that faith inevitably contradicts reasoned argument either assumes an evidentialist position and then depends on the failure of the arguments for the existence of God or arises from a particularly fideist understanding of the nature of faith. If faith does inevitably contradict reasoned argument or, perhaps more significantly, if faith does not seem like a reasonable response to experience, then the implications for religion are immense. In the modern world to believe something despite the fact or even because of the fact that it is illogical seems perverse. Galileo observed that he could not believe that God would wish humans to ignore the faculty of reason with which he endowed them.

There will always be a tension at the heart of a faith which on the one hand appeals to the reason by seeking to ascribe the wonders of creation to God, and on the other seeks to quash reasonable questions and dissent. In the majority of cases, faith is an individual response to experience, whether of religion or directly of God. There is no doubt that dry explanations of how things happen are insufficient to reassure the human psyche. There is also no doubt that the intricate beliefs of those with faith cannot be explained clearly or supported, thus even if they serve to reassure the individual they may not be convincing to the crowd. The question hinges on the extent to which we are willing to accept things that cannot be proven, if they seem likely or serve a good purpose.