Sunday, 18 May 2008

is faith the opposite of reason?

You'd certainly think so if you read what modern militant atheists are saying. Take these examples ....

  • "Faith: Insubstantial, irrational belief..... Belief not supported by evidence or reason, but assumption alone..... Irrational belief in something despite all evidence to the contrary." (Contributors to Urban Dictionary)
  • "'faith', which is the irrational acceptance of things in the absence of, or even counter to, credible evidence and reason" (post on Machines Like Us)
  • "Faith is a non-rational belief in some proposition. A non-rational belief is one that is contrary to the sum of the evidence for that belief." The Skeptic's Dictionary
  • "I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason" Sam Harris on beliefnet.

But is this what believers mean by faith? It doesn't seem so ....

  • The Oxford Dictionary defines faith as: "complete trust or confidence; strong belief in a religion". There is nothing in that to exclude reason as a basis for faith. It is true that some dictionaries say "without proof" or even "without evidence", but clearly these are secondary parts of the definition.
  • The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes this dual nature of faith quite clear: "Religious faith is of two kinds: evidence-sensitive and evidence-insensitive. The former views faith as closely coordinated with demonstrable truths; the latter more strictly as an act of the will of the religious believer alone."
  • If it were true that faith was always opposed to reason, then it would appear impossible for believers to be scientists or philosophers. But eminent philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Anthony Flew, writer CS Lewis, and scientists John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins are all both reasonable and believers. Collins says: "Faith is reason plus revelation".
  • The view that faith is opposed to reason also ignores the fact that philosophers have long discussed logical arguments that attempt to establish, or at least support the idea, that God exists (e.g. the cosmological argument and, the design argument).

It seems to me that believers use faith in two ways:

  1. When considering whether to believe, or to continue to believe in the face of challenges, believers will typically consider both reason and spiritual/emotional factors. Many believers will refer to the many established arguments, from Jesus and history, personal experience, human reason & morality and the universe, although often in a rudimentary form. Having decided what seems most reasonable, even though it is not provable, believers use faith to make the jump to a commitment. The balance between reason and faith will vary, but surely almost all use both. (For my personal summary, see ibelieve.)
  2. But having resolved the question of what they believe is true, believers will then try to live a life of day-to-day faith (=trust) in God or in Jesus (or in some other spiritual leader), not dissimilar to how, once a human relationship such as marriage is established, the people trust each other.

So for most believers, certainly thoughtful believers, faith is used alongside reason, not instead of it. The two are complementary, not competitive.

And I can't see how it is much different for atheists, or for all of us in other parts of life. Very little in life is provable (even science has varying degrees of "provability", all short of mathematical proof), and yet we all have to make choices, which we make on the best information we have. Faced with similar evidence to believers, atheists make the choice not to commit to belief, or even to actively commit to disbelief. They too make some sort of jump from uncertainty to choice.

So why do militant atheists characterise the interaction between faith and reason in such a black and white way? Well there is no doubt it makes arguing easier. Their opponents can be dismissed and scorned as irrational and delusional, and their fellow disbelievers can feel superior. Whether this is a deliberate tactic or based on genuine belief is beyond my knowing.

But I do know this attitude is a discussion killer, which is a real pity. And for me at least, it makes it much less likely I could ever become an atheist, for by this tactic they show how little they understand of my thinking, and so their arguments so often miss the mark completely. I would think the tactic also successfully insulates them from theistic arguments.

In the end, it is all a victory for non-reason.

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