Faith versus Reason

Frequent commenter Lee recently pointed me to a blog essay by philosopher Michael Lynch, “Reasons for Reason.” 

He says current American divisions are rooted in fundamental differences about what makes a belief believable. Lynch sees a problem of circularity in validating reason by using reason, with all beliefs thus ultimately premised on something arbitrary. Nevertheless, he argues for the importance of defending reliance on reason as an epistemological position, and the need for a “common currency of shared epistemic principles” for discussing such divisive issues. (“Epistemology” concerns how we know things.)

I was reminded of an episode in Rebecca Goldstein’s novel, Thirty-six Arguments for the Existence of God – a Work of Fiction. In a formal public debate on whether God exists, the “yes” advocate argues that when one relies on reason and science, it is because one has faith in reason and science; that’s ultimately no different from religious faith; so reason and science stand on no firmer foundation than religious belief. At bottom it comes down to faith either way, so take your pick.

This is indeed a commonly heard argument. But it’s a semantic flim-flam. The very definition of religious faith is belief that is not grounded in evidence. And this is an exception from the normal way in which brains work. All brains – animal brains too – work by gathering factual information from sense organs, and then drawing logical inferences from that information. If you hear a growl, smell a liony smell, and see something large moving in the underbrush, you deduce it’s probably a lion. This is reason.

 You don’t believe in the lion’s existence as a matter of faith but, rather, because it’s rational. And to say that one has “faith” in this kind of rationality is merely to say that there is no other way in which thinking can occur. Or at least coherent thinking. It’s no analogy to religious faith.

Put another way, we believe the lion is lurking not because of any faith, but because we have reasons. And we furthermore have reasons – excellent ones, in fact – for relying on that kind of thought process. Let me be more specific:

First there is the power of logic, and the concept of cause and effect. All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal. This kind of logic is not some mere human construct. It’s woven into the fabric of the Universe. It’s not even possible to conceive of an alternate Universe without it.

Secondly – while we know that rationalism can sometimes lead us astray, because our senses are imperfect at gathering information, and our brains are imperfect at processing it – and perhaps some questions can’t be resolved that way – nevertheless, experience teaches that rationalism produces the right answer in the overwhelming majority of cases – on questions like whether there’s a lion in the bushes. Other types of issues, that rationality (at least arguably) cannot resolve, are a very small part of daily human life.

Religious believers don’t reject any of this. To the contrary, the great bulk of their own day-to-day mental functioning employs exactly this rationalist model. It’s just that when it comes to religion, they carve out a seeming exception.

Here’s why I say “seeming.” It is in the nature of our brains, and of all thought, that we have reasons for what we think. (Again, cause and effect.) And this includes religious belief. The believer may insist his belief is premised on faith rather than reasons, but that cannot be so. The question becomes why have the faith? There must be reasons!

It is true, once more, that the very concept of faith entails belief without regard to evidence. Yet still the question is why someone chooses to opt for such faith in the first place. There must be reasons. To say “I believe because I have faith” is mere tautology, explaining nothing.

So in the novel, the debater’s “faith in reason” argument actually has it completely backwards. It’s not that the nonreligious have “faith” in reason – rather, the religious have reasons for faith.


But what are those reasons? Believers do often claim that there’s something about existence that they view as evidence for God. But few people actually move from such “evidence” to faith, it’s the other way around; they start from faith and then look for ways to rationalize it. People are very good at rationalizing reasons for believing the things they already believe.

But meantime the biggest true cause of their faith is simply that they’ve been acculturated to it. Parents, community, society, pushed the belief, so you just go with the program. They said the Bible is God’s word. What were their reasons for believing it? Their parents and community believed it. And so on back. Had you been born into a Hindu, or Muslim, or Wiccan community, it’s overwhelmingly likely that your faith would attach to Hindu, Muslim, or Wiccan beliefs (and you’d find ways to rationalize them).

 In the end, it’s not faith versus reason, it’s strong reasons versus weak ones; it’s embracing the evidence of reality versus abjuring it. And the persistence of the latter suggests that those who say human reason is fallible may have a point after all.


21 Responses to “Faith versus Reason”

  1. Alfredo De La Fe Says:

    Frank, I have to disagree on several points. Faith is supposed to be based on evidence. As someone that believes in a creator I do not see a conflict between my belief and science. Where there is a conflict is in man’s interpretation of science. When followers of science have BLIND faith in it. (i.e.: teaching of theories as fact and using “science” to prove an idea at all cost)

    The word “faith” is translated from the Greek pi′stis in the Christian Greek scriptures (new testament), primarily conveying the thought of confidence, trust, firm persuasion. Depending on the context, the Greek word may also be understood to mean “faithfulness” or “fidelity.”

    The Scriptures tell us: “Faith is the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld.” (Heb 11:1) “Assured expectation” translates the Greek word hy‧po′sta‧sis. This term is common in ancient papyrus business documents. It conveys the idea of something that underlies visible conditions and guarantees a future possession.

    Faith is, therefore, the basis for hope and the evidence for conviction concerning unseen realities. i.e.: I met with you briefly in NYC. I know you live upstate, so while I did not see you drive your car, take a train or bus or walk to the city I can have faith that you somehow travelled to the city, most likely taking some form of transportation.

    As a Christian, my beliefs are based on the bible, a library of books and letters which I believe were inspired by God and given to mankind as a “guide”. While not a science text book, it is pretty accurate when dealing with matters of science (for instance- there are a few instances where it says the earth is round. It was MEN that claimed it was flat and used religion for their selfish purposes, not the bible nor God. Science was able to prove that fact and the same principles apply to proving the existence of a creator)

    Anyway, I generally avoid replying to religious topics, but I want to clarify that there is a difference between faith and blind faith. Based on my beliefs and what the bible says, I am expected not to have “blind faith”.

    [FSR response: Alfredo, thanks for commenting.
    Your conclusion that I “somehow travelled to the city” is NOT a matter of “faith.” It was a reasoned deduction; precisely my point (like the lion).
    You say your religion is based on the Bible which you “believe” was inspired by God. Why do you choose to believe such a proposition? That’s the question.
    Science does not involve “blind faith.” To the contrary, the very idea of science is open-eyed, basing conclusions on evidence.]

  2. Gregg Millett Says:

    Beautifully written.

  3. Alfredo De La Fe Says:

    The point I am making is that “the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld”. So, I did not see you come to the city, but I can reasonably say that you got here by some form of transportation.

    My faith is not “blind”. Without going into a lengthy discussion (I could if you like) I did not start out life with my current belief system. In fact, you have probably stepped into a church more than I did growing up as a youth. One day I decided I was not going to base my beliefs on what others told me. I started from zero and assumed that the bible was just a book. I took the very challenge that is set forth in the bible- “Now the latter were more noble-minded than those in Thes‧sa‧lo‧ni′ca, for they received the word with the greatest eagerness of mind, carefully examining the Scriptures daily as to whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11)

    The idea of science is “open-eyed”, but the reality is that this is not the case in practice. Let’s pick one issue you have discussed a few times- evolution and intelligent design. Evolution is a theory, not a fact. The various “flavors” of this theory are themselves continually evolving. Yet, they are taught and preached as being scientific fact. “Science” has become so hostile at the idea that there MAY be a creator or intelligence behind the existence of life that many atheist groups fight tooth and nail to avoid the mention of alternative theories- including the idea that there MAY have been an intelligence behind it. Both are theories yet one is viewed as fiction while the other THEORY is preached as fact. This is not “open-eyed”.

    [FSR comment: Evolution is fact.]

  4. Alfredo De La Fe Says:

    FSR- That things “evolve” or adapt in one way or another is fact, that life or “higher life forms” originated from or as a result of evolution is a theory. To call it a fact is bordering on blind faith. That is why it is still referred to as the “theory of evolution”.

    [FSR response: The word “theory” in scientific usage means a well-established explanation for a phenomenon. When an idea is not established as being generally accepted, it is called a “hypothesis.” Creationist hucksters mis-use the word “theory” to imply that there is something doubtful or hypothetical about Darwinian evolution. That is totally dishonest.
    As geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.”]

  5. Alfredo De La Fe Says:

    I figured I would expand on my previous comment- within Darwinian evolutionary theory there are several “branches” and new theories. Because science has yet to prove the development of one type of lifeform to another, there is a theory of “punctuated equilibrium” (which says that evolutionary change comes in spurts as opposed to gradualism which states that life evolved gradually over a long period of time) among many other “adjustments” to Darwin’s original theory.

  6. Alfredo De La Fe Says:

    Frank, I understand what theory means. But it still is not a FACT. Until something can be established as a fact it must be viewed as a POSSIBLE explanation as opposed to THE explanation.

    There is as much [solid] evidence of intelligent design as there is for Darwinian evolution. I am not talking about hocus pocus, “God is mysterious and we must have faith” reasoning.

    [FSR reply: Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs; but, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, not their own facts. “There is as much [solid] evidence”? I guess it depends how you define “evidence” (or “is”). I’ll leave it there.]

  7. Bruce Ryan Says:

    Alfredo, Arguing evolution and intelligent design… consider the weaknesses in the design of the human body, I suppose a creator might build a human so that it appeared to be evolved from less human animals. That the body had the remnants of “mistakes” left over from previous models.
    Just saying I’d look for a different argument.
    I think your faith can still exist even if you accept evolution.

    [FSR comment: Thanks, Bruce. For more on what you’re talking about, click here!]

  8. Joel Says:

    I’m not sure people are religious because they are acculturated to it. Religion seems to be far too universal aspect of human experience for that to be the case. Has there ever been a culture in the history of mankind that had no religion?

    It seems to me more likely that the capacity for religion is built into our DNA. I think it’s plausible that religious fervor was selected for in prehistory, for example as an aid in tribal cohesion resulting in success in battle.

    I’d say this hard wired religious impulse explains much human behavior, even among people who would deny being religious at all. I have met intelligent people who believe wholeheartedly in “the healing power of crystals”, aromatherapy, and the toxicity of genetically modified food, all without any evidence.

    [FSR response: Thanks for your comment. I agree. My point about acculturation pertained to the specific religious beliefs one adopts. A general proclivity toward religion (and other goofy beliefs you mention) does seem to be a part of human nature.]

  9. Scott Perlman Says:

    We (the human species “we”) have only developed sophisticated concepts and a basic understanding of our environment for a miniscule fraction of the time we have been on earth (regardless of the root cause, evolution or intelligent design).

    Imagine you go to sleep one night and you are moved to a totally undeveloped part of the world and everything you had ever learned from birth was erased from your memory. With that premise, think about waking up to a thunderstorm. It would be frightening beyond comprehension, confusing and chaotic. And after that, day to day, other experiences would be very dramatic one way or the other. Everything would be a first. There would be no explanation for anything.

    When I think about that I understand how religion can be created by man.

    And thinking about where we have come on our journey, I can understand how evolution will eventually eliminate religion.

  10. Lee Says:

    Yes, I agree that it’s all about “strong reasons versus weak ones,” or, in the language I tend to use, it’s all about which approaches are the most practical given ones priorities. But why are you so sure that religious faith always has the weaker rational basis? For instance, maybe I take great comfort in doing things the way I, my parents, and grandparents always have. There’s value in that comfort! Maybe there is even more direct practical impact — it helps me to build my love to say “until death do us part” at a marriage ceremony even though that is an act of faith, knowing that more than half of marriages end in divorce.

    Maybe you can find comfort and build love in atheistic/humanist ways, but why are you so sure that the faith-based approach is inferior for all people? I agree that religion also has flaws and that faith can lead to some very bad / impractical decisions, but I hesitate to throw out the baby with the bath water. Instead of arguing that people can not reasonably have faith, I would rather argue that they should use their faith wisely.

    [FSR comment: It is indeed often argued that religion provides a comfort, and it doesn’t matter that it’s a false comfort. I think it does matter. It is the difference between living authentically and living falsely. What is the meaning of one’s life if its foundational premises are false? Of course, I would never argue for compelling anyone to give up their illusions in this free country. I just think the path of truth is better; and I believe that people who do give up their false illusions are better for it, and live more rewardingly as a result. Indeed, the actual experience of many people I know in the humanist community (who used to be victims of religion) attests to that. While religion may have some positive aspects, on the whole it messes up people’s psychologies in so many ways that it’s positively therapeutic to break free of it.]

  11. Lee Says:

    Many people who “find Jesus” also extoll the therapeutic value of that experience. Different people find comfort, acceptance, love, etc. in different contexts.

    I don’t buy the concept of false emotions. An emotion that is felt is real by definition. For example, although science could probably give me rational reasons why I should play with my children, the fact is that my main motivation for it is that I enjoy it. Would you argue that my primary motivation is false and that only when I focus solely on the utility of the situation will I be living authentically? Or is your complaint only with “illusions” that are commonly associated with religions?

    The reason that not all people are atheists is not a lack of education, well-roundedness, etc. Rather it is that faith has real value for some/many people in some/many contexts. All encompassing arguments against faith are thus doomed to be ignored by those who see the obvious flaws in such arguments. However, I am with you that faith can also lead to bad / impractical decisions. We have a chance at success if our primary argument is that, if/when faith is to be used then it must be used carefully / wisely / practically.

    [FSR comment: We’re not talking about false emotions, but false beliefs. Most tenets of most religions are simply false. No amount of emotion will change that and make the beliefs valid. In other contexts, delusional beliefs are considered insanity. One might say the only reason Christians are not locked up in the loony bin is that there are too many of them. Though I have previously said that if false beliefs are held by the many, it has to be considered normal to hold them. It may not be clinically insane, but it’s not a sound basis for living in the world.]

  12. Scott Perlman Says:

    Your comparison about playing with your children is not consistent to the discussion of getting value from a “god.”. An appropriate comparison would be if you enjoyed playing with made-up children, children that did not actually exist. If you enjoyed doing that, then the analogy is consistent with getting value from believing in a made-up deity.
    Given that, what would you think if your neighbor played ball in the front yard with make-believe children? He would be enjoying himself at harm to no others. My rational mind says that would be a fine situation. My real response would be to feel sympathy and hope the man finds the help he needs.

  13. Lee Says:

    Let me get this straight. You still consider me sane even if I let irrational emotions be my guide — to play with my children. I imagine that you sill consider me sane even if I play Dungeons & Dragons or a similar fantasy role playing game with imaginary characters that your eyes cannot see. I believe that it’s not that you have anything against enjoying emotions or imagination, despite that they are not real. Do I have that right?

    Your only complaint is if my emotion or imagination conjures up a god?? In that case you would say that I am not sane — or would not be sane except that there are so many like me. When I am trying to sort through a big decision, what difference does it make to you if I talk to myself or talk to (a) god? When I am trying to assure a person that he/she has inherent worth despite a recent setback, what difference does it make if I say “god loves you” rather than “you are worthy of love”? Personally, I would go with whichever “language” the listener understands better, and I wouldn’t get so preachy about which is the universally correct approach.

    [FSR comment: Playing with your children is not at all “irrational emotion.” Nor is playing Dungeons and Dragons. When you do that, you are fully cognizant that it is fantasy, not reality. That is sane and adult. If you got into D&D and believed it was real, then yes, I’d say you have a mental problem. Talking to yourself is perfectly sane, that’s how we think; talking to an imaginary being while believing he is real is not perfectly sane. And the difference between saying “you are worthy of love” and “god loves you” is that the former is a true sentiment and the latter is a lie. Call me crazy, but I think that makes a material difference.]

  14. Scott Perlman Says:

    Frank, exactly my thoughts but stated in a more clear and coherent manner than I could have written.

    Lee, I will add this. I think it is outstanding that anyone finds great pleasure in playing with children and helping them grow and develop. And I do not over think the concept on a day-to-day basis. But there are actually bio-evolutionary reasons for your interest and enjoyment in playing with your children. Take a look at my blog for some info on the concepts or take a look at The Mind of the Market by Michael Shermer, or an article by Peter Singer called The Biological Basis of Ethics, or a book called The Handicap Principle.

    Or wait…even better….read a book called The Case for Rational Optimism by some brilliant, young, up and coming author whose name escapes me.

    [FSR comment: Scott — many thanks. But I must take issue with one word you wrote: “young”??]

  15. Scott Perlman Says:

    Young in spirit.

  16. Lee Says:

    When one calls one alternative the truth and another a lie, one usually has some sort of proof behind the statement. Perhaps I am ignorant, but I know of no proof of either “God exists” or “God does not exist”. Often, scientists will “break the tie” in this sort of situation by going with the statement that is simpler; but I know of no proof that simplicity should be the tie-breaking criterion. (And furthermore, which is simpler to a person depends significantly on which is more familiar to the person evaluating the simplicity.)

    Mathematicians tell us that if a statement cannot be proved true or false, if neither truth nor falseness contradicts axioms that we hold dearly then we are free to assume either truth or falseness. (And there is a proof for that!) To the extent that a choice of theism or atheism does not contradict axioms that we hold dearly, each of us is free to choose.

    So, what are those axioms that we hold dearly? I consider it the definition of “rational” to say (or perhaps it is a tautology to say) that something is rational if it helps you to achieve your priorities. Where we agree: forms of theism or atheism that cause one to make suboptimal decisions relative to ones priorities are irrational. And to defend ourselves, we have much incentive to make sure that our own or other’s theism or atheism does not negatively impact our priorities.

    Where we disagree: For some/many people, for some contexts, theism is more practical than atheism. For instance, the statement “God loves you” has behind it thousands of years of debate among theologians and philosophers, and carries all sorts of subtleties and context. To my knowledge there is no semantically similar atheistic statement that carries as much useful context. It would require at least several paragraphs, if not an entire tome, to convey all the context. (Likewise, English borrows words from foreign languages when those foreign languages have words that explain concepts that are more clunky to state in English.) When both speaker and listener are familiar with the history “God loves you” is more practical than the alternatives.

    While we are on the subject of a tomes, there is another area where we agree: Frank is a brilliant, young at heart, up and coming well-established author. I read him because I learn much from his writings.

    [FSR response: That final comment spikes my guns! Nevertheless — frankly, the common trope “you can’t prove God doesn’t exist” is utterly lame. Neither can I disprove Zeus’s existence, nor the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s (you should check out that religion). Or any other unprovable but preposterous claim. But it is rational to posit that the probability of their reality is so exceedingly close to zero that it can treated as zero. There is no epistemological “tie” that one can simply choose to break either way with equal validity.
    Put another way, in any case like a claim that God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists, the burden of proof is squarely on the proponent; there is no onus on disbelievers to “disprove” the assertion. Absent persuasive proof offered by the proponent, the claim can be dismissed. Indeed, must be.
    “God loves you” may make you feel good, but it is a feeling based on a mistake. (Likewise, it may make you feel good to think you’ve won the lottery, even if you’ve misread the numbers). I do agree that sentient beings feeling good is a valid criterion (indeed, that’s the only thing in the Universe that matters). But whether something makes someone feel good is not the end of the moral calculus. Killing Jews made Nazis feel good. Perhaps more pertinent, burning “heretics” made many believers in God feel good. And belief in God also motivated the 9/11 perpetrators. The point being that the mistake about God’s reality has a proven tendency to bad consequences.
    I believe better results are produced when we understand the reality of the human condition rather than making up nonsensical notions like God. That is not a “useful context” as you say.
    And as for an “atheistic statement” in place of it, how’s this: This life is the only one we get, we’re responsible for it, and our purpose is to make it the best we can. That’s a vastly more “useful context” for human thought and action.]

  17. sukuk Says:

    blind faith will make radical

  18. Lee Says:

    By the strict standard you set, much of what is taught in high school chemistry is “delusion”. The “facts” one learns are generalizations that are true most of the time but not always. Applying these rules of thumb will get one through high school chemistry successfully, but are insufficient at the college level, where the students learns some of the subtleties and exceptions. Again in graduate school and in professional research, these rules are further refined. But even among the professional chemists, these “lies” are used every day, because they are quite practical. What distinguishes a professional chemist from a high school student is that the former is better able to determine when the rules are useful or whether more is needed. Fortunately, it is rarely the case that, e.g., the full-blown polyatomic quantum mechanical wave function needs to be analyzed in order to predict the kinetics of a chemical reaction. That these superficial approaches, which are used daily by competent professional chemists, are not always true in every contortion does not make them irrational. It does not make them substandard. It does not make them lacking. To the contrary, the use of these “lies” enables progress that would not be achievable without them.

    In the religion realm there is a parallel. Whether one is Christian, Buddhist, Humanist, or what have you, there will be rules of thumb and there will be subtleties and exceptions. The rules of thumb are quite valuable even though they don’t work under every contortion. Perhaps you have chosen humanism because it better treats the subtleties and exceptions that you consider most relevant. Good! But others have different priorities and may rationally prefer different rules of thumb. It is only where individuals attempt to apply their rules of thumb to realms where they are inapplicable do we need worry that those rules are inappropriate.

    Closely related: recently in The New York Times, in an otherwise uninteresting article, Gary Gutting quotes a philosopher John Gray as saying “it’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths…. What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.”

    [FSR comment: There’s a world of difference between the scientific method, which is based on evidence, and religious faith, which disregards evidence. Drawing an equivalence between them is sophistry.]

  19. Ehsan Butt Says:

    Get some shocks and amazement or widen your horizons on what rationality can lead you to:
    Advancing Rational Faith Academy (ARFA) online investigative reports.
    Rationality Leads to Natural Human Faith
    The Historicity of the Modern Day Religious Texts

  20. Ehsan Butt Says:

    Advancing Rational Faith Academy (ARFA)

  21. black leaders Says:

    I am curious to find out what blog platform you’re utilizing?

    I’m having some minor security problems with my latest website and I’d like to find something more risk-free.
    Do you have any suggestions?

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