Many skeptics contend that faith and reason are precise opposites. Under their view, my “faith” in Jesus Christ is an act in opposition to reason. At best, it is a form of wishful thinking, a crutch for those who find reality too harsh. True, relying on one’s faith is comforting, but Christian apologists contend that faith is not a crutch, because the evidence supports the belief that Jesus lived, died and rose again – just as he said he would. But with the preconception that faith is “just a crutch,” how can an apologist ever get a fair hearing on the evidence? It would be like trying to sell someone the worst car on the lot by telling him that driving it will make him happy. Or trying to convince a jury that the defendant is guilty in spite of the lack of evidence because he’s not dressed for success. “Unreasonable” arguments don’t persuade people.
A skeptic friend put it this way: “faith” is accepting things you can’t understand or explain, and “reason” is the opposite – accepting only those things you can understand and explain. This is a good, succinct definition of the way many people view these concepts. But this view is mistaken. “Faith” is the act of trusting in something that you cannot know with complete certainty. It contains an action part – trusting – and a standard of proof part, for lack of a better term – the degree of certainty you attach to your conclusion. The opposite of faith is not reason, it is disbelief. In other words, to lack faith in something is to believe that the opposite of it is probably true. I have no “faith” that Superman will save me, for instance, because I do not believe he exists. “Reason” is not opposed to trust – it does not stand against all acts of trusting. It is merely the process by which we derive conclusions based on evaluating evidence that we receive through our senses. It can be inductive or deductive; it can be sound or fallacious. But in the end, it is simply a tool that we have access to through the use of our minds, much like the tool of vision, hearing, or language acquisition. These things are simply available to any human being with a normally functioning mind. Seen in this light, it is apparent that the opposite of reason is not faith, it is irrationality. It is forming or holding views that are inconsisent with the way things actually are. It may well be that some acts of faith are indeed irrational, being held in spite of the evidence against it.
But it is a mistake to view reason and faith as opposites. Instead, they exist on a continuum, in which knowledge moves from things that are definitely known through observable evidence (trust with high certainty) to things that are not definitely known but highly likely to be true (trust with less certainty) to matters that are entirely speculative and can be taken only “on faith” (trust with little to support it – the way the skeptic views the term). So faith in God, like any other conclusion a person reaches, is always the product of reason, because reason is simply the only way anyone can arrive at a conclusion. What distinguishes sound faith from foolish faith is the strength of the evidence that supports the conclusion (for example, what evidence supports the resurrection?) and the validity of the reasoning process that was used (for example, I believe because the guy in the van down by the river told me it’s true).
Some examples may help to clarify the distinction I am trying to draw.
Knowing certain things about the way the world works, you are not surprised when you arrive home and find letters in your mailbox. Even though you do not see the mail carrier drop the items in the box, you have reason to conclude that he must have done so. Believing this, based on the evidence and despite not having witnessed it, is a form of faith, because by not seeing him actually deliver the mail, you may in fact be wrong about its source. Some possible sources – such as spontaneous generation of mail – are so absurd that you reject them out of hand, but others –maybe there is someone else who also goes door to door dropping off letters – are possibilities, and may become more probable if additional evidence is discovered (for example, that some of the mail is not postmarked). Based on what you do know, you move from knowledge of certain facts to trust, or faith, that things are operating the way you believe them to be.
This is a simple example, to which many would respond, “but we all know that mail carriers exist, so of course I can believe that he is the source of the mail.” But this not the point; the example is meant to show the process by which we form conclusions. Consider a different example instead, that of a wife assessing the fidelity of her husband. Because she cannot be with him all the time, she cannot know for certain whether he is cheating on her. But she is not totally without evidence, either. You would not say to her that she simply has “faith,” as if she has no reasons whatsoever for her beliefs. Instead, you would view that situation as a continuum of knowledge. In other words, her “faith” can be soundly based on available evidence – as in the situation where through long term-observation and knowledge of the character, belief system and conduct of her husband, she can be confident in placing her trust. Or her “faith” can be foolish – as in the situation where the husband claims to be true but has shown through prior behavior and through comments that he is not likely to withstand the temptation to stray. This example shows two things: one, like the mail carrier analogy, that faith is something we all use, even without necessarily thinking about it, because as limited beings we cannot know everything with certainty; and two, that the certitude of one’s faith depends on the facts and rationale that support the faith. In my example, the one rests her faith on logic and reason, while the other holds it in spite of logic and reason.
In my next post, I’ll examine why using this form of reasoning allows us to conclude that God – a person – must be there, and that placing our “faith” in him is an act of reason, based on evidence, and not contrary or opposed to reason. Yes, faith moves one beyond the evidence, and provides knowledge of things otherwise not seen, but the starting point is reason, not the absence of reason.
Posted by Al Serrato