17
Feb

Faith Is Not the Opposite of Reason

Mthany modern 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 Christians contend that faith is not simply 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 a believer 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

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5 Comments

  1. thom waters says:

    Al,

    Your reasoning and approach cuts both ways, and it seems important to acknowledge that. If you can conclude that faith is the result of investigating the evidence that supports faith, you can as well claim that disbelief is also the result of investigating the evidence and finding sufficient evidence to side with disbelief. Much of what you decide simply rests with what you choose to side with or prefer. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the evidence is stronger for either case, although that might be true. All of the evidence must be considered and then a judgment rendered or a stance taken.

    If you can conclude, as you do, that faith is the product of reason, then it must also be acknowledged that disbelief is the product of reason. Two reasonable people can look at the totality of the evidence and find themselves in disagreement about where to side. You must be willing to grant the skeptic or the disbeliever that much credit.

    • Al says:

      Yes, I believe your basic point is fair. I would have no quarrel with someone who examines the evidence and reaches a contrary conclusion. The point of my post was to address those who conclude that “faith” positions are always inherently irrational and consequently fail to ever consider the evidence.

  2. James says:

    Faith, as anything of substance, must be exercised and cared for. I came across your post researching faith and reason. I was meditating this morning on what having the “mind of Christ” looks like. During meditation, the Spirit often impresses my heart with knowledge and understanding, not audible speech.

    Today, the impressions concerned the characteristics and nature of faith. Yeshua (Jesus) often said “Who has ears let him hear.” He obviously was not speaking merely of physical hearing. Romans 10:17 says “faith comes by hearing, and the ear to hear by the word of God.”

    So then, faith develops as a result of understanding, acknowledging and applying the Word. That is true hearing. Hebrews 11:1 further clarifies: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

    Faith is a gift that starts out very small; it must be planted in good heart-soil, nurtured, watered with the Word, and increase will come. The Spirit imparts the initial gift to those willing to hear, what we do with it from that point is our responsibility. Nothing worthwhile springs up overnight, only weeds do that.

    Biblical faith is not blind or devoid of reason; on the contrary. It will, with proper care, grow into a most powerful instrument of persuasion and light.

  3. Tony Paxton says:

    Al, you said “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 think more accurately, the opposite of faith is rejection. Either I accept a claim as true, have faith that it is true, or reject the claim as untrue. And that does not necessarily mean that I believe the opposite is likely true. As a member of a jury, I can vote not guilty because I do not accept that the prosecution has made it’s case. That does not automatically mean I think the person in innocent, only that the case has not been made to the standard required (whether beyond a reasonable doubt, to a preponderance of evidence, etc) to justify accepting the claim of guilt. That is why courts are set up that way..we do not vote guilty or innocent..that is addressing two different issues. We can only vote yay or nay on a single issue.

    • Al says:

      Tony, thanks for weighing in. We may not be that far apart. A jury is asked to decide the question whether the proof is sufficient to eliminate reasonable doubt as to the truth of a claim (in law the element of a charge). If while on a jury you vote not guilty, you are expressing your disbelief (rejection as you put it) that the element (or crime) has been shown to be true. The ultimate guilt of the offender is a different matter. For instance, you may have personal knowledge leading you to know that the offender is guilty, but would nonetheless be required to vote for acquittal if the evidence was not actually presented. So, even in your example, you believe that the “opposite” is true – that adequate proof has not been shown. That’s built into the question at hand, i.e. has adequate evidence been presented. When considering other types of claims – eg. did Jesus rise from the dead? or can this plane really fly? – lacking faith in the proposition usually reflects a conclusion that the opposite is actually the case.

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