Is faith the opposite of reason?

This page last updated June 24th, 2016

This page in brief ….

Many unbelievers scorn belief as being contrary to reason – faith is believing what you know isn’t true. But are believers that silly? What is faith anyway?

Dictionary and philosophical definitions of faith don’t make faith and reason so opposed. Believers use faith in two different ways – as complementary to reason and as trust in the God they believe exists.

What the unbelievers say

You don’t have to read much about God on the web to find people who dismiss faith. For example:

  • “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”, unfortunately not now available on the site).
  • “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.

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 and William Lane Craig, writer CS Lewis, and scientists John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins were or are all both reasonable and believers in God. 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. Christians have always been active in promoting these arguments.

Believers seem to use the word “faith” in two ways:

1. Going from evidence to commitment

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 the historical evidence for Jesus, personal experience, human reason & morality and the universe. Others will express their reasons in a simple way, such as “Something must have started it all I think” but these are still reasons.

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. Living in accordance with our belief in God

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.

Photo: MorgueFile.

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