Faith and rationality

Faith and rationality are two ideologies that exist in varying degrees of conflict or compatibility. Rationality is based on reason or facts. Faith is belief in inspiration, revelation, or authority. The word faith sometimes refers to a belief that is held with lack of reason or evidence, a belief that is held in spite of or against reason or evidence, or it can refer to belief based upon a degree of evidential warrant.

Although the words faith and belief are sometimes erroneously conflated and used as synonyms, faith properly refers to a particular type (or subset) of belief, as defined above.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of views regarding the relationship between faith and rationality:

  1. Rationalism holds that truth should be determined by reason and factual analysis, rather than faith, dogma, tradition or religious teaching.
  2. Fideism holds that faith is necessary, and that beliefs may be held without any evidence or reason and even in conflict with evidence and reason.

The Catholic Church also has taught that true faith and correct reason can and must work together, and, viewed properly, can never be in conflict with one another, as both have their origin in God, as stated in the Papal encyclical letter issued by Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio ("[On] Faith and Reason").

Relationship between faith and reason

From at least the days of the Greek philosophers, the relationship between faith and reason has been hotly debated. Plato argued that knowledge is simply memory of the eternal. Aristotle set down rules by which knowledge could be discovered by reason.

Rationalists point out that many people hold irrational beliefs, for many reasons. There may be evolutionary causes for irrational beliefs — irrational beliefs may increase our ability to survive and reproduce. Or, according to Pascal's Wager, it may be to our advantage to have faith, because faith may promise infinite rewards, while the rewards of reason are seen by many as finite. One more reason for irrational beliefs can perhaps be explained by operant conditioning. For example, in one study by B. F. Skinner in 1948, pigeons were awarded grain at regular time intervals regardless of their behaviour. The result was that each of the pigeons developed their own idiosyncratic response which had become associated with the consequence of receiving grain.[1]

Believers in faith — for example those who believe salvation is possible through faith alone — frequently suggest that everyone holds beliefs arrived at by faith, not reason. [2] The belief that the universe is a sensible place and that our minds allow us to arrive at correct conclusions about it, is a belief we hold through faith. Rationalists contend that this is arrived at because they have observed the world being consistent and sensible, not because they have faith that it is.

Beliefs held "by faith" may be seen existing in a number of relationships to rationality:

  • Faith as underlying rationality: In this view, all human knowledge and reason is seen as dependent on faith: faith in our senses, faith in our reason, faith in our memories, and faith in the accounts of events we receive from others. Accordingly, faith is seen as essential to and inseparable from rationality. According to René Descartes, rationality is built first upon the realization of the absolute truth "I think therefore I am", which requires no faith. All other rationalizations are built outward from this realization, and are subject to falsification at any time with the arrival of new evidence.
  • Faith as addressing issues beyond the scope of rationality: In this view, faith is seen as covering issues that science and rationality are inherently incapable of addressing, but that are nevertheless entirely real. Accordingly, faith is seen as complementing rationality, by providing answers to questions that would otherwise be unanswerable.
  • Faith as contradicting rationality: In this view, faith is seen as those views that one holds despite evidence and reason to the contrary. Accordingly, faith is seen as pernicious with respect to rationality, as it interferes with our ability to think, and inversely rationality is seen as the enemy of faith by interfering with our beliefs.
  • Faith and reason as essential together: This is the Catholic view that faith without reason leads to superstition, while reason without faith leads to nihilism and relativism.
  • Faith as based on warrant: In this view some degree of evidence provides warrant for faith. "To explain great things by small."[3]

Views of the Roman Catholic Church

St. Thomas Aquinas, the most important doctor of the Catholic Church, was the first to write a full treatment of the relationship, differences, and similarities between faith—an intellectual assent[4]—and reason,[5] predominately in his Summa Theologica, De Veritate, and Summa contra Gentiles.[6]

The Council of Trent's catechism—the Roman Catechism, written during the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation to combat Protestantism and Martin Luther's antimetaphysical tendencies.[7][8]

Dei Filius was a dogmatic constitution of the First Vatican Council on the Roman Catholic faith. It was adopted unanimously on 24 April 1870 and was influenced by the philosophical conceptions of Johann Baptist Franzelin, who had written a great deal on the topic of faith and rationality.[9]

Because the Roman Catholic Church does not disparage reason, but rather affirms its veracity and utility, there have been many Catholic scientists over the ages.

Twentieth-century Thomist philosopher Étienne Gilson wrote about faith and reason[10] in his 1922 book Le Thomisme.[11] His contemporary Jacques Maritain wrote about it in his The Degrees of Knowledge.[12]

Fides et Ratio is an encyclical promulgated by Pope John Paul II on 14 September 1998. It deals with the relationship between faith and reason.

Pope Benedict XVI's 12 September 2006 Regensburg Lecture was about faith and reason.

Lutheran epistemology

Martin Luther's Theology of the Cross was a critique of the use of reason in theology as used by some in the Catholic Church. Some have asserted that Martin Luther taught that faith and reason were antithetical in the sense that questions of faith could not be illuminated by reason. Contemporary Lutheran scholarship however has found a different reality in Luther. Luther rather seeks to separate faith and reason in order to honor the separate spheres of knowledge that each understand. Bernhard Lohse for example has demonstrated in his classic work "Fides Und Ratio" that Luther ultimately sought to put the two together. More recently Hans-Peter Großhans has demonstrated that Luther's work on Bibilical Criticism stresses the need for external coherence in right exegetical method. This means that for Luther it is more important that the Bible be reasonable according to the reality outside of the scriptures than that the Bible make sense to itself, that it has internal coherence. The right tool for understanding the world outside of the Bible for Luther is none other than Reason which for Luther denoted science, philosophy, history and empirical observation. Here a differing picture is presented of a Luther who deeply valued both faith and reason, and held them in dialectical partnership. Luther's concern thus in separating them is honoring their different epistemological spheres.

Reformed epistemology

Faith as underlying rationality

The view that faith underlies all rationality holds that rationality is dependent on faith for its coherence. Under this view, there is no way to comprehensively prove that we are actually seeing what we appear to be seeing, that what we remember actually happened, or that the laws of logic and mathematics are actually real. Instead, all beliefs depend for their coherence on faith in our senses, memory, and reason, because the foundations of rationalism cannot be proven by evidence or reason. Rationally, you can not prove anything you see is real, but you can prove that you yourself are real, and rationalist belief would be that you can believe that the world is consistent until something demonstrates inconsistency. This differs from faith based belief, where you believe that your world view is consistent no matter what inconsistencies the world has with your beliefs.

Rationalist point of view

In this view, there are many beliefs that are held by faith alone, that rational thought would force the mind to reject. As an example, many people believe in the Biblical story of Noah's flood: that the entire Earth was covered by water for forty days. But objected that most plants cannot survive being covered by water for that length of time, a boat of that magnitude could not have been built by wood, and there would be no way for two of every animal to survive on that ship and migrate back to their place of origin. (such as penguins), Although Christian apologists offer answers to these and such issues,[13][14][15] under the premise that such responses are insufficient, then one must choose between accepting the story on faith and rejecting reason, or rejecting the story by reason and thus rejecting faith.

Within the rationalist point of view, there remains the possibility of multiple rational explanations. For example, considering the biblical story of Noah's flood, one making rational determinations about the probability of the events does so via interpretation of modern evidence. Two observers of the story may provide different plausible explanations for the life of plants, construction of the boat, species living at the time, and migration following the flood. Some see this as meaning that a person is not strictly bound to choose between faith and reason.

Evangelical views

American biblical scholar Archibald Thomas Robertson stated that the Greek word pistis used for faith in the New Testament (over two hundred forty times), and rendered "assurance" in Acts 17:31 (KJV), is "an old verb to furnish, used regularly by Demosthenes for bringing forward evidence."[16] Likewise Tom Price (Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics) affirms that when the New Testament talks about faith positively it only uses words derived from the Greek root [pistis] which means "to be persuaded."[17]

In contrast to faith meaning blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence, Alister McGrath quotes Oxford Anglican theologian W. H. Griffith-Thomas, (1861-1924), who states faith is "not blind, but intelligent" and "commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence...", which McGrath sees as "a good and reliable definition, synthesizing the core elements of the characteristic Christian understanding of faith."[18]

Alvin Plantinga upholds that faith may be the result of evidence testifying to the reliability of the source of truth claims, but although it may involve this, he sees faith as being the result of hearing the truth of the gospel with the internal persuasion by the Holy Spirit moving and enabling him to believe. "Christian belief is produced in the believer by the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit, endorsing the teachings of Scripture, which is itself divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit. The result of the work of the Holy Spirit is faith."[19]

Jewish philosophy

The 14th Century Jewish philosopher Levi ben Gerson tried to reconcile faith and reason. He wrote, "The Torah cannot prevent us from considering to be true that which our reason urges us to believe."[20] His contemporary Hasdai ben Abraham Crescas argued the contrary view, that reason is weak and faith strong, and that only through faith can we discover the fundamental truth that God is love, that through faith alone can we endure the suffering that is the common lot of God's chosen people.

See also


  1. ^ Skinner, B. F. (1 January 1948). "'Superstition' in the pigeon". Journal of Experimental Psychology. 38 (2): 168–172. doi:10.1037/h0055873. PMID 18913665.
  2. ^ Rosental, Creighton J. "The reconciliation of faith and reason in Thomas Aquinas": 255.
  3. ^ Hawker, Robert (1805). Poor Man's Commentary. pp. Hebrews 11.
  4. ^ "Faith" from the Catholic Encyclopedia
  5. ^ "Reason" from the Catholic Encyclopedia
  6. ^ For an overview—with copious quotes from St. Thomas Aquinas's works, some of which are quoted here—of his exposition of the topic of faith and reason, consult
  7. ^ Faith and Reason in Martin Luther
  8. ^ On the differences between Thomas Aquinas's conception of faith and reason and that of Martin Luther.Bruce D. Marshall (1999). "Faith and Reason Reconsidered: Aquinas and Luther on Deciding What is True". The Thomist. 63: 1–48. Archived from the original on 2003-11-01. Retrieved 2011-05-11.
  9. ^ "Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes. Volume II. The History of Creeds".
  10. ^ ""Faith and Reason" by Étienne Gilson".
  11. ^ "Le thomisme; introduction au système de saint Thomas d'Aquin". Internet Archive.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Ham, Ken. "Was There Really a Noah's Ark & Flood?". Answers in Genesis. Retrieved 23 January 2014.
  14. ^ Wright, David. "How Did Plants Survive the Flood?". Answers in Genesis. Retrieved 23 January 2014.
  15. ^ "How did animals get from the Ark to isolated places." Christian Answers Network. Retrieved 23 January 2014.
  16. ^ Robertson, Archibald Thomas. WORD PICTURES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. pp. Chapter 17.
  17. ^ Price, Thomas. "Faith is about 'just trusting' God isn't It?". Retrieved 23 January 2014.
  18. ^ McGrath, Alister E. (2008). The Order of Things: Explorations in Scientific Theology. John Wiley & Sons. p. 33. ISBN 140512556X.
  19. ^ Plantinga, Alvin (2000). Warranted Christian Belief. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 250, 291. ISBN 0195131924.
  20. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia, volume VIII, page 29

External links

Apologetics and philosophical justifications of faith as rational

  •—nondenominational website advocating that faith and reason can work together (D.L. Dykes, Jr. Foundation).
  • Should Faith Be Based On Reason? Jehovah's Witnesses' view of how faith is dependent on reason.
  • Faith and Reason! A coverage of the ongoing debate that tends to show that Faith and Reason both have their valuable places whilst suggesting that The New Atheism has a blinkered view.

Neutral critiques and analysis

Criticisms of the belief that faith is rational

Historical overview

Agnostic existentialism

Agnostic existentialism is a type of existentialism which makes no claim to know whether there is a "greater picture"; rather, it simply asserts that the greatest truth is that which the individual chooses to act upon. It feels that to know the greater picture, whether there is one or not, is impossible, or impossible so far, or of little value. Like the Christian existentialist, the agnostic existentialist believes existence is subjective.

Argument from free will

The argument from free will, also called the paradox of free will or theological fatalism, contends that omniscience and free will are incompatible and that any conception of God that incorporates both properties is therefore inherently contradictory. These arguments are deeply concerned with the implications of predestination.

Argument from love

The Argument from love is an argument for the existence of God. The best-known defender of the argument is Roger Scruton.

Argument from miracles

The argument from miracles is an argument for the existence of God that relies on the belief that events witnessed and described as miracles – i.e. as events not explicable by natural or scientific laws – indicate the intervention of the supernatural.

One example of this argument is the Christological argument: the claim that historical evidence proves that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that this can only be explained if God exists. Another is the claim that many of the Qur'an's prophecies have been fulfilled and that this too can only be explained if God (Allah) exists.

Defenders of the argument include C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and William of Ockham.

Basic belief

Basic beliefs (also commonly called foundational beliefs or core beliefs) are, under the epistemological view called foundationalism, the axioms of a belief system.

Descriptive knowledge

Descriptive knowledge, also declarative knowledge, propositional knowledge, or constative knowledge, is the type of knowledge that is, by its very nature, expressed in declarative sentences or indicative propositions. This distinguishes descriptive knowledge from what is commonly known as "knowing-how", or procedural knowledge (the knowledge of how, and especially how best, to perform some task), and "knowing of", or knowledge by acquaintance (the non-propositional knowledge of something through direct awareness of it). Descriptive knowledge is also identified as "knowing-that" or knowledge of fact, embodying concepts, principles, ideas, schemas, and theories. The entire descriptive knowledge of an individual constitute his understanding of the world and more specifically how it or a part of it works.The distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that was introduced in epistemology by Gilbert Ryle. For Ryle, the former differs in its emphasis and purpose since it is primarily practical knowledge whereas the latter focuses on indicative or explanatory knowledge.

Epistemological idealism

Epistemological idealism is a subjectivist position in epistemology that holds that what one knows about an object exists only in one's mind. It is opposed to epistemological realism.


Fideism () is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths (see natural theology). The word fideism comes from fides, the Latin word for faith, and literally means "faith-ism".Theologians and philosophers have responded in various ways to the place of faith and reason in determining the truth of metaphysical ideas, morality, and religious beliefs. A fideist is one who argues for fideism. Historically, fideism is most commonly ascribed to four philosophers: Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, William James, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; with fideism being a label applied in a negative sense by their opponents, but which is not always supported by their own ideas and works or followers. There are a number of different forms of fideism.

Hierarchical epistemology

Hierarchical epistemology is a theory of knowledge which posits that beings have different access to reality depending on their ontological rank.

Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit, is a term found in English translations of the Bible that is understood differently among the Abrahamic religions. The term is also used to describe aspects of other religions and belief structures.

List of epistemologists

This is a list of epistemologists, that is, people who theorize about the nature of knowledge, belief formation and the nature of justification.

Natural-law argument

Natural-law argument for the existence of God was especially popular in the eighteenth century as a result of the influence of Sir Isaac Newton. As Bertrand Russell pointed out much later, many of the things we consider to be laws of nature, in fact, are human conventions. Indeed, Albert Einstein has shown that Newton's law of universal gravitation was such a convention, and though elegant and useful, one that did not describe the universe precisely. Most true laws are rather trivial, such as mathematical laws, laws of probability, and so forth, and much less impressive than those that were envisioned by Newton and his followers. Russell wrote:

"If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others -- the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it -- if there was a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary. You really have a law outside and anterior to the divine edicts, and God does not serve your purpose, because he is not the ultimate law-giver. In short, this whole argument from natural law no longer has anything like the strength that it used to have."The argument of natural laws as a basis for God was changed by Christian figures such as Thomas Aquinas, in order to fit biblical scripture and establish a Judeo-Christian teleological law.

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff (born January 21, 1932) is an American philosopher and a liturgical theologian. He is currently Noah Porter Professor Emeritus Philosophical Theology at Yale University. A prolific writer with wide-ranging philosophical and theological interests, he has written books on aesthetics, epistemology, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophy of education. In Faith and Rationality, Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, and William Alston developed and expanded upon a view of religious epistemology that has come to be known as Reformed epistemology. He also helped to establish the journal Faith and Philosophy and the Society of Christian Philosophers.

Problem of other minds

The problem of other minds is a philosophical problem traditionally stated as the following epistemological challenge raised by the skeptic: Given that I can only observe the behavior of others, how can I know that others have minds? It is a central issue of the philosophical idea known as solipsism: the notion that for any person only one's own mind is known to exist. Solipsism maintains that no matter how sophisticated someone's behavior is, behavior on its own does not guarantee the presence of mentality.

Reformed epistemology

In the philosophy of religion, Reformed epistemology is a school of philosophical thought concerning the nature of knowledge (epistemology) as it applies to religious beliefs. The central proposition of Reformed epistemology is that beliefs can be justified by more than evidence alone, contrary to the positions of evidentialism, which argues that while belief other than through evidence may be beneficial, it violates some epistemic duty. Central to Reformed epistemology is the proposition that belief in God may be "properly basic" and not need to be inferred from other truths to be rationally warranted. William Lane Craig describes Reformed epistemology as "One of the most significant developments in contemporary Religious Epistemology ... which directly assaults the evidentialist construal of rationality."Alvin Plantinga distinguishes between what he calls de facto from de jure objections to Christian belief. A de facto objection is one that attempts to show that Christian truth claims are false. In contrast, de jure objections attempt to undermine Christian belief even if it is, in fact, true. Plantinga argues that there are no successful objections to Christian belief apart from de facto (fact-based) objections.Reformed epistemology was so named because it represents a continuation of the 16th-century Reformed theology of John Calvin, who postulated a sensus divinitatis, an innate divine awareness of God's presence. More recent influences on reformed epistemology are found in philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff's Reason within the Bounds of Religion, published in 1976, and Plantinga's "Reason and Belief in God", published in 1983.

Although Plantinga's Reformed epistemology developed over three decades, it was not fully articulated until 1993 with the publication of two books in an eventual trilogy: Warrant: The Current Debate, and Warrant and Proper Function. The third in the series was Warranted Christian Belief, published in 2000. Other prominent defenders of Reformed epistemology include William Lane Craig, William Alston, and Michael C. Rea.

Speculative reason

Speculative reason, sometimes called theoretical reason or pure reason, is theoretical (or logical, deductive) thought, as opposed to practical (active, willing) thought. The distinction between the two goes at least as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, who distinguished between theory (theoria, or a wide, bird's eye view of a topic, or clear vision of its structure) and practice (praxis), as well as techne.

Speculative reason is contemplative, detached, and certain, whereas practical reason is engaged, involved, active, and dependent upon the specifics of the situation. Speculative reason provides the universal, necessary principles of logic, such as the principle of non-contradiction, which must apply everywhere, regardless of the specifics of the situation.

On the other hand, practical reason is the power of the mind engaged in deciding what to do. It is also referred to as moral reason, because it involves action, decision, and particulars. Though many other thinkers have erected systems based on the distinction, two important later thinkers who have done so are Aquinas (who follows Aristotle in many respects) and Immanuel Kant.

Theological noncognitivism

Theological noncognitivism is the position that religious language – specifically, words such as "God" – are not cognitively meaningful. It is sometimes considered synonymous with ignosticism.

William Alston

William Payne Alston (November 29, 1921 – September 13, 2009) was an American philosopher. He made influential contributions to the philosophy of language, epistemology, and Christian philosophy. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and taught at the University of Michigan, Rutgers University, University of Illinois, and Syracuse University.

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