Wakefield has also pointed to an article by George M. Felis at the ‘Butterflies and Wheels’ site, at http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=166, entitled, ‘Faith is a Moral Failing’. Felis’ argument is essentially that people of faith believe in God because they choose to, despite the lack of good arguments for their beliefs and even in spite of evidence against them. Most religious believers, he claims, simply justify their faith on the grounds that God is beyond all argument and reason. However, beliefs are at the centre of one’s worldview, and so directly govern people’s actions and moral decisions. Faith is thus, according to Felis, a moral failing as it states that certain beliefs do not have to be justified. This problem is particularly acute when it involves difficult ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia, though part of his argument also involves criticising Christians for demanding money from him when they can provide no rational basis for their beliefs. Now there are real problems with his argument and his central position.
Firstly, it assumes that religious belief is essentially fideistic – that is, it depends on faith alone, while the atheist worldview is rational. He recognises that there are other definitions of religious faith, such as ‘hope’ and ‘confidence’, but states that as faith in its usual sense is always a part of religious belief, religious belief is therefore essentially fideistic, and so treats it as if it was entirely a matter of faith alone, without any consideration of the evidence or rational discussion or understanding. This isn’t the case.
Firstly, the term used for faith in the New Testament is pistis, which actually means ‘trust’. Christian faith in the New Testament is a trust in God and God’s work of salvation through Our Lord, Jesus Christ. It is also trust based on the evidence of God’s actions. This consists of the witness of Scripture as well as other evidence, such as the personal testimony of the people who witnessed God’s work and Christ’s ministry. St. Paul in his letters gives a list of people, who had witnessed Christ after His resurrection, and who his congregation could contact and personally hear their testimony for themselves. Furthermore, Christian theologians have pointed out that merely because God is transcendental does not mean that faith is irrational. Indeed, it has been pointed out that the experience of God’s presence and action has led Christian philosophers and theologians to ask questions in an attempt to discover more about the nature of God, morality, salvation and God’s relationship to humanity. Now this examination of the nature of religion, God and faith has tended to begin in Christianity with religious faith. St. Anselm expressed this in the statement ‘credo ut intelligam’ – ‘I believe, so that I may understand’. Nevertheless, from the Apologists of the Early Church to St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas and others in the Middle Ages, Christians have attempted to produce rational defences of their beliefs. Moreover, the emphasis amongst the mainstream Christian denominations has always been in developing a reasonable faith, and avoiding blind faith. So Felis’ statement that somehow faith is necessarily irrational, or opposed to reason, is not the case.
Now part of Felis’ argument relies upon an attempt to reject the statement by Alvin Plantinga and other Christian apologists that certain beliefs are properly basic. That is, that they are true independently of any justification. A person may be perfectly justified in believing in God, but be unable to provide any justification for this belief. Felis considers that this is wrong, because humans have no distinct faculty for discerning right or wrong, and so have to use reason, and if they can’t justify their beliefs using reason, then they’re wrong to hold them, both intellectually and morally. Now this statement itself can be attacked on several grounds, one of which is that atheists themselves accept as true certain beliefs, which are not rationally justified.
Now Christian theologians point out that belief in God is inherent in humanity through the ‘sensus divinitatis’ – an innate knowledge of the Divine. There is evidence from psychologists that children have an innate belief in a transcendental self not identical to the body, and many psychologists have thus considered that a belief in God is inherent in humanity, and not the product of their upbringing or education. Thus humans may well indeed possess an innate faculty that makes them aware of the existence of the Almighty, even though they may also lose this faith. This does not necessarily mean that all ideas about God are correct, but it does mean that if belief in God is innate, and, as nearly all human cultures have believed in gods, it is therefore up to the atheist to provide arguments against the existence of the Almighty, rather than the theist.
Felis appears to assume that reason alone is capable of answering the deep philosophical questions, such as those of the nature of morality and the existence of God. This is, however, highly questionable. Philosophers have pointed out that none of the various definitions of truth suggested by philosophers is entirely adequate for assessing whether a statement or a belief is actually true. For example, one definition of truth is the argument from consensus. If the majority of people believe that something is true, then it should be accepted as true. But this is clearly wrong, as, although a belief held by the majority of people may well be true, it may also be false. The other definitions of truth also have serious problems, to the point where some philosophers will defend fideism – the view that religious faith is justified entirely from belief – as being a reliable guide to truth.
Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga have also pointed out that the nineteenth century view, that there were certain viewpoints that were automatically and obviously true, and which needed no explanation, has collapsed. Many philosophers now consider that there are no statements that are automatically true in themselves and which do not require explanation according to another set of statements or views. Thus, the atheist worldview is no more obviously true or rational than that of religious believers. This has serious consequences for the establishment of a basis for morality in atheism. Many atheists consider that it is impossible to establish an objective morality from the atheist worldview. The then president of the British Humanist Association, for example, this point in a speech he made in 1973. Thus atheism, like religious belief, is not a completely rational worldview, and also has the problem of providing a rational basis for its moral conceptions.
Now Christians consider that religious belief is justified, because although God is beyond human understanding, nevertheless He has provided evidence for His existence, and is rational and moral. Humans, as rational, moral creatures, thus participate in these aspects of the divine nature, and so belief in Him is rational. Furthermore, one definitive aspect of religions generally, including Christianity, is the existence of a moral dimension. Religions consider some actions to be good and moral, while others are evil and immoral, and consider the system of morality within their religion to be obviously true and rational. While horrific acts have been performed by religions, it is not the case that religious belief allows any action, no matter how evil, to be committed and called good, as religions by their nature govern human moral behaviour. Christian philosophers and theologians have debated throughout the centuries the nature of morality and good and evil, and much of the moral improvements in western society are the product of traditional Christian morality as it has developed over the centuries.
Regarding Felis’ point that if Christians are going to ask people for money, they need better reasons than to appeal simply to faith and feeling. This is actually the point of view of most Christian apologists, such as J.P. Holding, who feel that Christians should be better able to explain and defend their faith. Nevertheless, this does not mean that religious belief is irrational and that religious believers are immoral because some of them may not be able to provide a rational basis for their belief. Christian philosophers and theologians have provided rational arguments for belief in God and Christian morality, and while atheism is limited by the boundaries of human reason, Christianity is based on the belief in a rational, good God, as revealed in Scripture and throughout history. Rather than being a moral failing, it has been belief in Christian values that has steadily improved and supported western morality.