Faith and the Abdication of Reason

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.

14 Responses to “Faith and the Abdication of Reason”

  1. Topics about Religion » Faith and the Abdication of Reason Says:

    […] when religion fails placed an observative post today on Faith and the Abdication of ReasonHere’s a quick excerptSt. Paul in his letters gives a list of people, who had witnessed Christ … Religions consider some actions to be good and moral, while others are […]

  2. Ilíon Says:

    Why would one ever expect good-faith arguments for the anti-Christians?

  3. Ilíon Says:

    oops, “…arguments from the …

    ========
    Pistis‘ does mean trust — and even in English, ‘trust’ implies a justification for having and holding to it — but more, ‘pistis‘ means conviction: it refers to an evidence-and-reason based trust.

    This is what “faith” means and has always meant: an evidence-and-reason based trust.

  4. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    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.

    I think when pressed on the topic, most athiests, while being dogmatic in all other formats, would revert to the fallback position that you can NOT prove a negative. Their favorite pinup is the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster. I cannot prove it does NOT exist. But for the atheist and in my case alike this entity’s existence is either not manifest enough to warrant my serious attention (they claim the same for supposed manifestations of God’s presense, or that of any deity) or has some myriad ways of disguise. Either way, as with UFO’s and Bigfoot here in the US Southeast, there is not enough direct evidence, physical or even proposition to the atheist, to warrant a real glance.

    They claim that unlike other falsities or probable unprovables, “God” is a more serious issue as it relates or influences politics and entire ideologies that they claim cause harm. There is their curt reply of course to the quip of why few people talk more about God than atheists.

    So of course Dawkins and the really nasty ones like PZ Myers (the US’s Minnesota equivalent of the far more affible chap Dawkins, and is given to name calling and howling on the “culture wars”) claim this obsession is warranted, unlike one over an Easter Bunny, etc.

    Myers for his part has a follow up to Dostoyevsky’s
    quip to the effect that if God is gone from all life, from all equations or considerations and gone from culture, then “all things are possible.”

    Myers makes some kind of crack about hats.

    Yes. Hats.

    As my Brit friends would say it, the short version of this crackery works like this.

    “Right.

    Well, notice that men used to wear hats more often in times past. Everyone sported a hat on the streets of London and Yorkshire. Hats later went out of style a little at a time a while after the Victorian Age, though they can be seen cropping up from time to time in the US and other places as the last holdouts in the 1950s. But not long after that they went the way of the dodo. Religion likewise will soon be out of fasion. But what happened to the world? Did it really get worse now that hats are out of fashion. No, it didn’t, did it? One might say that with the exception of UV radiation prevention on the monk’s cap, hats really no longer serve any purpose as societal status. In the time since hats left the world as common fashion, scientific discoveries galore have surrounded the common and rich man of landed gentry alike.

    We’re not really worse for the wear (or lack or wear!) now are we?

    __________________

    Now Myers follows up by claiming that in his fantastically simple analogy to entire moral codes based on whole belief systems being akin to hats, we are no worse the wear morally or scientifically or medicinally (or any other LY-social indicator or measure) if religion fades out sorta like the smile of the Cheshire Cat or gets rapidly pushed to the margins of society as in the Scandinavian lands, etc.

  5. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    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.

    I think when pressed on the topic, most athiests, while being dogmatic in all other formats, would revert to the fallback position that you can NOT prove a negative. Their favorite pinup is the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster. I cannot prove it does NOT exist. But for the atheist and in my case alike this entity’s existence is either not manifest enough to warrant my serious attention (they claim the same for supposed manifestations of God’s presense, or that of any deity) or has some myriad ways of disguise. Either way, as with UFO’s and Bigfoot here in the US Southeast, there is not enough direct evidence, physical or even proposition to the atheist, to warrant a real glance.

    They claim that unlike other falsities or probable unprovables, “God” is a more serious issue as it relates or influences politics and entire ideologies that they claim cause harm. There is their curt reply of course to the quip of why few people talk more about God than atheists.

    So of course Dawkins and the really nasty ones like PZ Myers (the US’s Minnesota equivalent of the far more affible chap Dawkins, and is given to name calling and howling on the “culture wars”) claim this obsession is warranted, unlike one over an Easter Bunny, etc.

    Myers for his part has a follow up to Dostoyevsky’s
    quip to the effect that if God is gone from all life, from all equations or considerations and gone from culture, then “all things are possible.”

    Myers makes some kind of crack about hats.

    Yes. Hats.

    As my Brit friends would say it, the short version of this crackery works like this.

    “Right.

    Well, notice that men used to wear hats more often in times past. Everyone sported a hat on the streets of London and Yorkshire. Hats later went out of style a little at a time a while after the Victorian Age, though they can be seen cropping up from time to time in the US and other places as the last holdouts in the 1950s. But not long after that they went the way of the dodo. Religion likewise will soon be out of fasion. But what happened to the world? Did it really get worse now that hats are out of fashion. No, it didn’t, did it? One might say that with the exception of UV radiation prevention on the monk’s cap, hats really no longer serve any purpose as societal status. In the time since hats left the world as common fashion, scientific discoveries galore have surrounded the common and rich man of landed gentry alike.

    We’re not really worse for the wear (or lack or wear!) now are we?

    __________________

    Myers follows up by claiming that in his fantastically simple analogy to entire moral codes based on whole belief systems being akin to hats, we are no worse the wear morally or scientifically or medicinally (or any other LY-social indicator or measure) if religion fades out sorta like the smile of the Cheshire Cat or gets rapidly pushed to the margins of society as in the Scandinavian lands, etc.

  6. beastrabban Says:

    Hi, Ilion – Thanks for the comments. It’s good to see you back. And you’re absolutely right – I understood that pistis meant trust based on evidence.

  7. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    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.

    I think when pressed on the topic, most atheists, while being dogmatic in all other formats, would revert to the fallback position that you can NOT prove a negative. Their favorite pinup is the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster. I cannot prove it does NOT exist. But for the atheist and in my case alike this entity’s existence is either not manifest enough to warrant my serious attention (they claim the same for supposed manifestations of God’s presence, or that of any deity) or has some myriad ways of disguise. Either way, as with UFO’s and Bigfoot here in the US Southeast, there is not enough direct evidence, physical or even proposition to the atheist, to warrant a real glance.

    They claim that unlike other falsities or probable unprovables, “God” is a more serious issue as it relates or influences politics and entire ideologies that they claim cause harm. There is their curt reply of course to the quip of why few people talk more about God than atheists.

    So of course Dawkins and the really nasty ones like PZ Myers (the US’s Minnesota equivalent of the far more affable chap Dawkins, and is given to name calling and howling on the “culture wars”) claim this obsession is warranted, unlike one over an Easter Bunny, etc.

    Myers for his part has a follow up to Dostoyevsky’s
    quip to the effect that if God is gone from all life, from all equations or considerations and gone from culture, then “all things are possible.”

    Myers makes some kind of crack about hats.

    Yes. Hats.

    As my Brit friends would say it, the short version of this crackery works like this.

    “Right.

    Well, notice that men used to wear hats more often in times past. Everyone sported a hat on the streets of London and Yorkshire. Hats later went out of style a little at a time a while after the Victorian Age, though they can be seen cropping up from time to time in the US and other places as the last holdouts in the 1950s. But not long after that they went the way of the dodo. Religion likewise will soon be out of fashion. But what happened to the world? Did it really get worse now that hats are out of fashion. No, it didn’t, did it? One might say that with the exception of UV radiation prevention on the monk’s cap, hats really no longer serve any purpose as societal status. In the time since hats left the world as common fashion, scientific discoveries galore have surrounded the common and rich man of landed gentry alike.

    We’re not really worse for the wear (or lack or wear!) now are we?

    Now Myers follows up by claiming that in his fantastically simple analogy to entire moral codes based on whole belief systems being akin to hats, we are no worse the wear morally or scientifically or medicinally (or any other LY-social indicator or measure) if religion fades out sorta like the smile of the Cheshire Cat or gets rapidly pushed to the margins of society as in the Scandinavian lands, etc.

  8. Murray66 Says:

    The arguement for religion as a cause for suffering is so baseless it always surprises me that people still use it. Suppose I provided empirical evidence that more suffering was wrought by people with brown eyes than any other. I then postulate that there is no need for brown eyes since science has provided us with colored contacts. It is all very true and factual. The problem is that there are more people with brown eyes than any other so the hypothesis that this correlates to their evil deeds is rediculous. The majority of humans ascribe to some belief system. Throw in atheists as a group and you cover everybody. Essentially then, you are saying humans cause suffering.

  9. Ilíon Says:

    Good point, Murray.

    Yet, at the same time, atheists — in a mere two centuries and being themselves vastly outnumbered by non-atheists — have, in the explicit service of atheism, directly caused far more human death and suffering than all other humans in all of history.

  10. Murray66 Says:

    That is not surprising if you think about it. The only reason we think murder is wrong is morality formed from religion. If you believe in “survival of the fittest” murder would not only be acceptable but downright required.

  11. Beastrabban Says:

    Hi Wakefield, Murray and Ilion – thanks for your comments. Wakefield, P.Z. Myer’s comparison of religion to fashions in hats raises a number of important issues, which I hope to tackle in a blog post using your comment above, if I may. There are a number of ways in which Myer’s analogy falls down, not least in the fact that if God exists, then the universe possesses objective meaning and there is a much stronger case for the existence of objective, transcendental moral values than if God did not. Clearly, this is completely different from simply wearing hats, which in themselves don’t necessarily say anything about the existence of transcendental meaning in the Cosmos.

    As for religion being the cause of suffering, there is the problem that horrific atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. However, quite often there are other sociological, economic and political factors involved, which may well act contrary to the central tenets of that religion, and yes, of course there are a number of secular belief systems that have also caused immense suffering, like the Fascist and Communist regimes.

    As for murder only being wrong because of its basis in religion, I suspect an atheist would argue that the prohibition on murder exists because murder undermines secure communal life, and so endangers the individual and human society. However, while this is true, the fact that the prohibition on murder is beneficial merely makes the morality of an act dependent on its consequences, rather than being wrong in themselves, which is the problem with Utilitarianism. However, the traditional Judaeo-Christian view of morality is that certain actions are objectively wrong, regardless of their consequences, and this strengthens the prohibition against murder, rather than tending to make it dependent on the surrounding circumstances, which is one consequence of Utilitarianism.

  12. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Thanks for checking out my post on TGC.

    My take was obviously from another direction as yours, as I was detailing what is wrong with the current PC fad of carelessly tossing around terms (no matter how innocuous souding in a video store at that) about “hate” and whatnot. There are many things I still have planned but to keep up with every modern culture faux pas, much less the shenanigans of the new president and the humorous encounters with British royalty all the way to the nuke ambitions of Kim Jung Ill an dnow Iowa legalizing gay marriage, is all but impossible.

    Still, this “hate” thing rubbed me the wrong way.

    Discernment and judgement is not on par with hate for a number of reasons, primarily that charge being unfair and of course discernment is introspective, whereas hate is merely an unproductive emotion.

    As to Myers, yeah, I thought as much of his comparison. That kind of writing seems to be his Vaudeville slapstick styled shtick. He’s got a handy list of “wrongs” about Christian cosmology he thinks sticks well.

    More on that later, perhaps.

  13. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Oh–by the way, BR.

    I meant to add something about PZ Myers, since you’re possibly planning some follow-up commentary in the form of a posting. These are important. This guy gets a fair among of blog press at least among his followers, and his quotes are showing up as often as HL Mencken, Thomas Jefferson, Betrand Russell, and even Lincoln did in earlier times when it comes to the ever-blossoming growth of Doubting Thomas type websites of both scientific and non-science, layman variety.

    First, in case to be sure I have things down pat on MY understanding (and therefore YOUR understanding of MINE) regarding his article, please see for reference http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=136

    Just to be sure. In case I overlooked something. I am not an admirer of Dr. Myers but try to be fair to people’s arguments, however they fashion them.

    Second, I wanted to follow up from where he’s written elsewhere that inhis mind there is no real methodology to religious belief. For something to hold water and muster, it must be rigorously researched and demonstrable. Failing this, Myers places things in the “Creationist” box, which (apparently) is a rather large residual category for every idea or notion (certainly faith qualifies) that does not meet with scientific rigor to this man’s liking. His many defenders of course would claim these rules supercede Dr. Myers and despite Dr. Myer’s antics, still apply to science at large, whether we religious types like them or not.

    Observe, that when “Creationists” (meaning anyone believing God had something to do with the Known Universe, and not just “literalists”) get “cornered” on the “facts” of biology and life and the failures of prayer, whatnot:

    (Quoting verbatum from Jim Lippard’s blog honoring PZ’s many insights)

    They resort to,

    Key features:

    1. Conspiracy
    2. Selectivity
    3. The fake expert(s)
    4. Impossible expectations
    5. The metaphor
    6. The quote mine
    7. Appeal to consequences

  14. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Wakefield, thanks for the comments about my arguments and remarks about Dr. Logic’s arguments and the Butterflies and Wheels article. I’m glad you liked them. Regarding the ‘hate’ comments about The Golden Compass video, I agree with you that people have the right to object to films and material that they consider attacks their fundamental beliefs, even when this material – film, book or whatever, is well done. It does not mean that the people objecting to it are irrational or bigoted, which is the implication of the ‘hate’ remark you noticed on the Golden Compass in the video store.

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