In this piece I am going to do something rather presumptuous: I am going to tell Christians what I think should be the proper relationship between faith and reason. I expect both Christians and Atheists will disagree with much of what I have to say, but since when does that stop me? I will first provide a definition of reason which I hope should be fairly uncontroversial, and then give a definition of faith which may well be objectionable to both New Atheists and Christians alike. I argue that faith is not, as some Christians claim, the abolition of doubt, but rather the trust to believe and act in spite of it. I then attempt to substantiate my position with some passages from the bible, and also with a comparison to the manner in which faith is applied by scientists. I conclude with a brief discussion of the role of personal religious experiences, arguing that although they are not very strong evidence for belief, they can serve as powerful methods of building faith.
What is Reason?
By ‘reason’, I mean ‘the careful, critical, and open-minded analysis of arguments and evidence’. Reason is thus very broad and multifaceted, and obviously it is possible for people to attempt to apply reason but end up doing so poorly (e.g. making logical fallacies). The detective making deductions to solve a case, the scientist conducting experiments to make a discovery, the mathematician manipulating equations to prove a theorem, the philosopher using logic to construct an argument, the historian analyzing documents in order to learn about the past, the lawyer weighing up facts in order to build a case, the anthropologist carefully observing an isolated tribe to better understand their culture, and even the small child who successfully passes the Sally-Anne test (google this if you haven’t heard of it, very interesting), are all using reason as I define the term.
The gambler who thinks that their run of bad lack now means a win is on the horizon, the ideologue who agrees heartily with everything his side says whilst immediately and uncritically dismissing every point made by his opponents, the homeopath who believes of the efficacy of their craft based solely on their own anecdotal experiences without attempting to engage with the scientific evidence, the conspiracy theorist who insists that any evidence that their conspiracy lacks is due to a massive government coverup, and the religious believer who uncritically accepts the faith they have been raised in without honestly or carefully considering alternatives or acknowledging legitimate doubts, are not using reason as I define it (or at best are using it improperly or inconsistently).
What is Faith?
As I understand the term (in a Christian context), ‘faith’ refers to ‘a rationally grounded belief in, reliance on, and trust in, the saving grace of Jesus Christ’. This definition contrasts noticeably with the typical New Atheist definition of faith as ‘belief without reason’, or even ‘belief in the face of strong reasons against’. Although many Christian thinkers have rightfully rejected these as grossly ill-informed mischaracterisations, I do nevertheless think that the New Atheists may have some justification for describing faith this way, because it seems to me that this can often be how Christians use the term as well, even if they know better. I will explain what I mean by this in the following section.
Faith and Belief
On seemingly many occasions, Christians have said to me something to the effect that “belief in Jesus isn’t all about arguments and reason, its also about having faith. So even though we still have doubts and unanswered questions, at some point we just have to have faith and believe”. Another type of response that seems to be fairly common is “I think my beliefs are supported by good reason and evidence, but ultimately it is my faith that allows me to be supremely confident, to be sure about the truth of Jesus’ claims”. In making statements like this, the Christian seems to be thinking of faith as a sort of augment to reason. Reason and evidence allow us to believe to some degree of confidence, 50% or 80% or whatever, and then faith takes our confidence the rest of the way up to 100% (or 99.9% or whatever). Alternatively, perhaps the conception is of faith and reason both working together and mutually reinforcing each other, in a sort of upward spiral of confidence and trust that leads the Christian to grow in confidence and faithfulness over time.
I think this conception of faith as something that augments one’s degree of confidence is mistaken. Reason, and reason alone, is what justifies confidence in the truth of a proposition. If reason suggests that some proposition has an 80% probability of being true, then that should be my confidence in that proposition now and forever (unless of course I discover new evidence or find a flaw in my reasoning, etc). Crucially, no amount of trust or subjective confidence or anything of the sort should cause my estimated probability to change, because only reason and evidence can justifiably cause such a change. That’s what we mean when we talk about having justifiable reasons for believing things. Reasons and evidence are precisely those things which can appropriately and validly cause a change in our beliefs about how likely some proposition is to be true. Faith cannot and should not change that in any way.
Faith and Doubt
Now at this point my Christian readers (kudos if you’ve made it this far), will be shaking their heads in disagreement, for it seems that I have ruled out all place for faith in religious belief. This, obviously, is not consistent with the Christian worldview. But, I hasten to add, I am not saying that there is no role for faith. On the contrary, as I will argue in due course, I think faith is vital for many things. Rather, I am arguing that the role and purpose of faith is frequently misunderstood. What faith does not do, I argue, is take a belief that is justified to 80% probability by the use of reason, and then push it up to 100% certainty or 99.9% certainty. Rather, what faith does do is take that belief at 80% certainty, and enable one to act on that belief with confidence, courage, and hope. Thus, faith is not the abolition of doubt or the false leap to certainty (or near certainty); it is precisely the courage and trust to act in spite of uncertainty and doubt. And I am not just talking about ‘narrow doubt’ of the sort Christians usually mean, like doubt about what God wants from you in life, or what doctrinal position is correct, or such things. I partly mean that, but I also mean ‘broad doubt’, doubt of even the most fundamental things like ‘does God really exist at all?” and ‘did Jesus really rise from the dead?’ I am saying that true faith, properly understood, is not only consistent with these sorts of doubts, but actually requires them (to an extent).
As I said earlier, faith refers to a trust, a hope, a confidence. This is clear from the bible. In Hebrews 11:1,3 we read ‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see…. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible’. In Romans 8:24-5 it says ‘For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’ In my view, these versus (and many similar ones) describe faith as being present in a context were we do not ‘see’ directly, when something is not immediately present before us, when we do not ‘know‘ something for a surety. Do I have faith that my computer screen is sitting before me right now? Do I have faith that 2+2=4? Do I have faith that I need to eat in order to stay alive? I argue that I do not, as I know these things for a surety – there really is no reasonable doubt about any of them. So of what value is faith in these circumstances? I don’t need to ‘trust’ or ‘hope’ that my monitor is actually in front of me, for it manifestly and most obviously is! Faith has no place in cases like this where there is no real doubt. Precisely the reason faith is necessary in the case of believing in Jesus is because the truth of the matter is not manifestly, obviously, indubitably present to us.
That is why I think it is a mistake for Christians to talk about faith as if it is the thing that gets them from 80% confidence to 100% confidence (or 99.9% if you prefer). That isn’t faith – it’s blind belief, irrational overconfidence that is not justified by the evidence. Faith does not ask you to be more confident about something, in the sense of according it a greater chance of being true. Rather, faith is about trusting in what we already have good reason (though not decisive, indubitable reasons) for believing to be true, about having the strength and confidence to act on these beliefs. Who has more faith: the person why prays to Jesus without a shadow of a doubt in their mind that Jesus hears their prayers, even if perhaps they can cite little evidence to support this degree of confidence, or alternatively the person who believes based on careful study and reasoning that Jesus hears their prayers, and despite having doubts and being less than certain, they pray in spite of these doubts, placing their hope and trust in the fact that what they believe to be true (but are not sure about) is in fact true, and that Jesus does in fact hear their prayers. Christians may well disagree, but I argue it is the second person who has the greater faith, and indeed it is the latter situation which best encapsulates the biblical notion of what faith is.
Faith in the Bible
Consider the way Paul treats faith. In 1 Cor 15, he presents a list of appearances of the risen Jesus: ‘he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.’ Later on he continues ‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.’ Paul isn’t saying that faith alone is enough. He is taking great pains to emphasize that what actually matters is whether or not the object of one’s faith, in this case Jesus’ divinity and resurrection from the dead, is actually true. And, in order to establish the truth of these beliefs, he presents the evidence of the numerous witnesses of the risen Jesus. He isn’t saying that faith is enough by itself. He is saying that faith is necessary, but must be grounded upon evidence.
Consider Genesis 22, the story of Abram being asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Do you think Abram knew for certain, or even with very high confidence, that God was going to relent at the last minute? I don’t think he did. He had faith, because he trusted in God, on the basis of the evidence his past interactions with God, that all would turn out for the best, but I don’t think he knew this without any doubts. Consider Mark 5:25-34, the story of the bleeding women who was healed by touching Jesus’ cloak. In verse 28 it says ‘she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed”‘. At least the way I read this, it seems unlikely to me that this women knew, beyond any doubt, that touching Jesus’ cloak would heal her. By the way the story is told it doesn’t sound like anything of quite this sort had happened before. Nonetheless, the women had reasons (presumably on the basis of reports she had heard about Jesus, or perhaps people she knew someone else who had been healed) that touching Jesus’ cloak would heal her, and, though she may have doubted, she had enough confidence and trust in this belief to actually act on it, to the extent of (apparently) pushing her way through noisy crowds so as to be able to reach Jesus. So when Jesus says in verse 34 ‘“daughter, your faith has healed you”‘, I think he means this fairly literally: the women believed on the basis of some evidence, but she also had enough trust and confidence in what she believed in to go forth and take action on the basis of that belief, and by so doing she was healed. It wasn’t sitting in quiet certainty that healed her, it was her acting as a manifestation of the faith that she had, even in the (probable – the passage doesn’t say for sure) continued presence of doubt.
(Parenthetically, I will note that there do seem to be a few passages in the bible where faith and doubt are used in such a way that they appear to be opposites, or acting in contradiction to one another; for example Matthew 21:21 and Matthew 14:31. However, I think there are differing senses in which words like ‘faith’ and ‘doubt’ are used in different parts of the bible (translation can sometimes become an issue here), so notwithstanding these complications I think my basic argument here holds.)
Faith in Science
In the sense that I have described it, faith is not something unique to Christians; it is an essential part of life for everyone. To give an example, when a scientist sets up an experiment to test some hypothesis, they must have faith: faith that the devices they are using were constructed correctly, faith that the materials they use are actually what they are purported to be, faith that the other scientists whose data and theories they are relying upon carried our research honestly and competently – the list goes on. I say the scientist must have ‘faith’, because that is precisely what it is. They have good reason to think these things are true (e.g. the equipment has always worked when calibrated in the past, lots of academics have tested this theory in the past, academic fraud is rare, etc), but certainly none of the things I have highlighted are certain, and reasonable doubts remain. The scientist, I argue, should not respond to these circumstances by saying “well I know I can’t be certain that this experiment is set up properly, but I have faith that it is, so by faith I can be very highly confident (or perhaps even certain) that it is going to work”. That would be an unreasonable response. That would be irrational overconfidence that is not justified by the evidence. Instead, what the scientist should say, if they are of a reflective mindset, is something like “I have good reason to believe that this experiment is set up properly, and although I cannot be certain and some doubts remain, I am going to operate on the basis of my faith and trust that it is set up properly, and hope that things will work out”.
The analogy here to Christian faith is of course imperfect, but I hope my point is made. That point being, again, that faith in the sense I am using the term is something we all need to have in life all the time (even scientists!), and so there is nothing unusual or irrational about Christians applying a similar notion to their theological beliefs. (Obviously faith is more central to Christianity than it is to science, playing a critical role as it does in Christian doctrine and, one might say, having much richer applications, but I think the basic thrust of the comparison stands.)
On Subjective Evidence
Before concluding this already overlong piece, I want to make a remark about what I will call ‘subjective religious experiences’. These are the sorts of things Christians commonly speak about when describing how they have come to know Jesus, and how he has helped and comforted them in their life. Often these are personal anecdotes relating to finding guidance in the words of the bible, having prayers answered, feeling God’s comfort and guidance in non-specific ways, and other sorts of subjective religious experiences. Though I doubt Christians will agree with me, in general I do not think these sorts of experiences constitute reliable evidence in favour of the Christian worldview. I don’t want to be too dogmatic and say that such experiences can never act as evidence, but I think they rarely do, and even when they can serve as evidence, they are not a very strong form of evidence.
Explaining why I think this would take us rather beyond the topic of this piece, but in essence I do not think these sorts of evidences are reliable because their track record of leading to accurate beliefs is very poor. We know that people from all sorts of religions and other worldviews report comparable types of subjective experiences (obviously the details vary but many core similarities remain) all supporting different truth claims about the world. We also know from psychological research that human perception, memory, and judgement is systematically flawed and biased in many ways that are often subtle and difficult for us to detect (e.g. one of my favourites, the introspection illusion). The reason I raise this issue is because I think Christians should be more careful in making claims about what sort of value these types of experiences have (again, I’m speaking generally, I don’t want to imply there are not exceptions, Paul’s conversion being an obvious potential example). In general, I think these experiences do not provide very reliable evidence to increase one’s confidence in the truth of Jesus’ claims on the basis of reason. I do think, however, that such experiences can and should increase one’s faith in Jesus, that is one’s degree of hope and trust that his claims are true, and that following his will can bring joy and comfort (etc).
Let me make a silly, but hopefully somewhat useful, analogy to explain my point here. I take melatonin to help myself fall asleep at night. I have read a number of studies and examined the scientific evidence on the matter, and I believe with a reasonable level of confidence (maybe 80-90%) that melatonin can help reduce sleep onset time. When I began taking melatonin, it certainly seemed to me that it helped a lot, and I was very pleased with the results. So does that mean that I should now update my confidence level to 99% (or something) on the basis of this new evidence? No, I don’t think it does. Perhaps a small upward adjustment is in order, but in general I know that one’s subjective sense of whether or not a medication is working is a very, very unreliable indicator of whether it is in fact working. There is mountains of research on this subject. To take an extreme example, some people literally bet their lives on homeopathy on the basis of their own anecdotal, subjective experiences with it, even though literally all of science tells us that homeopathy cannot possibly work. Yet, they remain convinced that it does work, quite literally even on their death beds. For these sorts of reasons, I don’t consider my subjective of experience taking melatonin to be particularly strong evidence for its efficacy. So if you ask me for my cold-headed, reason-based assessment of the probability that melatonin helps to reduce sleep onset times, I would still say maybe 80-90%. However, that does not mean that my own experience is without value. On the contrary, I now have a much greater trust in melatonin than I did before I started using it. I have a real confidence and hope that it works; one might say I have faith which grows over time through continued successful use, even if my reason-based estimated level of confidence stays the same. Again, the analogy with Christian belief is imperfect, but I think somewhat valid: I don’t think subjective religious experiences should be taken by Christians to be particularly useful evidence in favour of the truth of their beliefs, but I do think that such experiences can and should be a means of building and sustaining faith, the motivation to act on those beliefs, that is already grounded upon sound reasons.
Summary and Applications
In this piece I have argued that faith is neither belief without evidence, but nor can it serve to increase the certainty of our beliefs beyond the degree of confidence justified by reason and evidence. Rather, I have argued that faith is the trust, confidence, and hope that what one believes on the basis of compelling (though not decisive) reasons and evidence is in fact true, and also the courage to act on these beliefs. I have argued that this conception of faith is not only consistent with a central place for faith in Christian life, but also that it is fully in line with biblical explications of the nature of faith, and even the way faith (in a similar though not identical sense) is exercised in scientific research, and everyday life.
Under my conception of faith, therefore, the Christian should not say ‘reason only gets me so far but faith takes me the rest of the way’. Instead, they should say something more like ‘reason takes me so far, and I still have doubts and uncertainties, but I think the evidence is sufficient to act upon, and I have faith and hope that what I believe is true’. These might sound like different ways of saying the same thing, but I don’t think they are. I think the first is an inaccurate and indefensible notion which treats faith as a sort of ‘secondary backup’ to reason when reason itself is insufficient, while at the same time providing cover to false claims of certainty and overconfidence in the fact of reasonable doubts. In contrast, I think the second is a more honest engagement with of the limits of what can actually be known, and how confident we can really be given the evidence available. I also see the second statement as an affirmation of the true purpose of faith in enabling us to hope, trust, and act even in the face of genuine and ongoing doubts and uncertainties. Thus, I don’t think Christians should be afraid of faith (as the New Atheists would say they should be), but I don’t think they should be afraid of uncertainty and doubt either. Indeed, I think the two go very naturally together. Without doubt, faith would be pointless and unnecessary, for we would simply know. Without faith, doubt would become overwhelming and disabling, preventing us from acting upon what we believe to be true.