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Faith and rationality

<The following is a portion of Larrys Text, wikification is invited>

Next we will examine the question: "Do we have any good reason to believe that God exists, or does not exist?" I said before that answers to this question are in the affirmative or the negative, and are or should be supported by arguments, either with the conclusion that God does exist, or with the conclusion that God does not exist. But there is a certain position on this question which does not involve arguments for or against the existence of God, and I want to talk a little bit about it. I mean the view that one should simply have faith, or perhaps that faith is itself, somehow, good reason to believe in God.

The view that one should simply have faith that God exists is called fideism[?]. You may be surprised to hear that fideism is indeed studied by philosophers of religion. But what is there to study about faith? We just have it -- we have faith by the grace of God, as fideists would say -- or we don't. So what's to study? Well, two things. First, what is faith? And second, is faith rational?

Now a little about the first question, what is faith? Some people are wont to say, "I take the existence of God on faith," or "Faith is my reason for believing." I think these statements are, strictly speaking, incorrect. Now let me explain they seem to imply that religious faith is something different from the belief that God exists. But faith isn't different from believing that God exists: it just is the belief that God exists. Still, if I say I have faith that God exists, I am talking about a particular kind of belief in God, am I not? It is, after all, possible to believe that God exists without having faith that God exists. Right? Suppose I say I have a battery of arguments that prove that God exists, and I support my belief rationally with those arguments; and I absolutely deny that I have faith that God exists. I think that makes sense. So what makes faith that God exists different from other kinds of belief that God exists? What is faith really?

In order to answer that question I think there's another interesting question to ask. Is it something about the belief itself that makes faith different, or is it something about the relation of that belief to other things one believes? Is it, for example, the strength of the belief in God that makes faith different, or is it how that belief is related to other things one believes, that makes the belief not just any belief, but faith? If you think a little about it, I think you can see that it isn't anything about the belief considered by itself that makes the belief faith. It is, rather, the fact that the belief is accepted without any reasons. In other words, what makes a kind of religious belief not just belief, but faith, is the fact that the belief is not supported by arguments, or reasons, or evidence. Or most generally: there are no other beliefs that one has, which one thinks makes one's belief that God exists more probably true.

So here then is the claim: If I have faith that God exists, then I believe that God exists, but I do not claim to have any other beliefs which make it more probably true that God exists. Faith is belief without reasons. Hence, fideism may be stated as the view that one ought to believe that God exists, but one should not base that belief on any other beliefs; one should, instead, accept it without any reasons at all. At least initially. There are some kinds of moderate fideism which say that one should have faith to begin with, and only then, when one's faith is strong enough, go out in search of reasons to believe.

Now to the second question I wanted to ask about faith, namely, can faith be rational? I think this depends on what you mean by the word "rational." If, in order for a belief to be rational, I must have reasons for the belief, then faith is, by definition, not rational. And in that sense, fideism specifically recommends that one not be rational. The question, then, is whether this is a very good notion about rationality.

Let me give you an example of a belief which is rational but for which you have no reasons. Suppose you are suffering from an insistent and painful headache, and you tell me, "Geez I've got a splitting headache." I say, "What are your reasons for believing that?" You tell me, "Well, I just feel it." So I demand to know what reasons you have for thinking that you feel the headache. And so naturally you reply, "Reasons for thinking I feel the headache? That's ridiculous! I have no reasons. I just feel the pain!" Then suppose I accuse you of being irrational. I say, "You are believing something without reasons. That's irrational." Do you think I would be correct?

Surely not. Surely you can believe, without reasons, that you feel a headache, and be entirely rational in this belief. In fact I would say you'd be nuts if you didn't have the belief -- if, somehow, you felt a powerful headache and yet were somehow able to convince yourself that you weren't feeling a headache. That would, I think, be irrational. So here's my point: It is possible, in at least some cases (surely not in all cases), to be rational in holding a belief even though one has no reasons for the belief. I think that very many beliefs require reasons in order to be rational. But there are some beliefs which do not require reasons in order to be rational.

So is religious faith rational? That depends on whether, indeed, reasons to believe in God are required for that belief to be rational. Now, some recent philosophers, most prominently the American William Alston, have argued that belief in God is a "basic belief" -- in other words, faith can be rational even though it is not supported by reasons. How can Alston say that? Well, he says that some people have certain religious experiences, in which they can, as it were, perceive that God exists, or they can feel God's presence. And just like belief that you feel the pain, you don't need reasons to believe that you are experiencing God's existence when you feel his presence. So Alston is, I think, fairly called a moderate mystic, in the sense I defined earlier. Here's the idea. Suppose you think you can come into some sort of immediate contact with God -- you think you feel God's presence. Then the idea is that you don't have to have reasons to believe that you feel God's presence. The belief, that you do indeed feel God's presence, is nevertheless rational. You have what might be called "rational faith." That, at least roughly put, is Alston's sort of view.

Now needless to say, if you don't believe you have such experiences, or if you think that these experiences are just a kind of vivid imagination, then you won't be at all impressed by Alston's view. And then you will maintain that, if belief in God is to be rational, it must be supported by reasons. In other words, if you disagree with Alston, you will maintain that the belief in God is in that large class of beliefs which do require reasons in order to be rational. That doesn't mean that you will necessarily be an agnostic or an atheist. You could still be a theist. You'd simply maintain that you do have evidence supporting your theism, you do have reasons to believe that God exists.

So what if you think about all this, and come to a conclusion, saying, "Alston is wrong; we can't simply say, without any reasons, that we can feel the presence of God in nature and in our lives, and then expect to be rational in our belief in God. Belief in God has to be backed up by arguments in order to be rational. Blind faith, is irrational; and so fideism recommends irrationality. But I don't care about rationality. Or rather, I want to be rational when it comes to my career, my family, and so forth; but when it comes to religious life, rationality is not a virtue. So, even if faith is irrational, that doesn't matter. In fact, it might be a virtue to believe in God irrationally! My very irrationality would show my devotion to God!"

There are people, including probably some people in this class, who think this way. I won't discuss this attitude, except to make one remark. Namely, that it is not at all clear to me that it is possible to compartmentalize your life, so that you say that irrationality is all right in religious matters, but not in more ordinary matters. I simply fear that if you permit yourself to be irrational in religious matters, you will also, under excitement or duress, permit yourself to be irrational in non-religious matters.

So suppose you then take an even more extreme view, and say, "Who cares? I never thought rationality was important at all." That is a view that I won't dignify: I don't think that anyone holds that view really. Everyone cares about the rationality of some of their beliefs, I don't care who you are or how strongly you deny it. If you do deny it, I will tell you that you aren't thinking hard enough about who you are and what your actual attitudes are, or how you live your everyday life. So don't go around saying that you don't care about irrationality at all, because you most certainly do. What I think is possible, though, as I said, is that you think that irrationality in some areas of your life, for example when it comes to religion and love and weekend activities, is OK. And I am simply raising the question as to whether you will be able, successfully, to compartmentalize your attitudes this way. Maybe you can. Some people seem to be able to, anyway.

This is all just food for thought for you; as always you have the right to think whatever you like. All right, that's all I'm going to say about the rationality of faith. Next what I am going to talk about are some positive reasons to believe that God exists -- in other words, arguments which have as their conclusion the claim, "God exists."



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