Is Faith Opposed to Reason?

The idea that faith is opposed to reason is a popular one. But is it true?

For instance, some Christians feel that “faith needs no reasons.” I mean, if you really believe in God, what is the point of explaining this belief with evidence, facts, and logic? When you already have a strong belief in God, what’s the point of adding reason? If a truck has four good wheels, why add five more?

In a formal sense, among Christians, this position is known as fideism. Alvin Plantinga, one of the most eminent Christian philosophers of our time, explains that fideism is the “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth… [a fideist] urges reliance on faith rather than reason, in matters philosophical and religious…[and] may go on to disparage and denigrate reason.”

A Christian fideist is one who says “I just believe because I believe! I don’t need or want reasons for my faith in God!”

Modern atheists love this definition of religion. Christopher Hitchens, a noted New Atheist, has said:

Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.

In fact, this idea of a reason-free ‘faith’ is such an easy and attractive target that it is often the one and only definition of religion for many atheists.

So let’s consider the question: is ‘faith’ the opposite of ‘reason’? Is fideism true?

No: Because Most ‘Fideists’ Actually Have Reasons To Believe

In real life, most fideists aren’t going around thinking to themselves, “I am a fideist.” Rather, they are having regular (or semi-regular) experiences of God’s love for them when they read the Bible, pray, go to church, help out a neighbor, support a missionary, and consider the good news of the gospel.

Because of these experiences of God, they do have reasons to believe in God: they’ve met Him!

From an atheist’s perspective, that’s nonsense: ‘they aren’t meeting with God, they’re having psychotic delusions. We can explain this in terms of scientific research into brain patterns.’

Well, that all depends on whether or not Christianity is true.

If Christianity is true, then fideists are by no means believing without reason. Rather, their reasons are experiential and testimonial. These are the kinds of reasons that all of us depend on every day:

  • “Your name is Bob? Ok, I’ll call you Bob.”
  • “That is the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen. I must buy a copy!”

Denying that personal experience is a legitimate reason to believe something means you’ll have a hard time believing anything at all.

So here’s my encouragement to Christians: don’t say that you lack reasons for your beliefs. That’s not true!

Rather, say that the main reason for your faith in God is your personal experience of God. That is true.

However, you need to do more than that. Why is this?

Strict Fideism Is Self-Refuting

Your average, every-day kind of fideism, as I just discussed, is actually based on a certain kind of reasoning.

But “strict fideism” (the kind scholars discuss) has a problem: it refutes itself. As Dr. Norman Geisler clarifies,

[E]ither a fideist offers a justification for his belief or else he does not. If he does not, then as an unjustified belief it has no rightful claim to knowledge (since human knowledge is justified belief). On the other hand, if the fideist offers a justificiation for his belief—as indeed the whole argument for fideism would seem to be—then he is no longer a fideist, since he has an argument or justification for holding his belief in fideism. In short, either fideism is not a rightful claimant to truth or else it is self-defeating. But in neither case can it be established to be true.

Geisler is right. But the important point is that, given this strict, self-refuting definition of fideism, your ordinary Christian doesn’t fit the definition, as I explained above.

If a Christian were to really, truly be saying (and living as if), “I have no reason to believe in God,” well, then the atheists are right: you have no right to claim that your beliefs are knowledge. Think about this for a second. Do you have any good reasons to believe that Santa Claus is real? No? Then you lack belief in Santa Claus’ existence, right? That’s what atheists are often saying to Christians: unless you have reasons for your belief, you shouldn’t have belief at all.

But again, most Christians can give a certain kind of reason for their faith in God: ‘I’ve met God.’ Even if they are saying “I have no reasons,” if they are having personal experience of God, they do have reasons to believe, they just don’t know that they do.

Fideism Is unBiblical

This is an issue that is covered in great depth in True Reason: no need to rehash the entire discussion here. But think about it for a minute: what is the greatest command in all the Bible?

Jesus tells us it is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

If the #1 commandment, straight from the lips of Jesus, is to love God with your mind, how could biblical Christianity possibly be a religion divorced from reason?

Or let’s consider the #1 event in Christianity: the resurrection. Why did Jesus rise from the dead? Many reasons, but one of them was to validate his teaching and his identity as divine. Doesn’t a dead person coming back to life after three days, after being tortured and crucified, but returning in a perfect body, suggest something supernatural is going on?

If anything gets to define ‘faith’ in Christianity, it has to be what the Bible says it is. The most important commandment and the most important event in Christianity both make it clear: our faith (or trust) in God is based on reason.

Fideism Sounds Like Nonsense

When Christians are thinking about other beliefs, if there are no reasons for them, they tend to doubt them and reject them. Same for atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, and so on. Cognitive, emotional, and spiritual biases certainly keep us from this (“I’m sure I can afford a new car now that the bank increased my credit card limit!”). But to the best of their ability, people tend to prefer believing in ideas because they are true and reasonable.

That’s why it is so important – and valuable – to learn that there are dozens of good reasons to think Christianity is true.

Christians, if you want your skeptical friends to know Jesus, you have a responsibility to answer their intellectual doubts with reasoned answers. Do you meet the needs of the poor with shelter, clothing, food, and opportunities for work? Quoting the Bible isn’t enough in that situation, is it? But you are inspired to care for the poor because of the Bible, right? If the Bible also inspires you to share the gospel with your friends, then you need to think about their needs. If one of their needs is having their doubts resolved, you need to study until you have good answers!

To my atheist readers, those who only change their minds when they learn new evidence: are you now willing to change your mind about the relationship between faith and reason? Or will you continue to insist that they must be in opposition to one another?

Just because some Christians say this doesn’t mean that all Christians say this. And I’ve given you reasons to think that no Christian should say their faith lacks reasons: because it probably isn’t even true of their own experience, because such a position is self-refuting, and because fideism is unBiblical. So defining “faith” as “without reason” is hardly a Christian definition!

To Summarize

Some people may say that faith and reason are opposites. But Christianity teaches that faith and reason belong together.

So how will we change this popular misunderstanding?

First, Christians need to understand their own worldview better. There’s no excuse for Christians to perpetuate the silly idea that faith and reason are opposed to one another.

Second, atheists (and other critics of Christianity) need to respect the Biblical definition of faith. Anyone who truly loves reason won’t settle for strawman attacks on the weakest possible version of Christianity.

So I challenge you to study our arguments and our evidence closely – and respond to reason with reason, argument with argument. If there are such great reasons to prove that Christianity is false – or unpersuasive – let’s hear it! The Christian faith has been intellectually tested many times. It can handle your objections too.