Thursday, August 18, 2011

Faith and Reason: Is there a Conflict?

       The relationship between faith and reason is, in our modern times, seen as a stressful relationship. Many people, having a religious bent, whether they be Christians or otherwise, seem to think that faith and reason are two archenemies, and that ultimately faith is the victor. On the other hand, many people who despise religion, holding to the same view of a war between faith and reason, think that reason will ultimately reign supreme. Belief, a synonym of faith, is treated with contempt by authors such as Valerie Tarico, who, in a recently published article treats belief as an anti-rational action that is applauded, primarily, by religious people.[1]

         Daniel Dennett, for example, in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, talks a lot about belief without ever giving a precise definition of it. Reading through the book we can glean some hints at what he might mean by belief. He differentiates between what he calls “the faith of religious belief”,[2] and some form of simpler faith, which he describes as “the practical, always revisable policy of simply trusting the first thing that comes to your mind without obsessing over why it does so.”[3] This “simpler faith” is also what he calls “common knowledge”.[4] Later on Dennett differentiates between what he calls belief “in the weak sense”,[5] and belief “in the strong sense”.[6] Though his definitions are not clear, it seems that a person who has a weak belief knows that the object of his belief does not exist, yet they devote their life to studying that object. Whereas a person who has a strong belief thinks that the object of their belief exists, even though it does not, and they devote their lives to studying it. How belief “in the weak sense”, qualifies as belief is hard to understand, however, an earlier statement by Dennett may help us to understand his usage of the term belief. “Do I believe in witches? It all depends what you mean. If you mean evil-hearted spell-casting women who fly around supernaturally on broomsticks and wear black pointed hats, the answer is obvious: no, I no more believe in witches than I believe in the Easter bunny or the Tooth Fairy. If you mean people, both men and women, who practice Wicca, a popular New Age cult these days, the answer is equally obvious: yes, I believe in witches; they are no more supernatural than Girl Scouts or Rotarians.”[7] In this paragraph he seems to equate belief with thinking about something that exists,[8] which, however, does not really help us to understand his distinction between strong and weak belief. In his explanation of weak and strong belief, the object of the belief does not exist; the difference between the person with weak belief and the person with strong belief is that the person with weak belief knows that the object of belief does not exist, whereas the person with strong belief thinks that this same object does exist.[9] In his statement, on page 211, Dennett does not believe in something that he knows does not exist, which means that he does not even have weak belief about that object.[10] Perhaps, then, belief is, for Dennett, more than just thinking about the object of belief, but devoting one’s life to the study of it as that is the thing that is common between the person with weak belief and the person with strong belief. This however does not fit with his claim, on page 211, that he believes that witches, in a non-supernatural sense, exist.[11] Belief, used in this sense seems to mean, for Dennett, knowledge. He knows that they exist; therefore he is able to say that he believes that they exist.

Dennett is not, in this book at least, clear about what belief, in any sense of the word, is. Trying to discover what he means by belief is a frustrating endeavor, because his use of the word changes all too frequently. It is, therefore, impossible to say what he means by belief, although he does differentiate, as we noted above between simple belief and religious belief, weak belief and strong belief.

There is a place in his book where he describes belief in a different way from the above descriptions, he says, “We all trust the experts about many things, and these are your experts.”[12] To keep this statement in context, we must note that he is describing what he sees as the lamentable state of North American disbelief in Evolution. He claims that many Christians simply trust their leaders, who are their authorities, when their leaders tell them that evolution is false. He goes on to lament that there are no reputable scholars who deny evolution; therefore these poor Christians have misplaced their trust. This does not seem to be, for Dennett, a description of belief; however, this statement does coincide with a definition of belief that dates back, at least, to St. Augustine. Augustine describes belief as follows: “for belief is simply consenting to the truth of what is said, and consent is necessarily an act of will.[13] Belief, therefore, according to Augustine is, simply put, voluntary assent to the truth of an affirmation. This coincides quite nicely with what Dennett seems to be saying in the preceding quote, that, “We all trust the experts about many things.”[14] Now, I might add that belief is not belief if we know already the truth of an affirmation, so, we could add to this definition of belief, that belief is voluntary assent to the truth of an affirmation, of which we have no previous knowledge. However, Dennett’s point, in the context of the above quote, is well taken, and it should be noted that belief, as it is not based upon one’s own knowledge, must be based upon the knowledge of another. If that other is not a qualified authority, then that belief is misplaced. So, we should add to our definition the idea of an authority. Belief, then, is voluntary assent to the truth of an affirmation (of which we have no previous knowledge) by a recognized authority.

          Augustine’s equation for how we arrive at knowledge is well-known, “We cannot deny that believing and knowing are different things, and that in matters of great importance, pertaining to divinity, we must first believe before we seek to know.”[15] We must, according to Augustine (and note, that in the context he is referring primarily to “matters of great importance, pertaining to divinity”[16]), believe in order to know. It seems that this equation does not apply only to matters pertaining to divine subjects, but to all subjects. That is, in order to gain knowledge of mathematics, one must first believe the teacher (authority) who tells one how to perform mathematical equations. This belief is the road to knowledge, even of things that are, once examined, evident to the human mind. Therefore, belief is necessary for all knowledge, and, there is, therefore, no conflict between faith and reason.

            A further consequence of the above observations is that every true proposition can be at the same time an object of belief and an object of knowledge, but not at the same time for the same person. Once one knows the truth of a proposition, based upon one’s own experience (sensorial or intellectual in the case of demonstration) of the reality which the proposition is designating, then that proposition is no longer an object of belief, but of knowledge. Belief, ideally, leads to knowledge. Therefore, a true proposition (such as “Australia is a country located in the southern hemisphere.”) can be knowledge for one who has been there and an object of faith for the person who simply accepts the authority of the one who has been there. Ideally one should verify, when possible, those propositions which are objects of belief. It is not always possible for everyone to verify every proposition, therefore, most people simply believe most of the propositions that they think that they know. This is simply a reality for human beings due to our limitations.

            One might object that I am piling “religious faith” in the same pile as “simply faith”, according to the distinction made by Dennett.[17] There is a difference between the objects of belief in the domains of, for example, mathematics, and divine revelations. Aside from the obvious differences (what we are asked to believe), the difference, as related to faith, is the identity of the authority that is to be believed. As far as faith is concerned, the content of the belief (whether it be a mathematical equation or the trinity), is not important, as the truth of the content is offered by an authority as an object of belief.[18] What is important is whether or not the authority in question is worthy of belief.

            At this point we recognize that the believer must, if they are to be a rational person, use their intellect, before believing the authority in question, to determine whether or not the authority in question is worthy of belief. You don’t trust just anybody; you trust the qualified authority, the one who knows. When it comes to questions of mathematics, for example, the believer (or the believers’ parents) should find out first of all whether or not the teacher is qualified to teach. We don’t have to prove the existence of the teacher; rather we must see that the teacher is qualified. With theological matters the method is inversed. If God (at least as described by classical Christian theology) exists, then he is the ultimate authority. With God it is his existence that must be proved not his qualifications.

Here is not the place to lay down arguments for God’s existence, but, it should be noted that, if, as the Aristotelian/ Thomistic tradition of philosophy claims is true, the fact that God exists can be demonstrated, then, “that God exists” is not a question, by definition, of belief, but of knowledge, for the person who understands the demonstration. As noted above, most propositions will only be objects of knowledge for some people, and objects of belief for most people, due to the limitations of the human race. As such, even if it is possible to prove that God exists, the proposition “God exists” would still be an object of belief for all those who voluntarily accept this proposition based upon the authority of the person who worked out the demonstration, rather than working out the demonstration for themselves. So, at this point the question is, can it be proved that God exists. If so, then what God says is eminently worthy of belief. If not, then nothing that claims to be God’s words is worthy of belief.


[1]Valerie Tarico, “Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science,” in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, ed. John W. Loftus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010), 47-64.

[2]Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 160.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid., 213.

[6]Ibid., 212.

[7]Ibid., 211.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid., 212-13.

[10]Ibid., 211.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid., 60.

[13]Augustine, “The Spirit and the Letter,” in Augustine: Later Works, ed. John Burnaby (1955, repr., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 238.

[14]Dennett, 60.

[15]Augustine, “On Free Will,” in Augustine: Earlier Writings, ed. J. H. S. Burleigh (1953; repr., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006 ), 137.

[16]Ibid.

[17]Dennett, 160.

[18]It may be objected that with mathematical equations, once believed, the believer can then verify the conclusions; whereas with theological affirmations verification is strictly impossible. However the objector must accept the fact that, if God exists, then regardless of whether or not we can verify what he says (for example the existence of the trinity), he will be the ultimate authority and it is only wise to believe what he says. Therefore, it can be seen that even the verification of the affirmation is of secondary importance to whether or not the authority is worthy of belief.