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Many Christians, Jews, and Muslims admit that belief in a god, and in particular their God, is purely a matter of faith. This is not an indefensible position, as I will show in this essay, despite the criticisms mentioned by Krueger1 and others. We must be clear about what we mean by `belief on the basis of faith'. A good definition is that a belief held on faith is a belief held despite the lack of clear evidence for belief and in the absence of clear evidence against the belief. It is important to acknowledge the necessity of a lack of contradictory evidence. Some sources ignore this, and this, I believe, reduces `faith' to a straw man.

Based on this, we can classify beliefs into three categories: rational beliefs, where the beliefs are supported by evidence; irrational beliefs, where the beliefs are contradicted by evidence, and beliefs held on faith, as above. In the case that a belief is both supported and contradicted by evidence, the evidence must be weighed and, ideally, a new belief formed from that which is supported by all of the evidence. Here, I will attempt to show that a similar process is not necessary for beliefs that are neither supported nor contradicted by any evidence, that is, beliefs on the basis of faith.

Krueger's first argument is that faith cannot be a reason for belief as faith is, by definition, the absence of a reason. This appears to be a confusion over the definition of faith. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence, not belief in the absence of reasons. Someone can have faith for reasons that are subjective, or are not directly based on evidence. A person may come to have faith in God through a private religious experience, through cultural traditions, or based on religious texts such as the Bible. While these may or may not be considered good reasons for belief, they are hardly `no reason'.

Additionally, implicit in a belief held on faith is a hope that that faith will be justified, that is, a hope that the belief adopted on faith will be true. This hope can also be the basis of faith. Many people have faith that God exists because they hope that God exists, and find no evidence that God does not exist. While this may be considered wishful thinking, it is important to recognize that if there is no evidence to either support or refute the belief in God, then wishful thinking is enough to choose belief over non-belief.

A more substantive objection to belief in faith is the argument that faith is more likely to result in a false belief than a true belief. Krueger uses an example to illustrate this point. He asks the reader to consider having to determine which object is presently at the geographical centre of New York City, while being unable to use any observational means (radar, telephone contact, etc.) to determine this directly. He then asks how likely it is that you would guess right.

This example leads to the claim that religious belief on faith requires the believer to guess: whether any gods exist, how many gods exist, what the gods' names are, and what the gods are thinking. Rightly, Krueger claims that deciding all of these things through blind guessing is unlikely to result in a completely accurate belief. However, the claim fails to address the actual nature of belief on faith.

First, Krueger appears to be claiming that only a completely accurate and complete response to these questions is in any way adequate. Most religious authorities would disagree with this precisionist stance. For example, even strongly and firmly committed Christians consider determining God's will to be difficult. Few people would argue that it is necessary to know God's will exactly in order to live a Godly life. In fact, all Christian sects have doctrines which say that even though you won't have perfect knowledge of God's will, God will accept you anyways. Other religions have similar admissions of imperfect knowledge.

Correct knowledge of the name and nature of God is also not universally seen as necessary. Many modernist religious sects use the parable of the blind men and the elephant to justify different and even contradictory views of God. The idea behind the parable is that the various blind men give wildly varying descriptions of the elephant as they are holding different parts of the elephant; usually explained using the leg, trunk, tusk, and tail. The argument is that we as humans do not have the ability (vision) to understand God (the elephant) as a whole, but rather we recognize the wildly disparate parts and believe them to be separate. In this view, belief in some form of god is more important than belief in a particular form of god. Another approach to the idea that completely correct knowledge is not necessarily necessary is the idea explored by Smullyan2 that the religions of the world are all attempting to approach true knowledge of the nature of the cosmos.

The other problem is that, as addressed above, belief on faith isn't simply a blind guess, but a choice informed by numerous factors including private religious experience. It is very common for people to report experiences that have confirmed their faith in God in some way, and it seems reasonable for these people to use such claims to bolster their faith with solid, though purely subjective, evidence. You may not be able to go examine the geographic centre of New York City yourself, but many people feel that they've caught a glimpse of it reflected off of a skyscraper.

Krueger continues to explain that over the history of the world there have been thousands of different beliefs that people have held on faith, and that if you accept one of them you must at the same time admit that all of the others are wrong. Here, he takes the position that if a belief isn't completely accurate, then it is just dead wrong, ignoring that some beliefs would have to be more accurate than others. As above, having slightly inaccurate beliefs is not generally seen as a problem. Also, it is only ethical to believe something on faith when there is no convincing evidence that it is false. Often a belief implies claims that should be falsifiable, and if these claims are seen to be false it would constitute evidence against this belief. Note that this restriction prevents many forms of Christianity from being held purely on faith.

This still leaves the possibility of contradictory but untestable beliefs, such as the Christian belief in a god who provides spiritual fulfilment through grace as compared with the Buddhist belief in personal discipline as the route to spiritual fulfilment, independent of any gods. Clearly if we are given spiritual fulfilment through grace, personal discipline is unnecessary, and if we must attain spiritual fulfilment through personal discipline then grace does not perform this function. Perhaps at this point it is most reasonable to believe that spiritual fulfilment can be attained through either grace or through personal discipline. More generally, if two possible beliefs are contradictory and irreconcilable, one must be chosen with acceptance that the choice may be wrong, or else judgement must be suspended pending evidence, which for this sort of problem will generally mean waiting indefinitely. Acceptance of the possibility that one may choose wrong is discussed further below.

The next class of objections to belief on faith claim that it is immoral to believe solely on the basis of faith. The first of these claims that believing things on faith makes one more likely to hurt others. Krueger uses an example of a man who owns a ship that is in disrepair and very old. He believes on faith that the ship is seaworthy and that it can be used to transport passengers. The ship is in fact not seaworthy and goes down, claiming the lives of all aboard. This is not a good example, as the age and disrepair of the ship constitute evidence that the ship may in fact not be seaworthy. It is clear that when there is evidence against a belief held on faith it would be unreasonable to continue believing in it. The definition of faith held above would be violated, and it would no longer truly be belief on faith, but rather irrational belief.

Krueger's other objection has a similar problem, but is more illustrative of the care required when believing on faith. He alluded to fundamentalist religious groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Christian Scientists who do not allow certain medical procedures in favour of healing through prayer. Here, while there is no evidence that prayer helps heal, there is considerable evidence that these medical procedures do in fact help heal. Here it is not reasonable to believe on faith that these medical procedures are wrong or that prayer will help. Faith cannot be used to keep a full system of belief free from the demands of reason, but can only be used with those portions of it that cannot be decided through consideration of the evidence, such as belief in the the existence of a god.

Another objection of this sort is the claim that believing something on faith leads to the habit of believing many things on insufficient evidence. Once again Krueger gives an example, this time of a woman who believes in guardian angels who protect us from harm. When she hears of a fatal automobile accident, she adjusts her belief to only have the guardian angels protect people who pray. This process repeats a few times and eventually she believes that a complicated set of circumstances are required for the guardian angels to protect a person. On the surface, it would appear that she is following the reasonable practice of rejecting or modifying beliefs that are invalidated by evidence. However, rather than meeting the evidence directly, she attempts to evade it by attaching further qualifiers to the belief until it effectively becomes vacuous. The evidence is fairly clear that no one is protected from harm by guardian angels, so it would be most reasonable to abandon the belief entirely.

In general, we see something an analogue to Ockham's razor for beliefs on faith. The defensibility of believing something on faith increases with the number of claims made in that belief on faith. It is much more defensible to believe on faith that there is a god who cares about what happens in the world, than to believe on faith that there is a god named Roger who likes people to go around on roller skates and make funny faces at passers-by, who blesses people who eat applesauce, and to whom Thursdays are sacred.

Logically, this would imply that the most defensible belief is a belief in no gods. This is true, however this does not mean that a belief in a god or gods is indefensible. In addition to the possibility of subjective evidence and non-evidence-based reasons explored above, we seem to be inclined to believe in such things through a basic psychological need. While using this need to prove the existence of God is easily discredited, it is more convincing as a justification for belief in God. As discussed above, if we hope that there is a God we may well be justified in believing in God. Many people who believe feel that they `just do' believe, and if they are willing to abandon those beliefs that are contradicted by evidence I cannot fault them for continuing to believe. In the words of William James3, our `passionate nature' makes decisions in this `live, forced, and momentous' choice.

James also has a response to the other objection presented both by Krueger and by William Clifford4, that believing on faith leads one to be considered credulous or gullible. This is simply a restatement of the objection that belief on the basis of faith is unreasonable. Responses to that objection are outlined above, but James goes further to claim that it is impossible to live without making some decisions on the basis of incomplete evidence. Many choices, particularly moral choices, are presented in such a way that an answer must be given before all of the evidence is available. In Clifford and Krueger's position, making such decisions on the evidence at hand (which may be no evidence outside the decider's own mind) will make one appear to be credulous. Here James' position that such belief is only evidence of credulity when the decision is not live, forced, and momentous seems the most reasonable one. Krueger's claim that it is bad to be considered credulous does stand and is quite reasonable.

One thing that has been presumed throughout this essay is that there is no evidence against the existence of a god or gods. Two frequently cited claims of such evidence are the problem of evil and the problem of unbelief. The problem of evil shows that the existence of a God whose sole prime attributes are omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence is inconsistent with the evidence of the world. However, the problem of evil does not rule out belief in a God who has either fewer prime attributes, or more prime attributes that make the problem of evil tractable. Similar arguments apply to the problem of unbelief, plus the argument that the problem of unbelief implies that belief in God is necessary for salvation, which may not necessarily be the case. These problems show concepts of God that cannot be accepted on faith, but they do not show that no concept of God can be accepted on faith.

To apply James' argument to the question of belief in God, it must be shown that the option is live, forced, and momentous. It is simple to see that the option is forced, as to suspend judgement on the question is to continue in unbelief. It is also fairly clear that it is momentous; belief in God is something that can affect one's entire worldview. The question most under debate is whether the option is live, or whether the only live hypothesis is that there is no God.

One concept of God that seems to be live is the idea of God as a World Soul, an entity arising from the structure of the universe in the way we arise from the structure of the human body. Smullyan alludes to this possibility, and it does seem reasonable that such an entity would have connections to a human collective unconscious, and thus would be accessible by human minds. Such an entity could also concievably become something akin to the omnipotent, omniscient God of the Christian scriptures. One could also take the position that this being is the manifestation of a creator God as in the traditional belief, although it is unclear whether this belief is a live hypothesis, as it implies the existence of a transcendent being with the power to create the universe.

There are certainly other live hypotheses about God, but we only need one to confirm that the option between belief in a god and non-belief is live, forced, and momentous, and thus decidable through non-rational means in James' system.

In numerous places in this essay, I have alluded to the role of private religious experience as a foundation for faith. One school of thought on the issue of belief concerns `non-propositional belief'. This is the concept that belief in God is inseparable from the experience of God, that is, private religious experience. As there are other concepts, such as humour, that are inseparable from a particular experience, I do not find this to be an unreasonable belief, although it is completely unfalsifiable. Many people who claim to have faith may in fact have this sort of belief.

In summary, belief on faith is, under limited circumstances, rationally defensible. To rationally believe on faith, one must be willing to consider the possibility of being wrong, reject all beliefs contradicted by clear evidence, and ensure that all actions made on the basis of this belief are ethical independent of the belief. Such a faith may not be supported by external, objective evidence, but it can be supported by the evidence and confidence internal to the human mind.

  1. Douglas E. Krueger. What Is Atheism?. Prometheus, 1998.
  2. Raymond M. Smullyan. Who Knows? A Study of Religious Consciousness. Indiana University Press, 2003.
  3. William James. The Will to Believe. 1897.
  4. William Clifford. The Ethics of Belief. 1877.

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This writeup is copyright 2004 D.G. Roberge and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/ .

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