Faith and Reason

“You’ve just got to have faith.”

I heard this innumerable times growing up. Usually after a heated debate about religious ideas. Faith is a central part of many religious traditions, and it certainly was in my evangelical community. I have a problem with faith, to be honest. In the conversations I’ve had throughout the years, I’ve noticed that many people use “faith” as an excuse for intellectual laziness.

Several years ago, I discovered something which profoundly affected my worldview: the methodological error of faith. So, I rejected it, and my world immediately became much clearer and more exciting. I felt mentally liberated and empowered. I would like for other people to feel the same.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not an article claiming “all religious conclusions are false.” I am saying, “the methodology of faith has a catastrophic flaw and is an unreliable method for discovering truth.” I will illustrate the flaw shortly.

To stave off the inevitable claims that I am using “the wrong definition of faith”, let me be clear: if your definition of “faith” is rational, then this article doesn’t apply to you. I am using “faith” to mean “belief with the absence of proper reasons.” Or, as it’s commonly used in society, “belief despite reasons to the contrary.” It’s putting some ideas beyond the edges of rational analysis.

In nearly all of the conversations I’ve had with religious folks, the famous “leap of faith” is essential to their worldview. Their argument goes something like this: Reason is fundamentally limited. It only gets you so far. There’s a point at which some ideas have to be accepted on faith.

“At the end of the day,” they say, “you’ve got to believe in something. Therefore, leaps of faith are ultimately inescapable.”

In Protestant Christianity, for example, humans are all sinners, and there’s only one way to get forgiveness from God: sola fide. Latin for, “by faith alone.” Belief trust is central to Protestant theology.

Given my problems with faith, I would probably be considered a heretic. I leave it to the reader to evaluate the trustworthiness of faith for themselves.

All About the Method

Faith is an epistemological claim. It is a method for arriving at conclusions. It says, “Following this procedure will result in accurate beliefs.”

As with all epistemological claims, the truth remains centrally important. The Christian doesn’t simply say “Jesus rose from the dead.” He says, “It is true that Jesus rose from the dead.”

Again, my issue is not with religious conclusions. It might be true that Jesus rose from the dead. My issue is entirely with the methodology for arriving at those conclusions. Faith is a methodological error, which is best revealed by simple examination.

Systemic Errors

First, we must understand the dangers of methodological error in general. My favorite example is the dart board. Imagine somebody had the following method for arriving at their beliefs: they write out a bunch of propositions on small pieces of paper, pin all those pieces to a dart board, then throw a dart. Wherever the dart lands, that’s the beliefs the person holds.

Is it possible those beliefs are accurate? Yes, it’s possible. But is it a reliable, trustworthy method for discovering truth? Probably not, for the following reason: the possibility for error is too great. The same method, undertaken by different people, would result in different conclusions. My darts will not land where your darts land. We’ll have the same method and mutually exclusive conclusions. This is a big methodological error.

Faith is the same caliber error, as far as I can tell. Consider this question: do you make sense of something before you believe it, or do you believe something then make sense of it later? “Faith” answers the latter: belief comes first, then rational analysis follows.

The Christian “Trinity” is a great example of this. God is supposed to be in three parts: Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father isn’t the Son; the Son isn’t the Spirit; and the Spirit isn’t the Father. They are all “God”, but all mutually exclusive in their own ways. How is this possible? The traditional answer is to say, “We believe it’s true, as a matter of faith, even if it doesn’t make sense to our Reason.” Or, “It remains a fundamental, inexplicable mystery, not to be resolved by a human mind.” Of course, lots of different denominations of Christianity answer the question different ways and some undoubtedly reject the idea of an “irrational Trinity” but it’s precisely the orthodox answer I have an issue with. “Belief because faith” is an unnecessary, unreliable method, as we will see shortly.

Let’s say we agree with the method of faith. We choose to believe, then rationalize afterwards. One question, I am convinced, devastates the entire project:

What beliefs should you have faith in?

Think about it for a minute. Let’s say you ask a Christian pastor. He answers, “Put your faith in Jesus Christ.” Then, you kindly respond, “But why Jesus Christ, in particular?”

How could the consistent practitioner of faith respond? If he gives any reasons whatsoever, he’s abandoned the methodology of faith. By saying, “You should believe in Jesus, because he was a historical figure who said these things” or “he performed miracles” or “he loves you and died for you,” that’s essentially saying, “for such and such a reason, you should believe in X.” But that’s not faith; that’s philosophy! That’s belief due to an appeal to Reason and persuasion.

What Faith Looks Like

If the pastor is to be consistent in his appeal to faith, he must respond:

“Believe in Jesus, for no reason at all.”

This is the only response allowed by the methodology of faith. Any other answer places Reason above faith.

We immediately run into a problem. What happens when the kid in Malaysia asks his pastor the same question? He’ll hear the following answer: “Believe in Muhammad.” Then, when the Christian and the Muslim meet, they’ll have the same reasons for their beliefs i.e. non-reasons, or “faith” and mutually exclusive conclusions. They are also prevented from ever resolving their disagreements, as they cannot ultimately appeal to the use of Reason. When push comes to shove, if their beliefs are grounded in faith, no amount of persuasion could convince them otherwise, and yet each is convinced the other is wrong.

We can further illustrate the error by rephrasing what a non-reason looks like. ”Believe in Jesus, because of faith,” is identical to “believe in Jesus, because of horse battery staple.” Or, “believe in Jesus because of dapple-doobie-heena-hoga.” These are all non-reasons, and they are also non-sensical.

Of course, this error is not exclusive to the Christian or Muslim. It’s also affects the Jew and the Hindu. And the Mormon. And even the dogmatic atheist, who believes his ideas are true “because science.” The methodological error of faith permeates all cultures and ideas, and here’s the ultimate result:

“Having faith” means “believing whatever you heard first.”

In most circumstances, that means believing whatever your broader geographical community believes, by happenstance of birth. Had the Christian been born in Saudi Arabia, he would undoubtedly be a Muslim. Had the Muslim been born in Alabama, he would undoubtedly be a Christian. The methodological error is identical. Practicing “faith” means your beliefs will mimic those of your surrounding community. This is the reason the vast majority of people end up holding the beliefs of their parents, who just so happen to hold the same beliefs of their neighbors.

This should disturb the practitioners of faith. It certainly did me, when I began to question my own methodology. Imagine someone explicitly saying the following: “Whatever I hear first, I will believe is true.” Wouldn’t you cringe? Just like the dartboard example, it’s possible that they’ll end up with correct conclusions. But it seems dubious.

The Alternative

As soon as we acknowledge Reason comes first, we’re catapulted into a new problem. How to discern good reasons from bad? We could technically say, “I believe Jesus is God because my shoes are brown.” That’s a reason to believe. But it isn’t a good one. So what makes a good reason?

We’ve entered into the inescapable world of philosophy. There isn’t an easy answer. You have to start from square one doubting all your previously held beliefs (due to methodological error), and constructing your worldview from scratch. It’s a daunting task, but an absolute necessity if you value the truth.

Fortunately, there is an immovable rock on which you can build your beliefs: logical necessity. No faith required, for reasons you can completely understand. When you understand the inescapability of logic, you can answer the questions, “Aren’t you just putting faith in your rational faculties? Aren’t you blindly trusting logic?” No unreasonable leaps of faith are ever necessary in rational worldview.

Faith is a philosophical claim which tries to avoid philosophy. If it’s a reliable method for arriving at conclusions, many things follow. But rather than carefully inspect it, most religious people I’ve met want to give a special loophole for faith.

Faith is also dangerous, as people end up believing all sorts of terrible and inaccurate things. When you abandon Reason, the argument “God told me that you’re supposed to kill Johnny” gains much more plausibility.

Faith is also commonplace, and many cultures have glorified it as something honorable and noble. As I will write a separate piece about, faith is not honorable. It’s just a mental error, no different than throwing darts at a dartboard to come up with your worldview.

I speak from experience: liberation awaits upon the rejection of faith. When you understand there’s a 0% allowance for “belief first, then make sense of things,” your world opens up. Things become clear. The world makes sense. And there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Truth really is discernible by rational analysis. But don’t take my word for it examine for yourself.

As an interesting note, Catholics reject the doctrine of sola fide. They have their own saying: fides et ratio, or “faith and Reason”. This is better, but I just don’t see the necessity for any fides whatsoever. If my methodology were Latinized, it would be: sola ratio by Reason alone.

Please understand this isn’t a criticism of any conclusions. I am not saying, “You shouldn’t believe in Jesus.” I am saying, “You shouldn’t believe in anything without reasons.” Jesus might have performed miracles and been raised from the dead. But if you believe so, it must be 100% based on your rational analysis. Faith in the accuracy of the Bible (or any other holy book) is not a satisfactory substitute for rational analysis. You absolutely must have an understanding of philosophy, logic, and a grasp of proper skepticism.

There is no alternative. If you value truth, “belief because belief” just doesn’t cut it.