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True Belief: Using Reason to Validate Faith11 min read

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One of the things which discourages me as an author is the many great books that are forgotten or go unnoticed, often by people much smarter than myself. It reminds me of the wisdom of Solomon:

Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out. (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

Richard Messer’s Does God’s Existence Need Proof? is one such volume. A little known but wonderfully concise summary of the philosophical arguments regardging God’s existence, this book even makes Richard Swinburne, a notable Christian philosopher, accessible to the neophite.

Messer summarizes five points made by Swinburne, and then adds three more general points about using reason to evaluate faith.

Swinburne’s Principles of True Belief

1. Reason must be used to determine if God is imaginary or real

While modern Protestantism often emphasizes personal experience with God over a rational justification of God, Swinburne opines that it is critical to determine if such an experience is likely to be warranted (see Plantinga’s principles of warranted Christian belief). Swinburne writes:

You can only have a personal relationship to God in Christ if it is true that God exists. (Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, p. 6)

What is important is that the object of our faith is true and existent, and we should use reason to the best of our ability to eliminate false claims about God.

2. Evangelism must include rational arguments

Since rational argument is necessary for convincing others of ideas in general, the idea of God, if true, must have reasonable arguments in favor of it. Otherwise, you may be engaged in fantasy. This is not to say that there is no place for presuppositional apologetics (declaring the truth of God to be believed on its face without any more evidence than that of our intuition and conscience), but if you are discussing reality, then reasons must be available to support it.

3. Integrity demands that you inspect your faith with reason

Swinburne admits that all of us have times when we are mistaken about closely held opinions and beliefs, so in the interest of integrity, we must use reason to evaluate what we believe.

It is no bad thing to check your claim by considering whether [other’s] objections provide you with grounds for sharing their skepticism. (Swinburne, The Cohernence of Theism p. 6)

4. True belief = rationally justified belief

Our beliefs are quite possibly untrue if they cannot be rationally justified. Note that this is not about empirical evidence, but rational argument using logic and historical evidences. You can’t measure the existence of God any more than you can measure morality. But that doesn’t mean you cannot make reasoned assumptions and arguments about the objective reality of both God and morals. Additionally, true beliefs, i.e. assumptions about reality, lead to true knowledge. If our beliefs are invalid, we will have trouble finding true knowledge as well.

5. It is vital to know the answer to the existence of God

The question of God’s existence is so foundational to both life and knowledge that it is critical that we settle this question properly. While some consider the existence of God as inconsequential, the real-life and perhaps future life consequences of belief or unbelief are monumental, to ourselves and humanity. We have seen in hisory that atheism has led to murderous autocracies through the inevitable cascade from removing God to subjective morals, the elevation of the state as moral authority and the utilitarian elevation of the whole community over individual rights, to the downgrading of man to just another animal via Darwinism.

The personal importance of the reality of God is also critical, in that it can not only provide a narrative of ultimate meaning in this world, but the possibility of eternal life in the next. The importance of this is the driving idea behind Pascal’s Wager.

Three More Principles of Reasonable Faith

Messer goes on to distill from the ether of the philosophers three more principles of the need for and interaction of reason in validating faith.

6. Rational faith is virtuous – irrational faith is a vice

Rationally supported faith is a virtue because it involves more than mental assent, but a commitment to what can not be entirely confirmed – i.e. a tentative but real comittment requiring investmen of identity, resources, and reputation. An exercise of faith, hope, and love without complete assurance that such acts are worth the sacrifices.

Irrational faith, even if it produces the same positive ends, is not a virtue but vice. In part because when not implemented with intellectual integrity, falsehoods creep in and pollute the motives and the fruits of such efforts. Second, it leads us away from truth in general, which leads us and those around us away from health and liberty.

If the validity or invalidity of arguments for and against the existence of God is wholly irrelevant to faith, then faith seems a vicious habit of mind, a turning of one’s back on the possibility of discovering truth. (Anthony Kennedy, The God of the Philosophers, p. 128, 1979)

He that believes, without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks Truth as he ought, nor pays the Obedience due his Maker, for he governs his Assent right…and places it as he should, who in any Case or Matter whatsoever believes or disbelieves according as Reason directs him. (John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,  p. 687)

All that is to say, if one has not applied reason to his belief or unbelief, his stance is not virtuous but an avoidance of truth.

Let me add that many atheists may mistakenly think they have applied reason to their unbelief because they have discounted the supernatural, or relied solely on empiricism, or supposed that their cynical unbelief is warranted by their low estimates of the probability of God’s existence. But in matters of faith, empiricism is unreliable if you are avoiding examining assumptions and honest probability. When this is done, we may find that we have overstated the surety our own views. As one of my favorite atheist philosophers Graham Oppy has said,

If one supposes, as I do, that there can be sensible, thoughtful, reflective, well-informed people who are theists, and [similar] atheists, then it is perhaps not very surprising that one can also maintain there are [similar] agnostics, that is, who suspend belief on the question of whether there is an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic God. (Graham Oppy, Arguing About Gods, p. 1, 2006)

That is, it is possible to be a theist, agnostic, or atheist that has honestly and self-critically used reason to do more than buttress their position, but to examine it. And there are plenty in each camp who suppose they have done so, but have not. Studying why your opponent may be wrong is not the same as studying why YOU may be wrong.

7. Revelation is a valid form of knowledge, but should still be subject to reasoned justification

Just because we are championing reason as an arbiter of truth does not mean that it, or its companion empiricism are the only sources of truth or knowledge, especially about the moral and numinous. In fact, other than reason, the only source of grounding for the knowlege of God is revelation.

But receiving or believing revelation may require a previous belief in God, which is circular. We are treading on a true paradox here, a chicken or egg question. The Bible itself walks on both sides of this dilemma with such scriptures as:

But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. (Jesus in John 6:44)

In this paradox, reason can clear the way for belief, but can not create it. When the way is clear (and sometimes even when it is not) in the mind, revelation can speak to our inner man, our intuition and conscience, and birth belief. So faith always in some sense precedes belief, but ontologically, for us to ground faith, we must intellectually ground faith in reason.

All that is to say, faith must be intellectually grounded in reason even if revelation always initiates faith. In practice, reason can only set the groundwork for faith and provide some intellectual grounding, but it can not create faith. Therefore, neither faith nor reason exist alone in the equation of faith.

8. Philosophy (reason) is primarily used to support or reject contentious claims

Even though philosophy humorously has a hard time arguing for the reality of the world external to ourselves, the main function of philosophy is not to argue for or against things that are clear, like the existence of apples, but for or against claims whose verity is unclear.

The existence of God, though perhaps as self evident as some objective morals, is still a matter of faith and not of uncontested knowledge. Therefore, reason must be applied to evaluating faith, despite the limits of reason in doing so, in order to at least separate obvious lies from possible truths. Rather than making the mistake that many atheists make in judging all supernatural claims as equally spurious (hence the cynical creation of the flying spaghetti monster), we should use reason to validate, as much as possible, the reasonableness of our faith.

Conclusion: True and  Warranted Belief

Those of all stripes of belief and unbelief must apply reason to their own assumptions, since there may be significant objections that must be at least honestly addressed, if not defended against. To not do so is to have the proverbial “unexamined life” of Plato, because certainly our faith commitments underly our sense of self and meaning, the foundation upon which we consciously or unconsciously build our life – we don’t want to get to the end and realize we’ve “put our ladder against the wrong buildling.”

Some propositions of faith or unbelief are NOT reasonable, and are unwarranted, and they should be discarded, if not argued against in the public arena. True belief, i.e. trusting in something real, is a virtue that we exercise against the vagaries of life.

False belief is a panacea, a wish that is not based on reality. This includes not only unexamined and false beliefs in God, but also the assumption of materialism as the only reality.

The latter cannot make meaningful claims on  morality or human meaning, and may be on worse intellectual footing than some faith proponents, being at best impotent in matters of moral and spiritual knowledge, and at worst, missing or in opposition to the reality of such knowledge.