Is Faith Irrational?

Faith and Reason:
Many people look upon faith as an irrational and irresponsible ‘leap in the dark’. Richard Dawkins in a lecture delivered at the Edinburgh International Science Festival in 1992 dismissed it as intellectually irresponsible:
“Faith,” he said, “is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade  the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence… Faith is not allowed to justify itself by argument.”

There are undoubtedly many people, both religious and atheistic, who hold and maintain beliefs in an unthinking way. But Dawkins’ criticism cannot fairly be applied to all. Many theists can give very good reasons for believing in God.

Dawkins and others like him have maintained that the natural sciences provide a complete, simple and coherent account of the world in which we live and that to talk of a ‘spiritual’, non-material dimension is an unnecessary complication. The universe to their way of thinking has no objective purpose or value and is comprised entirely of mindless matter.

No-one of course can reasonably doubt the important role that the natural sciences have played in helping us to understand our world . But their success is due in part to the limited nature of their inquiry. Aspects of life which cannot be tested empirically (such as goodness and beauty and the goals or purposes which arise from pursuing them) are beyond their brief and quite rightly left to one side, so the claim of materialists like Dawkins that the natural sciences provide a complete account of everything must be open to question.

‘Scientism’ (as it is often called) seeks to reduce everything to the level of physics, chemistry and biology. In the process, however, it creates a number of difficulties. If a complete account of our mental activity could really be given solely in terms of physical cause and effect, for example, we would no longer be able to credit our thoughts and ideas as being the product of reason; we would simply see them as the result of some irrational physical process. Aesthetic and moral  judgements would similarly have to be regarded as the mere products of natural instinct, physical emotion, or social convention and devoid of any objective value.

Christian faith, in contrast to ‘scientism’, begins with a belief that our experience of beauty and goodness is a genuine (if imperfect) window onto a deeper reality and is more than an accidental by-product of this material world. There is plenty of evidence to support such a belief. If we consider the creativity of a great artist, for example, it can seem at times to take on a transcendent quality. Having been brought up in a particular tradition, he or she can nevertheless find themselves becoming the vehicle for a radically new vision of beauty; and great moral reformers can similarly find themselves seized by the sense that something is right or needs to be done, and be prompted to move out of their own comfort zone, to challenge the social norms of  their day, and become involved with issues about which they may never previously have thought. The experience of such people is of an aesthetic or moral dimension which challenges and thus transcends both themselves and the society in which they live.

Belief in objective aesthetic and moral values does not necessitate a belief in God. But because values of goodness and beauty presuppose a mind (values imply a valuer), and because their objective nature suggests some kind of existence regardless of whether or not  society chooses to recognise them, it makes sense to the theist to see these values as being held  in a Cosmic ‘Mind’ (God).

To postulate such a notion is not an irrational leap of faith; it seems perfectly reasonable. A cosmic Mind undergirding everything that exists (God) could account very well for these important aesthetic and moral dimensions of the world which we experience, not to mention the more physical aspects, and indeed do so far better than many rival theories.

No-one in the God-debate has a single knock-down argument. The evidence is cumulative, like the evidence for believing that someone loves you, or the evidence which a judge and jury must consider in a court case. A judge and jury may never know for certain the truth of the matter which they have been asked to consider, but they are often able to determine to their own satisfaction whether or not the account given by the prosecution is more coherent and convincing than that of the defence. ‘Does the world as we experience it in all its dimensions make better sense with or without a belief in God?’ That is the crucial question.

Faith is first and foremost a particular way of looking at the world. The writer in Hebrews Ch.11, verse 3, writes for example:
“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God‟s command.”
It functions a bit like the working hypothesis of a scientist only at a metaphysical level. St. Augustine said that his faith was like a door, which opened up a whole new way of looking at things and a whole new range of possibilities. It was like seeing everything in colour for the first time, or in 3-D instead of in two dimensions.
“Credo ut intelligum”, he wrote: “I believe that I might understand.”

When a scientist puts forward an hypothesis, he does not know if it is true, and in the early stages it is more the product of intuitive insight than of evidence or rational argument. But the point is: it is none the worse for that, because reason always employs assumptions. The believer in God is simply someone who begins with the perfectly reasonable assumption that the universe’s beauty, order, openness to rational inquiry and so on, reflect the purposive Mind of God, and then proceeds on the basis of this, to find that the world makes sense – much better sense in fact than it ever did before. John Polkinghorne, a former Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge and member of the Royal Society, described his own belief in God as
“providing a coherent and deeply intellectually satisfying understanding of the total way things are.” (‘Reason and Rationality’ p.51)
We witness here not so much an argument for design, as an argument from (the prior hypothesis) of design.

The Leap of Faith:
The famous 18th century philosopher David Hume reckoned that we should only believe something in proportion to the evidence available. But can we always do this, and is going beyond the evidence necessarily irrational and irresponsible?

There are practical considerations to take into account as well as intellectual ones. It is all very well debating from the comfort of a philosopher‟s armchair the probability of a particular belief being true or false. But risks and uncertainties are a part of everyday living. Imagine that we are journeying through the Amazonian jungle and arrive at a rickety rope bridge which spans a deep rocky gorge. We know perhaps that the local people have occasionally used it, but we can also see that the rope is frayed and a number of the planks are cracked or apparently missing. We examine the bridge carefully and come to the conclusion that there is a seventy to eighty percent chance of crossing it safely. The odds are not bad. But do we take the plunge? At the end of the day it is a straight choice: either we cross or we move on and seek an alternative route. There is no half-way house; no proportional response. And if the group as a whole decides to cross (influenced perhaps by the fact that a member of their party is seriously ill and needs to be taken to hospital as quickly as possible), there will be no practical difference between those with a seventy percent belief in the bridge‟s safety and those with an eighty belief.

Evidence which might help to justify a certain course of action may sometimes only become apparent after the ‘step of faith’ has been taken. If the travelers in the Amazonian jungle decide to cross that rope bridge, for example, they may discover as they do so that the rope is not as frayed as they had initially thought, that the cracked planks of wood which they had been worried about were thick, seasoned timber – much stronger than they had appeared to be at a distance, and that the apparent gaps in the planking were an important and necessary part of the structure. Faith in this way can be a potential source of new knowledge and fresh insights.
This is particularly true when we reflect upon our knowledge of other people. We come to know them at a deep level only when we take a leap of faith and we begin to trust one another. It is the same with God. Faith is not primarily about us believing certain propositions to be true, „believing three impossible things before breakfast‟, as the Queen of Hearts once declared in Lewis Carol’s classic tale of Alice through the Looking Glass. It is about relationships of trust: trusting other people and trusting God.
When Abraham felt the call to leave the city Haran in which he had always lived, I am sure he would have thought and prayed about it and discussed it with his family and friends. I am sure there would have been plenty of rational discussion. But at the end of the day, he had to make a decision: Should he stay in Haran or should he set out on this journey? There was no half-way house; there was no proportional response; either he went or he stayed. It was all or nothing. He knew the dangers and the fact that he would be taking a calculated risk. But in that respect he was no different from the great pioneers, explorers and discoverers of more recent times. All such people, in one way or another, take calculated risks with their journey into the unknown. Abraham took this first step of faith, and as he did so, he found that it brought him new insights and fresh knowledge. His relationship with God began to grow and his trust to deepen as new evidence of God’s faithfulness and love was given to him.

Faith need not be an irrational leap in the dark as critics sometimes claim. But whilst it may not go against reason, it must inevitably take us beyond it.