The Unavoidability of Faith

Friday, August 28, AD 2009

Over at the First Things blog, Joe Carter highlights an excerpt from an article by Randal Rauser, a professor of theology at Taylor Seminary, Edmonton, Canada:

At the end of his tremendously irritating film “Religulous”, Bill Maher states that “Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking.” With this strange definition Maher summarizes a notion of faith which has become enormously popular in recent years, particularly with the rise of the new atheists. (Consider Richard Dawkins who dismisses religious believers as “faith heads”.)

While such definitions that pit faith against reason are nothing new (Mark Twain defined faith as “believing what you know ain’t true”), they have always been utterly spurious, baloney, a mere canard. A much more plausible definition of faith emerges when we consider philosopher Anthony Kenny’s definition of reason. Kenny defines reason as the mean between skepticism and credulity, that is, the optimal balance between inappropriate belief and inappropriate doubt.

This definition of reason is significant, because if willingness to believe is written into the very conception of reason, then the rational person is the one who exercises the proper amount of faith, and not the one who eschews faith altogether. And this means that the atheist or skeptic who insists “I exercise reason, not faith” is like the child who insists “I breathe air, not oxygen. ”

The rest of the article is available here.  Rauser puts his finger on one of the things that irritates me most about the new atheists: their lack of skepticism. To my mind, the first thing that needs to be said about relying on human reason to discern the truth (whether scientific, moral, or historical) is that it’s an act of faith. In order to decide, for instance, that God does not exist (much less to write hundreds of pages about it and carry on about how irrational it is to believe otherwise) the writer must first take an enormous leap.

It is not self-evident that the human mind, the product of an (intended or unintended) evolutionary process that prizes survival above all, and riddled with well-documented pathologies and biases, is particularly well suited to the task of philosophical or even scientific inquiry. Whether believer or atheist, we’re all acting on faith that the human mind is capable of accurately perceiving and describing reality. Contra Mr. Maher, faith is a pre-requisite for thought, rather than a sign of its absence.


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