Philosophy of Religion

Chapter 8  Religious Language World Views and Reason 

Section 4 Relationship of Faith to Reason

There are several possible views of the relationship of Faith to Reason. They are:

  1. Commensurable

It is rational to believe in God and spirits and other religious claims.  Reason and Faith are compatible with one another as is Science and Religion because there is but one truth.

This is the position of the single largest religious group on earth in 2004: the Roman Catholics and has been theirs for some time.  It was clearly offered by Thomas Aquinas and has recently been re affirmed by Pope John Paul II (1998)

Compatible (Aquinas)

The basic religious beliefs are compatible with reason. There are rational supports for those beliefs. Other beliefs may be strictly matters of faith resting upon the basic beliefs.

For more detail: READ : On faith and reason

Complete Harmony (Kant)

Religious belief and Reason are in complete harmony with one another.

B. Incommensurable

It is NOT rational to believe in God, spirits and other religious claims.

1. Irrational (Hume, Kierkegaard)

Faith is opposed to reason and is firmly in the realm of the irrational.

2.Transrational (Calvin, Barth)

Religious faith is over and above reason and is not to be subject to criteria generally used by reasoning beings. To use reason on matters of faith is not only inappropriate but irreverent and faithless.

For many of those who hold the transrational position religious faith may be rested upon revelation which is self-authenticating.

The relation of Reason to Faith and Religious Language Use

Logical Positivists came up with a principle that states that a statement or claim has meaning if and only if it can be proved or falsified empirically- with testing.  With this principle some have attempted to totally disprove the whole of religion claiming that religious languages is devoid of meaning because it is incapable of empirical verification or falsification.  But consider some points that are raised in a famous symposium.  It was titled  A "Symposium on Theology and Falsification," and the participants were Antony Flew, R. M. Hare and Basil Mitchell.

READ this summary of the Symposium on Theology and Falsification by Allen Stairs

Antony Flew

Antony Flew maintains that serious truth claims must be capable of rational scrutiny. For such claims to be meaningful there must exist conditions that would count against the claim being true. This is to claim that the statement must be capable of being falsified. This is known as falsifiability.  If there are no conditions that would falsify the claim then for Flew the claim is meaningless and belief in it is not rational. Thus, Flew presents religious beliefs as resting upon meaningless claims because those claims can not be falsified.  Anthony Flew argued this point in the Parable of the Garden by John Wisdom.  Flew presented, in an essay he titled `Gods', written in 1944, that there are two men- a man who believes a gardener visits the garden unseen and unheard, giving order and life to the garden, and another man who doesn't believe in the gardener he, or any other person, has never seen. Anthony  Flew takes the position of the skeptic  to illustrate his point. How, exactly, does an invisible, intangible gardener differ from no gardener at all? His other argument against religious language was religious believers will let nothing count against their beliefs then they cannot be proved because they cannot be falsified.

READ Flew's Theology and Falsification

R.M Hare

Hare maintains that Flew’s criteria for rationality should not apply to religious beliefs. Such beliefs are based upon and constitute a blik, which is a set of profoundly unfalsifiable assumptions, which people use to order their lives. There are a variety of such bliks. Science operates with its own blik and so religion is to be treated no differently. He coined the term `blik' to describe a state where you will not allow anything to count against your beliefs.

READ  Hare's Reply to Flew

READ  Flew's Reply to Hare

Basil Mitchell

Basil Mitchell's response to all of this was an attempt to take a position between Flew and Hare that held that religious believers do actually see things that count against their beliefs. Only they don't believe these things ultimately count against their beliefs.  Professor Mitchell takes a compromise position between Hare and Flew. He argues that bliks exist but he holds that a gradual accumulation of evidence should be able to overturn or remove a blik. Religious beliefs are either:

    1. provisional hypotheses
    2. significant articles of faith
    3. empty or meaningless statements that make no difference in experience or to life.

The religious person can not accept position (1) and must avoid slipping into (3) which leaves only (2) and continued belief.

Mitchell provides another parable.  This one is about the resistance movement and a stranger. A member of the resistance movement of an occupied country meets a stranger who claims to be the resistance leader. The stranger seems truthful and trustworthy enough to the member of the resistance movement, and he places his trust in him wholly. The stranger's behavior is highly ambiguous, and at times his trust is tried, at other times his trust in the stranger is strengthened. This is how Mitchell's parable differs from Hare's: the partisan in the resistance parable admits that many things may and do count against his belief,  whereas, the believer who has a blik about dons doesn't admit that anything counts against his blik. Nothing can count against bliks.

According to Basil Mitchel, “evidence can be found which counts for and against such beliefs, but once a commitment to believe has been made, neither the partisan nor the religious believer will allow anything to count decisively against their beliefs.”   So then what Mitchell has argued is that religious believers do not actually have bliks.   Allen Stairs describes Mitchell's position as presenting the case that " the partisan in Mitchell's parable has been moved by the stranger enough to trust that even when it seems otherwise, the stranger really is on his side. The religious believer has a similar attitude of trust in God, Mitchell claims. The trust is not without a sense of tension and conflict -- if it were, it would be the sort of meaningless non-assertion that Flew attacks. But the believer has committed himself or herself to not abandoning belief in the face of seeming evidence to the contrary, because the believer has adopted an attitude of faith." -- the Symposium on Theology and Falsification by Allen Stairs

So Mitchell's argument is straightforward- religious beliefs are a matter of fact which can be proved or disproved. The stranger knows whose side he is on. After the war the ambiguity of the stranger's behavior will be capable of being resolved. In the same way, many religious claims such as including the existence or non-existence of a deity or characteristics of a deity such as it being all loving or all powerful or having concern for humans will also be capable of being proven or disproven.  Mitchell claimed he had demonstrated that religious language is meaningful.  For Mitchell all that remains is to prove or disprove the truth of the claims.

Flew's response to Mitchell

Flew was critical of Mitchell's attempt to argue by analogy using the parable of the partisan and the stranger.  This was because Flew thought that the analogy was comparing a mere mortal human being to a deity.  The stranger is only a human being and as Allen Stairs puts it " That makes it easy to explain why he does not always appear to be on our side. But God is not limited in any way; no excuses could be made for God's lapses. However, Mitchell could surely point out: it isn't a matter of making specific excuses. It is a matter of having faith that there is some explanation, even if we can't see what it is -- of saying that we don't understand, but we trust. The question Flew would presumably ask is: don't we understand well enough?" -- the Symposium on Theology and Falsification by Allen Stairs

As is often the case in Philosophy careful examination of positions reveals the assumptions held by the Philosophers.  With Flew and Hare it may appear that they start with different assumptions about what it might mean to believe in God in the first place.   For Flew it appears that a belief in God and religious practice involve at least some "truth" claims, i.e., some statements that are testable, that is, that could be checked to "see" if they were "true" or "false." Flew approaches the language used by religious people as being similar to ordinary language when making claims about what is real and what exists.  Hare may not be thinking of religious language in the same way.  Hare appear to think that there is more to religious beliefs and the use of religious language than to be simply a set of sentences that make propositions or claims about what is or is not the case.  What else could religious language be doing then?  

With religion there is a form of life or language game, as Wittgenstein and the fideists would have it. Religious language is used differently than elsewhere in life.  The same words take on different meaning and expressions function in different ways.  In the religious form of life language is conveying VALUE and MEANING without which it is difficult for a human to live.  Many of the most basic beliefs in the religious form of life are not subject to empirical verification from the science form of life.  The claims appear to be empirical claims but they are not.

  • There is an antelope in the field.
  • There is a deity in heaven.
  • There is the Tao in all.

The first claim may be subjected to the techniques of empirical verification/falsification.  It has a potential truth value.

The other two claims are not subject to such empirical examination and verification or falsification.  They are non-falsifiable claims.  They have an immunity to being examined by science.  Why?

The later claims are in the religious form of life and they are AXIOLOGICAL claims.  They are claims about what a person believes and such beliefs are expression of what a person values most in life and what thereby provides for order and meaning in life. 

For more on considering language about a deity and religious language as Axiological rather than as making Ontological claims : READ: Nicholas Rescher, On Faith And Belief

Michael Scriven

Professor Scriven argues for atheism on rational grounds. He holds that one should hold a belief based upon reason. There is not a rational argument to compel belief in a deity.  None of the arguments offered to prove that a deity exists is rationally convincing.  None of them lead to the conclusion that there is a deity without any flaw or weakness in the argumentation. Therefore there are only two choices: agnosticism and atheism. For Scriven one can be an agnostic if there is as much evidence for a position as against it. There being no compelling rational argument for belief in a deity, Scriven concludes that agnosticism must be rejected and atheism is the position which reason obliges one to take in the absence of any evidence and compelling arguments to the contrary. Again, there being no compelling proof for the existence of a deity, atheism is the rational conclusion.

C.S. Lewis

Dr. Lewis maintains that there is an accumulation of evidence in the life of a believer that becomes self-authenticating.  In this sense religious beliefs can be claimed by the believer to be valuable and "true".  The sense of their being "true " would not be the same sense as when scientists assert that a claim is true.  In the later sense the claim has been empirically verified.  In the former sense in the religious form of life or language game the religious belief is self authenticated as being a fulfillment of what was expected by believing in the claim.  It is so authenticated by individual believers each in his or her own way.  In the latter sense of true there is a public process of verifying the claim by a community of scientists.  So it is the same word "true" but with two different meanings in the two different languages: science and faith.

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

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