Philosophy of Religion

Chapter 8  Religious Language World Views and Reason 

Section 6 Fideism and Reformed Epistemology

Fideism is a view of religious belief that holds that faith must be held without the use of reason or even against reason. Faith does not need reason. Faith creates its own justification. There are two possible variations of fideism.

    1. faith as against reason
    2. faith as above reason

Soren Kierkegaard

For Kierkegaard faith is the highest human virtue. Faith is necessary for human fulfillment. It is above reason. Genuine faith is beyond the end of reason. Faith is higher than reason. Faith is the result of human striving. Faith should be the result of a subjective experience. The only way to know God is through such an experience that is extremely subjective and personal.

Robert Adams

Professor Adams argues against Kierkegaard’s approach to faith. He argues against the approximation, postponement and passion arguments. For Adams, A person is justified in believing in a set of claims (S) if that person is willing to sacrifice everything else to obtain it even if there is but a small chance of success.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

For the British Philosopher, Wittgenstein, the religious believer is participating in a unique form of language or language game when speaking of religious matters. The ideas, concepts and claims of the religious believer can not be fully understood by someone who is not participating in the same language game or form of life as the religious believers. The claims of the religious language game can not be subjected to the rules of another language game, such as science. To attempt to do so would be absurd.  Wittgenstein has studied and observed the different types of linguistic framework.  He has found that in some cultures there may exist different meanings for the same word.  This leads him to believe that there are different usages of language, with different meanings.  He has categorized then as language games or forms of life.  He believes that a single person can enter into many different language games in his own lifetime.  Some examples of these games are science, sports, and religions.  So when a person claims that something exists it means one thing in the religious form of life and another in the scientific form of life.

Norman Malcolm

The American philosopher, Norman Malcolm shared in Wittgenstein’s view. He held that religious beliefs are not to be treated as hypotheses as in science. Religious beliefs participate in another language game and form of life. Malcolm held that religious beliefs are groundless beliefs. Just as science has a set of basic beliefs that are not capable of verification upon which others are built or depend, so too does religion have such beliefs. Such beliefs can not and should not be rationally justified. They do not need such support. Science proceeds with the beliefs that (1) things don’t just vanish, (2) the uniformity of nature and (3) self-knowledge of our own intentions.

Science and religion are two different language games and one should not submit the claims of one system of thought to the criteria or rules of another language game or system of thought. Neither is in any greater need for justification or support than the other is.

The word "true " in the science language game has a different meaning than the word "true" does in the religious language game.  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.

Michael Martin

This American holds that while Wittgenstein and Malcolm may be correct concerning the variety of language games there must be some common conceptual framework with which the various forms of life or language games can be evaluated. He holds that there must be some criteria for rational assessment. Therefore, analysis and evaluation of all worldviews is possible and ought to be performed by rational beings. This is based on the following:

  1. It is possible to distinguish one form of life from another
  2. Each form of life has its own standards
  3. External criticism is possible and does exist

e.g., the argument for the existence of god may be considered as compelling within the religious form of life but not compelling or invalid external to the religious form of life.

Martin concludes that fideism is no more successful than the traditional or existential and pragmatic approaches to religious faith.


Martin, Michael.  “A Critique of Fideism.”  Atheism:  A Philosophical Justification.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1990. 

Summary by Meghan Ramsay, QCC 2004

Michael Martin disagrees with the notion held by Wittgensteinian fideists that religions cannot be examined and criticized externally.  Martin argues that religions and their language games can be criticized from the outside and this external evaluation and critique is necessary as the adherents to the faith may be blind to contradictions and problems.  For Martin, an outsider’s eyes are often needed to shed light on inconsistencies.  Although Wittgenstein and other fideists argue that religions have their own language which cannot be taken out of context.  To the Wittgensteinians, the language of religion is specific to religion.  However, Martin argues that this is not exactly the case.  Martin makes it clear that it is certainly possible for a scientist and a religious person to hold a dialogue, just as it is possible for a Christian and a non-Christian to do so, or a Catholic and a Baptist to do so.  Martin maintains that religious language as a whole is neither compartmentalized from all other languages and the languages of each sect are not compartmentalized from the other sects.   

Additionally, the Wittgenstein fideists argue that religious belief is groundless—it is agreed upon and embedded because of common training.  The fideists believe that within the religious language game, religious beliefs can be justified.  However, they admit that there is no justification for the game itself.  Malcom, a Wittgenstein student, argues that the belief in God is similar to our belief that objects do not vanish into thin air (another groundless belief).  However, Martin points out that there are not many sane persons in our society that question the idea that objects do not vanish into thin air, yet there are many people who question the existence of God or find it difficult to defend the belief in the existence of God.   

In reply to the idea that a religious belief is reasonable within the language game but becomes unreasonable when viewed from outside the game, Martin says that it is unclear  how an argument could be both reasonable and unreasonable at the same time, unless, of course, religious language is so incredibly compartmentalized.  However, the idea of complete compartmentalization was refuted earlier in the essay.  In conclusion, Martin finds Wittgensteinian fideism unsuccessful in explaining religious faith.   


This next article considers the reasonableness of belief in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God (‘God,’ for short), the nature of reason, the claim that belief in God is not rational, defenses that it is rational, and approaches that recommend groundless belief in God or philosophical fideism.

READ Religious Epistemology 

Conclusion: "Is belief in God rational? The evidentialist objector says “No” due to the lack of evidence. Theists who say “Yes” fall into two main categories: those who claim that there is sufficient evidence and those who claim that evidence is not necessary. Theistic evidentialists contend that there is enough evidence to ground rational belief in God, while Reformed epistemologists contend that evidence is not necessary to ground rational belief in God (but that belief in God is grounded in various characteristic religious experiences). Philosophical fideists deny that belief in God belongs in the realm of the rational. And, of course, all of these theistic claims are widely and enthusiastically disputed by philosophical non-theists."

READ Reformed Epistemology   From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Reformed epistemology is the title given to a broad body of epistemological viewpoints relating to God's existence that have been offered by a group of Protestant Christian philosophers that includes Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, and Nicholas Wolterstorff among others. Rather than a body of arguments, reformed epistemology refers more to the epistemological stance that belief in God is properly basic, and therefore no argument for His existence is needed. It has been said the title comes from the fact that this view represent a continuation of the thinking about the relationship between faith and reason found in the 16th century Reformers, particularly John Calvin.

Reformed epistemology aims to demonstrate the failure of objections that theistic Christian belief is unjustified, unreasonable, intellectually sub-par or otherwise epistemically-challenged in some way. Rationalists, foundationalists and evidentialists claim that theistic belief is rational only if there is propositional and or physical evidence for it, of which they assert there is none.

Reformed epistemology seeks to defend faith as rational by demonstrating that epistemic propositions of theistic belief are properly basic and hence justified; as opposed to the truth of theistic belief. Reformed epistemology grew out of the parity argument presented by Alvin Plantinga in his book 'God and Other Minds' of 1967. There Plantinga concluded that belief in other minds is rational, hence, belief in God is also rational. Later, Plantinga in his 1999 book 'Warranted Christian Belief' argues that theistic belief has 'warrant' because there is an epistemically possible model according to which theistic belief is justified in a basic way. In epistemology, warrant refers to that part of the theory of justification that deals with understanding how beliefs can be justified or warranted. Plantinga contends that this model is likely true if theistic belief is true; and on the other hand, the model is unlikely to be true if theism is false. This connection between the truth of theism and its positive epistemic status implies that the goal of showing theistic belief to be externally rational or warranted requires reasons for supposing that theism is true.

Those of faith have frequently criticized Reformed epistemology for favoring or for being exclusively committed to negative apologetics, counter-arguments to arguments that faith is not rational, and that it offers no reasons for supposing that theism or Christianity is true, so-called positive apologetics.

Criticisms from those critical of or neutral to faith as rational have included that Reformed epistemology rests on the presupposition that there is religious truth, but does not present any argument to show that there is any. Another common criticism is that as a tool for discriminating justified from unjustified constituent beliefs, Reformed epistemology falls short; that it springs forth from a presupposition that within each of us resides a doxastic mechanism that generates religious convictions, belief in God, etc., supporting the conclusion that such beliefs are innate, hence properly basic.

Now after the first overview of the basic positions the reader is better prepared to read this work providing another overview of the positions on religion and reason or religion and epistemology.

READ The Epistemology of Religion

For a look at fideism from the standpoint of Christian apologetics see:

Fideist Apologetics: By Faith Alone   by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr..


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