Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Fideism, Faith, and Reason

I think the word "faith" occupies the same role in religious discussions that the word "socialism" occupies in political discussions. Once you hear the word in conversation, you simply have to check with your discussion partner to see if you and he or she are using the word in the same way. For some, faith is believing absent any evidence, or in the face of a mountain of counterevidence. For others faith is just proceeding confidently on what one take to be sound evidence in support of one's beliefs. 

Now there is a position out there called fideism. According to britannica.com, this is what fideism is. 

Fideism, a philosophical view extolling theological faith by making it the ultimate criterion of truth and minimizing the power of reason to know religious truths. They defend such faith on various grounds—e.g., mystical experience, revelation, subjective human need, and common sense. .

But many people in religious traditions reject fideism. Typical would be C. S. Lewis:

I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of evidence is against it. That is not the point at which faith comes in. But supposing a man’s reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for it. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair; some moment, in fact, at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true. And once again his wishes and desires will carry out a blitz. I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments where a mere mood rises up against it.


Now faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian, I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why faith is such a necessary virtue; unless you teach your moods “where they get off” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of faith.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, ch. 12

For Lewis, faith does not contradict reason. 

Consider the phrase "I have faith that Biden will do a good job for the rest of his term as President." People who do that are not saying they have no good reason to think he will do a good job, though they do not know what Biden will do during the remainder of his term. But if you find Biden's track record so far to be one of good leadership, then you might say you have faith that his remaining actions will also be good. (Of course, if you think his track record so far has been bad, you understandably don't have so much faith). But your using the word "faith" in this context is not an admission that  you have no good reason to believe that Biden will do well, only that you are not in a position to perceive his actually doing well, since you are talking about future events you can't now perceive. 



Kevin said...

The New Atheist crowd showed their lack of reason when they consistently used faith as synonymous with fideism, or as premiere idiot Peter Boghossian defined it, "pretending to know what you don't know".

That last is very ironic, considering they are pretending to know what they don't know by using that definition.

Starhopper said...

Looks like it's once again time to re-post my definition of faith. If you're a long time follower of Dangerous Idea, then you've seen this before, but I (humbly) believe it's worth a re-read. It's long, so I will divide it into 3 postings. Here goes.

It is not the place for persons who have no ear for music, who neither produce nor enjoy any melody, to imperiously declare to those who do just what it is they are listening to. In like manner, unless you are yourself a lawyer (or at the least, professionally trained in the law), you have no business whatsoever insisting that your personal idiosyncratic understanding of a legal term is the one and only correct definition. Also, I cannot go to my doctor and tell him that what he calls diabetes is really hypothermia, just because I say so.

Yet we all too often see people (such as Loftus or Boghossian), who shamelessly admit their own lack of faith, nevertheless claiming that it is they, and not (in fact, especially not) the faithful, who have the sole right to define what the term means. So we get nonsensical definitions along the lines of “Faith is belief without evidence, or even in the face of evidence.” Others (such as a certain self-styled “skeptic”) will insist that we must all abide by the third-listed definition as taken from one or another dictionary.

So if we are serious about understanding what faith truly means, we ought to turn to those who claim to possess it in order to discover how the term is actually used in the Real World. Let’s start with Saint Paul. In his magnum opus on the subject, the Letter to the Romans, Paul defines faith as “believing with one’s heart” (Romans 10:10). Note that he does not say that faith is the means by which one arrives at his beliefs, but rather how one believes once he has arrived. In the same way, the author of Hebrews lists numerous examples from sacred history of people of faith. But how does he do this? Significantly, like Paul he is not concerned with the manner of their learning something, but rather with their actions after they learn. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called.” “By faith Moses chose to share ill treatment with the people of God.” “By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land.” Etc., etc., etc.

Starhopper said...

Part 2:

Christ Himself on the night before His crucifixion said to Peter, “I have prayed that your faith not fail.” (Luke 22:32) Do you think that He meant Peter was about to stop believing something? Of course not! He was referring to Peter’s actions on the next day - how he would sadly deny knowing Jesus no less than three times. And so Christ continues, “When you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” In other words, He was telling Peter how to act (by faith) upon what he already believed.

When the New Testament authors do speak of arriving at knowledge, they do not even mention faith, but rather speak loudly and clearly in favor of “going by the evidence”:

“We did not follow cleverly devised myths … but we were eyewitnesses.” (2 Peter 1:16)

“That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands … we saw it and testify to it.” (1 John 1:1-2)

(And many other places.)

I might close with three final quotations - the first from George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. Here the author describes what faith is: “Faith is that which, knowing the Lord’s will, goes and does it.” Note that faith is subsequent to knowing, and not the means by which one knows.

The other two are from John Henry Newman’s wonderful Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford between A.D. 1826-1843. In one passage, Newman is describing not what faith is, but what it isn’t: “It is our wisdom to take things as we find them … [and] not to attempt a theory where we must reason without data … much less, to mistake it for a fact.” Hmm… Does not sound at all like ignoring the evidence, does it?

In our last quotation, Newman defines what faith is: “The distinguishing virtue of Abraham, Moses, and David was their faith; by which I mean an implicit reliance in God’s command and promise, and a zeal for His honour; a surrender and devotion of themselves, and all they had, to Him.” Once again, what does this have to do with how one learns or knows anything?

So now, whom should we trust when it comes to defining faith? Those who possess it, and therefore have firsthand knowledge as to what it is and what it isn’t? Or those (like Loftus and company) who admit up front that they haven’t a clue as to what they are talking about?

BOTTOM LINE: Despite attempts by atheists to re-define the term to suit their purposes, faith is most emphatically NOT a means of obtaining knowledge, but rather a manner in acting upon what you do know by other means (which is precisely why it is listed amongst the Virtues). This how the Apostles understood the term, how the New Testament describes it, how the Early Church Fathers preached it, how the great theologians down through the generations defined it, and how believers to this day use it.

Starhopper said...

And Part 3:

Faith. It’s our word and our definition. It belongs to us, and we need to debunk (oh, what a useful word!) any and all attempts to hijack it for whatever purposes.

Now it’s probably inevitable that someone will counter to this with the oft-quoted verse from Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Is that not, they insist, a contradiction of all that I presented above? The clearest answer I can give to this protest is a firm “No, it is all of a piece.”

Let us examine exactly what the author of Hebrews is saying here. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for”, he writes. And what exactly do Christians hope for? The kingdom of Heaven! And what precisely would be the substance of that Kingdom? Nothing less than the lives of the faithful. So by acting (in faith) in accordance with the Gospel (knowledge of which we will have come to by other means), we realize (i.e., make real) the Kingdom - we bring about its substance.

As for the second half of the quotation (“evidence of things not seen”), the meaning is clear. We do not see the Kingdom as a living reality at present. But by acting as citizens of the same, we provide evidence to the world of its existence. This is the exact same principle as in the physical sciences. No one has seen an atom. Yet libraries could be filled with the evidence for the existence of such, i.e., “evidence of things not seen”. In like manner, the lives of the saints, the works of the faithful, the hospitals, charities, universities, works of mercy, the unrecorded witness of innumerable Christians in their daily existence, are all evidence of the Kingdom.

One Brow said...


So if we are serious about understanding what faith truly means, we ought to turn to those who claim to possess it in order to discover how the term is actually used in the Real World.

re you claiming all Christians use faith the same way that you do?

One Brow said...


Most of the New Atheist crowd were/are not particularly deep thinkers, and most of the ideas they attack(ed) were/are not particularly deep opinions. Shallow ideas, shallow responses, shallow people.

Starhopper said...

"Are you claiming all Christians use faith the same way that you do?"

No. But the Apostles, writers of the New Testament, Early Church Fathers, and theologians do so.

One Brow said...


Other people interpret the Apostles and writers of the New Testament differently, and they're not around to say who is correct. Other people rely on different early teachers and theologians.

I'm not taking a side here, just pointing out that the New Atheists didn't invent the notion of faith which they disparaged.

Starhopper said...

They may not have invented it, but they're its champions today.

One Brow said...

I would say the champions of that notion of faith are the Calvinists, Pentecostals, etc. YMMV.

Starhopper said...

"Your Mileage May Vary" ???

One Brow said...

Yes. We all see the world in different ways. Maybe you really think the New Atheists are the champions of what you think is a perverted version of faith. If so, I can't think of anything to say that would change your mind.

Starhopper said...

"Maybe you really think..."

Why should I think otherwise, when they themselves champion this view? Their "perverted" definition of faith undergirds their entire perspective on religion.

(I am speaking here of the "New" Atheists, and not your garden variety of non-believer.)

One Brow said...


I consider a champion to be one who defends an idea, not attacks the idea.

Starhopper said...

They're defending (a.k.a., championing) the idea that faith is believing something with no evidence, or even in spite of the evidence.