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Faith and rationality

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Faith and rationality are two modes of belief that exist in varying degrees of conflict or compatibility. Faith is belief in inspiration, revelation, or authority. Rationality is belief based on reason or evidence.

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of views regarding the relationship between faith and rationality. Rationalism holds that truth should be determined by reason and factual analysis, rather than faith, dogma, or religious teaching. Fideism holds that faith is necessary, and that beliefs must be held without evidence or reason, or even in conflict with evidence and reason. Natural theology holds one can rationally infer that God exists, through inductive or deductive reasoning.

The relationship between faith and reason

From at least the days of the Greek Philosophers, the relationship between faith and reason has been hotly debated. Plato argued that knowledge is simply memory of the eternal. Aristotle set down rules by which knowledge could be discovered by reason.

Rationalists point out that many people hold irrational beliefs, for many reasons. There may be evolutionary causes for irrational beliefs — irrational beliefs may increase our ability to survive and reproduce. Or, according to Pascal's Wager, it may be to our advantage to have faith, because faith may promise infinite rewards, while the rewards of reason are necessarily finite.

Believers in faith — for example those who believe salvation is possible through faith alone — point out that everyone holds beliefs arrived at by faith, not reason. The belief that the universe is a sensible place and that our minds allow us to arrive at correct conclusions about it, is a belief we hold through faith.

Beliefs held "by faith" may be seen existing in a number of relationships to rationality:

  • Faith as underlying rationality: In this view, all human knowledge and reason is seen as dependent on faith: faith in our senses, faith in our reason, faith in our memories, and faith in the accounts of events we receive from others. Accordingly, faith is seen as essential to and inseparable from rationality.
  • Faith as addressing issues beyond the scope of rationality: In this view, faith is seen as covering issues that science and rationality are inherently incapable of addressing, but that are nevertheless entirely real. Accordingly, faith is seen as complementing rationality, by providing answers to questions that would otherwise be unanswerable.
  • Faith as contradicting rationality: In this view, faith is seen as those views that one holds despite evidence and reason to the contrary. Accordingly, faith is seen as pernicious with respect to rationality, as it interferes with our ability to think, and rationality is seen as the enemy of faith, since it interferes with our ability to believe.

Views of the Magisterium

Dei Filius was the dogmatic constitution of the First Vatican Council on the Roman Catholic faith. It was adopted unanimously on 24 April 1870 and was influenced by the philosophical conceptions of Johann Baptist Franzelin, who had written a great deal on the topic of faith and rationality.

Fides et Ratio is an encyclical promulgated by Pope John Paul II on 14 September 1998. It deals primarily with the relationship between faith and reason.

Reformed epistemology

Faith as underlying rationality

The view that faith underlies all rationality holds that rationality is dependent on faith for its coherence. Under this view, there is no way to comprehensively prove that we are actually seeing what we appear to be seeing, that what we remember actually happened, or that the laws of logic and mathematics are actually real. Instead, all beliefs depend for their coherence on faith in our senses, memory, and reason, because the foundations of rationalism cannot be proven by evidence or reason.


Martin Luther taught that faith and reason were antithetical, in the sense that questions of faith could not be illuminated by reason. He wrote, "All the articles of our Christian faith, which God has revealed to us in His Word, are in presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd, and false."[1] and "[That] Reason in no way contributes to faith. [...] For reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things."[2] However, though seemingly contradictorily, he also wrote in the latter work that human reason "strives not against faith, when enlightened, but rather furthers and advances it"[3], bringing claims he was a fideist into dispute.

The rationalist point of view

In this view, there are many beliefs that are held by faith alone, that rational thought would force the mind to reject. As an example, many people believe in the Biblical story of Noah's flood: that the entire Earth was covered by water for forty days. But most plants cannot survive being covered by water for that length of time, so one must choose between accepting the story on faith and rejecting reason, or rejecting the story by reason and thus rejecting faith (in the instance).

In Jewish philosophy

The 14th Century Jewish philosopher Levi ben Gerson tried to reconcile faith and reason. He wrote, "The Torah cannot prevent us from considering to be true that which our reason urges us to believe."[4] His contemporary Hasdai ben Abraham Crescas argued the contrary view, that reason is weak and faith strong, and that only through faith can we discover the fundamental truth that God is love, that through faith alone can we endure the suffering that is the common lot of God's chosen people.

See also


  1. Martin Luther, Werke, VIII
  2. Martin Luther, Table Talk.
  3. Martin Luther, "On Justification CCXCIV", Table Talk
  4. Jewish Encyclopedia, volume VIII, page 29

External links

Apologetics and philosophical justifications of faith as rational

Neutral critiques and analysis

Criticisms of the belief that faith is rational

Historical overview of the relationship between faith and reason

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