Q: I’ve cornered my good friend through reductionist logic before and he’s often ended the discussion with “Well to an extent it is a matter of faith…but I know these things to be true, yada yada.” I would like you to expand on the idea of ‘faith’ being an unreliable rubric for truth. To me it is apparent why faith can be misleading if not wholly incorrect, but why can it not be used to justify an entire theology that seemingly makes sense?

My Response: The simplest way of putting it is that I take the believer at his word, i.e. that faith is a means of ascertaining knowledge.

The mistake of many is to look at faith as some kind of childish attempt at giving a glib justification for believing anything one wants. While certainly this may be the case for some religious believers of various dogmatic persuasions, it is not the issue for the more learned of religious intellectuals, notably Augustine and Aquinas or more recently Gordon Clark and Carl Henry. For these men, faith is an epistemic tool, a necessary one due to the innate problems that empirical knowledge supposedly has, based on the critical observation that numerous times in history the scientific method has led to wrong conclusions.

The immediate issue to be acknowledged by both the believer and unbeliever concerns the usage of faith. As mentioned already, faith is a tool for acquiring knowledge. When the agnostic asks the believer how they know the resurrection of Christ is true, the response is some variation of “the Bible says so” and/or “faith compels me.” Notice here in the last phrase the issue of compulsion. When I was a believer I often used this notion and have heard many others use it; this idea of faith being some kind of internal force, pushing and prodding one to believe in some predetermined thing. Curiously, the very same phraseology is used when referencing reason or logic, as when someone says, “I was forced to see his logic” or “the force of his reason was strong” or “his argument held weight.” Thus, even in our linguistic metaphor, we accept tacitly that faith and reason are synonymous at least in as far as they are a compelling inner force, pulling us along to claimed conclusions.

saintaugustine121380It is imperative that the believer accept this. The sophomoric usage that faith is often put to, as when one nonchalantly answers “faith” whenever an objection is brought up that can’t be answered any other way, needs to be seen as masking an underlying dynamic, that being the force of faith. Now, I am not at this point making a case for the efficacy of faith as a legitimate epistemic tool, but merely pointing out the power of it. Believers and unbelievers alike do themselves a disservice when they mistake the usage of faith as being simply an easy answer to tough questions. The fact is, faith isn’t easy, though not in the sense that believers declare it so, in fits of self-proclaimed martyrdom. Faith, like reason, via the perceived force that it embodies, compels people to various cognitive conclusions that are, depending on the situation, of various difficulty in accepting. Again, I am not equating the two, merely pointing out that the seeming conclusions of the two forces can be jarring to the person led to them, whether it is the resurrection of the Christ as prescribed by one faith, or special relativity as prescribed by reason.

Faith, then, is a force compelling one to certain ideological conclusions, dependent on the religion one typically grows up in. The next question is: how? It is all well and good that the nominal notion of a force has been accepted, but as with all forces, the acknowledgement of their existence is only half the issue, the other being the means by which it works. Ironically, this question is empirical in nature.

So, how does faith work? What is its modus operandi? Logic and reason, through thousands of years of philosophy and recently cognitive science, have been documented quite thoroughly as to their inner workings. In fact, anybody can go to college and take a course in logic. One can also read books and take classes in cognitive science, figuring out the inner workings of the brain and the means by which thought and analysis are done. While there are many years left, to put it lightly, before a complete understanding of human thought is understood, only the hugely obtuse individual would declare we don’t know anything or have not made great leaps in our understanding.

Where, then, are the texts and classes on the inner workings of faith? This question, in its simplicity, does not do justice to the issue at hand. In the world at large, there are billions of people going about their lives, claiming to make decisions, often of a life-altering kind, based on a system of epistemology called “faith.” Entire governments are at the mercy of this self-described inner force. Lives are continuously lost and ruined because of an inner compulsion. Bombs are set off, planes flown into buildings, court decisions and civil rights violated because of the claimed dictates of this force. Yet, not a single book, article, or letter has been written detailing the process by which faith works. What other force that affects this many people is either not understood or attempted to be understood? The answer is simple, none.

Where does this leave the believer then? It would seem that the lynchpin of religious dogmatic adherence is incapable of being elucidated as to exactly how it compels people to particular conclusions. Thus, the believer seems to be stuck in a secondary epistemic position, that of believing in the power of faith to compel belief in something. Looked at this way, what should really be under discussion is why someone believes that “faith,” a force without definition, would lead necessarily to any conclusion.

As I mentioned earlier, the question as to the inner workings of faith as an epistemic tool is an empirical one. Since faith is used as an answer to questions that have no empirical basis, like the resurrection, how exactly sin functions, the tripartite existence of “god”, and the virgin birth (to name a few) then it cannot rely for its own justification upon a system of thought that is incapable of supplying the conclusions sought after. Now, I can already hear the religious apologists of the empirical camp raising their objections. Who has not heard the poetically put point of “reason brings you to the water and faith makes you jump in?” Kierkegaard referred to it as a “leap” of faith, into the unknown. These “answers” skip a point however, that being the why and hence the how of faith’s compulsion to jump in the water or take that leap. I consider this a rather important question. If someone were to jump off a bridge and survive, the first question asked of that person once he or she is fetched from the water is why, and once an answer given, the how of its power to incite the act is next on the list. These questions are basic to how we deal with the actions of people and have been so since Freud first shocked us into the knowledge that the inner workings of the mind are the real force behind our actions. No answer to the why of an action is ever taken completely at face value, as is shown anytime we become puzzled over an answer that doesn’t seem to fit. It doesn’t fit because we find it difficult to understand the how, or power, of the why to incite such an act.

Yet, when it comes to religious acts, the why is never followed up with the how. Faith is blindly accepted as an answer to the why of an act and yet never pursued further as to the how of its power. As noted above, this lack of the second question should be astoundingly puzzling. We constantly grasp at the reasons why people do the things they do, often asking in various states of incredulity or hysteria “why did you do that?” When the answer is given, while we may not understand it personally, there is a weight lifted by the knowledge, this being because we now know the compelling force, the reason. Who has not heard or said the phrase after hearing a reason given, “I can see how that would force you to do it” or some variation?

If faith is not capable of answering the why/how questions of human action, there must be another route. Now, one way out is to posit the notion that faith actions occur in a vacuum without any causal predecessor. However, since the actions of faith are said to be, by any religion, moral in nature and morality is claimed to be by these same people, moral only if there is will (self-causation) behind it, saying that faith acts occur without causal connection would destroy the moral mandate of absolutism.

quote-Martin-Luther-faith-must-trample-under-foot-all-reason-5837The conclusion reached is that faith is not an answer in the traditional sense of a cause, but rather faith exists as a cognitive box holding together various ideas that are believed for other reasons. In other words, faith is an answer to “why,” but the “how” is to be found in psychology, sociology, memetics and cognitive science. Faith is not a belief itself, but the object of belief, a concept used to hide the real reasons behind belief in something. By positing a nebulous, undefined, concept as the power behind belief, it inculcates the believer from having to deal properly with the so-called conclusions that “faith” has brought him or her to.

I am not denying the power that faith has. I am allowing the power of its force to be more fully understood by thinking of it in the way that I have so far described. Here is the answer to why “faith” is given as an answer to the “why” of belief and yet those beliefs number in the thousands, with individual permutations numbering in the still more thousands. That’s because the “how” is different for everyone. Faith is a force with no motor device, it is waves without water. The power of faith is then to be found in the ability of it to mask the “how” of human action, to end discussion before it goes further.

This, then, is why faith cannot be used to justify an entire theology or anything else; it has no means of explicating the how of its compulsion and therefore no means of delineating between legitimate true faith concepts and the false.

Is it any great surprise that people who grow up around a specific religion tend to identify with it? Or when the story of conversion happens, it is most often told in the light of some great emotional experience surrounded by mystery? The confusion created by a lack of truly knowing the how of conversion is covered up and hidden by yet another uncertainty, allowing the believer to continue on without getting in touch with a very real human, not divine, experience.

Faith, as used by the religionist, cannot make true/false delineations between competing conclusions. Nor can it be defined in any way that allows us to understand the how of its compulsion. Therefore, it cannot be a valid source of epistemology, no matter how many times the word is used.

© David Teachout


  1. My response could possibly be my own separate post.I have been interested in the same question regarding faith as a valid epistemic foundation and I answer “Yes” faith is a valid epistemic foundation or tool. I sometimes think of it as the glue that holds everything else together or the mortar between the bricks (empiricism, reason, rationalism, authority, etc.)It is worth noting that I consider myself an agnostic, a practical atheist, a critical realist or as Susan Haack says, I use critical common-sense. I believe my reference point is reality.Some of my conclusions are that every breathing human being has an epistemology; every breathing human being uses faith (trust); every breathing human being is a pragmatist of some kind; and that atheists, agnostics and naturalists are not exempt from this faith (trust) enterprise.Nicholas Wolterstoroff points out in <>Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God<> that the main New testament usage of faith is trust. While it seems that the NT may have about 5 usages for faith, it is this trust definition that I think of when I think of what I will call epistemic faith. Based on past discussions, atheist and naturalists tend to bristle at the word faith much like creations/IDers bristle at the word evolution. Therefore, if we want to use the term epistemic trust, I can do that. So I ask myself what is happening in the mind of the thinker/believer when they want to believe any idea? In <>reality<>, what is happening? Do people really understand their own epistemology? So let’s say Joe atheist wants to understand evolution for himself. He listens to a few podcasts like <>Evolution 101<> and gets a few tips on what to read. So he then reads <> The Selfish Gene<> by Richard Dawkins; then <>The Ancestor’s Tale<> by Dawkins; then <> Darwin’s Dangerous Idea<> by Daniel Dennett and then <> The Making of the Fittest<> by Sean Carroll, among others. Joe atheist is not a bioligist and has never seen the inside of a science lab. Joe Atheist has read some philosophy and has an understanding of epistemology.So Joe atheist reads these books and finds them compelling. Joe Atheist is also aware that many of the ideas promoted in these books are accepted by peer-reviewed scientists. Joe Atheist also came across ideas among peer-reviwed scientists indicating that they don’t all agree on the precise mechanism of evolution, but accept evolution as the only working hypothesis that provides the best framework on which to base their work. Given the situation and the lack of any better and real alternatives, Joe atheist decides to accept his new understanding of evolution as true. By accepting this, Joe Atheist acknowledges that he has not seen the process of evolution at work, but has read about what he believes to be are it’s results. Joe Atheist acknowledges that he has not confirmed any of his new understanding of evolution in a labratory. Joe Atheist acknowledges that his new understanding of evolution is based mostly on the authority of what he has read by popular science writers whose further authority is based on the analysis of peer-reviewed research. Joe does wonder when the last time Richard Dawkins was in a labratory, but he is willing to trust Dawkins assessment based on his past work, trust in the the authority of peer-reviwed scientists, and trust in his own rational faculties and his memory of what he read.Therefore, acknowledging that he has to get to sleep for work the next day and get on with his pracitcal working life, Joe acknowledges his paragmatic side and decides he will rest with his new understanding of evolution until a better solution presents itself. He will continue to read up on the topic to better understand it, but for now will trust that he is on the right track. Joe atheist has also noticed in reading other books how much Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, among others, talk about their trust in (hope in) the future of science to answer all of life’s unanswerable questions. This happens to be another kind of NT faith. Not that the NT wrote the book on faith. I expect some will bristle at this description, but “trust in” and “hope in” science is the same kind of “trust” and “hope” that christians use. Please don’t confuse this description with <>what<> these christians are putting their faith in. God as black box in my view is not the same as faith (trust). That God and his workings helps some explain the unexplainable is not faith (trust). I am not advocating faith (trust) as a black box. I could say alot more.Book that discuss the role of faith in epistemology to name a few:<>Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God<> by Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, ed<>Faith and Belief: The difference Between Them<> by Wilfred Cantwell Smith<>The Relationship Between Epistemology, Hermeneutics, Biblical Theology and Contextualization: Knowing Truth<> by Douglas Kennard We discussed faith as a valid epistemic foundation during my Philosophy of Religion class at MBI.


  2. I’m not sure how much more you could have missed the point I made, but I guess it is possible in theory.Your usage of the term “faith” to mean “trust” is a common mistake made by those who have studied very little of christian philosophy or who have read only modern liberal versions of religious ideology. Fact is, that is not how traditional absolutist religious thinkers use the term. Indeed, they can’t use the term “faith” to simply mean trust, else for one, they’d simply use the term trust and be done with the confusion and two, trust implies the human ability to grasp the ungraspable, i.e. the divine. Trust for the secularist comes from the human ability to grasp or make a decision.For the religionist, trust comes AFTER faith, at least according to dogma. With Paul, christians say “I believe so that I may know.” That knowledge is trust in what “the bible” and “god” says. To get to that place of trust, they must have faith as a means of substantiating the claimed conclusion of trust. When a secularist uses the term “faith” they mean it quite different than the religionist. You use Joe Atheist, a thinker and rationalist who studies works that have been peer-reviewed and are capable of public discourse in light of the uncertainty that pertains to all human knowledge. To equate this with the religious absolutist is horrendously ridiculous. Absolutist theology is incapable of being wrong by definition. There is no possibility of error in dogmatic teaching. Error has within it the possibility of change and change is not something the traditional god possesses or is capable of. Hence, all communication from him is free of error and thus the salvific message is free from error, at least according to orthodoxy.Of course every human being has a method of knowledge or epistemology and of course trust has something to do with it, but the path to that trust is extremely, diametrically different depending on your ideological stance. The rationalist/atheist can continue to study, ask questions, debate and test. The theist uses faith as the path to trust, as the final arbiter of any and all discussion, because faith, by definition, is a divine leap into the knowledge of the divine, that which cannot be known or understood by man.That you’re quoting your studies from Moody Bible Institute as a means of understanding what’s going on is quite revealing. Try reading George H. Smith’s “The Case Against God” for a a full length review of the religious use of faith in epistemology.


  3. I re-read George Smith and came to the same conclusion I did the first time I read him. I don’t completely agree with his definitions of implicit and explicit atheism; and I don’t agree with his dichotomy between faith and reason. Smith defines faith as a reliable means of aquiring knowledge (102); and faith is making knowledge claims about beliefs that have not been rationally demonstrated (104)… equating them with justified true belief (JTB). On page 16, Smith says Theism must be learned and accepted. So similar in how Smith tries to argue for implicit atheism, if theism isn’t learned it cannot be believed. No one wakes up in a vaccuum and just believes God exists. Kids attend Sunday school and are enculturated and indoctrinated into belief. They see the religion demonstrated and they are given tons of authorities. While there are some wild beliefs out there, mainstream religious beliefs are not a free-for-all. There are limits to what people believe based on the bible and authority, etc. Smith might have us believe theists would believe any idea that came to mind on faith. Minus the quacks and some of the holy ghost folks, this doesn’t seem correct. My point is that there is a lot more going on by way of epistemic foundtions in someone’s religion than just faith. I would argue authority is a bigger epistemic foundaiton and influence. At some point, a person makes a decision to believe as true what they have been taught. When that point comes, they trust what they have been taught about god…they may even think it resonates with their soul and they might count it as a basic belief. Many Atheist do the same thing.Smith’s concept of faith as a means to knowledge doesn’t even seem realistic. I can appreciate his JTB point, but theists aren’t the only violaters of unjustified, unwarranted, untrue beliefs. I’ve run into many atheists in the last year who couldn’t JTB themselves out of anything…I’ve heard a few basic belief atheists. They can’t tell you why they are atheists…it’s just true for them.


  4. Since I’m discussing religious philosophy proper, the argument that many atheists are incapable of saying why they don’t believe makes it therefore a faith issue for them, completely misses the point. I understand the need to make faith seem more generalized than religious ideology requires it to be, because then you can go about your day with a lot less concern over the fact that people are believing a great many harmful and hateful things based on the epistemic foundation of faith. Frankly, your argument against Smith’s usage of faith, saying that believers don’t believe just anything, is a very nice attempt at picking and choosing absurdities. If a person believes via faith that “the bible” is true, then they must be capable of believing that by blindness can be cured by spreading mud on people’s eyes, that a person can burn for eternity without a physical body, that the dead can rise and fly into the sky to be caught up by ephemeral spirit beings, that snakes talk and that by eating a piece of fruit it therefore changes the core of humanity. These are patently ridiculous and none of them are outside mainstream theology.Since there seems to be so much needless confusion about the issue of faith and trust, I’ll be doing the next blog on this very issue, showing that the two terms are not synonymous for the believer in any way, shape or form and to equate the two actually undermines the rest of human knowledge.


  5. All of the “ridiculous” christian beliefs you mentioned did not get into the christian’s mind by faith. They got into the christians mind through education and enculturation. Faith allows a christin to trust/believe those authorities (bible, teachers, tradition) as true. So you didn’t provide any substantial disagreement with what I said.I look forward to your blog detailing the mechanics of faith. Smith didn’t detail how faith works so I’m hoping you can. So based on what I’m reading in Smith, faith is like an idea generator. But even better…a knowledge generator. So it seems christians don’t even need to reason through anything. They don’t need to attempt to justify their beliefs or find warrant for them; they also don’t need to make sure their beliefs correspond to reality; or worry about whether or not they have certainty in their beleifs. They just hit the faith button and they have knowledge that meets all of the 4 conditions: JTB + certainty. That’s strange. When I was a christian I didn’t have one of these faith buttons. Maybe the christians were holding out on me. I remember rationalizing and reasoning all the time. Maybe that is why I am not a christina now…I have issues with Smith. I notice on page 103 he says certainty is not required for reason. That’s good since we don’t have certainty in most of our JTB’s. I feel that Smith doesn’t go far enough into epistemology or the theory of knowledge. He doesn’t even attempt to address the problems with certainy like < HREF="http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/courses/epist/notes/gettier.html" REL="nofollow">Gettier Problems<>; but becomes a good pragmatists and settles on a belief until more “certain” evidence arrives. However, on page 95 he says that clarity and confusion cannot co-exist. So how can one have a JTB without certainty and not have a lack of clarity? In my opinion, this is what makes Smith’s downfall. His either/or; dichotimistic logic (read non-critical…i.e. naive) is not real-world….realistic.It is possible that I am more of a skeptic when it comes to knowledge.


  6. So I went back and re-read your post to ensure I get your point.You define faith according to religionists as:1. “a means of ascertaining knowledge”2. “a tool for acquiring knowledge”3. Faith and reason are synonyms in terms of function4. “a force compelling one to certain ideological conclusions”5. “a system of epistemology”6. Faith is used an the answer to questions that have no empirical basis.Then you question the power of how faith works. Your analysis is that faith holds together various ideas that help answer the why questions, but faith is in reality a mask for the religious to help them cope with life.You define faith as 1. Faith is…not a belief itself, but the object of belief, a concept that is used to hide the real reasons behind belief in something. So based on this, you seem to be saying religious people do not take ownership for their own lives and the consequences that their life choices bring them. Instead of dealing in real human life, they pray to god and hide their reality in the faith/hope that somehow god will clean their lives up for them? People should drop the reality-masking experience called faith and get in touch with their own personal human experience. And at the end of the day faith is not a tool for discovering knowledge (JTB+C) because it cannot answer the question: “How does faith work?” And since it can’t answer this question, it can’t help explain true/false claims…since we don’t understand how it works?Are you saying something like this?


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