To Believe or Not to Believe? It’s Risky Either Way.

There’s a lot about faith and reason out there — whole libraries full. I can’t read everything, much less write it. But it’s fair to say I’ve done quite a bit of both. This post is the first of a series introducing a few things about faith and reason that I’ve been reading and writing about — things that have (mostly) gone unnoticed until now.

First a quick caveat. That faith is reasonable is not to suggest that reason covers everything there is to faith. It doesn’t. But the more common misconception is that faith is blind. That is simply untrue.

William James, wearing one of philosophy’s best beards

William James and Augustine are both great defenders of the rationality of religious faith. Augustine is a Christian somewhat influenced by neoplatonist rationalism. James is more of an empiricist. According to Augustine, the object of faith rests in testimony from Christ, Scripture, and the Church. James, on the other hand, defends the rationality of religious choice without regard to any particular religious tradition.

Not that their insights are impossible to integrate. C. S. Lewis independently discovered one of James’ most interesting insights, and he’s an Augustinian. (You can read more about this in my previous TTC post here.)

Augustine argues that religious faith is trust and that trust is a normal and necessary way of believing — it’s how we get most of our rational beliefs, like who our parents are. (Check out this explanatory cartoon.)

In his most famous talk, “The Will to Believe,” James makes two pragmatic arguments for the rationality of faith. It would take a separate post to summarize James’ arguments, but you can read the full text here, or check out the cartoon here to get an introduction to the arguments.

According to both James and Augustine, faith is rational, faith is practical, faith is not the same thing as knowledge, faith comes before knowledge, and faith can lead to knowledge.

And here’s the best part. They both make this point: There are two risks involved when we decide whether to believe; if we believe, we run the risk of believing false religious claims; if we do not believe, we run the risk of not believing are true religious claims there may be.

Augustine, being pious

I write about this in more detail in an article in Heythrop Journal. Print edition forthcoming. If you have a university internet connection you may be able to access the electronic edition here. And here’s a video abstract on my YouTube channel.

One more thing: Augustine is interested in adding knowledge to faith by means of philosophical contemplation, but James is interested in adding knowledge to faith by means of testing our religious beliefs in experience. But can religion really look to experience for knowledge? Yes: My next post will say more about that!