Faith and Rationality
March 18, 2011 — 13:30

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Religious Belief  Tags: ,   Comments: 5

In my previous post on Sobel’s treatment of Pascalian wagers, I indicated that, although I accept a strong thesis about the autonomy of theoretical reason, I believe that religious faith has more to do with practical than with theoretical reason. Now, faith can have as its object either a person or a proposition. (There are also other uses, like having faith in a theory, but I take these two to be the central ones.) Call the former faith-in (as in, ‘I have faith in you’) and the latter faith-that (as in, ‘I have faith that everything will turn out alright’). I take it that religious faith involves both of these. (I have faith-in Jesus and faith-that he rose from the dead.) I believe that the central concept in both cases is that of an attitude of practical reliance. Or, to put it in a plain English slogan, faith means not hedging your bets. If you tell me that you have complete faith in me, but keep looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not screwing things up, I won’t believe you. Similarly, if you purport to have faith that everything will turn out alright, but spend a lot of time and energy fretting about it (whatever ‘it’ might be), I won’t believe you. These actions are not constitutive of a lack of faith; they are evidence of a lack of faith. The faith itself is a certain practical attitude which is exhibited by relying on the person, or on the truth of the proposition. I’ll be focused here mostly on faith-that, because I think faith-in might be reducible to faith-that the person one has faith-in is reliable, or some such.
The interesting cases of faith are those in which the degree of practical reliance on the person or proposition is much greater than one’s theoretical credence in the person’s reliability or the proposition’s truth. This, I think, is what gives rise to the misconception that faith is belief on insufficient evidence, or belief contrary to the evidence. However, it can be perfectly rational for one’s practical reliance to outstrip one’s theoretical credences in this way. This happens, for instance, when I put my very life into the hands of a physician I know very little about. If I am in immediate danger of dying, I may even entrust myself to a physician whose competence or good-will I have positive reason to doubt, if another is unavailable. What is important here, is that I don’t give practical consideration to the possibility that the physician will fail (or worse), despite the fact that I know (theoretically) that this is a very real possibility. Why? Well, if I don’t trust the physician and follow his directions, I’ll die for sure. It would be practically irrational to start second-guessing him.

I believe that, in the very same way Christian faith can be rational even for someone whose theoretical credence in the propositions of Christian theology is much less than 1. Specifically, according to Christianity, I have a very serious problem: sin. Christianity purports to offer a solution to this problem, a solution that will work only if I exercise faith, that is, if I practically rely on this solution without hedging my bets. Now, suppose I positively believe: (1) that I have this problem and, (2) that Christianity is more credible than any other purported solution of which I am aware. I submit that, in this case, Christian faith is rational for me, even if my credence in the truth of Christianity is not as great as my credence in the disjunction of all the alternative purported solutions, and even if I do not take Christianity to be very credible at all on an absolute scale. As long as it’s my best shot, I’m rational to take it, and I would be irrational to try to hedge my bets. This, however, is all a matter of practical reason, and ought not to interfere with my continued theoretical inquiry.
My conclusion, then, is that faith is a matter primarily of practical reason. Whether faith is rational for a particular individual depends on her theoretical credences, but rational faith does not require having anything like credence 1 in the propositions in which one has faith.
(cross-posted at

  • Aaron Bartolome

    It might be better to examine the notion of faith relative to a particular religion. For example, Muslim teachings about faith will be different from Christian teachings on faith. And you can be even more precise: what the New Testament says about faith (or what Paul says in these letters, etc).
    If having faith-that is simply a matter of having certain beliefs, then Christian faith-in God/Christ cannot be reduced to faith-that certain things are true. Christian faith, it seems to me, has components like an interpersonal trust relationship with God, and an attitude of obedience to God [imperfect in this lifetime of course], in response to God’s intervention in our lives; and these things cannot be reduced to mere beliefs.
    What we mean by ‘sin’ is also important. Some define sin as breaking God’s law or distorting one’s personal relationship with God (whether or not one believes that God even exists). According to these definitions, if the Christian God does not exist, then neither does Christian faith nor sin. And in that case, it isn’t clear if sin is a problem. So maybe a more neutral way of stating the problem is this: deep-seated human selfishness and its destructive results, bad earthly lives that are not worth living.
    And we need to find a solution to our problem. But we shouldn’t settle for mere prudential rationality (i.e. betting on the least implausible solution, even if there is little supporting evidence), we should aim for epistemic rationality (i.e. believing what we have sufficient evidence for).

    March 20, 2011 — 2:04
  • Kenny Pearce

    Hi Aaron,
    I’m not sure about whether there is more to faith-in than what can be captured in faith-that. It seems to me that having faith-that God is trustworthy and that his commands are good would at least entail the sorts of attitudes you mention.
    By ‘sin’ I mean moral imperfection. I’m a Kantian about ethics, so I think that moral imperfection is a very serious and widespread problem independent of any particular theological view.
    Finally, part of my point here was to say that it is consistent with exercising faith to continue one’s theoretical inquiry. It is possible that this could lead to switching to a different purported solution, depending on whether one has reason to believe that that will work. (Depending on the nature of the treatment one is undergoing, it may or may not make sense to switch doctors halfway through if you find one you have better reason to trust.) In any case, we should certainly persist in searching for evidence and regulating our theoretical credences according to it.

    March 22, 2011 — 11:36
  • Kenny: if you haven’t yet seen it, you should look at Lara Buchak’s paper “Is it Rational to have Faith?”, forthcoming in an OUP volume on Probability in Philosophy of Religion. It overlaps with a lot of the issues you mention here.
    She has it online:

    March 24, 2011 — 14:41
  • Dan Speak

    I was going to make the same suggestion as Matt about Lara Buchak’s paper (which I had found online). Great minds, as they say…

    March 25, 2011 — 10:11
  • One worry about credence significantly less than one in Christian teaching is that hedging could be morally required in cases where one’s credence in a body of principles is significantly less than one.
    Suppose you are in a repressive society and know that by publicly preaching Christ you endanger your friends to some degree. Now whether it is morally permissible to endanger your friends in the name of publicly preaching a doctrine D is a function of (a) your credence in D, (b) the importance of preaching D and (c) the degree of amount of danger to your friends from your preaching of D. Thus, the morally right decision how to live your life–whether to publicly preach Christ or not–can well depend on your credence in the central Christian doctrines. There are going to be dangers to your friends such that it is wrong for you to put them into those dangers if your credence is low but right if your credence is high.
    And for those of us who are not in such societies, nonetheless it is true that commitment has a dispositional component. And which disposition one will have–to preach publicly in circumstances C or not–should surely depend on one’s credence.

    March 25, 2011 — 14:14