Sweetman on Faith and Reason  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Brendan Sweetman teaches philosophy at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. He has recently published Religion: key concepts in philosophy (London and New York, Continuum, 2007). This is a very basic and useful introduction to the philosophy of religion, especially if, like me, you are somewhat philosophically challenged. The following excerpt deals with the notion of religion and secularism as worldviews. This is relevant to those of us in the mainline churches who are confronted with liberal Protestant theology, particularly the variety exemplified by the Jesus Seminar or Bishop Spong, which tends to uncritically accept the truth-claims of post-Enlightenment secularism and reinterprets the tradition to accommodate secularism. The following quote is found on pages 10-11.

It is very common in the United States, but less so in other countries, to use the term 'faith' to describe religious belief. But this term can be quite misleading. The word 'faith' has unfortunate connotations, especially today, and can be used to set up a somewhat artificial distinction between faith on the one hand and reason on the other. The term frequently carries with it the connotation that religious beliefs are outside reason, or that religious believers are not interested in the rationality of their views, or worst of all, that religious beliefs are not even reasonable. This is often how secularists use the term, but it is also sometimes used this way by religious believers themselves.

The most important sense of the term from the point of view of philosophy of religion is the cognitive or propositional sense which refers to holding a belief for which the evidence is less than 100 per cent certain or decisive. Religious beliefs involve propositions about God, about God's relationship to the world and human beings, and about morality, among many other propositions. The religious believer cannot prove these propositions to be true in the sense of giving a scientific proof, or presenting decisive evidence for them. But he can at least try to show that they are rational to believe. This is the most appropriate use of the term 'faith' in philosophy of religion and marks the best understanding of the relationship between faith and reason. A religious believer holds many things on faith, but he hopes that it is a rational faith (not an irrational faith), and the work of philosophy of religion is, among other things, an attempt to investigate the rationality of religious belief.

On this understanding of the term 'faith', it is the case that all worldviews--religious or secularist--involve faith in this cognitive sense. That is to say, all worldviews hold beliefs about the nature of reality, the nature of the human person and the nature of morality, to which the adherents of the worldview pledge their commitment, but which they cannot prove decisively. Although it may be possible to back up some of these beliefs with rational arguments and evidence, it is still necessary to commit to them, since any arguments we have will fall short of proof, because of the subject matter involved. The subject matter of worldviews, which involves the three subjects mentioned, does not admit of scientific proof. This is true for all worldviews, secularist ones as well as religious ones. So if one accepts various beliefs about the nature of reality, or the human person, or morality, this acceptance will involve a commitment to these beliefs: a movement of the will as well as of the intellect. So, in fact, a religious believer and a secularist are in the same boat in this respect, a point frequently overlooked. We are often inclined simply to accept it as true without giving much thought to the matter that it is only religious belief that involves faith, but not secularism. But now that secularism is a positive worldview in itself, and a major cultural player to boot, it is no longer appropriate to overlook the fact that it is a worldview with many controversial beliefs that are the subject of contentious debate, and that its adherents accept many of these beliefs at least partially on faith.

This entry was posted on Friday, January 4, 2008 at Friday, January 04, 2008 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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