In 1877, William Kingdon Clifford propositioned in his book “Ethics and Belief” that belief in something without sufficient evidence is irrational. Whilst he accepted that in many beliefs there is often an epistemic gap between the evidence and the conclusion (inductive reasoning) he did also claim that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Furthermore he claimed that that tolerating credulity (a tendency to believe readily) and superstition will damage ultimately society. He concurred with David Hume (1711-76) when he said “All wise men proportion their belief to the evidence.” This stance – that belief without sufficient evidence is irrational – is called evidentialism, and is adopted by many atheists (including Clifford and Hume) in their view of theology.
However, natural theology instead attempts to meet evidentialism on its own terms by trying to show that belief in God is actually rational. It draws collectively upon all of the a posteriori arguments for God’s existence including the teleological, cosmological, moral and experiential arguments. However, it is rare that an atheist will be convinced by the evidence of these arguments anywhere beyond the point of agnosticism. It is generally accepted that belief in God requires some element of seemingly irrational faith.
Indeed, the stance of fideism states that reason plays no part in belief. “Whoever attempts to demonstrate the existence of God…is an excellent subject for a comedy of higher lunacy.” – Soren Kierkegaard. Moderate fideists suggest that reason can actually be destructive to one’s faith. They claim that reason leads to arrogance by encouraging the idea that human reason alone will suffice and that God unnecessary for moral or spiritual direction. Whilst moderate theists view reason as a barrier to true faith however, (thus disregarding natural theology as irrelevant) extreme theists go so far as to agree with Tertullian when he said (AD 155-222) “Credo quia absurdum est.” or “I believe because it is absurd.”
Aquinas (1225-74) claimed that there were two ways in which to know God. The first is through natural theology, including his five a posteriori proofs constructed by human reason. The second is through “revealed theology” which cannot be found by human reason alone, but must involve divine intervention or revelation. The acceptance of these revealed truths requires faith, and this is fundamental to the Christian religion. For example, only faith can reveal the truth behind the statement “God is the father, the son and the Holy Ghost” or that “the bread of communion is the body of Christ”.
Thus revelation provides us with a body of truths, which must be taken on faith alone. Aquinas claims that faith is a combination of reason and opinion. It involves reason since it is propositional i.e. claims certain beliefs to be true and therefore similar to scientific knowledge. On the other hand these truths cannot be proved, and so involve an epistemic gap. It is this epistemic gap that makes faith a matter of opinion and so allows humanity free will over their belief. The stance that it is our choice whether or not to take a leap of faith was also held by Soren Kierkegaard (1812-1855).
Alvin Plantinga (1932-) proposed that the classical foundationalism upon which evidentialism is based is flawed. Foundationalist beliefs are described by Plantinga as “the starting points for thought” and he summarises their definition as: “I am entitled to believe X without any evidence if and only if it is self-evident, incorrigible or certain to me in some way”. He argues that this is flawed, since this statement is itself neither self-evident, incorrigible nor is it certain in some way. It appears therefore that foundationalism defines itself as irrational. He also states that there are many beliefs that can be held rationally, but that do not fall under the foundationalist criteria or that can be justified contingently. For example, the trust we have in our memory, or the belief that other people have minds of their own.
Plantinga argues that we must ultimately reject classical foundationalism on the grounds that it is incoherent, and also because it rejects many beliefs that common sense tells us to be properly basic. He propositions that his reformed epistemology should take the place of classical foundationalism, and because of this: “It is entirely right, rational, reasonable and proper to believe in God without any evidence at all.” A theist might claim that it just appears obvious to them that God exists, and for Plantinga this is good enough. However, surely this would mean that anything we like can be a properly basic belief? Could a child’s belief in Santa Clause not be defined as properly basic? Plantinga would respond by saying that it is the beliefs directly connected to God’s existence that are properly basic, rather than the belief in God’s existence itself. For example, the guilt felt after committing a bad deed or the sense that something must have created and designed the universe.
Blaisï¿½ Pascal (1623-1662) deemed that it was reasonable to have faith in God by a sheer act of will, so certain was he that he put forward a wager: “Let us weigh the gain and loss in wagering that God is (exists)…If you gain, you gain all, if you lose, you lose nothing.” By this, he meant that the theist stands the chance of gaining entrance to heaven at the risk of nothing, whilst the atheist however risks damnation to hell. However, surely this basis of self-gain is at odds with the teachings of the Christian church? W.K.Clifford suggested that God would deny heaven to those who followed Pascal’s wager on the basis that faith should be founded upon trust and morality, not self gain. Pascal might have responded that true belief would arise from the habit of religion i.e. baptism, mass, prayer etc. However, this is contradicted somewhat by his opinion that one’s relationship with God should be somewhat deeper. “It is the heart which perceives God and not reason.” Furthermore, Pascal’s definition of faith appears to ignore the recognition of God’s immanence and His affect on our everyday lives.
William James (1842-1910) found Pascal’s proposition that we can change our beliefs by an act of will entirely ridiculous. He claimed solidly that our beliefs are contingent i.e. each new belief is connected to the previous one. He does agree however that it is rational to sustain a belief even without sufficient evidence given certain circumstances. The first circumstance is where the evidence is indeterminate between two beliefs i.e. favours neither option. The second circumstance is if we are faced with a genuine option i.e. one that is living, forced and momentous. By living James means one that is a reality, as opposed to a dead option, that whilst theoretically possible, isn’t actually going to happen e.g. a devout Catholic supporting the gay pride movement.
A forced option is one that cannot be avoided, e.g. choosing whether to go to school or to have a lie in when your alarm goes off at 7:30. A momentous option is one that is unique and irreversible e.g. joining the army – as opposed to a trivial option which is reversible and one that happens regularly throughout life. James states that it is therefore sometimes rational to believe in God without sufficient evidence if the choice is a genuine option. He disputes Pascal’s wager as necessarily being a genuine option as it is not necessarily forced (one could deny the possibility of going to hell) nor is it necessarily living (one might be a devout follower of a different religion). However, he does accept that for a person who perceives the evidence as indeterminate and is already open to belief in God, Pascal’s wager might succeed in tipping the scales and getting them to make that leap of faith.
James does believe however that faith can in some instances be a genuine option, and a decision that involves seizing the opportunity and taking a risk. He states that when faced with a genuine option and without sufficient evidence, making a decision will then reveal the evidence to us. For example, one cannot be sure of a stranger’s kindness until they have decided to trust the stranger and give them a chance. Similarly, by making a leap of faith in God, the definitive truth will be later revealed by eschatological verification. However, natural theologians such as Aquinas would certainly dispute James’ claim that the evidence is indeterminate, for the cosmological, teleological, moral and experiential arguments – whilst inconclusive – can be extremely persuasive. Furthermore, like Pascal, he seems to ignore faith as an acceptation of God’s immanence and active presence in our lives.
The version of faith held by Aquinas, Plantinga, Pascal and James is propositional in that they all claim that faith about believes in God’s objective existence. However, faith can also be seen existentially as an attitude incorporating God subjectively into the believer’s life. For instance, when I say “I believe that murder is wrong” or “I believe in free speech” I am not stating anything about existence, but rather about my commitment towards certain values. H.H.Price (1899-1985) claimed that the statement “I believe in God” is similar to this in that it is a way of perceiving the world using certain values. “to see oneself as a created, dependent creature, receiving life and well being from a higher source…the only appropriate attitude is one of grateful worship and obedience.” – John Hick.
To conclude; each of the arguments examined above vary in their relationship with reason, but what they all have in common is that faith is central to the believer and must work independently of reason to some degree. Some of the arguments incorporate reason, some reject it entirely, but the transcendent nature of God can never be proved, can never be indubitable, for faith is an integral part of religion. Perhaps then natural theology is not trying to prove God’s existence to the point where faith is cast out and certainty resides in its place, but rather it is merely trying to explore God’s nature.
“I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand” – St. Anselm (1033-1109) Proslogian 1. Natural theology could therefore be seen as an expression of faith, rather than a foundation for it. The majority of theists argue that faith is necessary, for if God proved himself to us, we would no longer have free will over our belief and so would be robots without dignity. On the other hand, surely God in His omnipotence could find some way of maintaining our freedom whilst simultaneously providing us certainty of his love? Why not give certainty to the millions of His helpless and suffering children who have lost faith; for where is their dignity?