Faith and reason
Whatever we think about these further questions, it should be clear that the question of faith and reason is a big one. Philosophers and theologians (and others) continue to debate it. You can find one recent example of such a debate in the audio recording ‘Faith and reason’, which features the Christian priest and philosopher Keith Ward, the Muslim theologian Mona Siddiqui, the Jewish Rabbi Mark Goldsmith and the atheist philosopher Peter Cave talking to the interviewer Winifred Robinson about this very question.
You should listen to the recording all the way through before reading the questions below. When you have read them, listen to the recording again. This time you may find it helpful to stop and start the discussion to make a note of your responses as you go along.
So listen to ‘Faith and reason’ now.
Transcript: Faith and reason
Now ask yourself the following questions:
- The three theists in the debate (especially Mark Goldsmith and Mona Siddiqui) seem to agree that accepting that God exists is only the beginning for religious belief. Do you agree with Peter Cave that this means that believers must start by taking what he calls ‘the great kangaroo leap of faith’? If this is so, why might it be thought to be a bad thing? Hint: Peter Cave indicates some reasons in the recording and you may be able to think of others. Even if you don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing, try to work out why others might think so.
- Mona Siddiqui and Keith Ward both say, in different ways, that there is a middle ground between ‘conclusive proof’ and ‘blind faith’. Not everything can be proved conclusively. It doesn’t follow that whatever is not conclusively proved is just accepted without question. But how much proof or evidence do you think we need in order to believe in God? Hint: Various views on this are suggested in the debate. Try to note them down and work out what might be said for or against them.
- Notice that Winifred Robinson asks the three theists why, if there is one God, they don’t agree about God. And all three of them – starting with Mark Goldsmith – reject the assumption in her question. They say that they do agree, because they all accept the existence of one and the same God. What do you think of this answer to Winifred’s question?
Keith Ward (at 8′07″) responds to Peter Cave by suggesting that most people start off in life as believers in something divine beyond the material world, so if there is any ‘kangaroo leap’, it is in the opposite direction, away from faith. Does this match your experience? Whether or not you are a believer now, did you start off as a believer?
If you agree with Keith Ward’s response, do you think it helps the case for theism? Peter Cave suggests that the trouble with ‘the great kangaroo leap of faith’, as he calls it, is that it’s irreversible – once people have taken it, they are usually stuck with, and heavily committed to, their religious beliefs (5′50″). Is this true? Notice that Mona Siddiqui (from 6′39″) and Mark Goldsmith (at 4′14″) emphasise the struggle that many religious people have with their faith and their continuing journey to understand God.
At 2′52″, Keith Ward mentions W.K. Clifford (1845–1879), who in his essay ‘The Ethics of Belief’ (1877) famously said that ‘It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’ Keith Ward suggests that ‘sometimes we can and should believe a bit more than what our senses tell us’. Who do you agree with here? (Peter Cave clearly agrees with Clifford!)
On Cave’s (and Clifford’s) side: it seems irresponsible to go around making up your own beliefs. (Perhaps it’s not even possible: remember the ‘Custard is really spaghetti’ example.)
On Ward’s (and James’s) side: we need to ask just what belief is supported by what evidence. If I find that I can see something red and round in front of me, what does that justify me in believing?
- That there’s an apple in front of me?
- Just that there is something red, round and apple-like in front of me?
- Just that I am either hallucinating or seeing an apple?
We don’t have a clear way of saying just how much is proved by any evidence. Without that, it isn’t completely clear-cut what counts as going beyond what is proved by the evidence, either.
Keith Ward also takes up a distinction that Mona Siddiqui makes first in the discussion, and which Mark Goldsmith also seems to accept – a distinction between ‘material evidence’, evidence you can touch and see, perhaps, and ‘spiritual evidence’, of the sort that religious experience, for instance, might provide (3′20″). Is this a helpful distinction for this debate?
- Winifred asks this question at 11′03″. The three theists may believe in the same God, but they still disagree about what God is like, for instance about whether the Torah, the Qur’an, or the Christian Bible is the Holy Book that God has given us for guidance. You may have thought that there is a serious objection to theism here, which Peter Cave might have made more of (if he’d been given a chance). Or you may consider that the theists could retort to Peter Cave that, after all, atheists disagree, too.
When you have worked through this activity, please don’t drop the question of faith and reason as one you don’t have to think about any more! I hope you keep this question in view throughout the course. The argument we will go on to consider should make a difference to what you think about the question ‘Does God exist?’ It should also help you think about whether there can be arguments for God’s existence at all. Maybe, by the end of the course, you will have a different view about the question of faith and reason from the one you started with.