A critique of Fideism

Mike Young

Fideism is basing your religion on Faith. Faith (assuming a belief) is what is important, not reason. This is the belief that the act of belief itself is the essence and chief criteria for entrance into a religion. It is a common view, especially amongst modern Protestant Christians.

Fideism has been critiqued by the Catholic Church, who maintain that the existence of God can be argued through reason. For example, Pope John Paul II argued against Fideism in Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), emphasising that as Godís existence could be rationally proved, Fideism was not the way to go, people should believe through reason, which the church could provide. Fides et Ratio could have done with an annex containing the actual rational argument.

There are several other problems with the ideas of Fideism:

There is a problem with the epistemology of Fideism. A good epistemology should give us clear methods of unambiguously working out the truth. We have found that there is a hierarchy of methods that can be used to get to the truth, each of which you are able to place differing levels of confidence. The methods towards the top of the list are superior to those below, in that they more consistently produce reliable predictions, and are more universally accepted by others:

    1. The method of mathematics and logic
    2. The method of science
    3. The method of personal experience
    4. The method of history
    5. The method of expert testimony
    6. The method of inference
    7. The method of pure faith.

Pure faith in something has been practically found to be the least successful method of getting at the truth. Indeed in all areas of life except religion faith is knowingly held such low esteem that people who make decisions based on it not respected. For example if I went to you and said "Your motherís dead", and so you rushed home to find her alive, you would be cross and ask me why I told you that. If I said "I just had a feeling inside me she was dead" (i.e. using the method of pure faith) I would not be respected for that.

However a Fideist will insist that (in matters of religion only) elevating faith above reason is a virtuous activity. So we get the strange situation where (in matters of religion only) the hierarchy above is changed with faith promoted from position 7 to position 1. To make a consistent world view other things then have to be bent to fit. This often leads to unscientific post-decisional rationalisation, in order to make belief sets seem self consistent. The most important contemporary example of this is the controversy about the theory of evolution. Fideist Creationists place faith above science in their hierarchy, insisting that the world was created in seven days, because they have faith in the Bible, and the Bible is superior to science. This contradicts the science, but because science has a high reputation in society, creationists are keen for the evidence to seem scientific, so science can be seen to support views arrived at by faith. They do this by not really examining the science in the correct way, making neutral experiments and being willing to accept the outcome, but by looking for evidence to fit the theory they already hold.

This activity, as well as poor science, is also poor Fideism, as Fideism insists ultimate virtue should lie having faith. If the virtue lies in having the faith, then proving things only suffices to diminish faith. The pseudo-scientific arguments of creationism, are themselves justifications and reasons to support a proposition . This should be anathema to a pure Fideist.

The dilemma of the rationalist Fideist is summed up by Douglas Adams in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy in a passage on the theology of the Babel Fish.

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes like this : "I refuse to prove that I exist", says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."

"But", says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn't it? it could not have evolved by chance. it proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED."

"Oh dear", says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

Interestingly people who hold Fideist views will not apply them outside religion. If they are making a decision not related to their religious faith, for example which car to buy, then they will base their decision entirely on rational grounds and disparage any appeals to faith, making a decision every bit as rational as any philosopher would.

Fideism also raises questions about the nature and goodness of God. Acts of belief should not be voluntary, you should either believe them or not, the will should not be involved. If acceptance into the afterlife demanded that you believe that 3+3 = 5, then many people would say that it was true, innumerate people may say it without understanding, but how could you, understanding it, in your heart of hearts, believe what you know to be inconsistent to be true? This seems like a bizarre, unjust thing for God to judge people on. Surely things like good works, behaviours or even intentions are more praiseworthy than acts of incredulity? Indeed is not the act of faith itself a work? Instead of taking a pilgrimage or giving arms the act of incredulity itself becomes the criteria of admission to paradise.

There is also the problem that it is not known which God to have faith in. Islam, Protestant Christianity and Christian sects, such as Jehovahís witnesses, all subscribe to Fideism, but demand that the faith that in which you trust is theirs and theirs alone. This leaves which God to actually have faith in to chance. If it is possible to rationally choose which religion to have an irrational faith in, then it has to be Islam, because Islam is the religion with the worst Hell, the least forgiving of mistakes and that with the narrowest criteria for entrance.

But a Fidest will not listen to the above critique, by denying the validity of rationality, Fideism immunises itself from any philosophical criticism or rationality. It is like a criminal who refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the court trying him. The Fidest may refuse to be recognise the court of rationality, but the court of rationality must go on to try him anyway.