Belief and faith vs fideism

Perhaps it is the recent visit of Richard Dawkins to Australia or maybe I am imagining it, but it seems to me that the atheist attack on faith and belief is fairly intense at the moment.  Rather than be embarrassed to be a believer, however, i want to suggest that belief and faith are completely reasonable behaviours.

In fact, human progress is dependent upon belief.  As Bernard Lonergan observes, “progress in knowledge is possible because successive generations were ready to believe”.  Without belief, we would feel the need to start from scratch at every turn.  But this is to forget that ‘truth’ is a public reality and knowledge of that truth is a public and shared – beyond the capacity of any individual.  To function, to move forward, to create, we thus need to believe.

This is not to say that belief is unthinking.  Unthinking belief (fideism) leads to our ruin.  We might believe that homeopathy can cure our ills but if we have no grounds for this belief we may kill a child by neglecting evidenced based medicine (see story in SMH).  We might believe that a particular girl is in love with us, but without grounds for such belief we may well receive a slap in the face.  We thus need to put our belief to the test – to make a judgment on its veracity.  We do this in various ways.  We might, for example, be able to justify belief according to our own experience.  We believe the scaffolding will hold our weight because it has done so before.  Our experience is, however, limited, so our belief is also grounded on our willingness to trust the testimony of others.  In this case, we ascertain the veracity of our belief by judging the trustworthiness of the source.  I trust that a builder is expert enough to safely construct my new house, because she is an expert in her field (and i cannot nail a hammer in a wood).  Similarly, my own experience does not enable me to test the truthfulness of Einsteins theory of relativity.  But i can make a judgment that he is sufficiently qualified and intelligent – and that his work has been investigated by other cosmic physicists.  Thus, i can conclude my belief in the truthfulness of the theory of general relativity is reasonable.

Belief, although reasonable, is not certain knowledge, although it may become such.  If i gather sufficient evidence, i may be able to make the judgement that my belief is true – i.e. it is something i know for certain.  You might believe, for example, that Alphacrucis College had sold its property.  You might have good reason to assert this belief (you saw it in a newspaper).  But this belief would become certain knowledge only when you gathered sufficient evidence; when, for example, you witnessed the contract of exchange.  Of course, some things can only ever be believed, since certain knowledge of everything is beyond us.  I believe my house will not fall down tomorrow.  I have good evidence for this.  It did not fall down yesterday, and seems to be sturdily build.  But I don’t know the future and for all i know a plane might fall out of the sky tomorrow and come crashing through my roof.

Anyway, what has this rambling discussion got to do with Christianity?  Firstly, it reminds us that Christians who believe unthinkingly are in trouble.  Fideism (blind, irrational belief) leads to stupid actions – to patients who refuse medical treatment on the grounds that it would be ‘lack of faith’ – to people being duped into giving unreasonable sums of money to so-called health and wealth teachers; the list is endless.

Secondly, it helps us to assert that belief is not irrational.  We need to remember that we have good reason for our belief (and if we don’t we need to search such reasons out).  We have our own experience; the transforming work of God in our own lives.  We have the testimony of our friends and neighbours.  And we have the testimony of the writers of the Scriptures, and of the great thinkers of the church – Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther etc.  More than this, we can apply our own minds to the task of thinking through our beliefs – to putting our beliefs to the test.

Finally, however, we are reminded that our beliefs about God can never be certain knowledge, at least not of the sort that grounds science and that can be ‘proven’.  God always transcends our knowledge.  God is bigger and more mysterious then we can ever know, and so our belief is not certainty ( a fact that should lead us to be generous to those with different religious beliefs).  That is why belief in God is grounded in faith.  Lonergan suggests that faith is ‘knowledge born of religious love’.  It is the knowledge that God has revealed himself; that there is meaning and purpose in the world revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ.

As i noted in an earlier post faith is not the absence of doubt but, rather, a deeply intuitive trust in the goodness of God in the face of our doubts.  It is a trust that is revealed to us through Jesus, one that enables us to persevere through the hard times (even the ‘godforsaken’ times).  It is also a trust that grounds our beliefs, which may not be ‘provable’ to the atheist, but which are reasonable nevertheless.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • Marcus Henningsson
    July 27, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    Hi Shane,
    I enjoyed your writing, keep it up

  • Craig Benno
    August 4, 2010 at 8:25 am

    The Dawkins approach also seems to selectivly deride personal experience as a form of / basis for knowing or knowledge.

    I have only ever used this saying once, thinking that it’s rather corny. But I felt it was the Spirits prompting to say to a person whom we were having a philosphopical discussion about religion and he asked “How do you know God is real” and I replied “Because Jesus lives in me”

    His response was astounding… he dropped his hands, seemed to sag and then said..”How can I argue against that”?


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