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Introduction | Support for Fideism | Criticism of Fideism
Introduction Back to Top

Fideism (from the Latin "fides" or "faith") is the view that religious belief depends on faith or revelation, rather than reason, intellect or natural theology. In this respect it is in direct opposition to the doctrine of Deism. More accurately it objects to evidentialism, the notion that no belief should be held unless it is supported by evidence. As a result, it holds that theology may include logical contradictions without apology. It may or may not also involve active disparagement of the claims of reason.

Fideism teaches that rational or scientific arguments for the existence of God (see the section on Philosophy of Religion) are fallacious and irrelevant, and have nothing to do with the truth of Christian theology because Christian theology teaches that people are saved by faith in the Christian God (i.e. trust in the empirically unprovable) and if the Christian God's existence can be proven, either empirically or logically, then to that extent faith becomes unnecessary or irrelevant. Therefore, if Christian theology is true, no immediate proof of the Christian God's existence is possible.

Support for Fideism Back to Top

Support for fideism is most commonly associated, inter alia, with four major philosophers: Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, William James, and Ludwig Wittgenstein:

  • Tertullian (160 - 235), a Roman early Christian, is often credited with early fideist tendencies by virtue of his statement "the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd", although it is likely that he was engaging in ironic overstatement here, and his main point was that if a person in whom you have trust tells you about a miraculous event he witnessed, you can allow yourself to consider that he may be saying the truth despite the fact that the event is very unlikely.
  • Pascal's formulation commonly known as Pascal's Wager is a type of fideism in which he invites atheists to see faith in God as a cost-free choice that carries a potential reward. It can be stated as follows: If we believe in God, then if he exists we will receive an infinite reward in heaven, while if he does not then we have lost little or nothing. Conversely, if we do not believe in God, then if he exists we will receive an infinite punishment in hell, while if he does not then we will have gained little or nothing. "Either receiving an infinite reward in heaven or losing little or nothing" is clearly preferable to "either receiving an infinite punishment in hell or gaining little or nothing", so it is rational to believe in God, even if there is no evidence that he exists.
  • Johann Georg Hamann (1730 - 1788), considered to be the father of modern irrationalism, built on the work of David Hume to argue that everything people do is ultimately based on faith. He maintained that without faith in the existence of an external world (for it can never be proven), human affairs could not continue, so all reasoning actually comes from this faith and it is fundamental to the human condition.
  • Kierkegaard's Christian Existentialism probed into the problem of faith in general, particularly focusing on the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and the incarnation of Christ. He ultimately affirmed that to believe in God made flesh was to believe in the "absolute paradox", since it implies that an eternal, perfect being would become a simple human. Reason cannot possibly comprehend such a phenomenon, so one can only believe in it by taking a "leap of faith".
  • James established a set of conditions under which, he argued, it is reasonable to believe in the absence of proof. He termed this a "genuine option", which he concluded must be "live", "forced" and "momentous". Unlike Pascal, James claimed that religious belief may not be more rational than Atheism or Agnosticism, but it is at least not less rational. He further argued that when it comes to religion we cannot avoid taking sides and incurring risks, and it is not enough to just avoid error.
  • Wittgenstein formulated his own Wittgensteinian Fideism which holds that religion is a self-contained, and primarily expressive, enterprise, governed by its own internal logic or “grammar”. He pointed out that religion is logically cut off from other aspects of life; that religious discourse is essentially self-referential and does not allow us to talk about reality; that religious beliefs can be understood only by religious believers; and that religion cannot be criticized.
  • Presuppositional Apologists hold that all human thought must begin with the proposition that the revelation contained in the Bible is axiomatic (self-evident and not to be proved or demonstrated) or one would not be able to make sense of any human experience. They further claim that all people actually believe in God, whether they admit or deny it.
Criticism of Fideism Back to Top

Fideism has received criticism not just from atheists, but also from theologians who argue that fideism is not a proper way to worship God.

  • As sin:
    The French Scholastic Peter Abelard, the Medieval Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali and the Deist Lord Herbert of Cherbury have all argued that if one does not attempt to understand what one believes, one is not really believing: “blind faith” is not true faith at all.
  • As dangerous:
    Individuals who unquestioningly obey irrational personal beliefs can be dangerous, and destructive or disruptive belief systems (e.g. cults, violent religious extremism) may result.
  • As relativism:
    Relativism is the situation where two opposing positions are both true. If faith is the only way to know the truth of God, how are we to know which God to have faith in? Thus, the major monotheistic religions become on par with obscure fringe religions, as neither can be advocated or disputed.
  • As unreasonable:
    We have effectively used reason in our daily lives to solve problems and to progressively increase our knowledge, and there is no evidence that a religious faith that rejects reason would also serve us while seeking truth. In addition, fideism does not help in situations in which our reason is not sufficient to find the truth (e.g. when trying to answer a particularly difficult mathematical question).

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