Do You Have to Choose between Your Brains and Your Beliefs? No, No, and Sort of, but No

In this short series, I’ve responded to the common charge by the current crop of atheists about Christians being not too bright (Richard Dawkins), if not positively dangerous and downright insane, such that one simply must choose between contemporary science and religious faith, between one’s brains and one’s beliefs. And I have replied twice in the negative.

But there is an important sense in which Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. are on to something.

They say they can’t see how someone can reasonably believe the basic tenets of the Christian faith: that God is a trinity of one being in three persons; that one of those persons became human in Jesus of Nazareth; that Jesus of Nazareth atoned for the sins of the world on the cross; that the resurrection of Jesus signifies eternal life for all who trust in him; and that all of these propositions can be believed because taught by the Bible, which is to be accepted as the Word of God written.

And they’re right to find it impossible to see how someone can reasonably believe that–if by “reasonably believe” they cling to a particular mode of reasoning, namely, inference from empirical data or self-evident propositions.

Even many Christian philosophers (notably Notre Dame’s Alvin Plantinga and Yale’s Nicholas Wolterstorff) freely grant that the method of scientific reasoning cannot be used to prove Christian doctrine. Logical positivism dismissed theology decades ago on the grounds that it could not be demonstrated as meaningful on the austere grounds of empirical science.

But logical positivism itself ran aground as a philosophy of life some time ago. For it became obvious that lots of things–as several commentators on this series have shown in their brief, but acute, contributions–that we find valuable in life cannot be demonstrated or justified scientifically: beauty, altruism, and love, for example.

I have spent much of my career trying to find the best possible grounds for believing in the Christian religion. And I think that enterprise can be a fruitful one.

Ultimately, however, the Bible itself tells us what the philosophers eventually discover: You can’t get there from here.

There simply are no chains of inference that can get you from the idea of God-in-general to God-as-Trinity. There are no demonstrative proofs for the contention that Jesus of Nazareth is God Incarnate and that his life, death, and resurrection are the basis for global salvation. There is no way to lead someone step by step from consideration of the Bible’s various qualities (archaeological vindication, literary power, moral persuasiveness, etc.) to the conviction that it is the very Word of God.

The earliest and most fundamental Christian confession was this: “Jesus is Lord.” And one of the Apostle Paul’s earliest and most influential letters makes the following bold epistemological claim: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).

I fundamentally believe, as Blaise Pascal did, that there are plenty of good reasons to believe in the Christian faith–plenty, and sufficient. I also believe with Pascal, however, that there are reasons adequate also to disbelieve.

Those latter reasons, however, do not exonerate anyone. Why? Because faith is a gift, yes, not an accomplishment or natural outcome of reasoning. But it is a gift that God stands ready to give to anyone who wants it.

Those that do not want it, therefore, do not get it. And they cannot therefore justify their disbelief even by pointing to the impossibility of proving Christian doctrine to be true by the light of natural human reason. For the offer stands–to Richard Dawkins, to Christopher Hitchens, to you, and to me: faith is a gift (a “grace”) God is ready to give to anyone who asks (Ephesians 2:4-10).

Faith is always the exercise of trust beyond what we think we know, beyond what we think we’re sure of. Does that mean we have to choose between our brains and our beliefs? No, but it means we must not let our brains circumscribe our beliefs. We don’t understand electricity, but we use it. We don’t understand light (wave? particle? both? how does that work?), but we are glad for it. We don’t know everything about our business partners or surgeons or spouses, but we trust them with our livelihoods and lives. Likewise, we have good reasons to believe Christian teaching, so we should.

But we can’t believe that Christian teaching–it’s just too strange, and huge, and demanding!–unless God grants us that power to believe. And for that reason, at the last, I am not unsympathetic with Dawkins, Hitchens, and the rest.

Quite the contrary:

I pray for them, and hope they will eventually receive the gift of faith as well…

…as I pray God will strengthen my faith, too.

0 Responses to “Do You Have to Choose between Your Brains and Your Beliefs? No, No, and Sort of, but No”

  1. Brandon Blake

    I’ve read Kelly James Clark’s “Return to Reason” (an excellent intro into Reformed epistemology) which shows the irrelevance of evidentialism. That is, that one can have faith WITHOUT reasons i.e. believing in God should be put into the relational category and not in a scientific category–that of a labratory scientist i.e. your trust in a spouse.

    However, Stephen Evans has written about “responsible forms” of fideism which require reason to be critiical of itself i.e. knowing the limits of reason that reason itself can recognize as sound. But I’ve only lightly browsed over this as of yet.

    Seemingly though, Plantinga doesn’t seem to renounce reason i.e. fideism. As a mattter of fact he seems to say that reason can include such beliefs as the existence of God. It isn’t that the “theist and the non-theist agree as to what reason delivers, the theist then going on to accept the existence of God by faith; there is instead, disagreement in the first place as to what are the deliverances of reason.”

    However, he says this in regard to beleif in God not for other such Christian truths as God being in Christ or the resurrection. Reason doesn’t bring us such deliverances.

  2. John Stackhouse

    It’s a mistake to renounce “evidentialism” if we mean by that having recourse to various sorts of evidences–that is, stuff in the world–to make good arguments for the validity of this or that tenet of Christian teaching.

    What is properly to be renounced is the naïve sense that the evidence “just shows” that Christianity is true. Much (not all) of the evidence is patient of more than one defensible interpretation, as Blaise Pascal argued well several hundred years ago.

    It would be just as foolish, by the way, to dismiss “rationalism,” the attempt to show the validity, or at least the justification, for religious belief by way of inference from commonly-accepted grounds–as Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, for example, has been busy doing for a long time.

    What needs to be renounced in that case is a similar over-estimation of our epistemic abilities. Only God is omniscient: We finite and fallen “knowers” interpret things as best we can, and we could, in fact, be wrong about anything.

    Finally, faith without reason doesn’t exist. Everyone believes this or that because he or she thinks he or she has good reason (in the broad sense of “warrant” or “grounds”) to do so.

    (I never have quite understood whether there is any such thing as a “fideist” in the way in which the enemies of fideism tend to paint it: as naked will-to-believe, regardless of evidence.)

    So let’s continue to offer ourselves, each other, and our friends outside the faith all the good reasons we can muster for believing the gospel and submitting to Christ as Lord. Those grounds will never be enough to produce faith, but they can be useful to the Holy Spirit in his special work of instilling faith.

  3. Gene Strother

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    Very nicely done. “Finite and fallen ‘knowers'” is a beautifully-contructed estimation of the human capacity.

    I am going to link to your blog from our website and hope that others will find your musings as thought-provoking and interesting as I.

  4. Rob Lantz

    This is an extremely circumspect and well thought out article. However, there is one point that you’ve neglected to mention. That is the “faith” of the atheist. For example, there is a 1 in 10^40,000 chance that (even the simplest) life began on this planet from nothing by random chance. I’m quoting a number here from someone else that I don’t have a reference for, but even if it’s many orders of magnitude off, it’s still teeny-tiny small. Atheists have faith in that event. We, as theists, believe that the compliment of that event is true. Who is using more evidence and reason in that light?
    In the end I’m reminded of a saying:
    “Salvation is not found at the end of an argument but at the foot of the cross.” We know that the wisdom of God is foolishness to men. You’re absolutely right in pointing out that the Holy Spirit must be involved for someone to believe.
    Thanks for the blog. I’m really enjoying your posts.

    Rob Lantz


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