Updated: Dec 21, 2018
For the Head: [1st in a 2 part series]
Is Faith Irrational?
Is faith a mere ‘stab in the dark?’ Is it simply shutting off our intellect to embrace some fantastic story about creation, an ark with lots of animals, a burning bush, miracles and a resurrection? As one atheist put it, ‘Faith is gullibility; [it] is the… excuse people give for believing something when they don’t have a good reason.’ Hasn’t the scientific method shown that we should only believe that which has been empirically proven true? That is, does Christianity, or any religion for that matter, belong at the same level as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy – something heartwarming, but in the end not meant to be taken seriously?
So the question, ‘Is it rational to believe?’ is fundamental. Because unless we can show that the very act of faith itself is not contrary to reason, then there really is no point for a reasonable and educated person to continue bothering with a religion that seems to be no more than mere conjecture, sentimentality, and irrationality.
In this post, I will argue that the act of faith is not only reasonable, but also frequently practiced by all people, even agnostics and atheists. To do that I will try to answer three questions: What does ‘faith’ mean? When do we make acts of faith? Why do we make acts of faith?
a. What does ‘faith’ mean?
Now what are we talking about when we say that we believe or that we have faith? [For the sake of clarity, here I am taking faith and belief as synonymous].
First, let us see what faith is not.
Faith is not merely a preference. Often the question, ‘In what religion do you believe?’ is taken to mean, ‘Which one of the many religions do you prefer?’, as if religious choice was something similar to choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream. ‘I prefer Catholicism to Buddhism.’ ‘I prefer cookies and cream to chocolate.’ If, however, our religious faith were merely preference then there would be many things about our Catholic faith that we would not believe. As Patrick Madrid once said, ‘I don’t like the Church’s teaching on the existence of Hell, but I believe it.’
Faith is not merely a sentiment. Often people of faith will say things like, ‘I feel God’s presence in my life,’ or, ‘Can’t you feel God close to you right now?’ While our living of the faith includes an emotional element, we have to take care not to root religious belief solely in our emotions. Otherwise, what do you do when the emotion is gone? That would be a fragile faith indeed. Additionally, how would you communicate a merely subjective experience of the faith to someone else? What if they do not share your emotion? There has to be a firmer foundation.
So, what is faith? What does it mean to believe? Faith, or to believe, is ‘to hold something for true which we ourselves cannot directly know or prove.’ You might object, ‘Isn’t that an oxymoron? Isn’t that irrational?’ Actually, all of us, including non-believers, make countless acts of faith daily. Let us look at some examples.
b. When do we make acts of faith?
When you get onto a plane, do you know if it is in good flying condition? I am not asking you to look into the future, rather, what is the plane’s condition the moment you get on? Is it in good enough a condition to fly? Is it a reasonable assumption that the plane will indeed fly? How do you know? Did you test the hydraulics, the engines, and the fuel lines? No, you did not. You just ‘believed’ the plane to be in good condition.
When you are about to drive over a bridge, do you know that it is in good condition? Did you test its structural soundness? You might reply, ‘I see other cars driving over it… it must be good.’ Perhaps, but then again, that wasn’t ‘proof’ enough for the bridge in Minnesota that fell during rush hour in 2007.  Again, I am not talking about seeing into the future, but the condition of the bridge at the moment you assess it. You did not empirically prove the bridge to be in good condition. You ‘believed’ that the bridge is in good shape.
When you get medication from the pharmacist, do you know that it is the right one? Perhaps the pharmacist made a mistake, like the case in Northern Ireland a year ago where a woman died because she was given the wrong medication. Did you chemically dissect each tablet? No, you believed that the medicine was good.
Therefore, people, whether religious or not, have frequently ‘held something for true which they cannot directly know or prove.’ This is much more practical or tangible than an opinion or a feeling. It would be practically impossible to function otherwise. You cannot examine everything that you use, even if you were technically qualified to do so. Does the pharmacist chemically analyze every aspirin he takes for his own headaches?
Additionally, sincerity of the believer has nothing to do with the validity of the truth he or she professes. Either the plane is in good flying condition, or it is not. Either the bridge is stable or it is not. Either the medication is good or it is not. Sincerely believing something does not make it sincerely true. The believer can be sincerely mistaken.
c. Why do we make acts of faith?
You might reply, ‘It is not irrational for me to believe that a plane will fly if it’s with a reputable company, and checked by the Federal Aviation Administration!’ I agree, it is not irrational on your behalf, but it also not empirical. You chose to believe because you personally did not check it: that is the point. You have to ask yourself the question as to why you believe that, or anything else you believe. Why is it reasonable to believe that something is true without empirically seeing it or logically deducing it? We hold something for true because we trust the one who told us that it is that way.
There are two essential elements needed to trust any given messenger: they are qualified and sincere. Qualified means that they know what they are talking about, such as a doctor or a pharmacist speaking about medication. Thinking them sincere means you are convinced that they are telling the truth.
Therefore, faith is built on a relationship of trust.
In the next blog I will l look at: faith vs. knowledge, and, faith in God vs. natural faith.
Fr. John Bullock, LC
 Patrick Madrid, ‘Why I’m Catholic.’ Lighthouse CD.
 St. Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Faith and Reason, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html
 Cf. Josef Pieper, ‘Was heist Glauben? Grünewald Sprechkassenten, 1998, Hörbuch, ISBNÑ 978-3-7867-2089-8; http://www.gruenewaldverlag.de/was-heisst-glauben-p-352.html
‘7-Month Suspension for Pharmacist Whose Dispensing Error Led to Death.’ C+D Community Pharmacy News, 6/10/2017, by James Waldron. https://www.chemistanddruggist.co.uk/news/7-month-suspension-pharmacist-whose-dispensing-error-led-death