One of the rather trite and desperate arguments often trotted out by Christians is that atheism or more specifically skepticism based on reason (empricism) is also based on faith. I have heard this argument often mostly from believers who have heard it from someone else, usually a pastor or apologist and throw it out there as a coup de grace without understanding it or being able to support it.


Recently I watched a debate held at my alma matre Westminster Theological Seminary between Christopher Hitchens and their apologist of choice Douglas Wilson. This debate had been immortalized in a documentary called "Collision" and the preceding discussion in Christianity Today magazine in a book, "Is Christianity Good for the World". In that debate, Douglas Wilson perhaps out of desperation, perhaps in defense of his Presuppositional Apologetics approach, despite his intelligence for which Hitchens commends him, threw that argument into the debate.


The argument at heart deals with "how do we know what we know" or Epistemology.


How do you respond to that argument? Is "trust in reason" a "presupposition" and constitute "faith" in reason analogous to faith in the Bible as the infallible, inerrant Word of God from which Presuppositional Apologetics takes it's start?

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Do you wish to assert the absolute truth of the statement: "there is no absolute truth?"

Or do you see that it is an oxymoron?

That 2+2=4 is an absolute truth.

I think this is a case of allowing intellectual caution to override and undermine intellectual effectiveness.

I do not accept the premise that reliance upon logic and evidence is a form of faith.
Before Robert argues that 2+2=4 is an absolute truth again, and so can't be proven wrong someday, there is a very important piece of reasoning done which proves that no mathematical proof is absolutely true (that's more or less the wording). It's called Kurt Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. The great logician Leon Henkin went even further with this, proving that no logically complete and consistent system can be proven absolutely. I order for any truth to be known absolutely, you would need outside, independent verification. But where would you get such verification? If you go outside the system, then you need to prove that system to be true, which would have to be done from outside that system. So no matter how far up you go, even if you try to go beyond natural reality as the religious do, you would always be in need of something "above" to verify all that is "below". This shows that 2+2 is not an absolute truth, but it also shows that you can't appeal to faith to support reason, because then what justifies faith?

I have had this argument myself, and to take it to the deepest that it can go:


If "faith is the act of believing something despite lack of evidence", as Robert claims, then by what evidence do we believe in evidence? I.e., if our evidence is that which is gathered by our senses, which evidence can there be to support the gathering of evidence by our senses, given that our senses may of course be fallible? If we say that we take that into consideration, that it just seems like we are justified in believing what our senses are telling us, then they will jump up and say "aha! you are making a leap of faith! this is all we mean by faith, and so of course if we all do it when we use reason than faith is an integral part of reasoning, it is not antithetical to reasoning but part and parcel of it". Thus they feel justified in using faith whenever it feels appropriate, since faith is now justifiable as the first step of the reasoning process!


Well that is about as strongly as the case can be made for faith. I think it fails on two counts. First of all, even if this were true of reason, it doesn't hold that faith is now a justified part of the reasoning process throughout. But this is obviously a weak rebuttal.


The stronger objection is that faith is not merely taking something to be true without evidence for it, but taking a belief for granted. There is a subtle difference betwen these two definitions. If faith is taking a belief for granted, then we do not need faith to justify reason, because our senses are all we've got. There is no leap of faith in "trusting" our senses, because if we had any alternative to doing so we would consider using this alternative. The only choices left at this point are to trust our senses or to fall into the abyss of skepticism, from which there is no escape. Even faith would not provide an escape, because the rug would have been pulled out from under ALL beliefs. Which means either we can believe NOTHING, or we can believe what our senses are telling us. Believing nothing doesn't seem to even be possible, so we are not taking what our senses are telling us for granted, but we are considering that they might be fallible and working with the best possible available information. This is not absolute knowledge, but it is the best possible route to knowledge, if such a thing be possible at all. With nothing taken for granted, faith can be eliminated at its very root, which is where this argument is forced to infect, having been expelled from the rest of our belief system.

The sceptical philosopher, Stephen Law, calls this tactic of trying to undermine reason as a means of knowing 'the nuclear option'  - and I'll let him explain the ins and outs of it, which you can find here:



"Suppose Mike is involved in a debate about the truth of his own particular New Age belief system. Things are not going well for him. His arguments are being picked apart, and, worse still, his opponents have come up with several devastating objections that he cannot deal with. How might he get himself out of this bind?

One possibility is to adopt the intellectually dishonest strategy I call Going Nuclear. Going Nuclear involves playing a general skeptical card. In philosophy, a “skeptic” is someone who raises doubts about our claims to knowledge in a given area. Here is an example of a skeptical argument:

Whenever we argue about the truth or falsity of a belief, we apply our powers of reason. But why suppose that reason is itself a reliable route to the truth? You might attempt to justify our use of reason, of course. But any justification of reason that you offer will itself rely on reason. Relying on reason to justify our reliance on reason is a bit like taking a second-hand car salesman’s word for it that he is trustworthy – it’s an entirely circular justification, and so no justification at all! So it turns out that our reliance on reason is entirely unjustified. It’s a leap of faith!

From the claim that our reliance on reason is unjustified, it is then but a short step to the conclusion that no belief is justified ...."


But when confronted by theists so determined to preserve a place for their deity that they are willing to throw out the possibility of knowing anything, I call them on 'going nuclear'.

I would argue that the two are not analogous.


Faith in the Bible is trusting in one answer. What's more it is an answer that is supposedly provided "from the outside" and is not open to checking and verification. It may be open to arguments from "feasibility" but not to evidence.


Reason is not an answer it's a process or a method. One makes observations, proposes possible explanations, attempts to test those observations either through experimentation or by reviewing evidence upon which the proposed explanation is modified or discarded or replaced.


The entire structure of scientific progress is a testimony that the process works. Further it is not just my reason but the reasoning and process of hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of other people. Yes, my reasoning may be flawed. However, if it didn't work we would not have made the progress we have made as a species not only in hard science but in other areas as well. The process is a clear and sufficient answer for that progress.


Further the conclusions drawn from the Bible are themselves conclusion of reason albeit based on the content of the Bible alone. If reason itself is not trustworthy then neither is their faith. They might say that they are okay with reason at that level being taken on faith, they have no problem with faith. They would say that God gave man reason but due to sin it is not entirely trustworthy but they arrive at that conclusion by faith and not be observation.

My answer: Pragmatism. When you point out that everybody uses pragmatism, even theists, then you proceed to the next step of the argument, which is that faith fails. Faith does not make good predictions, and those predictions it does make are nearly always wrong. There is no good reason to trust faith, and plenty of good reasons to reject it.

The kind of faith used to 'justify' theism is NOT the same kind of 'faith' that is sometimes used to speak of things we simply 'trust'. If the theist tries to equate the two, then they are guilty of the fallacy of equivocation.

Equating faith with reason makes no sense to me.  The proofs are not analogous.  In the simplest terms, the argument for faith ends with "A", an unprovable assumption.  Oh , I forgot... "If 'A', therefore 'B'..."  No, wait, there cannot be an "if"...  Absolutes?  Applying rules confuses everything.  I should simply accept that "a" exists and vote for Glen Beck.  Oh, I also forgot that faith has no rules except for the fact that faith is the rule...  Reason, however, has rules limiting what can be demonstrated.  The argument, "a", demonstrates nothing, proves nothing, does nothing.  "a" exists.  Okay, then what?  Nothing follows.  Nothing.  No morality, politics, okay, only bad television follows the establishment of "a".   The argument stops at "a".  Nothing limits "a", especially election laws in the United States.  I am happy for "a".  Have a nice day!  An atheist pirate would remark, "...aaaarrrrrrrrrrrgh!"  I am no pirate, in fact, I am not even a Jimmy Buffet fan, but the idea leaves me feeling exasperated.  I am reminded of my symbolic logic class and the ever popular Venn diagrams.  The universe of discourse regarding faith and that of reason do not intersect.  Ever.  You want an absolute truth?  That is an absolute truth.  Now, I like tequila and also tapioca, but I ain't ever mixing the two.  Then again, I would rather endure that episode than continue on the path of the cognitive dissonance resulting from mixing faith and reason.  


p.s.  Do not fuck with me.  I am an ex-mormon with a Philosophy degree from BYU.  You want to discuss cognitive dissonance with me with reason on the line?  I am a cognitive dissonace dissing mother fucker, mother fucker...

...I must give credit to Vizzini (Princess Bride) and Jules (Pulp Fiction) for inspiring the tone of my rant.


Oh, Dos Lunas is better than Patron.  Not provable, merely opinion.    



I forget exactly how it goes but Sam Harris has a great line about faith being decoupled from reason and reality.

Wonderist already gave my big difference, that faith rarely works where as reason does. My favorite example is how using reason and science we can hurl items into space huge distences w the acuracy equivelent to throwing an item from N.Y to L.A. and hitting a piece of paper edgewise.
You don't have faith that you're not going to get speared when going through a green light, you have a reasonable belief that you don't, based on just what you say, reason and experience. Faith doesn't mean a reasonable belief in any sense of the word. It means not having any evidence or reason or experience that would justify a belief but believing it anyway. Reason says that under some circumstances you may "trust but verify". Faith is pure gullibility, the desire to trust based on nothing but desire.
I like wonderists' response, pragmatism. The track record for faith and reason are utterly incomparable in predicting results.

Except for situations where faith affects what one has faith in and one then has a self fulfilling prophecy, faiths track record is no better than chance.

On the other hand using reason and science we can hurl things into space w such precision that it is comparable to throwing an object from N.Y. to Ca. and hitting a piece of paper edgewise.

I apologise for overusing that example, but it impresses me incredibly.




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