Tear it Apart: Faith vs. Reason

The first in a sporadic series called "Tear it Apart", wherein I ask folks to dissect a provocative argument or statement. I'm not interested in the issues involved, just the logic of the argument.

Yesterday I was watching a Stephen Colbert interview with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith. Sam Harris made a very interesting statement regarding faith, and I thought I'd present it here in an altered form for folks to dissect:

Do you have a good reason to believe in God? (As opposed to having unfounded faith in the existence of God.)

If you have a good reason, then you don't need to rely on faith.
You don't have a good reason to, so why do you believe in God?

It's an extremely convincing argument at first glance, but it smells of trickery. After all, the logic here never seems to touch on the essential nature of the question, but instead skirts around it with devious wordplay. Like I said, I'm not interested here in whether or not God exists. Rather, I'm interested in the logic of the argument itself, and how it uses the terms "faith" and "reason". I'll start folks off:

  • Are faith and reason mutually exclusive?
  • Does one have to have a good reason to believe something?
  • Could faith in God itself be a good reason to believe in God?

Your turn.

Responses: 7 so far Feed icon

  1. Cory Capron says:

    Well, it would seem like faith would exclude a second reason.

    Faith: b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (from m-w.com)

    However when looking at the original question an obvious reason to believe in god does come to mind. The issue of god fearing or rather, that if you don't believe in god you will go to hell. I have a BIG problem with this approch because it corrupts the sincerity of religious followers by bringing in the logic:

    "If there is a god I want to be on his/her/its good side, but if there is no god, what have I got to lose?"

    This kind of thinking turns god into an insurance pollacy. It removes the idea of loving your creator and replaces it with sucking up to the guy in the sky. To me, that's far more disrespectful than not going to church.

    Anyway, reguardless of how I feel about it, the logic is a real reason to believe in god... just not a good one. Though that dosn't stop tons of people from having it.

  2. Tim McCormack says:

    The issue of god fearing or rather, that if you don't believe in god you will go to hell.

    That's an argument known as Pascal's Wager. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the subject, including many criticisms. (My favorite: If belief in Jehovah will anger Allah, and belief in Allah will anger Jehovah, you can no longer use Pascal's Wager.)

    Yeah, Pascal's Wager is a cop-out that doesn't even work. I go by McCormack's Wager:

    "I will live my life as I deem best, given what I understand about the nature of humanity, ethics, and the workings of the universe. Any god that doesn't like that doesn't deserve to be believed in, and can go shove its omnipotence in a pipe and smoke it."

    Sadly, however, you're right: Many people rationalize their belief using Pascal, instead of delving deep into their psyche and determining the true nature of their faith.

  3. Shawn Anthony says:

    Hmmm ... it smacks of the ole' "Have you stop beating your wife ..." fallacy.

    I'm always curious as to why intelligent folk like Harris can't get beyond the idea of a "God" that does not rely upon "belief," as it is defined in the above context. Seriously, it seems that those who preach the "end of faith, spirituality and religion" need the same old and crusty sky-god that is preached by medieval superstition. Belief, as it is defined and used by Harris would be relevant in that scenario. I just want to tell the whole bunch of them to move on ...

  4. F. Lien says:

    Please forgive the intrusion, but this is just begging to be said, and no one else has said it, so . . .

    In epistemology, knowledge is defined as follows:

    S knows x if: S believes x S has reason to believe x AND x is true

    Thus it is possible to believe x with reason, and yet not know x. In which case, an act based on the unproven assumption that x is true is act of faith, is it not?

    Just thinking -- leaving now :).

  5. Sarah says:

    Why do people think they are mutually exclusive about faith and reason?


    why do people think you can have faith and reason?

  6. Xaprb says:


    "Do you have a good reason ... As opposed to having unfounded faith ... if you have a good reason, then you don't need to rely on faith..."

    Bait and switch, circular logic, etc. Mr. Harris needs a course in basic logic. Either that, or he phrased the question badly (or you mis-quoted him)!

  7. Tim McCormack says:

    Well, I didn't quote him, I paraphrased him -- and the fault may certainly lie in my understanding of his words. But from what other folks have said about his book, it is exactly the type of argument he tries to make.

    Still, it was a deviously seductive argument when I first encountered it. He gets an A+ in propaganda!

Commenting is not yet reimplemented after the Wordpress migration, sorry! For now, you can email me and I can manually add comments.