The Importance of Distinguishing Faith from Reason and Evidence


In an article on The Foundations of Belief in the Qur’an, I pointed out that “the Qur’an makes it clear that belief is based on a combination of faith, reason, and evidence.” The role of faith is expressed in the Qur’an in various terms and expressions. But one term that particularly captures this fact is “ghayb” or the “unseen.” In another article about The Concept of “Ghayb” (Unseen) in the Qur’an, after analysing the various verses that use this term, I concluded the following:

These verses remind us that belief in Allah is partly based on having faith in things we cannot see or verify. So “ghayb” stands for things that the person cannot know or, even when they are brought to their knowledge, they cannot be totally certain of, because they cannot check and verify them directly. So accepting such non-provable things as facts becomes a matter of faith.

Belief requires conviction, which is why reason and evidence are two of its foundations. But the Qur’an’s belief system also requires the acceptance of things that one just cannot know or cannot be certain about, i.e. where reason and evidence can be of no help with. This is why faith is needed. Faith is one strategy of dealing with uncertainty and unknowability. It is a special process of presumption that creates certainty about the uncertain and knowledge of the unknowable. It is a vehicle for the transformation of uncertainly into certainty and unknowability into knowledge. Presumptions can be made about things that are temporarily uncertain or unknowable until more is known about them, but faith is needed for the inherently uncertain or unknowable.

One may argue that faith here plays a misleading or deceptive role, but this is a misunderstanding. Faith is not a subtle process that manipulatively tries to present things differently to what they are. It is rather an open and honest mechanism of admission that we need or want to be certain about things that are intrinsically uncertain or know things that are genuinely unknowable.

Reason and evidence, which are the other two foundations of belief, are of a completely different nature to faith. They are often considered of a higher status in our seemingly increasingly rational world. People, therefore, usually try and admit to as little faith as possible and attribute their beliefs to as much reason and evidence as possible. In the process of doing this, they often end up mistaking and/or misrepresenting reason and evidence for faith. This leads to the all too common situation whereby a belief that is claimed by its adherents to be rational and evidence-based is attacked by others as rather absurd and nonsensical.

This sharp conflict is unnecessary and can be substantially, although not fully, avoided. Having faith dressed up as reason and evidence invites strong criticism and ridicule because the target of these claims perceives this as an attempt to deceive them and/or that it underestimates them intellectually. The exercise of ridiculing the faith-cum-reason-and-evidence is one of reasserting one’s rationalism and intellectual standing. Faith, on the other hand, is not seen as threatening to one’s intellectual status, hence even if ridiculed by those who disagree with it, there is much less aggressiveness and pursuit in the attempt to refute that faith.

Of course, people differ also on what reason is and what qualifies as evidence, not least because one’s judgment is influenced by their knowledge of related issues and personal competencies and thinking skills. But, by and large, such differences are much easier and clearer to deal with when reason and evidence are not conflated with faith. Distinguishing between faith, on the one hand, and reason and evidence, on the other, is essential for one’s self-awareness and understanding of why they believe the way they do, but it is also critical to meaningfully and productively communicating with others.

I should finally add that statements of faith are not immune to challenge and questioning. But discussing them requires different approaches than scrutinizing an alleged logical argument or supposed objective evidence.

Copyright © 2012 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.


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