Kierkegaard & Fideism


The position that religious belief-systems are not subject to rational evaluation (Michael Peterson et al, Reason & Religious Belief: an Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed. (NY: Oxford UP, 1998) 49).

Søren Kierkegaard (Danish, 1813-1855)

Two ways of knowing



Which is appropriate for religious faith?

Religious truth: "the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with passion of the infinite" (982nd).

drawing of Kierkegaard
by his 2nd cousin, Niels Christian Kierkegaard
c. 1840
Royal Library, Copenhagen

Faith & risk & dread

Faith & the absurd

Critical evaluation of Fideism

How does one decide which religious faith to jump to? (James Jone’s People’s Temple, Jonestown, Guyana, 1978)

How does one arbitrate conflicts between a religious belief-system & science?

The value of Fideism: religious faith is more than assent to cognitive claims; involves passion & trust & relationship with a person

Clifford & strong rationalism

Strong rationalism - the position that "in order for a religious belief-system to be properly and rationally accepted, it must be possible to prove that the belief-system is true" (Peterson et al 45).

William Clifford (English, 1845-1879)

Story about ship owner

Conclusion: The ship owner had "no right to believe on such evidence as was before him" & it was morally wrong for him to believe that it was safe to sail (Peterson 802nd).

Clifford anticipates some objections

The actions were immoral, not the beliefs.

Clifford’s response: Belief & action cannot be separated; beliefs often, almost always, spill over into action

Hence all beliefs have a social dimension; they affect the lives of others.

This is why beliefs may be morally good or bad.

Therefore one has a moral obligation to accept only those beliefs based on evidence & careful reasoning (Peterson 842nd).

If evidence is lacking, one should withhold belief.

Application of his position to religion?

Critique of Clifford’s position

One may make an intellectual mistake & not be morally wrong for making such a mistake.

There is a difference between an intellectual mistake & a moral evil.

We often must act without sufficient knowledge (e.g., practice of medicine).

In his tacit application of his position to religion, he assumes that religious faith is a leap beyond reason & evidence.

John Polkinghorne: "You don’t have to commit intellectual suicide to be a person of religious faith."

Ibn Rushd & Aquinas on critical rationalism

Critical rationalism - the position that "religious belief-systems can and must be rationally criticized and evaluated although conclusive proof is such a system is impossible" (Peterson et al 53).

Cover Ibn Rushd here

Aquinas (Italian, 1225-1274)

Two kinds of propositions about God

Arguments for the appropriateness that although truths about God are available through human reason, these same truths are also available through revelation (reason & revelation)

1. The pragmatic argument

2. Argument based on the frailty of human reason

Arguments for the appropriateness that there are some truths about God which are beyond human reason (revelation only)

[1. Argument based on the satisfaction of the transcendent nature of humans]

2. Argument for richness of our knowledge of God

3. Argument for plausibility that knowledge of God would be beyond the abilities of human reason

On the relationship between religious faith & reason: the harmony position (Peterson et al 712nd)

Principle vs practice

Concluding overview of Aquinas’s position

1. Faith precedes reason

2. Reason alone cannot arrive at many of the propositions of religious faith; but once these propositions are available (by revelation), reason can show that they are reasonable.

3. Religious faith is partly propositional; it makes truth-claims

4. In principle, religious faith & reason are in harmony.

5. In practice, they may conflict but when they do, reason must be wrong.

Critique of Aquinas

On # 5, in view of our 20th century awareness of the historicity of the development of dogma & of the interpretation of scripture, why not say that in cases of conflict, both religious faith & reason must reassess their positions?

Concluding comments on critical rationalism in general

Religious belief-systems are worldviews.

Worldviews are very complex – include metaphysics, epistemology, & ethics.

Thus they are difficult to critically evaluate.

But it is possible.

Some of the standards which may be used

internal & external consistency

explanatory power (does it offer a comprehensive view which is illuminating?)

agreement with experience

it offer a coherence unity

does it help us make sense of the actual living of our lives?

Finally, critical rationalism can be combined with certain Kierkegaardian elements of religious faith.  If conclusive proof is never possible with respect to religious belief-systems, then religious faith involves, as Kierkegaard claims, a commitment to a belief-system which goes beyond pure rationality.  It involves entrusting oneself to something that goes beyond what we have conclusive proof for.