Is Faith Irrational?

One of the objections that skeptics use is the idea that faith is irrational. This accusation has been around so long that some religious people have started making similar claims. Recently, radio talk show host Dennis Prager wrote an article defending Mitt Romney’s religious beliefs called “Mormons Have Irrational Beliefs? Who Doesn’t?” This is not an attack on Prager, but we should explore this idea. 
The American Heritage Dictionary defines irrational as, “Contrary to reason; illogical.” For a belief to be irrational it must violate the basic laws of logic. If a belief does not violate any of these laws, then it cannot be called irrational. Referring to the laws of logic is the only objective way to test beliefs as to whether they are rational or irrational. Any other test assumes that there is a worldview already in place and the reasoning becomes circular. It should also be noted that a belief can be wrong and rational.

Prager is a practicing Jew and starts with his own religion. He states, “I believe the Torah is a divine book. I believe that God took the Jews out of Egypt and that He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. To atheists and secularists, these are not necessarily rational beliefs.”[i] What laws of logic do Prager’s beliefs violate? He is not claiming that the Torah is not the Torah. He does not believe that God took the Jews out of Egypt and did not take the Jews out of Egypt. There is no law of logic that these beliefs violate. The fact that atheists and secularists do not believe these claims does not make the claims irrational. If the skeptics want to claim that these beliefs are irrational the burden is on them to demonstrate that the laws of logic have been violated.

Prager places the Islamic belief that the Quran was given to Mohamed as not being reason based. It may not be, but it is not irrational. Islam should be rejected because the Quran makes false historical claims and contradictory claims about the Old and New Testaments, not because the idea that God gave Mohamed a book is irrational. There are no laws of logic violated by this belief.

Prager also levels a charge at Christianity. He says, “non-Christians cannot be expected to regard the belief that God has a son who was born of a virgin as reason-based.”[ii] This is not reason based, it is revelation based. However, revelation based beliefs are not necessarily irrational. There are no laws of logic that are violated by the doctrine of the virgin birth or the Trinity. The question that needs to be asked is, are these things true?

This brings us to the main point of Prager’s claim, “If all religious beliefs were dictated by reason alone, there would be no meaning to the word faith. A healthy religious life is composed of both faith and reason.”[iii] I agree that the religious life requires faith and reason. But what is faith? Is it a violation of reason? Prager does not define faith in his blog, but he seems to think that faith is opposed to reason in some way. He seems to think that if a belief is reached through reason then it cannot have an element of faith. Others have defined faith as believing in something in spite of evidence against it.

What does the Bible have to say about faith? The book of Deuteronomy is a record of Moses parting words to the people of Israel. God used Moses to take the people of Israel out of a state of slavery in Egypt and bring them to the land of Canaan, which had been promised to them through their forefathers. The people of Israel grumbled, reverted to idol worship, and refused to take the land because they were afraid of the people already living there. Because they did these things Moses writes, “they are a perverse generation, in whom is no faithfulness” (ESV Deut. 32:20). The Hebrew word that is translated as faithfulness in the Old Testament refers to being trustworthy. Moses was angry because the people did not trust the promises of God and displayed no loyalty to God in their actions. The prophet Habakkuk states, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (ESV Hab. 2:4). A righteous person is a person that has integrity and lives a life based on his trust in God.[iv] The Old Testament meaning of faith is loyalty to God and trusting his promises.

The Greek word that is translated faith in the New Testament can mean trust or belief. Paul tells the Corinthians that he did not use persuasive rhetoric “so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God” (NET 1 Cor. 2:5). Here Paul is telling the Corinthians should trust in God, not in human wisdom. In his letter to the Romans Paul writes, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world” (NET Rom. 1:8). In this instance faith is referring to the content of what the Church in Rome proclaims, what they believe. In the New Testament faith always refers to trust or the content of a person’s belief.

The Biblical concept of faith is to believe that God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and to trust in the promises of God. Faith is believing and trusting. How does faith connect with reason? If the mind does not accept a belief, the heart will reject it. Ravi Zacharias writes, “The worldview of the Christian faith is simple enough. God has put enough into this world to make faith in him a most reasonable thing. But he has left enough out to make it impossible to live by reason alone.”[v] Reason assures people that they are placing their faith in something worthy of faith. Why is it impossible to live by reason alone? Because reason it self requires faith.              

[iv] The NET Bible reads, “the person of integrity will live because of his faith.” The quotation in Rom. 1:17 reads, “The righteous by faith will live.”
[v] Ravi Zacharias, The End of Reason, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2008), 75.