Posted by: rohlfsen1 | April 8, 2009

The Perfect Compromise: Critical Rationalism

While researching for my paper, I recently came across an interesting differentiation between views regarding the usefulness and validity of reason in matters of faith. In Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Peterson et. al., the authors offer three main views: (1) strong rationalism, which claims that religious belief systems must be provable before they can be rationally accepted, (2) fideism, which claims that religious belief-systems are not even subject to rational evaluation, and (3) critical rationalism, which takes a middle goldibowls2position between the extremes of #1 and #2 by claiming that religious belief-systems “can and must be rationally criticized and evaluated although conclusive proof of such a system is impossible” (p. 53). Though I know this subject matter has been touched on briefly in other blog posts and in class, I think this differentiation clearly illustrates what we should and should not do this semester in our class, and what we should do at all times as Christians constantly seeking the truth.


As you may have all guessed, strong rationalism is supported by people like the new atheists, who demand reasonable, logical arguments that are based on evidence alone before they will even listen to a proposition such as religious belief. In this case, to prove a belief is often defined as “to show that a belief is true in a way that should be convincing to any reasonable person.” (p. 45) But as we have discussed, this view falls short in many ways, specifically in that is nearly (if not entirely) impossible to prove an empirically unverifiable belief to everyone. This view demands too much and is self-defeating in that the specific view of scientism is not even accepted by everyone.


On the other extreme, fideism asserts that because religious belief involves faith, it cannot be proven, and furthermore that any attempt at a rational gathering of evidence inherently counteracts faith. Kierkegaard defends this belief by explaining that rational inquiry is actually more of a frustration than a help to one’s faith because it gets in the way of coming to know God. This view also has problems in that its main beliefs are logically contradictory, and as the authors point out, “given that faith is a leap, how does one decide which faith to leap for?” (p. 41)


Critical Rationalism, however, seems to be the perfect Goldilocks answer to the question of how reason should fit into faith matters. It acknowledges the limits of reason, while simultaneously upholding the necessity of using rationality in making this important life decision. Essentially, the approach lays out the journey to a specific belief system as follows: (1) pick a belief with which you identify, (2) come to understand that belief as much as possible, (3) look at reasons for and against accepting that belief, and (4) continually be open to new information, new revelation, and new arguments once you have “settled” on a particular belief. Through this faith-filled and rational approach, one is then able to do as much as possible to ensure that that he or she has made a good decision (considering that this may be the most important decision of one’s life!). As the authors explain it, “the critical rationalist is in a more exposed, more vulnerable position that either the fideist or the strong rationalist”. Though this may sound like a scary place to be, and though it may seem easier to avoid reason altogether as a fideist or to solely accept evidence that has been proven by science as a strong rationalist would, in my mind this is the best possible place to be. No, we shouldn’t constantly be feeling major doubt concerning our “chosen belief” (as that would get slightly annoying and discouraging), but at the same time I think we get to a place of solid faith and certainty through the critical rationalist approach. And though it may seem like more work, I would prefer to wrestle with every new atheist claim and seriously entertain other belief systems than just hold fast to my own. Essentially, I would prefer to find the truth than be comfortable.



  1. Rae,

    I didn’t check the last few days of posts before uploading my own, so it is by total coincidence that our posts are somewhat similar! It makes sense that we would encounter similar subject matter during our research process, since critical rationalism/realism seems to be the most intellectually sound epistemology. John Haught would assuage your fear of vulnerability in maintaining a critical rational approach by showing you stepwise why it is the only way in which we can engage in authentic intellectual activity.

    Haught appropriates his own conception of critical realism in his use of the term “critical intelligence.” For Haught, humans come to know truth by acting upon three fundamental imperatives that drive our consciousness: be attentive in your experience, be intelligent in your search for understanding and be critical in your judgment of your understanding. (That sounds very similar to your first three steps, no?) We begin with the cognitional act of experience, which demands that we be attentive to that by which we are affected. We then attempt to comprehend our experience in a response to the intrinsic imperative to be intelligent. Finally, comprehension of our experiences allows us to be critical in our evaluation of our cognitional acts. These fundamental imperatives of the mind and their consequent cognitional acts comprise the foundation of any intellectual endeavor. Your very questioning of this assertion demonstrates that this is so. By the time you’re reading this, you have already experienced my explanation of Haught’s critical intelligence. And your questioning the veracity of my explanation requires that you both understand and judge what has been proposed. To make a really long story (meaning, much of my paper) very short: Haught shows that the New Atheist notion that they use any other epistemology is illusory; in the very act of denying critical realism they are affirming it.

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