Faith and Knowledge, Religion and Science: an Essay

Analyse the strength and weaknesses of using faith as a basis for Knowledge in Religion and the Natural sciences

In answering this question it is important to first define the terms ‘Knowledge’, ‘faith’ and ‘religion’. Knowledge has been defined as justified true belief by Plato[1], where a belief that is true and can be justified towards being true can become knowledge, implying that knowledge both incorporates belief and the truth. Some philosophers[2], rely on the method of hyperbolic doubt or scepticism, to test how grounded in reason knowledge is and to discern judgements on statements whose truth can in anyway be doubted[3]. Thus Decartes arrived at ‘Cogito ergo sum’, and also at the existence of God[4]. Faith has often been defined as the absence of doubt; one could indeed argue that faith is the belief and implicit trust in someone or something without concise proof.

Living in the “West”, born and grown up in Germany and now living in the UK, one could speak of a split between religion and reason in this modern society, as advancement in science is often seen as more important than having a faith that seems to some as unreasonable and unscientific.

As Khalil Gibran said “faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof.[5]” According to him faith doesn’t need proof, it may also not need the mind to rationalise it, simply lying in the heart, As a Muslim, faith is indeed “a knowledge within the heart”, however the Quran also says “there truly are signs…for those with understanding…who reflect on the creation…”[6] and also asks us “Do you not reflect?”[7], meaning that while it is necessary to have faith (Iman) in Islam, the Qur’an recognises that some proof is sometimes needed and that to reflect, think and acquire knowledge only increases faith. Muslims therefore would argue that faith is rational, and by using reason and sense perception as mentioned in these verses we come to the conclusions that we believe in. In other religions there are similar principles in Buddhism for example it is disliked to follow (religious) authority out of blind faith. As this could lead to believe in something which is neither justified nor true.

Through my great interest in Anime, such as ‘Spirited away’, I was exposed to a lot of Japanese culture, where Shintoism is widely practiced. Shintoism now has more to do with rituals and certain (traditional) practices it is possible to be a Shinto as well as a Christian as long as the practices and rituals are only to do with the veneration of their temples, their feudal lords etc. as such the term ‘Religion’ can’t be defined easily. Some religions like Shintoism are not standardised not having a strict system of beliefs but are more part of the way the people live.[8] Similarly for Muslims including me, Islam is as much a religion as it is a complete way of life.

All religions make some claim towards religious knowledge; in all the Abrahamic faiths for example every single being is to be accounted for its sins and good deeds, in the Baha’i faith the soul is believed to continue to exist even after the death of the body, heaven is more of a condition (nearness to God) than a place, whereas in Sikhism it’s the salvation through the unity with God. In this there might be a weakness in using faith as a basis for knowledge, since each religion claims knowledge of what happens after death, which are very different. This raises the question, who is right and how can we know? Some would then argue that faith in itself is irrational as Richard Dawkins once said “Faith is a great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even because of lacking of evidence.”[9] Richard Dawkins believes that faith causes people to stop thinking as well as evaluating evidence that might contradict that faith, an example would be those who believe that the earth is flat despite the evidence against it.

However looking at Science there is that same problem seen in the faith in axioms, which are taken as basis for knowledge in the different areas of knowledge, even though they haven’t been proven to be true. One could argue that science itself is faith-based; the scientific method asserts that the universe obeys a set of rules, which we can deduce by sense-perception, reason as well as logic and empirical evidence. Furthermore the deductions that a scientist may take from a set of results may turn out to be inaccurate because of confirmation bias, anomalies etc. however of it weren’t for the faith in ones theorems on an emotional as well as rational level many such as Einstein would have given up on their theories. Often these theories are not accepted by the general population such as in the case of Semmelweiss, who discovered that infections could be spread amongst patients by the doctors and nurses themselves in a hospital.[10] So if these scientists didn’t have faith in what they discovered, which now is accepted as true, it would still be disregarded. On the other hand, emotionally speaking, one could equally hold to a theory such as that the earth is flat, which is not based on reason in the present day.

Emotions play a role in using faith as a basis of knowledge for a person to change what they believe in is conceivably hard, the faith a person holds in some way defines him, influences him. This however could prove holding on to that faith to be irrational if it has been disproven. A person so blinded by his emotion would damage the search of knowledge instead of furthering it. However if that faith is based or closely linked to reason a person might be inclined to share and “enlighten” others of his belief and could in that way further the search for knowledge.

Another strength of using faith as a basis for knowledge is that we generally learn something from a teacher or parents etc. who we have implicit faith in. Teachers are a credible source for knowledge and enhance the search for it. As such when my science teacher tells me that because of the repulsions of electrons and through the Pauli Exclusion Principle, that we do not fall when sitting on a chair[11], I have faith that he is telling me the right thing (valid theories)This I can then verify if necessary to gain the knowledge. This transmission and communication of thought through language as a way of knowing is detrimental to faith as a basis for knowledge.

Similarly in Religion most elements of faith and knowledge are passed on by using language, as a way of communication. In my faith, in Islam, especially there is a strong tradition of memorizing a text or saying and passing it on. One could argue that this method is unreliable as one person could potentially change it or lie, but there is an equally strong tradition of verifying the truthfulness of a statement before giving it on, to the point that it has become a science (Ulumul Hadith). Likewise the translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese and Indian monks travelling to China led to the Buddhist faith being one of the biggest religious traditions in China.

This all only applies if that faith is not misplaced and that the teacher or person of authority or thing, is credible, meaning that there is implicit trust.

In this essay I have argued for and against the use of faith as a basis for knowledge. I defined what I thought was meant by knowledge drawing from Pluto’s justified true belief, and faith being the belief and implicit trust in someone or something not needing evidence. I explored what Muslims believe as well as my personal experiences with other religions such as Shinto and Buddhism and my daily life. I would argue that one should distinguish between blind faith and faith that is based upon some evidence through deduction, logic, language, sense perception or otherwise. In fact I believe that many religious inclined people including me do distinguish and distance themselves from blind faith; that is in many religions seen as without conviction.

Some such as some Buddhists argue that you don’t have true faith if you don’t have true doubt. I think Albert Einstein sums my stance on religion vs. science quite nicely, he said that “the situation may be expressed by an image: Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”[12], I believe religion and science go hand in hand as such faith is an important factor in both of them. Maybe it could be even separated so that science can and should only answer the ‘how’ of the universe and maybe faith and religion answers the ‘why’.

In conclusion I believe it should be the other way round, not faith as a basis of Knowledge, but Knowledge as the basis of faith.

Written for the International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge May 2012 assessment. Everything (except footnote 6&7) in italics was added at a later date. Note: this is not the original file as sent to the Examiners. The original got an ‘A’. Copyright lies with me (Abdur-Rahman Jimoh) except where sources are stated. Do not and I repeat DO NOT copy passages of this text, it MIGHT cost you your Diploma. : )

 


[1] In Plato’s Theatetus http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/theatu.html (as of 20.1.2012)

[2] Such as Arcesilaus or Aenesidemus http://philosophy.about.com/od/Philosophical-Schools/a/Skepticism.htm (as of 21.05.2013)

[3] ‘I think, therefore I am’ by Lesley Levene (2010)

[4] Ibid

[6] The Qur’an Surah 3 The Family of Imran verse 190-1

[7] The Qur’an Surah 37 Ranged in Rows verse 155

[10] AQA Science Revision Guide p.14

Mu610

About Mu610

22 year old German Muslim currently studying at Bradford University in the UK. Born in Marburg, raised in Berlin and spent 5 years in Nottingham then moving to Bradford in September '12. Is fluent in German and English and has some knowledge of French and Arabic, has an interest in learning Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and maybe Urdu for now.

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