Philosopher Alvin Plantinga defines fideism as an “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth” (1).
Fideism focuses on the relationship between faith and reason and is often thought to have been best expressed in the church father Tertullian’s (160–230 CE) question: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Here Tertullian is indirectly stating that religious faith (symbolized as Jerusalem) is independent of, if not adversarial toward, reason (Athens). Fideism is also the claim that one’s fundamental religious convictions are not subject to independent rational assessment (2).
The term “fideism”, which was probably coined by Protestants in nineteenth century France, has not often been applied by thinkers to themselves. The term is often seen as pejorative rather than being genuinely descriptive. It has often been used to refer to perceived superstitious positions and ideologies. This was especially so in the Enlightenment period that made the term “fideism” receive its negative baggage when it first entered into philosophical usage. A small number of contemporary philosophers, among them John Bishop and C. Stephen Evans, have attempted to revitalize the term but without its negative baggage.
Fideism presupposes that some sort of truth can be known by rejecting rational inquiry and relying on faith. Faith is the source of certainty, which puts fideism in opposition to rationalistic attempts to articulate religious belief. Rationalistic attempts to articulate religion often focus on philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of God and divine revelation. Fideism, by contrast, does not seek rational proofs. In some sense, “proving” God seems to undermine faith because this would seem to explain what is ultimately empirically unprovable and inexplicable. Some fideists have, however, attempted to defend religious faith on other non-rationalistic grounds, such as on revelation from God, mystical experience, and subjective human need. For many thinkers, fideism can be seen not as an opposition to reason but, rather, the rejection of a particular account of reason that has been applied to religion. In particular, the objection is made to evidentialism, namely the view that a belief can be rational only if it is supported by evidence.
History is home to various fideists. Tertullian, in his attack on the pagan philosophers and their allegedly ignorant depictions of Christianity, insisted that the truth of Christianity could be disclosed only by revelation. Tertullian also appears to have disparaged reason when he wrote that “the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.” William of Ockham (1285-1347) articulated a strict form of fideism which maintained that only by faith alone can one attain certitude about God’s existence, the immortality of the soul, and moral law. The Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) believed that one knows of God’s existence and the truth of Christ’s divine mission by faith alone. For Kierkegaard, there is no rational justification or proof for these facts and to believe in the incarnation is to take a leap of faith.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) presented a form of fideism, known as Wittgensteinian fideism. This argues that religious believers embrace a language game that cannot be understood by persons not participating in the same language game. The religious language is unique in that it has its own internal logic and therefore cannot be subjected to the rules of a different language game, such as the language of sport or science. This means that religion cannot be criticized but also does not allow one to talk about reality. This form of fideism was embraced by Norman Malcolm who argued that religious beliefs participate in another language game and are essentially groundless. Groundless beliefs cannot be open to rational justification.
Criticisms of Fideism
Many fideists maintain that blind faith, not rational proof, is the most appropriate way to attain religious certainty and salvation. But today many people desire some degree of evidence for religious and worldview beliefs, especially those living in societies where rationalistic and logical ways of seeing the world are viewed highly. They think that just as evidence should be sought in other areas of life, such as in, for example, one’s business practices when making investments or on behalf of a jury in the courts of law, so should it be desired when it comes to worldviews. Blind faith or belief without justification is not appealing to such a person. This person will often not view as compelling the fideist’s appeal to emotions, mysticism, or revelation.
Scholars like Michael Martin have argued against the fideism predicated on language games that make religion immune to external criticism. Martin argues that the language of religion, which is indeed unique, can be evaluated because it shares a common conceptual framework with other language games. To Martin, this makes it possible, and even desirable, for persons who embrace different language games to engage in a dialogue. Martin, therefore, believes that religion can be examined and criticized externally.
Some objectors find fideism problematic on grounds that it seems to affirm that some views should be held as unquestionably true. The critic contends that some level of critical reflection is required otherwise human beings can find themselves falling to believe in absurd and often dangerous ideas that they should not. For example, belief in racial and cultural superiority based on one’s genetics is a dangerous belief that should be questioned even if it forms a central tenet of one’s religious worldview.
- Plantinga, Alvin. 1983. Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. p. 87.
- Carroll. Thomas. 2008. “The Traditions of Fideism.” Religious Studies 44(1):1-22. p. 3, 6-7.
Amesbury, Richard. 2016. Fideism. Available.