Three Pitfalls of Religious Fideism

What is Religious Fideism?

Fideism is the view that human beings live in separate religious spheres because of their different attitudes toward God.[1] Believers begin with the assumption that God exists and base all of their subsequent thinking on that foundation. Unbelievers begin with the assumption that God does not exist and see the world from that perspective. Because these spheres are radically different, Fideists think that believers and unbelievers end up talking past each other when they engage in rational arguments about religious matters. They do not share enough common ground for their reasons to be convincing either way.[2]

Fideists claim that unbelievers need to see the world through the “lens” of Christian faith in order to understand that faith. It can only be understood from the inside – and that requires a supernatural change of heart.

Clearly, if rational arguments cannot arbitrate between these different spheres of thinking, then something other than reason is needed for unbelievers to change their views. Fideists claim that God alone can change unbelievers. He does this by generating faith within their hearts so that they can understand faith from the inside, not from the outside. Only if God enables them to believe will they begin to understanding the faith they once found puzzling.

Another aspect of Fideism is its rejection of human reason as a tool for discovering God. It is idolatrous (say the Fideists) to use reason to make religious commitments because it elevates human thinking above God and it supplants God as the true starting point for one’s investigations. Those who elevate reason in this way inevitably seek God on their own terms and reduce Him to an undemanding object of intellectual curiosity.

Three Pitfalls of Fideism

Fideism is seriously flawed as a model for how faith and reason are related. I say so for three reasons.

First, Fideism overestimates the differences believing and non-believing perspectives. If I were an unbeliever, my view of God, my thinking, and my investigations would undoubtedly favour a non-religious perspective; but it would be false to conclude that my perspective is completely foreign to that of a believer. Why? My simple answer is this: believers and unbelievers alike live in the same world – God’s world! We share similar bodies, languages, enterprises, and communities and these points of contact make rational dialogue between us possible, even if religious matters are more hotly contested. I admit that rational arguments are rarely (if ever) sufficient to convert an adherent of another worldview, but they can definitely be used by God as part of His larger plan to draw such a person to Himself.

Second, it is not necessarily idolatrous or prideful for an unbeliever to use reason to discover God. After all, reason is a gift from God and trusting it can be wise. Yes, unbelievers can reason in self-serving ways by insisting that God make his existence evident on their own preferred terms; but so can believers! Both sides need to resist pride and seek truth about God with humility. Doing so requires sober insight into one’s limits as a creature, one’s fallibility as a knower, and one’s need for God’s help (if he exists) to eventually find Him.

Fideism leaves unbelievers without a framework for deciding between religions

Third, Fideism is one-sided. It rightly invites people to believe in order to seek new understanding, but it wrongly discourages people from understanding in order to seek a new belief. In my view, the two must go together. Unfortunately, the one-sided approach of Fideism leaves unbelievers without a framework for deciding between religions, if they were to convert. That’s because adherents of other religions are also encouraging people to believe without prior understanding. So in the absence of prior reasons, why should a person choose Christianity instead of Islam, Hinduism, or some other view?

To help decide between religions, a Christian Fideist might advise a person to humbly pray and ask God to reveal Himself through a powerful experience. And that would be good advice! But even here, the non-believer must rely on her prior understanding of reality (however limited and or imperfect it may be at the time) to figure out which God she has experienced and whether the revelation she received was genuine or deceptive. In other words, divine revelation can guide a person to a new faith, but it can only do so by encountering (and being explained by) a person’s prior understanding.

The key point here is that a person’s prior understanding is composed of her previous beliefs and the reasons she had for holding them.[3] New faith does not take root until divine revelation is compared against that background. Therefore, if divine revelation must be understood by comparing it against prior beliefs and reasons, then Fideism is false. Why? Because Fideism denies that prior reasons (however imperfect they may have been) play any role in understanding divine revelation.

[1] I am highly indebted to C. Stephen Evans’ book Philosophy of Religion (1982), pp.18-22, for this explication and assessment of fideism.

[2] What about agnostics? Do they dwell in neutral territory between belief and unbelief? Fideism would say no. Agnostics remain theoretically neutral on the question of God, but in practice they vote with their feet. They reveal their attitudes toward God by choosing whether to seek, resist, or ignore what God stands for – if such a being exists. Thus, agnostics show partiality by how they act, not necessarily by what they believe.

[3] My view of interpreting divine revelation is similar to that of Paul Ricoeur.

4 thoughts on “Three Pitfalls of Religious Fideism”

      1. Fideism, strictly speaking, distinguishes faith FROM reason. Presuppositionalism, at least in my experience and what I have seen in good debates (Bahnsen/Stein, White/Silverman, in particular), argues that one cannot even reason to faith apart from the regenerating experience of God. You might be able to explain all of the particulars, but until the Holy Spirit does His wonderful work in putting the pieces together, its just a puzzle in a box that has no picture on the lid. It clearly lays out the arguments up front of both sides, that way there’s no confusion about what is being argued, even if the opposition wants to stray, thus exposing the weakness of the argument. The White/Price debate on the truth of the Bible clearly shows that such an approach has definite advantages.

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