Oct 312010

In a recent poll on this website, visitors were asked what they thought “Religious belief is based on,” and they were given five options to choose the answer from where only one answer can be chosen by the visitor:

1) Faith

2) Reason

3) Evidence

4) Reason and evidence

5) Faith, reason, and evidence

 The results of the 541 visitors that took part in the poll are shown in the following graph:


Before analyzing the question and its results, I would like first to comment on the terminology used. The term “faith,” in this context, signifies “assumptions” we make. We label these views as faith or assumptions because we cannot prove whether they are right or wrong.

“Reason” denotes the mental faculty to think logically. This capability is manifested in our ability to consider information and assumptions and reach relevant conclusions. Reason produces rational thinking. Like any other intellectual and physical capability, different people have it in different measures. On one end of this spectrum, there is the genius who can process a lot of information and weave together long chains of thought to produce the most complex arguments. On the other, there is the person who has some physical malfunctioning or damage in their brain that deprives them of even the most basic level of reasoning. Most people fall somewhere between those extremes.

“Evidence” is a proof on something. But the strength of any piece as evidence might be assessed differently by two different individuals. Indeed, what is considered as evidence by one person might not be seen so at all by another. Assessing the strength of something as evidence depends on the person’s reasoning capabilities, relevant information or knowledge, and related assumptions they make. As I have already explained, reason as a capability differs from one person to another. Similarly, certain information can affect the individual’s assessment of the strength of a piece of evidence, so having or not having such information can be vital. Finally, we make various assumptions all the time about various things, and our assessment of the strength of evidence can be influenced by relevant assumptions. I include under the term “assumptions” any biases and prejudices the person has.

Understanding the point of view of the other means taking into account any relevant information they have, assumptions they make, and how they are process these rationally. This is critical in reaching a consensus on whether something amounts to evidence and, if so, how strong that evidence is. But sharp differences in the information available and assumptions made and how they used can make such an agreement not possible. But even in the absence of agreement, such understanding often leads to more tolerance and acceptance of the difference. While people may not reach a total agreement on the issue in hand, they can at least learn how to work around their differences.

We should not be surprised, then, that the answer to the question of the survey is that “religious belief is based on” all of “reason, evidence, and faith.” This is what the Qur’an also says, as I will show here.

In a previous article on The Concept of “Ghayb” (Unseen) in the Qur’an, I made the following conclusion:

These verses remind us that belief in Allah is partly based on having faith in things we cannot see or verify. So “ghayb” stands for things that the person cannot know or, even when they are brought to their knowledge, they cannot be totally certain of, because they cannot check and verify them directly. So accepting such non-provable things as facts becomes a matter of faith.

Any belief system that requires accepting metaphysical statements or things one can never verify, which all religious beliefs do, has to be partly based on faith.

The Qur’an also states in many verses that belief should be based on reason. This is one example in which the Prophet is commanded to make a rational argument in his debate with those who rejected his message:

Say: “Had Allah wished, I would not have recited it [the Qur’an] to you and you would not have known about it. I have lived many years with your before it. Can you not comprehend?” (10.16)

The clause “Can you not comprehend” translates the Arabic “afala ta‘qilun.” The root of the verse “ta‘qilun” is “’aql” or “reason.”

This is another verse commanding the Prophet to argue the case for his message with the disbelievers, i.e. to make rational arguments that the disbelievers can understand:

Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation and argue with them in the best manner. Your Lord best knows those who go astray from His path, and He best knows those who follow the right way. (16.125)

Many verses berate the flawed logic of worshiping powerless idols:

They worship beside Allah those can provide nothing for them from the earth or the heavens and are powerless. (16.73)

Those whom you call, beside Him, cannot help nor can they help themselves. (7.197)

The Qur’an criticizes those who abandon their reason to follow blindly what others, even if they were their fathers:

When it is said to them: “Follow what Allah has sent down,” they say: “No, we rather follow what we have found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers had no understanding of anything and they were not guided? (2.170)

This is an instance of an assumption being made to override what reason would otherwise naturally conclude, which is the fact that idols that one can build and destroy cannot be powerful gods.

The Qur’an also states that belief should be based on evidence. Many aspects of the creation are considered as signs pointing to the Creator:

He subjected to you [O people!] the night and day, and the sun and moon; and the stars are subjected by His command. In that are signs for people who reason. (16.12)

In the creation of the heavens and earth and in the alternation of night and day there are signs for those who have minds. (3.190)

But as what amounts to evidence depends on reason, these and many other verses link the individual’s ability to see natural phenomena and other things as evidence pointing to Allah to their ability to reason.

God has even challenged people to subject the Qur’an, the book of the faith, to study by reason and search for evidence:

Can they not consider the Qur’an? If it was from someone other than Allah they would have found so much discrepancy in it (4.82).

So the Qur’an makes it clear that belief is based on a combination of faith, reason, and evidence.

While I was expecting a majority of those taking part in the poll to agree that religious belief is based on all of faith, reason, and evidence, I was surprised that they formed a majority of only 57%. But the biggest surprise is that over a third thought that religious belief is based on faith only. The simple question to this group is this: How can one justify embracing one particular belief if it is all a matter of faith? The fundamental mistake in basing one’s belief on faith only is that while faith is necessary for any belief system, as I have already explained, it can never serve as the only starting for choosing that belief. When the Prophet was commanded to spread his message, he had to “convince” people to follow him not “charm” them. This process involved using rational arguments to convince them that he was a genuine messenger from God and that his teachings came from God, and that would have involved, among other things, exposing falsehoods in the beliefs that people held at the time and showing the truthfulness of his religion.

Also, the view that religious belief is based on faith only is dangerous, because it completely disables the person’s intellectual abilities to critically examine claims. Employing blind faith to develop uncritical following is how cults are built and people are taken full advantage of.

Similar flaws exist in the other three answers: reason, evidence, and reason and evidence. Each of these answers leaves out one or two of the three requirements of religious belief. These totaled less than 8% of the votes.

I would like to conclude this article by giving an example of how faith, reason, and evidence cannot be separated as the foundation for religious belief. I have written extensively about history in the Qur’an. I focus on showing how history according to the Qur’an is in line with established facts. In one book, The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt; we studied the exodus of the Israelites from pharaonic Egypt with prophet Moses, showing that the Qur’anic account, unlike its Biblical counterpart, is not in conflict with what we know from history and archaeology about that period and place. Historical facts and archaeological finds represent evidence. We used the various pieces of evidence to argue the accuracy of the Qur’an. These arguments, obviously, employ reason. We concluded that this mix of evidence and rational arguments justify believing that the Qur’an provides an accurate account of the history of the Israelites in ancient Egypt. But because there are very limited historical and archaeological records from that period and place, there are aspects of the Qur’anic history of this story that have no evidence available to support or reject them. Furthermore, some of these details involve miracles that Moses performed. In addition to the lack of independent records to support the occurrence of these miracles, they are, by definition, against natural laws. So all we are left with here is to accept, as a matter of faith, the occurrence of Moses’ miracles. But the critical point here is that this faith was justified only because other parts of the story are supported by evidence and rational arguments.

Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

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10 years ago

(H.B.Hebrews 11:1)Was probably the concept of most of your readers,feed back.

10 years ago

Nice article. I agree with you that Qur’an tells us to use both faculties that God gave us…faith and reason (to work on evidence) ….I would also add our moral intuitive sense of what is morally right and wrong

This is an important article. Important always but especially so now in the modern world and “age of reason”