The Role of Faith in the Modern World

Ever since the Enlightenment, the significance of faith has fast been slipping down all throughout the West. We all know the standard story why. Faith was found to be of little epistemic value. It could not rival the utility of reason. Careful thinking was a better guide to life than blind faith in gods, religions, priests and thousand year old books.

As far as religion goes, I am a child of the Enlightenment. I think reason should have the upper hand in our decisions and beliefs. Yet, I have always felt uncomfortable with anyone who wished to deny the role of faith wholesale.

It is true. Faith leads to no knowledge. Believing in fairies is not a proof of their existence. And I’m sorry if it’s news to you, but Santa isn’t coming to your house in a few weeks — and not because you’ve been too naughty! Faith is indeed useless at providing new knowledge. If the debate was merely on this point, then the winners, reason and sensory experience, were crowned many years ago.

But is faith, properly understood, really about knowledge?

By way of an example, here is a famous story from the history of maths(don’t worry about the technicalities; they’re beside the main point) In the first half of the 17th century, a mathematician named Fermat hypothesized (or conjectured, in maths jargon) that the equation a^n + b^n = c^n only had positive integer solutions when n was greater than 2. There was no proof provided by him at the time. Moreover, for centuries the problem stood unresolved. 

By the end of the 20th century, no mathematician had solved the problem. There were many developments, but nothing conclusive to settle the matter once and for all. Then a mathematician named Andrew Wiles spent six year working in secret on the conjecture. He came up with a solution. However, there was a problem. The solution turned out to be wrong.

As it happens, Wiles went back to work and ultimately found a way to repair the proof. He thus had taken Fermat’s conjecture and had turned it into a theorem proper. It was a stroke of genius, no doubt.

Here is the million dollar question (literally! Wiles received many awards for his proof..): was Wiles acting rationally? What was more likely — that he would succeed after thousands had failed or that he would join their ranks? It wasn’t like everyone before him was stupid. It wasn’t like he never questioned himself along the way. Yet, he dared to do it.

It is stories like this that make me doubt the claims that reason suffices in life. The human condition is one of imperfect knowledge. Yet, it is also one of bold questions and daring goals. And it is through this delicate mixture, in combination with our undying desire for achievement, that reason comes to feel insufficient. 

The core of my doubt feels to me connected with the way we choose our goals. We do not simply choose guaranteed success by an empty pursuit of trivial problems. No, we deliberately prefer a lower probability of success if it means a greater payout. But even that approach has its limits. Or, more precisely, we have our limits and we try to work inside them. We do not set ourselves goals so daring to be impossible. Rather, we try to push our boundaries step by step towards a preconceived ideal.

Going back to the example above, Wiles did not set out to solve maths once and for all. That would have been impossible for everybody. Instead, Wiles pursued one specific problem that was still beyond humankind’s grasp. Still, reading more details about the story, it’s curious to see how he chose to sacrifice years of productive work for a project that might well have turned out to be intractable. All because he had a childhood fascination for Fermat’s conjecture…

It is exactly this element of irrationality that intrigues me. Goal setting driven by emotion instead of reason is normally derided. Yet, it can also often pleasantly surprise us. Irrationality can push our limits and test our abilities despite the best of evidence to the contrary.

In the much celebrated realm of entrepreneurship, founders are virtually never guided by mere reason. Why, after all, take a high personal risk in a pursuit of something you have never done? I have a friend who has shared precisely this line of thought with me: “Going by the measured failure rate and my lack of experience, I am likely to fail”. And perhaps he is right. He’s certainly not being irrational, anyway. The point is, however, where will our society be without the daring risks of entrepreneurs? Capitalism, which has brought prosperity to billions, breeds innovation only because people are willing to take bold risks and giant leaps of faith.

In a way, most highly ambitious acts of creativity require more than reason. They seem to depend on an ability to look at the world and imagine the future. For the creator, of course, imagining the future simply means creating it.

It is here that I find faith to be of practical value. Not as a source of knowledge. Not as a blind rejection of evidence. Instead, faith as an honest acceptance of the evidence and the belief that this now enables a different (better?) future. In other words, I do believe there was an element of faith in Wiles’ pursuit. Even though he knew the evidence of progress mathematicians have been making, he also knew that the problem had remained unsolved for centuries. Moreover, once his proof was found to be mistaken, he could have just accepted defeat there and then. He didn’t. At some level, he still believed the proof was possible. 

This practical understanding of faith goes far more than the single story of Wiles, however. Fermat’s original conjecture was a clear example of practical faith. He didn’t have a proof of his claim, yet he made it nonetheless. In science too, few results can be proven once and for all. Belief in experiments and empiricism are ultimately based on a certain level of faith. But that’s ok. Practical faith and reason go well together. There is no conflict between them and there is no need for one to exist.

I don’t know if there is a god or not. I don’t know if faith, understood as in the above, elucidates much on that particular debate. However, what I know is that faith enables creativity. Moreover, psychologically, faith often takes a certain heavy burden out from the heart. Put differently, faith stimulates endurance and alleviates suffering. All that means is that faith is useful and practical. It thus should not be rejected just because many in the past misused or misunderstood it. Faith has its own role to play in our lives.

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4 Comments, RSS

  1. floatinggold December 9, 2017 @ 12:50 AM

    I am happy to inform you that now it is easy for WP users to leave comments. Mission accomplished!

    • blago

      blago December 9, 2017 @ 1:23 AM

      A small step for me, a huge leap for the comment section 🙂

  2. dotluvs2write December 12, 2017 @ 12:09 AM

    “Faith stimulates endurance and alleviates suffering” — I like this. Yes, faith can do that, and so can hope. Having hope helps one from falling into despair. I find the way you used faith in your blog post very interesting. It’s a different perspective…somewhat of a different aspect of faith as it is usually meant wholly. When I think of faith, I think that it leads to wisdom that transcends worldly knowledge. Well done. 🙂

  3. […] The result is therefore a mix of observation, hidden regularity hypotheses, and generalizations which then hopefully obeys the laws of logic. And it’s not like we could always and explicitly state our assumptions, let alone reasonably justify them. In fact, the best we can do is usually along the lines “well, it works”. […]

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