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Religious empiricism

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Religious empiricism is the belief that things should only be believed if they can be seen or reasonably inferred, coupled with the belief that the physical evidence and logic point to religious belief. Thus it stands apart from skeptical empiricism, which bases beliefs on the evidence but is skeptical about God and miracles, and also stands apart from fideism, which holds beliefs without evidence, "by faith alone."

Thomas Aquinas was perhaps the first European to argue for religious empiricism. He argued that "Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses," meaning that all belief must come from sensory input and evidence. This is the essence of empiricism. Empiricists rely on their senses and reason to come to belief.

Religious empiricists like Aquinas argue further that belief in God could stem from A posteriori argument, but not from A priori argument.

  • A posterori ("Afterward") arguments are those made from the evidence, such as the teleological argument, "I believe in God because the universe shows evidence of design."
  • A priori ("Beforehand") arguments are those made from pure deduction, such as the ontological argument, "God must exist because it is impossible to imagine God not existing; God is by definition perfect; it is better to exist than not to exist, so imagining God not existing is imagining something less than perfect, and thus not imagining God." While ontological arguments have been made by people like Anselm, Descartes, and Plantinga, they are rejected by many others (like Aquinas) as circular reasoning.

Thus, the religious empiricist stands between the fideists and the skeptics. Like the fideists but unlike the skeptics, he believes in God. However, like the skeptics but not like the fideists, he insists that reason and evidence are the only true source of knowledge, and that "faith alone" is a recipe for disaster, because it can be neither tested, refined, nor logically justified.

Of course, religious empiricists also recognize the shortcomings of human knowledge. For that reason, they see the revelation of scripture as an act of grace on the part of God as a "shortcut" to Truth, giving us knowledge that could be arrived at through reason, but which Man is not capable of grasping due to his limitations. Religious empiricists see scripture as authoritative not because of an a priori faith in its inerrancy, but because it proves itself daily as capable of revealing Truth that would otherwise be beyond our grasp.

Religious empiricists also recognize that human ideas and even scripture pale in comparison to the reality of God and Truth. Aquinas, having worked on his monumental Summa Theologica for years, abandoned it after having a divine revelation that made it seem like straw next to the reality of God he had experienced.

Quotes by religious empiricists

  • "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." -- St. Paul of Tarsus, Romans 1:20;
  • "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use." [1] -- Galileo Galilei
  • "Though the works of nature, in every part of them, sufficiently evidence a Deity; yet the world made so little use of their reason, that they saw him not, where, even by the impressions of himself, he was easy to be found." -- John Locke
  • "If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, 'For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.' I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence." -- G.K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy, p. 137.