Rational vs. Irrational Faith

Posted on October 23, 2014 by Robert Ringer


In Erich Fromm’s 1956 classic The Art of Loving, he provides some unique insights into the subject of faith that have given me a lot to think about. Fromm did not believe faith is in opposition to reason or rational thinking. On the contrary, he simply made a distinction between rational faith and irrational faith.

He believed that irrational faith is based on submission to irrational authority, while rational faith is based on one’s own convictions. Rational faith is a character trait that involves one’s whole personality rather than a specific belief.

Rational faith, then, is an important component of rational thinking. In fact, Fromm believed that creative thinking begins with a “rational vision,” a vision that results from study, reflective thinking, and observation.

In other words, rational faith is rooted in one’s own experiences, thoughts, observations, and judgments. Irrational faith, on the other hand, is the acceptance of something as true only because an authority or the majority say it is.

The rational believer must have faith in his core being. He must have trust in himself — know that the person he really is will not change with changing circumstances. If we lose faith in who we are, we become dependent on others and change in ways to gain their approval. Not a good thing.

The belief in power over others is the reverse of faith. There is no rational faith in domination — either for the dominator or the dominated. To be sure, power is an all-encompassing objective for politicians and many religious leaders, but, to their dismay, it is the most unstable of all achievements.

Fromm pointed out that because having faith and having power over others are mutually exclusive objectives, all religious and political systems originally built on rational faith become corrupt and lose their strength. It would be difficult to argue that history has not supported his viewpoint, and over the next several years this will become eminently clear to all Americans save the walking dead.

What Fromm did not address head on, however, is faith in a Higher Being. Is it rational or irrational faith to believe in God? The atheist would say it is irrational, while the believer would come down on the side of rational.

But the individual who believes in a Conscious Universal Power Source could just as easily say that the atheist’s viewpoint is based on irrational faith — faith, perhaps, that the universe somehow created itself. And if the universe could create itself, is the universe not God?

In truth, however, both believers in a Higher Being and atheists can have rational faith in their beliefs, so long as those beliefs are based on study, reflective thinking, and observation. I agree with Viktor Frankl’s view that there is probably not much difference between a so-called atheist and an individual who believes in God. It’s more a matter of semantics than zealous people on both sides might believe.

So, whether it’s faith in yourself, faith in your spouse, faith in a friend, faith in your future, or faith in a Supreme Being, faith is an integral part of the human experience. Make that rational faith. And you will do your children a great service by making sure they understand and believe in the efficacy of rational faith beginning at a very young age.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

34 responses to “Rational vs. Irrational Faith”

  1. John Abbott says:

    Interesting discussion. Not sure if it went anywhere or not. I'm a Believer in Jesus, so maybe I already HAVE a rational faith. But we should ALL be open to these kind of discussions, in my opinion.

  2. Jeff says:

    If I understand correctly, rational faith comes from adherence to an authority of truth developed from within (i.e. conscience) while irrational faith is adherence to the authority of another person or group while putting conscience aside.

  3. hroberts32014 says:

    Rational faith is a contradiction in terms. Faith is belief or trust without or opposed to facts and reason. Faith is always a rejection of reason. Do you mean confidence in oneself, or trust earned based on reason? Erich Fromm has always been deaf to all rational argument.

    • stogiechomper says:

      I disagree. There is little reasonable about the atheist's point of view, i.e., that the universe created itself and it's all a big meaningless accident with no purpose. Since the atheist view is NOT based on facts and reason, it too is based on faith — i.e., a belief based on intuition, an inner feeling. The atheist faith is pessimistic, but it is faith nevertheless.

      Human reason and logic are tools that are limited to data observable to man through his five physical senses. Those senses are not capable of either detecting or denying the existence of a higher reality. Take the analogy of two microbes arguing about the existence of man. One microbe argues that man cannot exist, since no microbe has ever seen one.

      "Faith" is simply a belief that comes from other sources than the five physical senses. It is an inner knowing or an inner belief, which can be obtained through meditation, reflection and the burst of insight known as the mystical experience. The atheist position that man's five senses are powerful enough to detect all reality is an arrogant and unfounded assumption. Likewise is his mistaken assumption that human reason and logic are sufficient to determine the existence or non-existence of God.

      There are things in heaven and earth, dear hroberts32014, that are not dreamt of in your philosophy.

      • hroberts32014 says:

        For God to create the universe, He would first have to exist, in which case he did not create existence–nor the universe. Existence is axiomatic. Nor does the universe have a "purpose." Only human beings can create purposeful actions–for good or evil. Creation does not apply to the universe; there is no alternative to the existence of the universe. The only entities in existence that can cease to exist are living things. Their chemical elements remain, but their lives cease to exist.

        Moreover, an atheist is exactly that: an a-theist, one who does not believe in a "higher reality," which takes no faith at all. If you do believe in a higher reality, then show your evidence–without fantasy microbe illustrations. Your "knowing, intuition, insight, or inner feelings" and mystical insights are simply your will to believe in your emotions, which you hold to be superior to reason and even to perception.

        • Stogie says:

          You make a lot of unproved statements that are nothing but your own opinion. You are a blind man arguing that color does not exist, and asking the sighted to prove that it does. My "fantasy illustrations: are metaphoric, they illustrate a point. That point is that man's ability to grasp ultimate reality is very limited. Take again the microbe, living on the edge of a postage stamp. The various ink dots are meaningless to him, because he cannot see the whole picture, does not have the vantage point to see that picture. You are arrogantly in error regarding insight, intuition and inner feelings, and the mystical experience is not merely emotional. It is the "enlightenment" or satori, that eastern mystics spend their lives in meditation hoping to attain. I have had the experience three times in my life, so don't attempt to explain to me what you have never experienced yourself.

          Finally, in order to know if a higher power exists or does not exist, for certain, one would have to be omniscient, a kind of god himself. Apparently, only atheists believe they have that omniscience.

      • jad says:

        What if human thought is from creature necessity and experience biased towards the concept that everything had to have been created.

    • Jean says:

      Complete disagree with you, hroberts. Faith was best described by Paul as "the substance of things not seen." That doesn't mean that you can't rationally conclude they exist. You can't see gravity, for example, but Newton's explanation of it is logical, so we have "faith" that there is a force that keeps us from floating in the air and whose strength depends on the density of the terrestrial body. Even the Darwinist has "faith" that man evolved from lower primates, based on reasonable conclusions derived from DNA and archaeological evidence. However, no one to date has actually found the elusive "missing link." Religious faith can also be derived through incorporating observation, thought, research and personal experience into a philosophical point of view. Don't make the mistake of confusing religious or spiritual faith with religion. Those people known as "deists" (as opposed to atheists) are rarely confined intellectually to a rigid pattern of beliefs.

  4. Gary says:

    That is the most convoluted argument I've ever heard for having it both ways. Faith is the absence of reason.
    God is an invention of man. Originally conceived because early man did not have answers but quickly became a controlling force by the powerful to control the masses. What created the universe? We don't know, but to ascribe it to some conscious supreme power is irrational and quite frankly, lazy. Just say,"we don't know because we don't have enough evidence".

    • stogiechomper says:

      Nonsense. Faith is not "the absence of reason." It is the acknowledgment that "reason" is limited to man's observations, and those observations are limited by his five physical senses. Your assertion that God was invented by man is merely your own unfounded opinion, based on nothing but your own negative kind of faith. It is atheistic thought that is lazy, but more than that, arrogant and presumptuous.

    • Kendra Francesco says:

      Have you never heard, "Have faith in yourself"? This is rational faith as I understand the above article. You are the sole arbiter of why you do what you do. It's based on your choices, which in turn are based on everything you've seen, read, heard, and formed an opinion about.

  5. RealitySeeker says:

    "the walking [brain-dead]."

    Yes, tens of millions of brain-dead Americans are credulity personified; however, all but the most credulous are going to lose "faith" in their political gods very soon. Take Obama, for example, a collectivist who started out as a Messianic, political figure and the first black president. And because he was black this was to mark a new beginning and a new, bright era for Americans; but I say that by the time Obama leaves office he shall be viewed as the black version of Jimmy Carter at best. At best! In fact, there is a better chance that Obama may actually end up being viewed as the worst president in memory; and maybe the worst in history. After six years the trend is clear. In fact, it looks like it's going to get so bad for Obama that I'm almost ready to make the following trend forecast: Obama's presidency might end so very, very badly that it ruins any future chance for a black man to be elected president for the foreseeable future— say the next 20 years. That's if there is an election.

    What started out as "change we can believe in" coming from the first black president ( remember Oprah's tears of "faith" and "joy"?) might end up with tears of pain, then disgust, then anger and then tears of blood. It actually might get so bad in amerika (sic) that "change we can believe in" might be turn into change Washington can believe in: It's called the Second Amendment, in case you didn't know…… And, yes, it could get that bad. Maybe. I'm not ready to make that forecast just, yet, because there's a chance that amerika might just muddle through a while longer.

    The time is getting short. Get your "prepping" done……..

    • KeepTheFaith says:

      Looks like you have lost your faith :)
      I find it interesting when we heap unrealistic/irrational expectations on people and organizations and are then disappointed when they don't meet those very same expectations.
      Our government is comprised of "we the people" and not the politicians. If it fails us,it is usually our fault and not that of an individual (although that is usually the convenient excuse). The failures usually arise when we are too busy blaming one another and calling each other names rather than trying to find realistic solutions to problems (i.e. usually requiring reasoned positions, listening to other opinions, and acting in good faith to reach a compromise – although that seems to be a dirty word any more).
      I'm sorry you seem to have lost faith in America and her people, but as for me, I still believe in her people, and I believe it is based in reason and rationality. I still like to have faith that there are enough people interested in a reasonable solution to problems that we can make progress and continue to improve our country and how we govern ourselves.
      If you really want to see America become Amerika than continue to loose faith in her and continue to espouse how bad others are instead of working with them to try and rectify what you see as issues with America.
      After all the United States of America is a grand experiment that requires faith and belief in its people to be capable of governing themselves.

      • Richard Lee Van says:


      • RealitySeeker says:

        "you have lost your faith".

        I can't lose what I never had in "we the people"..

        The problem with people like you is that you don't even know in which sphere "compromise" and "faith" should actually take place. Hint: it's not in government.

        You people think in terms of "we". I think in terms of I.

        You people think in terms of reaching across the aisle for the greater good. I think in terms of individual good.

        You people think in terms of passing unnatural laws through the art of compromise. I think in terms of recognizing natural laws and not compromising even an inch away from them.

        You people are collectivists. I don't compromise with you. I reject you.

        The only purpose on this earth, at this primitive time in history, for a very, very, very, small government to even exist is to protect the free market; not intervene in it; not have a "public-private partnership" with it; and not tax it.

        First and foremost, if there is any "compromise" to be made whatsoever it belongs in a free market; a marketplace of ideas unencumbered by government at least and absent government at best; a marketplace underpinned by voluntary cooperation; a marketplace separated from the state for the very same reasons the church is separated from the state. A marketplace without obligation to anybody except for one natural law: the law on non-aggression.

        Within the next decade you're going to see the result of having trust and faith in government.

        • writingbykendra says:

          First: "You people" is as irrelevant as an adverb. It weakens your argument and refuses to acknowledge those who believe in their own "I". Whether you agree with their "I" or not is also irrelevant. Your perception is your reality. Their perception is theirs. Don't mistake your reality as the only one acceptable to rational thinkers and doers.

          Second: The free market exists in spite of the government. Go to any farmer's market, bartering club, or the underground market. Watch any street performer with their instrument case open, or scrivener with their cap on the ground. Listen to the lady hawking hand-made jewelry from her card table. You'll find what you want, at prices you can afford. If the price of one seller is more than you want to pay, then go look for the seller you can afford. The free market exists; you just need to open your eyes to see it.

          • RealitySeeker says:

            "'You people'" is as irrelevant as an adverb."

            "You people" is just as relevant as "we the people". "You" in this case is an adjective placed in front of the noun "people". "You" denotes the kind of people, i.e., you people. "You people" is not an adverbial phrase. Adverbs only modify adjectives, verbs and other adverbs. I don't claim to be a grammarian, proof reader or a perfect writer, but "you people" gets my point across forcefully. If you want to proof read my work, at least point out some of my numerous, legitimate shortcomings such as my improper punctuation, subject-verb agreement and spelling errors.

            "The free market exists in spite of the government."

            Like most amerikans you people know a little of nothing about what actually constitutes a free market. For example, there cannot be a free market without competing currencies. So long as you people allow yourselves to be subjected to a central bank and its dollar monopoly there shall be no free market. Period. And a few pairs of old shoes bartered is indeed a "flea market", not a free market. The USSR had black markets, flea markets, under-the-table transactions, Mafia markets and farmers' markets. But the one thing the USSR never had was a free market. It is the same now for amerika under the headship of President Barack Ebola.

            "The people" of whom you speak are not free marketeers, but merely a collection of pitiful, little souls who have been reduced to "fleas" who conduct their transactions under the feet of gargantuan, transnational corporations and in the shadow of a behemoth federal government. The flea-people are subject to pecuniary globalism. This means that even when they barter an item the value of the said item is subjected to the dollar.

            Are they nice little flea-people? Yes. Mostly. Are they God-fearing, little flea-people? Yes, some of them. Are they people who I'd hunt, fish, trap, mountain climb, camp-out and target practice with for fun? For sure I would. They are a fun loving people. They are nice people, but they still think, act and live like flea-people when it comes to understanding socioeconomics.

            In a truly free market the only "I" I have to believe in is me.

          • writingbykendra says:

            And I believe in me. However, you would never make it to MY list of trusted hunters, campers or hikers.

        • Him Hallett says:

          Fatih in govt. is the height of irrationality, as it is a corrupt system run by immoral parasites. Since they have even corrupted the medium of exchange, you cannot really have any free market, except in very limited cases where fiat currency is absent. NO ONE has the right to rule anyone else, and those who are attracted to politics are cut from the same cloth as all criminals. Faith based on ideas or experiences of one's own are valid and likely not to change too quickly (unless a different experience overrides it), while relying on the opinions or writings or sayings of others (expert or authorities they may be called) leads to uncertainty and ultimately, disillusion. I do not claim to have all the facts or the RIGHT view, but it is right for ME.

        • KeepTheFaith says:

          You make some pretty hefty assumptions about how I think and what I might believe (or should I say how “we” think since I’m one of “those people”).
          I would guess you might come down somewhere close to Hayek when it comes to economic theory, but unlike you, I assume I could be wrong or I might be delusional because I’m one of the walking [“brain dead”] and am not capable of understanding what the true essence of THE reality is.
          Never the less, it would appear you have faith in a “free market” (I could agree with your absolute faith in it, but alas, no such thing has ever existed, and yes governments and anyone else capable of manipulating the “free market” is to blame). It’s also funny that you faith in a free market that would apparently be based on the same “we the people” that you have no faith in.
          Assuming there is a “Free Market”, it might be reasonable to say it would be a system like any other, in that it is based on the relationships between its components (i.e. resources, owners, sellers, consumers, etc…) and the “system rules” (e.g. forces of supply and demand, general equilibrium theory, etc…). All of which are subject to manipulation and thus in need of protection, like you suggest. But this leads to a few questions: If it’s the be-all and end-all, why does it need protection? Who decides what those protections are? What is protected from whom, when and for how long? Kind of sounds like a problem for rational discussion and possible compromise (unless the rules are based on “natural law” – which is another can of philosophical worms).
          But for the sake of argument let’s say your natural law of non-aggression rules the day. How is aggression defined and who decides if it has occurred? Are monopolies a form of aggression? Is resource manipulation a form of aggression? Who decides this? If someone takes my resources by physical force, what recourse do I have without violating the law of non-aggression? Assuming you say I can use aggression to have some type of redress, how will it happen, and who decides when sufficient redress has occurred?
          I’m sure you have answers for all the questions without using any “value” based judgment and that if we collectivists would just get out of the way of the “free market” all things would self-regulate and be just honkey dory using all of these fabulous emergent properties that appear when we have a true free market with all its perfectly rational participants.
          Thanks for the wonderful exchange, but I’m too brain dead and must go back to my collective hive to help create the Amerika that will be the end of humanity as you like to remember that it was before we started screwing with it.

        • Brian King, Jr. says:

          Logicians are skeptical about the proposition that one can evaluate age old questions of human origin and purpose by mere reference to one's personal dissatisfaction with a state regime. What good is having a plethora of steadfast beliefs and opinions if you're gonna eschew the epistemological sciences that are necessary for confirming or nullifying them? The Framers had, perhaps, overestimated the inclinations of future Americans for dialectical reasoning. Your comments are Exhibit A in support of that hypothesis. You dissed the People of the Preamble, demonstrating that you are not of our peerage nor our aptitudes for the very modes of freedom proposed in the Constitution.

      • Bill T says:

        Well that "Faith" in the U.S. might soon be tested when another 30 Million or so "New Americans" become reality in the U.S. after the Pres gets out his pen to issue another one of his dictatorial Executive Orders.

    • Richard Lee Van says:

      Right on!

  6. Richard Lee Van says:

    I would argue for "get Obama out NOW" except for all the next ones in line! "Right on" goes to Reality Seeker! Regarding Mr. Ringer's essay, I live by J. Krishnamurti's "tentativity of belief". I believe an idea firmly UNTIL new information/knowledge modifies or replaces what I tentatively believe to be true. Fine line, I suppose, between perpetual agnosticism and tentative belief. In any case, there are limits to human ability to know. Better, then, to first follow the Indian Ahimsa, DO NO HARM TO SELF OR OTHER. That would take care of everything, but, that is not likely to become a widespread habit. God, I believe, is unknowable! But, I believe the idea of God does refer to something unknowable.

    • Jim Hallett says:

      Obama is bad, and may be one of the worst, but all the predecessors in the 20th Century have been parasites that grew govt. by theft, killing, coercion and lying. I am not optimistic the current structure could ever produce anything but more parasites. Ron Paul was a breath of fresh air, and you saw how the media and power structure negated him. I do have faith the universe will survive, but doubt Amerika will!

  7. words2influence says:

    What generated the idea and the conviction of things unseen? An eternal optimism for things hoped for? Its man's power of imagination that has lead him to discover the unseen from age to age. An evolution of the intellect and the power to reason. The limiting line is being pushed further ahead as human knowledge increases. The power of reasoning gives the ability to have faith, which leads to progress. Yes, faith is rational and not blind, and so is the idea of GOD.

  8. Common Sense says:

    I'd like to say that Pope St. John Paul II of the Catholic Church remarked that "the Catholic Church doesn't IMpose,
    but instead PROposes". (Emphasis mine).

  9. David says:

    I never realized how many totally messed up beliefs there are until I read this article and the comments.

  10. aumsiva says:

    How the irrational is sustained? Just by borrowing beliefs in this modern age? Was it so even in ancient times? True, commonsense has immense power. When do men are inspired to harbor something beyond commonsense? How long a man can sustain himself beyond the domains of commonsense?

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