Faith, Not Logic, Is the Basis of Belief
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 3 - Philosophy of Religion
Soren Kierkegaard, from Philosophical Fragments
Kem Stone - 25 August 2007
After the previous four texts I have examined, reading Kierkegaard was like a breath of fresh air.  It is always an
enjoyable experience to read a philosophical text with which you completely agree, and I have never read
anything by Kierkegaard to which I’ve had any serious objections.  This text is Kierkegaard’s argument that no
matter how hard we try we cannot understand God through Reason, and that belief in the divine must be a matter
of faith.  This is a sentiment which I share wholeheartedly, and I believe that it would be beneficial to humanity if
people of faith all understood their own religious beliefs in this particular light.

Kierkegaard begins by making the very important point that any proof of God’s existence must presuppose God’s
existence, and therefore render the argument useless.  This, he argues, is not merely a difficulty in de-ontological
arguments alone, but for any ontological argument whatsoever.  “Generally speaking, it is a difficult matter to
prove that anything exists…the entire demonstration always turns into something very different from what it
assumes to be, and becomes an additional development of the consequences that flow from [our] having assumed
that the object in question exists.  Thus I always reason from existence, not toward existence” (91).  Arguments
that attempt to prove the existence of God always presuppose the existence of God in order to explain
phenomena that they assert can only be explained by God—the reasoning always runs from existence and circles
back around to God, rather than beginning somewhere else and running towards God’s existence.

Kierkegaard uses Napoleon as an analogy.  “If it were proposed to prove Napoleon’s existence from Napoleon’
s deeds, would it not be a most curious proceeding?  His existence does indeed explain his deeds, but the deeds
do not prove his existence, unless I have already understood the word “his” so as thereby to have assumed his
existence” (92).  Kierkegaard anticipates the objection that God is a special case, Napoleon is a man and thus his
deeds could have been performed by any other man, while God’s deeds are such that they can only have been
performed by God—His very essence implies His existence.  “Just so,” Kierkegaard replies, “but where then are
the works of God?  The works from which I would deduce his existence are not immediately given” (92).

His response goes to the heart of the teleological argument such as that given by Paley—if we are to point to
certain aspects of the world and claim that these are proof of God’s existence, we are left with an unbearable
temptation to doubt, as we leave room for any number of things to happen or any bits of knowledge to be
discovered which would shatter the weak foundations of this shaky proof (e.g. the theory of evolution explaining
the mechanistic qualities found in biological organisms).  The teleological argument offers an interpretation of the
order of things in terms of God’s existence, which is already presupposed by the argument, and thus it proves
nothing.

If Kierkegaard is offering proof of anything here, it is that God’s existence can not be proven, an assertion I am
bound to agree with if I hold to my own assertion that
nothing can be proven.  Yet when it comes to our inability
to prove God’s existence, I can not express it more succinctly and eloquently than Kierkegaard himself when he
writes, “for the fool says in his heart that there is no God, but whoever says in his heart or to men: ‘Wait just a
little and I will prove it’—what a rare man of wisdom is he!  If in the moment of beginning his proof it is not
absolutely undetermined whether God exists or not, he does not prove it; and if it is thus undetermined in the
beginning he will never come to begin, partly from fear of failure, since God perhaps does not exist, and partly
because he has nothing with which to begin” (93).  The only thing we arrive at by way of attempts to prove God’s
existence is proof of the Unknown.

Kierkegaard sees that Reason is forever bound to repeatedly collide with the Unknown, and that while it can
never pass beyond this point, its passions will incline it to occupy itself with the impossible task of getting beyond
this limit—an idea which earns Kierkegaard the label of existentialist.  The Unknown, according to Kierkegaard,
is the different—the absolutely different.  We can never get beyond this point because “the Reason cannot even
conceive of an absolute unlikeness.  The Reason cannot negate itself absolutely, but uses itself for the purpose,
and thus conceives only such an unlikeness within itself as it can conceive by means of itself; it cannot absolutely
transcend itself, and hence conceives only such a superiority over itself as it can conceive by means of itself” (94).  
This is completely consistent with my own belief that we can never truly understand anything that lies outside the
human mind, as we have only the human mind with which to understand the things that lie outside of it.

When we brush up against the Unknown, Kierkegaard asserts, the Reason may choose at its pleasure what to
place beyond this limit.  In most cases, this is God—or whatever conception of God the Reason can conceive.  
Yet it is impossible to accept this as proof of God’s existence, as on some level we must always be aware that this
God is merely a conception of our minds, which we have chosen quite arbitrarily to put in place of the Unknown.  
Kierkegaard offers another analogy, conceiving of a man like any other man who is also God.  He cannot know
this man is God because in order to know this he would have to understand the nature of the difference between
God and man, which is impossible because “the Reason has reduced it to likeness with that from which it was
unlike.  Thus God becomes the most terrible of deceivers, because the Reason has deceived itself.  The Reason
has brought God as near as possible, and yet he is as far away as ever” (94).

The heart of Kierkegaard’s argument actually comes several paragraphs earlier, in which he points out the only
way to arrive at God across this gap which Reason can not bridge is to make a
leap of faith.  God’s existence
can not be proven because His existence is uncertain as long as I am engaged in proving it.  “But when I let go,
the existence is there.  But this act of letting go is surely also something; it is indeed a contribution of mine.  Must
not this also be taken into the account, this little moment, brief as it may be—it need not be long, for it is a
leap
(93).  Thus God’s existence is founded in our minds not on the basis of logic or reason, but purely on faith, and
what is meant by faith in Kierkegaard’s mind is to let go of the proof and merely
believe in God’s existence.

One need not have proof of God’s existence to believe in it—it would in fact be absurd to believe that God will
not exist until we have proof.  Most people who believe in God understand that His existence can not be proven,
and many theologians would assert that this is in fact deliberate on the part of God; faith itself would have no value
if belief in God did not require faith but merely an understanding of the logic by which God’s existence can be
conclusively established.

I believe that if all religious people understood their own faith in the sense in which Kierkegaard paints it, it would
do much to eliminate many of the evils that come out of religion.  It is not belief in God from which most of the
atrocities committed by the “faithful” over the centuries has sprung, but rather the
certainty that they have
believed themselves to have as to the doctrines of their own religion.  If they understood that the tenets of their
religion are not established on firm logical grounds but are merely founded in
faith—by their own willingness to
believe in spite of the lack of any proof or certainty—they will perhaps be less quick to judge non-believers or
people of other faiths as wrong or worthy of punishment.

So although I have not chosen with Kierkegaard to make this leap of faith, I believe that an understanding of the
nature of a leap of faith is very important and ought to be more widely recognised.  As for the inability of God’s
existence to be proven on rational grounds, I agree completely, and credit Kierkegaard with some of the most
forceful reasoning I have encountered to establish this point.