Faith and Reason Yesterday and Today

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When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

~ G. K. Chesterton

For years I have used this quote in conversation and attributed it to G. K. Chesterton. When I searched for the citation I found that he didn’t exactly say such a thing (read an interesting discussion on this topic). Well, even if the great Chesterton didn’t say it exactly, it is still good. Chesterton was writing against the grain, during the ascendancy of modernity. The modernist project (perhaps not individual modernists) was to replace faith (belief) by the truths found by materialistic science. Certainly he was of the minority of the intelligentsia that questioned the validity of those pillars of modernity Freud, Marx, and Darwin. These days Freud, Marx and much else from the modernist progressives have been marginalized such that a strong current of our present day intelligentsia has moved beyond both the truths of faith and science to no truth whatsoever. In other words, they are postmodernists. However, science and scientists still hold the high ground of debate, symbolically with their champion Darwin, over most issues of the day. The gist of their argument is that the term "blind faith" is redundant; that is, faith precludes reason. Bob Murphy made this point in his recent piece, noting the arguments of Darwinists against the Intelligent Designers are typically ad hominem or beg the question. Even more anecdotally, my atheist friend at the pub cannot imagine how anyone could believe in God and thinks that those who do so are narrow-minded. Of course the fact that he cannot imagine how the vast majority of human beings, both alive and dead, have thought does not make him narrow-minded.

But really, there are very few atheists. Most people more closely follow the aphorism I incorrectly quoted above. Environmentalists have faith in Gaia; it is not difficult to find and participate in witch covens or pagan rites; there are multitudes that worship the state (read LRC); there are sports fanatics that have great faith in their teams; good old hedonists that worship pleasure; and many more that will come to your mind as you read this. There is certainly much faith in science itself. But the atheists and scientists do not really attack faith in general, faith being defined as belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. They don’t even really attack religious faith. Of course those Muslim fundamentalists are bad, but they don’t speak for true Islam. The only faith that is really attacked is Christian faith. It is the only faith that one can readily insult in public with no politically correct ramifications.

I am prompted to write due to the recent court ruling regarding the teaching of intelligent design and the several articles posted on LRC regarding the topic. I believe this debate is best understood in terms of the much older debate regarding faith and reason; how they are symbiotic, how they are antagonistic. How can a man have faith and still use his reason? It seems to me this is a fundamental question of the age and has been a fundamental question of all ages. As such I have thought about this topic myself for many years and will report on several of my musings here.

The intelligentsia (e.g., the New York Times) typically thinks that believers are pitiful dolts who must follow what their priest (con artist) tells them; that they believe without reason. First of all, this is not the true Christian tradition. Jesus said “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” (Matthew 22:37) This is the most important law, that people must use their minds; they must have faith through reason.

Even during the Medieval Age of Faith the place of reason was recognized. In the Paradiso St. Peter examined Dante on the reason for his faith.

“Were the world to Christianity converted,”
I said, “withouten miracles, this one
Is such, the rest are not its hundredth part;

Dante’s reply is an old argument (originally attributed to St. Augustine) but still a valid one: the fact that Christianity spread is the proof of its truth. Imagine being persuaded to have faith in a God, remember you are not a child but an adult who has been raised as a pagan, such that you will be rewarded in the after life. In this life you not only will not be rewarded in the material sense, but rather will be persecuted terribly. What could convince a person to follow such a creed: a miracle, or at least a good reason.

The confrontation between faith and reason, or as Tertullian put it between Jerusalem and Athens, was considered by St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas was the foremost proponent of reconciling Aristotle (Athens and reason) with faith (Jerusalem). I would argue that he succeeded in this, his life’s work, such that Aquinas is as much a father of science as anyone because he put reason in its proper place alongside faith instead of against it. His great work, the Summa Theologica, is much in the style of the scientific method: hypothesis (question), evidence (experiment in science, checking true sources for Aquinas), reconciling the hypothesis with evidence. Aquinas’ effort is in disrepute today because modern culture has fouled his work by reversing the medieval problem of the reconciliation of faith and reason in that faith is now ignored. It seems to me that a modern Aquinas is required today to once again harmonize faith and reason.

Of course, the greatest confrontation between faith and reason, or more accurately faith and science, in our time has been over creation. How did the world and ourselves come into being, and thus, what is our place in the world? And here is where the issue of intelligent design presents itself.

As I understand the scientific facts, they do lead me believe that the earth is older than 6000 years and there has been evolution of the various species. Thus, I am not a fundamentalist and I think it is a mistake to attempt to literally interpret the Bible. One should not look in the Bible for scientific facts; one should look in the Bible for truth. That is I think the Bible is True.

The key truth in Genesis is that God made man in his own image. Dr. Leon Kass, the well-known ethicist and former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, expresses this concept very well in the following, another old passage the source of which is now lost to me.

How is man God-like? Genesis 1 — where it is first said that man is created in God’s image-introduces us to the divine activities and powers: (1) God speaks, commands, names and blesses; (2) God makes and makes freely; (3) Gods looks at and beholds the world; (4) God is concerned with the goodness or perfection of things; (5) God addresses solicitously other living creatures. In short: God exercises speech and reason, freedom in doing and making, and the powers of contemplation, judgment, and care.

Doubters may wonder whether this is truly the case about God — after all, it is only on biblical authority that we regard God as possessing these powers and activities. But it is certain that we human beings have them, and that they lift us above the plane of a merely animal existence. Human beings, alone among the earthly creatures, speak, plan, create, contemplate, and judge. Human beings, alone among the creatures, can articulate a future goal and bring it into being by their own purposive conduct. Human beings, alone among the creatures, can think about the whole, marvel at its articulated order, and feel awe in beholding its grandeur and in pondering the mystery of its source.

It is the God-like characteristics of man that have made him the master of the planet. I wonder why no other creature exhibits these characteristics that are the most favorable to survival. Such favorable characteristics as swiftness, keen eyesight, strength and smell are present across the spectrum of the different species. But why is man the only “product of a long, unconscious, impersonal, material process” which exhibits the most favorable trait. Here we come to the nub of the question. The question of why we are and what we are.

I once noted that the famous paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould believed that evolution is no “ladder of progress.” In fact, if we started the process again from the primordial ooze there is very little chance that vertebrates, let alone man, would come into being. What is the probability that the meteor (or volcanic activity) should have killed the dinosaurs at the interface of the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods allowing man to come into being? There are no scientific techniques that can be applied to answer the question.

For me truth in the Bible gives answers to fundamental questions such as why man lives and a prescription of how man should live. These answers found in the Bible are matters of faith, as there is no reason to live any particular way if we are simply a bag of chemicals.

What I would add is the fact that even the strongest proponent of reason builds his beliefs on faith. For example, there are those who find it difficult to balance a checkbook yet completely believe sermons of modern science. It is not possible with their limited understanding to comprehend science with reason so they rely on faith. Many of us who have had training in the sciences can see through the smoke and mirrors of much of modern science. I even find myself on occasion agreeing with the postmodernists that big science, funded by the government, is on the whole political. On the other hand, these same people who question faith will not use their reason in considering the nonmaterial aspects of life. Nobody actually lives by the purely materialistic ethic. Dickens did create a ridiculously practical character Mr. Bounderby who lived by this ethic in his novel Hard Times. Even the philosopher of death Peter Singer is kind and caring to his sick mother. Everyone I have known when pressed will admit there are many aspects of life not understood through materialistic means. Certainly the many aspects of love fall in this category. All around us in our everyday life we can see evidence of the truth of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. It is true that it must be taken on faith that Jesus rose from the dead, but I have found to be true all from the Bible testable by everyday experience.

But there are the political systems and political actors that have arisen based on the materialistic worship of power. Consider the following “evolutionist view of man” as expressed by a Harvard paleontologist:

Man stands alone in the universe, a unique product of a long, unconscious, impersonal, material process with unique understanding and potentialities. These he owes to no-one but himself, and it is to himself that he is responsible. He is not the creature of uncontrollable and undeterminable forces, but his own master. He can and must decide and manage his own destiny.

These words I read and noted many years ago, but I do not recall the citation. But their power still echoes through my mind like the sound of the goose-stepping legions of the twentieth century. Here is the creed of the guillotine, the gulag and the gas chamber. Here is the creed of those who would attempt to remake man.

In this age faith is held in low esteem, reason rules the day. However, the truths of faith are of more value than the facts of reason. Aquinas said it well: “the fact that some happen to doubt about the articles of faith is not due to the uncertain nature of the truths, but to the weakness of the human intellect; yet the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge of the lowest things.”

Ira Katz [send him mail] teaches mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. He is the co-author of Handling Mr. Hyde: Questions and Answers about Manic Depression and Introduction to Fluid Mechanics.

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