Unlocking the Tension Between Faith and Reason




Over the past two months the ongoing battle between faith and reason has gotten rather personal for me. The perennial battle between faith and reason has largely become a caricature with the opposing sides largely exaggerated at the “fringes” but dying the death of a thousand qualifications for most people living somewhere in the middle. Or so I thought. In August of this year I taught a class at a local evangelical church titled “The New Atheism” in which I sought to expose my students to some of the main arguments of this growing movement. While many in the class were appreciative of what I was trying to do, the class ended with a woman, Bible held high in the air, publicly excoriating me for bringing the heathen, foolish ideas into her sacred space and accusing me of typifying everything wrong with the church and Christianity today.

altA conversation that started with me explaining these events to a friend (who also claims to be an evangelical Christian) ended with him telling me that I am intellectually dishonest, downright vicious, and deserved to rot in hell. Recently, I attempted to have what I thought was a civil conversation with a person (who by any reasonable definition could be labeled a Christian fundamentalist) about some ideas related to faith and how best to understand it in a modern scientific world largely dominated—at least in the academy—by Darwinian naturalism. Throughout the conversation, my protagonist-turned-antagonist called me intellectually dishonest, ridiculous, narrow-minded, antagonistic, and that I exhibited partiality against views not my own. I was also told that I’m being deceived and that I’m detached from reality.

In my more honest moments, I have to acknowledge that the common denominator in all these scenarios is me and I became very interested in the locus of all this vitriol. I’m certainly open to the idea that I, because of some egregious blind spot, have brought this on myself and this is something on which I continue to reflect . However, analytically, I’ve come to realize that there is something deeper going on. Each person in these interactions have little in common beyond their faith yet the anger they exhibited and the terms they used to display that anger were too similar to chalk up to mere personality conflicts. Faith positions that attempt to conserve what could be viewed as a classical position—that the power of faith comes not from its ability to explain the world but from its ability to transform it—is finding itself drastically removed from—and therefore increasingly in conflict with—a Western culture that is seeking to get by in this world by better understanding how it works.

The explanatory power of religion to address the workings of the physical world that have the greatest existential importance for humans is almost non-existent. In fact many modern religious apologists seem even to be minimizing the work design and cosmological arguments can muster—arguments which once served as defensive infantry, and are now using God to explain one of the last and greatest mysteries: the human mind. Things have gotten so bad, that physicists of the stature of Steven Hawking are able to come out boldly and claim that the God hypothesis (and philosophy in general for that matter) is no longer needed to unlock the most hardened cosmological puzzles. Physics is more than adequate for the job (see his recent The Grand Design).

This leaves religion very little room to maneuver and when one’s worldview is backed into a corner, responding with anger and vitriol is both very human and very indicative that even people of faith feel the warmth of the lion’s breath on their cheeks. I’ve come to realize, however, that the tension is introduced not from the fact that the sciences have so much explanatory success (which they most certainly have), but from the desire on the part of the religious to remain unreservedly committed to the axioms of a pre-scientific faith but also to somehow adopt that faith to a modern, rationalistic, scientific world. In a very real sense, the weight of scientific discoveries is driving a growing intellectual wedge in the minds of these believers who are finding it more and more difficult to keep everything unified. This results in anger, frustration, and increasing isolationism (an us-them mentality complete with a superiority complex flavored with moral victimization). Surely such a scenario affects secularists as well but I tend to think that secularists are coming out of this state while religionists are just entering it.

Of course much of this has been predicted by forward thinking people over the last century and in future posts I will explore this idea further looking at some important philosophy that provides us with both the psychological and philosophical basis for a dynamic that is just starting to show its teeth. The next decade will be an enormously complex time for religion as it seeks to find it’s place in a world that increasingly has no idea what to do with it. I will attempt to show that the tension is not due to an essential incompatibility between faith and science but rather due to efforts on the part of religionists who are attempting to shoehorn modern science into traditional models of faith and scientists who want to eradicate religion by reducing everything it stands for to biological function.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

Series index