Are Reason and Faith Compatible?

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Fri, Jun 19 - 9:00 am EDT | 3 years ago by
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Theist vs. Atheist - Are Reason and Faith Compatible?

I appreciate Mr. Wright’s opening essay and am in agreement with substantial portions of it.

If we array religions along a spectrum from most to least rational, his version of Catholicism is among the most rational. Many advocates and opponents of religion are animated more by angers, enthusiasms, and other psychological forces that make them unwilling to reason – either to present their own views clearly or to give the other sides’ views a fair hearing. Reasoning can be a passionate or dispassionate activity, but no progress individually or socially can be made without it.

So I take it that Mr. Wright and I have agreed to set aside several versions of Christianity – Tertullian’s “I believe it because it’s absurd,” Martin Luther’s “Reason is the Devil’s whore,” and Søren Kierkegaard’s “Faith requires the crucifixion of reason.” And we agree to focus on the view, expressed well by Thomas Aquinas and others, that reason and faith are two legitimate and complementary ways of coming to belief.

Let me though focus on my substantial disagreements with Mr. Wright’s position, which is that (1) religious belief can be demonstrated to a large extent to be rational, (2) that the arguments demonstrate a monotheistic god, and (3) that faith is a legitimate way to close the gap between what can be proved and a full commitment to religious belief.

I do not think any of the three parts of that sentence are true. Parts 1 and 2 will be taken up in our next articles, as we debate the merits of the arguments for and against the existence of God, so let me focus now on part 3.

Suppose we grant now, for the sake of argument, that evidence and logic make it 80 percent likely that a monotheistic god exists. One might disagree of course and find the arguments totally unconvincing – that is, one might judge that they make it zero percent likely. Or one might disagree and find the arguments totally convincing – that is, one might judge that they make it 100 percent likely.

But let’s agree for now with Mr. Wright’s claim that the arguments make it very likely that God exists but there is nonetheless a gap between what the arguments show and the full belief-commitment that most religions require. What are we to make of the gap?

Some analogies to other important areas of judgment can clarify the cognitive principles involved.

Medicine: Suppose that one consults a physician who, upon careful examination, says that the evidence shows that you are 80% likely to have Condition X. A consulting surgeon then adds that if he were to operate, you would have an 80 percent chance of survival. What should one believe and commit to in this circumstance?

Law: You are a judge in a criminal trial and your assessment of the evidence is that it’s 80 percent likely that the defendant is guilty. What judgment should you reach?

The principle is that one’s degree of belief should be tied to the degree of evidence. If there is a little evidence, then one should judge It’s a possibility. If there is a preponderance of evidence, then one should judge It is probable. And if the evidence is conclusive evidence, then and only then should one judge It’s a certainty.

We ask and expect jurors, for example, to be able to understand the differing standards of evidence required for conviction in civil and criminal cases: preponderance of evidence versus beyond a reasonable doubt. And in life in general, part of cognitive maturity is being able to assess evidence on a sliding scale and to adjust one’s beliefs accordingly.

The same holds for all important matters in life, including religion.

So if one’s best rational judgment is that the preponderance of evidence and logic show that God does exist, then one’s belief state should be that It’s probable that God exists. And one should not push out of one’s mind the remaining 20 percent of doubt. One should remain open-minded to that extent – that is, one should remain open to new evidence that will increase or decrease the 20 percent margin of doubt.

Mr. Wright recognizes clearly that there are in fact two gaps to be filled. One is the gap between believing in a generically monotheistic god and the Catholic Christian God in particular. It is one thing to believe, as Deists do, that it’s reasonable to believe that there’s some sort of divine being out there. It’s quite another to believe that it’s exactly the Christian God with all of “the astonishing and shocking things” that come bundled with that belief.

The other is the gap between being convinced that God likely exists and being wholeheartedly filled with conviction.

Here Mr. Wright fills the gaps with emotionalism. One should be “madly in love with God” and love is a kind of “divine madness,” for example.

Such language is, in my judgment, an accurate description of the most common type of faith strategy. Faith is properly used to describe a belief commitment made beyond the evidence. It is meant to be the gap-closer. Faith almost always is an emotion-driven process in which one wills oneself to believe that which one wants to be true.

Here we enter into some rich and complex philosophical and psychological territory. Part of it is that as humans we do long for passion in our lives. Part of it also is our knowing that life’s greatest rewards usually require sustained commitment. And part of it is knowing that often we need to make weighty decisions and commitments in the absence of complete and accurate information. In more abstract language, the question is of the relationship between reason and emotion in making and sustaining commitments.

Some analogies may again help clarify the principles involved.

Hunting: A hungry hunter who loves rabbit stew judges that it is very likely that the rustling in a bush is the rabbit she’s been stalking. Should her desire to make the kill so that she can feast upon tasty rabbit lead her to commit to the shot? (The rustling might merely be the wind – or a small child who was playing in the area.)

War: A general who seeks battle glory and whose nation is desperate for victory thinks it probable that his troops will prevail if he attacks now rather than later. Should his desire for triumph lead him to commit his troops wholeheartedly to battle?

Politics: Passions run high when judging political candidates. How many times during presidential elections do voters become filled with enthusiasm and express the conviction that their candidate will save the nation if only enough people believe in him? Should we encourage or discourage this psychological phenomenon?

Or perhaps we should consider only cases involving other kinds of passions. Seeking material blessings, triumphing over death, and wanting a messianic leader can be religion-motivating passions.

But the love and worship of a god is another, and one that Mr. Wright speaks directly to. So what of love?

In my opening article, I suggested the device of talking to a thoughtful 15-year-old girl who is sincerely asking for advice about religion. How would the love analogy help us here? Fifteen-year-olds are certainly capable of forming intensely passionate commitments to particular love objects – e.g., to that 16-year-old boy in her Literature class. And it is likely true that one could not argue her in or out of her love. But her experience of mad love is hardly a guarantee that the boy really is the true love of her life. Perhaps he is, but the rest of us will be justified in reserving judgment and in advising her to keep an open mind and not to move too quickly.

So perhaps a better example is to imagine that the girl has grown into a 30-year old woman who has had some experience of love won and lost. She is now dating a man and is 80 percent sure that he is the great love of her life. She knows that she wants to be madly in love and to make a lifetime commitment.

But she also knows about the phenomenon of “love goggles” and how desires can distort perception and judgment. She knows that people can project qualities onto others that they do not actually have. She knows that people can make disastrous commitment choices that lead to suffering and divorce.

So, yes, she should be open to love and to making commitments, but as an older and wiser person she should also be alert to any counter-evidence (or warning “red flags”), and she should be willing to fall out of love should the object of her desire prove to be – despite initial appearances – a loser, a brute, or someone with other qualities alien to healthy relationship.

The same should be true of the religions we are considering.

The analogy of romantic to religious love does have a limitation. In the case of romantic passion, we already know that the person we’re dating actually exists, and our question is about how much trust we can have in that person or how strong a commitment we should make. In the case of religion, however, we first have the problem of establishing that the Being actually exists.

Our next question then is: Do the evidence and arguments show that a God exists?

One final comment. Mr. Wright suggests: “For the theist, reason is a shield only, not a sword.” With respect to the limits of such figures of speech, I suggest that martial metaphors do not capture the basic role of reason. Yes, in some social contents, reason can function offensively or defensively. But more fundamentally, reason is a tool of investigation of reality, not a weapon of social conflict.

We should use the tool and rely on it for shaping our beliefs as far as it can take us. But no farther.

This article is part of our new series – Theist vs Atheist, where two of our columnists, John C. Wright and Stephen Hicks, will be debating key issues in religion.

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .

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