Faith and Reason

Faith and reason.  Both are ways that people evaluate and understand the world around them, though for a long time we have tended to view them as profoundly different and even antithetical approaches.  Some people reject faith entirely and rely purely on reason.  Some people reject reason and rely purely on faith.  I think most people, however, compartmentalize their lives, relying on reason for certain aspects and faith for others.  For these people, faith tends to govern the realm of the spiritual, the personal, the subjective, and the unprovable, while reason governs the world of the physical, the public, the objective, and the provable. In this sense, then, the experiences of life are interpreted and understood in profoundly different ways based on which realm they occupy.  For example, when we look at the question of the cure for cancer, reason governs our approach.  Because of this, we assume the solution to be physical and for the good of the public as a whole.  Furthermore, we treat proposed cures objectively, and accept or reject them based on how they stand up to ongoing scrutiny.  When we look at religion, however, faith tends to govern our approach.  We assume that religion concerns the spiritual/emotional world (and usually not the physical world).  We see religious belief not as something for the public as a whole but rather for individuals, based on their personal thoughts and needs.  Furthermore, we view religion as subjective and generally see little value in scrutinizing it.

In the end, then, there is a sense that reason concerns the concrete and the real, while religion concerns the subjective and the hazy.  Reason, therefore, tends to be viewed in the general public as the more necessary of the two approaches – and the more reliable.  In fact, when a society leaves behind its faith-based roots and starts to become more reason-driven, this is usually seen as sign of progress.

This is a very understandable view of things, but it has a fundamental flaw.  The flaw is that reason is actually just another form of faith.  Reason does not reflect a different approach to understanding the world around us – rather, it represents trust in a different authority.  Whereas “faith” as we generally use the word refers to trust in things like religious texts, the testimony of others, or personal experience, “reason” refers to an ultimate trust in the logic of the human mind.  Reason and faith are both faith-based approaches to understanding life.

And both are unprovable.  People tend to see reason as the more reliable approach because it can be proven, whereas faith cannot.  But in actuality, reason cannot be proven either.  The only way to prove reason/logic is to use logic, which is itself the thing you are trying to prove.  If we were able to prove the trustworthiness of human logic, we would have to use some higher authority for evaluating it – but then what could prove the trustworthiness of that authority?

What we are getting at here is a fundamental characteristic of ultimate authority.  If it is ultimate, it can never be proven, but must always be trusted – on faith.  Reason, then, is not a proven approach to interpreting the world, but an assumed one.  The assumption is that human logic is ultimately cohesive, objective, and essentially unflawed.  While individuals may twist or misuse the logic of the human brain, in principle reason cannot fail.  This is a religious belief, and as far as the physical, political, tangible, on-the-ground problems of the world are concerned, most of the American public puts its hope in it.

Take, for example, how this faith interacts with human testimony to the supernatural.  If someone claims to have witnessed something supernatural in the tangible world which does not fit within the framework of human logic – such as a man coming back from the dead, the reasonable mind must dismiss it as impossible and come up with another explanation.  In fact, it cannot even consider the testimony.  If the soundness of human logic is the ultimate authority for the tangible world, and all scientific study negates the possibility of resurrection, then the supernatural cannot be accepted – because it is already excluded.

The reasonable mind will say that resurrection must be rejected because it is illogical.  But because reason is faith in human logic as the ultimate authority, “illogical” simply means that a certain phenomenon doesn’t bow to the authority of the human mind.  But this doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  It only means it isn’t true if you believe that logic is the ultimate authority.  To say something isn’t true because it isn’t logical is actually a religious statement – it’s a faith in the human mind over all other authorities.  But there are other authorities that people trust in.

My point, then, is that all people are people of faith.  Every decision anyone makes is based, ultimately, on faith in unprovable authorities.  Reason-driven decisions are just as faith-based as are religious ones.  This isn’t a problem – it’s just the way things are.

The ensuing question, then, is why do we trust what we trust?  If I assume human reason holds authority over a given religious text which makes claims contradictory to reason, why have I chosen to put my faith in one authority over the other?  That, in my opinion, is the most interesting question – and one that I think usually has little to do with reason.

Disagreeing with Respect

Given that this blog is designed to be a forum where people who believe different things can exchange ideas, it seemed wise to have the first post focus on disagreement. If we are to have a discussion that is healthy and helpful for all involved, it is crucial that we be able to disagree – especially over fundamental issues – with respect. Unfortunately, I feel that in many ways our country has been losing its ability to disagree fruitfully over questions of faith, religion, meaning, and ethics.  While we have little problem confronting one another publically over topics such as politics or the natural sciences, faith seems to fall into a separate category.  We are generally not comfortable with challenging each other’s core beliefs in any type of public forum.  In fact, we tend to equate such challenge with ignorance, insensitivity, and even downright bigotry.  A person’s beliefs about God and the meaning of life are his or her own choice – indeed, freedom to believe as one sees fit is one of our country’s most basic human rights.  And it should be.  However, in our zeal to protect an individual’s right to believe whatever he or she wants to believe, it seems as though we have come to view any challenge to a person’s faith assumptions as an inherent infringement on this right – and therefore something that is ultimately disrespectful and even hateful.

But must we equate challenge with disrespect and hatred?  It is clear that challenging someone’s core beliefs can be done in remarkably unthoughtful, arrogant, and hateful ways. Challenge can often be used as a tool of alienation and exclusion.  But are hatred and disrespect intrinsic elements of every challenge to a person’s worldview?  Must it be totally off limits to question another person’s fundamental assumptions about God, life, and meaning?

In my mind, if this is the case, we must resolve ourselves to having meaning-of-life conversations that remain, essentially, fluff.  We cannot afford to do this.  The questions of God, life, and meaning are the most fundamental ones we have – and the world is splintered over what many of the answers are.  If we are really concerned with finding these answers, then it is crucial that we engage in real dialogue where we are honest about our differences.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that we owe it to one another. If we just write our beliefs off as individual rights and preferences, we will coexist and smile at each other’s differing opinions – but we will not move forward.  We will not have the benefit of having our core assumptions questioned by someone who believes something completely different from us.

Opening ourselves up to this type of dialogue can be a scary process.  But in the end, there is no need to fear truth.  If I am challenged and freed from a life assumption that is in fact false, it may take a while for me to recalibrate, but I will only have gained from the discovery.

Knowledge is empowering.  Still, many of us are afraid of knowledge that asks for change.  Many of us will choose to stick with something we know to be false (or think will be found false if we question it too much) rather than walk through the uncertainty of a revolution or reorientation of self.  Change is indeed scary.

But let’s brave this together.  My hope is this: I want this site to be a place where people can honestly and openly seek the truth together.  I want it to be a place where respect for one another is assumed, especially in the context of passionate disagreement.  I want everyone involved to listen to one another, to avoid making quick assumptions, and to be gracious with one another.  I want The Public Square to be a venue where we can dare to wrestle with real questions, and where we don’t have to be afraid to say what we really believe.  If we approach one another humbly, thoughtfully, and honestly, this site has real potential to be a place of fruitful interaction and discovery.