Often times when talking about religion the topic of “faith and reason” comes up. It’s something we hear a lot about from all sides of the argument over religion. Anti-religious people often will claim faith is unreasonable or that it in some way is a random belief founded on feelings or hopes but not sound reasons. Some atheists are under the impression that faith by definition is the belief in something without evidence. There are also those who are religious, or at least somewhat warmly predisposed to religion, who would agree largely with the atheists but claim that faith is important to. They might say something like “yes faith is belief without evidence but I know deep down in my heart it’s true.” Sometimes, this attitude affects deeply devout and traditional individuals as well. They might try to defend this line of thinking better or they may take an altogether different approach. I have seen some very religious people (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) who try to claim that we do in fact have evidence for belief. I’ve seen websites offer “scientific” proof of God and others make claims like “proof hell exists and is in the earth!” The error that all of these people (some even of good-will) are making is that they do not have a good grasp on the definitions of faith and reason, at least in the context of their relationship to each other and to religious belief. Therefore, as a remedy to this error, we need to use proper definitions and develop a better understanding of every concept involved.
For starters, for the discussion on faith and reason to be at all fruitful, we have to clear up a major point: faith and reason are both seeking the truth. The entire discussion is about what is true and what is not true objectively. If we deny objective truth (which is self-evidently false) or if we state that faith and/or reason are not seeking this truth but pursuing something else, then the dialogue between faith, reason, and religion is altogether useless. For instance, if I claim that faith isn’t really about discovering or believing in truths about God but rather it is about finding an attitude towards life that keeps me going, then the concepts of faith and reason are really entirely different and each have different domains. Perhaps there will be some sort of a relationship between the two but not one as meaningful as if the relationship were a question of objective truths. So before we continue the discussion, it is essential that we understand that one point: faith and reason are both at least possible avenues to finding objective truth. Both faith and reason are attempts at knowing what is and what isn’t. (Note however I am not claiming both are effective methods or grounds for belief but rather both are in theory searching for facts about reality).
If it is the case that faith and reason are both looking to understand things as they are it is necessary that we understand the interaction between the two or the merits of each method. We need to grasp how each does this, in other words, let’s define faith and reason. If I want to find out anything, there are really only two ways of doing so. I can either search for an answer myself using my own tools of inquiry or I can ask someone else for the answer. A lot of what we learn comes from another person transmitting knowledge to us. In order to discover the truth on my own, I use different methods of reasoning in order to determine the answer to a question. For example, if I want to know how fast I can run a mile, I time myself running four laps around a track. This would be an example of me using my intellect to learn a fact about my abilities. The intellect seeks the truth. I could also learn the truth from someone else. Here, my mind recognizes the reliability of the testimony of someone else on a topic and therefore I trust them or we might say I have “faith” in their answer. For instance, if my car won’t start I will go to a car mechanic and have him look into it for me. When he gives me an answer as to what the problem was, I will likely trust in his expertise and accept his answer. The car mechanic however in this instance had to determine for himself using his knowledge of automobiles what was wrong. In other words, he used his mind to find out what the problem was. Many other facts we know, including most scientific facts, are handed down to us through experts we don’t discover them ourselves.
As it turns out, everything we learn from someone else had to be determined by some person at one point in time. For instance, in the 16th century, we learned that the earth moved around the sun. Now, it is a fact that everybody takes for granted from a young age because we are told from others that it is true. When I was little I thought outer space was really cool so I’d draw pictures of the solar system and I even have a little plastic model of the solar system in my room now. In both cases, the planets moved around the sun. I never doubted this or questioned it, I always just knew it. Not however, because I discovered it, but because reliable books of the solar system told me this. Still, someone had to ascertain this scientific fact at some point; otherwise we’d never know it. The power to learn these truths using our intellect is called reason. Even though I personally trust others for a lot of what I know, speaking collectively, humanity has learned all of these kinds of facts about reality (including scientific facts) through reason. There are many other things that we do not yet know, and may never even know, but they are still at least hypothetically things that we can know, in other words, they are not out of reach of our reasoning capacities.
Above I hinted at a definition of faith. I said that when we trust someone else to tell us something, we believe it on their word, not on our own reasoning. I said this is sometimes referred to as having “faith” in someone. When talking about faith from a religious standpoint, it is not much different at all. Faith to Catholics simply means accepting the truth of a statement on the grounds that God has revealed it to us. If that sounds too fancy, all it really means is that God has told us something and we believe it simply because He has told us. Just like we might trust the expertise of a scientist to reveal scientific facts, we trust the omniscience and truthfulness of God to reveal anything. Now there are two main factors that place religious faith outside of the realm of “reason” as defined in the preceding paragraph. First, articles of faith are not truths that humanity has discovered. Going back to my example of the earth moving around the sun, although I have a sort of faith in a book about planets to tell me that the earth rotates the sun, in reality, humanity doesn’t need to trust anyone to know this. We have determined this on our own. Articles of faith in the religious sense are not like this because they were not ever discovered or determined by anyone, they were simply revealed from a non-human, namely, God. The second difference is that it is not even in theory possible that we learn certain articles of the faith. In the strict sense, an article of faith is above and beyond reason and therefore not even in the domain of human reasoning.
So far, it should be apparent that there is nothing contradictory about faith and reason. We use reason to discover truths and we use faith to learn truths as well. Further, there is nothing unreasonable about faith as if it were some sort of superstition. Believing something on someone’s testimony is not only reasonable but necessary. Believing something on the testimony of an omniscient, omnibenevolent God is also entirely reasonable. Actually, if we knew for sure that God as described did in fact reveal something, it would be the height of stupidity to not believe. It is appropriate to say that it is unreasonable to not accept the truth on faith. From this it should be clear that reason is a foundation of faith. Faith and reason therefore are not the same yet at the same time they are not formally contradictory or mutually exclusive. What I have described thus far however begs two questions. First, how do we know that there is a God and second how do we know that he has revealed a certain truth?
The answer to those questions and some concluding remarks on this post are soon to come. In the meantime, here is a long document that is relevant to the discussion. It is certainly more in depth than a blog post and covers some important points that we don’t have the time for. http://www.ewtn.com/library/encyc/jp2fides.htm (It is Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on Faith and Reason…Let’s pray to this holy man that we can always maintain the proper relationship between the two)