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Volume 8, Issue 4: Disputatio

Faith, Reason, and Rationality

Douglas Jones and Michael Shermer

Is faith irrational? Is reason the best kind of rationality? What is rationality? Secularists pit faith against reason, but Christians like Abraham recognize faith as the highest form of rationality. Both of them involve loyalty to norms of some sort. In the following interchange, the managing editor of Credenda/Agenda, Douglas Jones, and Michael Shermer discuss the relationship between faith, reason, and rationality. Michael Shermer is founder and publisher of Skeptic magazine, Director of the Skeptics Society, organizer of the Caltech Skeptics Lecture Series, and an adjunct professor of the history of science and culture at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He has written Teach Your Child Science, Teach Your Child Math, a biography on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, and his book Why People Believe Weird Things will be out from W. H. Freeman Spring of 1997.

DJ: Many people, including Christians, popularly pit reason against faith, marking the latter as the epistemologically weak sister. But in a Christian framework, faith is never blind or irrational. If rationality is something like conforming one's beliefs to the highest norms of thought, then faith is the highest kind of rationality. For the call to biblical faith is not a call to believe contrary to reality but a call to be loyal to the supreme standard of thought and realitythe Christian God. Those who are most faithful are those who are most rational. On these terms, Abraham is quite a rationalist, since reality determines rationality. Secularists who equate faith with irrationality beg the question.
MS: Since this disputatio is about reason and faith, perhaps we should be a bit more semantically precise. When I was a theology student at Pepperdine University I came to understand "faith" to mean "belief in a claim for which there is no evidence." When I later became a scientist, and then a historian of science, I came to understand "reason" to mean "belief in a claim based on evidence." I thought the point of religious "faith" was to believe despite the fact that one cannot prove it. If there is enough evidence to believe something, you don't need faith. Scientists do not have "faith" in their conclusions, they have provisional confidence based on probabilities of likelihood. Theologians do not "reason" their way to a belief in God, they have absolute and unshakable faith based on personal experiences and intuitions.
DJ: Yes, I understand that your manner of drawing the distinction is popular in the secular mind, but that is what I am challenging. Faith, in a biblical framework (e.g., Abraham), is never blind or without proof. It involves the highest norms of rationality. But even on your terms, notice that your pristine scientists are appealing to, trusting in, what they take to be the highest norms of rationality (viz., logical/empirical norms). Abraham was trusting in his highest norm too. One or both could be mistaken about the highest normsreason vs. revelationbut both are being very rational on their own terms.
MS: If you want to define faith to include forms of reason, or if you want to claim that scientists using reason have a type of "faith" in "logical/empirical norms," well, okay, I don't want to use all our space in arguing over definitions. The real difference between reason and faith, science and religion is not in methods so much as goals. Science is cumulative, provisional, and always seeking greater understanding of the natural world through natural laws and generalizations. Religion is static, final, and seeks greater understanding of the supernatural being through spiritual laws and generalizations. I see these as two different nonoverlapping (and nonconflicting) human goals.
DJ: The question isn't just arbitrarily definitional though. If, as you say, the real difference between reason and faith is not methods, then would you also agree that secularists are confused when they charge Christians with irrationality? Since secularist worldviews operate in ultimately the same way as the Christian's, such a charge amounts to no more than the question-begging claim "you're irrational because you don't play by my rules." The Christian, of course, can legitimately reverse that charge. A secular worldview can claim no superior rationality at this point. Even your focus on goals omits the very static, nonprovisional norms secularists use, as well as the very earthy, natural focus of much of Christian thinking.
MS: This is a most peculiar conversation. You seem to want to say that reason and faith are essentially no different. Fine. Since science is a part of reason and a rational worldview, can you "prove" through reason or science that God exists? No, you can't. (If you could we wouldn't be having this discussion.) No one can. The point of faith and religion is to find meaning in the essentially meaningless universe that science has constructed. If faith were essentially a rational, reason-based process of thinking, then we could fold religion right into science and teach courses in "The Physics of Immortality," as the cosmologist Frank Tipler believes we can. I don't share this "faith" in science!
DJ: Perhaps it's a peculiar discussion because our sides rarely converse. I have not said that the norms of revelation and logic are identical. I have said that biblical faith and secular reasoning are identical in their obedience to supreme norms. Can we prove the existence of God? Sure. But since we are talking about ultimate norms, you shouldn't expect lab proof. Are you saying that you can prove the existence of your supreme norm in a science lab? No, our arguments for supreme norms would probably look very much alike, rather unempirical and circular. I suspect yours would require more credulity, since it would probably include a rather magical mix of naturalism and immaterial norms.
MS: I do not consider science and reason to be "supreme norms," just the best methods we have for understanding the nature of our world, our universe, and ourselves. They achieved this status not by decree of authority, not because they were set down in some sacred text, and not because some august body says they are "supreme," but for the simple reason that they work. By "work" I mean they produce results. Go to all the faith healers you want, I'm goin' to my doc who graduated from Harvard Medical School. He may not be perfect, and his system of western medicine may be flawed, but it has proven itself to be a far superior system of knowledge than faith and prayer.
DJ: I was hoping you would resort to pragmatism as a supreme norm, since it undermines everything you hold dear. First, have you confirmed the theory of pragmatism itself in the lab? If not, it too fails as knowledge. Second, if only what works is true, you can't really know any truth today, since you haven't evaluated all the consequences down the road. Science will look very different 200 years from now. Third, pragmatism only permits you to claim knowledge after testing, yet it also impossibly requires knowledge of problems and criteria of confirmation before testing. You have to first have truth to get truth. Tough trick. Pragmatism is so very impractical.
MS: I am not looking for any "supreme norm," just a combination of theoretical models tested against nature with the goal of trying to approximate "reality" with our models. We cannot replicate it perfectly, of course, but we can attain greater accuracy with our models through constant checking with new evidence and reassessing old evidence. Scientists present their data with error barsthe range of error variation produced in any experiment. Please tell me when any theologian ever presented his theories and findings with error bars. Since you do not seem to see much difference between reason and faith, science and religion, please tell me what you think is the probability of God's existence using faith, and how you arrived at that probability.
DJ: Supreme epistemological norms are inescapable. It's not a question of seeking them or not. Non-Christian philosophers have long recognized their place in knowledge. They're not mysterious. A supreme norm is the ultimate principle in any worldview by which you distinguish truth from falsity (e.g., logic, empirical standards, pragmatics, revelation, etc.) If one's ultimate norm fails, then everything else collapses, including error bars. In your previous response, your norm of knowledge was the correspondence between theoretical models and reality. My challenges to that norm are the same as that raised previously against a pragmatic standard. If your norm of knowledge can't resolve those problems at the starting gate, why should Christians worry about any secular challenges?
MS: So why do Christians worry about secular challenges? Why do creationists call themselves by the oxymoronic name of "creation-scientists," even though they are not doing one iota of science but just the usual biblical apologetics? The reason, I contend, is that science is a superior method for understanding the world and it is the dominant cultural standard of truth, and they know it and want to emulate it. If faith is such a complete, rational, supreme epistemological norm, why bother dealing with science at all? I have no problems if someone tells me they believe in God based on faith. It's when they tell me they think they can "prove" God's existence that I will demand fairly rigorous standards of proof.
DJ: You're quite right that science is the dominant cultural standard, and contemporary Christians are notorious for lusting after foreign gods. Various mythologies have historically gripped most cultures, but their popularity hasn't made them true. Scientism is especially peculiar, though, for its fickleness. Few conclusions are as well-justified as the induction from the history of science that today's science will be deemed false and quaint just a few generations from now. Why even call it knowledge? Science is a great tool when it knows its place. And honestly, how can anyone believe your call for "rigorous standards" when you won't even answer my simple challenges to your criteria of truth? Blind faith is very unbecoming.
MS: Science is not "fickle." It is provisional. Science does not seek "Truth" so there is no need to provide a criteria of truth. It is religion who seeks and finds final Truths, pronounces them as such based on some mystical revelation, personal faith, or religious authority, and then punishes those who do not accept the "Truth." In world history hundreds of millions have been murdered in the name of religious "Truth." Not one scientist has ever been murdered in the name of science. By this criteria of tolerance-intolerance one should abandon religion and faith and turn to science and reason as a superior means of understanding that leads to tolerance of differences and different ideas.
DJ: You try to distance yourself from scientific Truth, but you fail to see that your basic norms of science operate with the same authority, irrevisability, and unprovisionality as a fundamentalist's revelation. Like many fundamentalists, you ground your norms in mystery and refuse to answer challenges to them. Secularists are just closet fundamentalists. In addition, your previous response both denies and affirms absolute truth. Following your denial of "final Truths" you wield the absolutistic "criterion of tolerance." Did you find that in a lab? Was it verified by "rigorous standards of proof"? Regarding scientific murderers, do remember that tools of nuclear and chemical genocide weren't produced in a cathedral. Secularists will always lose badly on body counts.
MS: Nuclear bombs built by scientists don't kill people, politicians who push buttons do; fires did not kill witches, intolerant church inquisitors did. The criteria of "tolerance" can be derived through reason: tolerance leads to acceptance of differences, intolerance leads to murder on a grand scale, as the history of religion and politics shows. This standard of the value of human life is derived through evolutionary ethics: for the survival of the species it is better to be tolerant than intolerant. I was once a Born-Again Christian who abandoned faith and religion when I realized the level of intolerance of differences and the unfounded belief in absolute Truth. For me, reason and science were liberating because they freed me to accept others who are different and to explore new ideas with an open mind.
DJ: Even if evolutionary mythology were true, its ethical norms wouldn't follow. You would need to include the widely rejected premiseWhatever is natural is morally obligatoryfun for sadists, but it makes science immoral. Since nuclear weapons can't be used for gardening, you can't excuse science by blaming politics; both were secularist, as were all the genocidal ideologies over the past two centuries. Interestingly enough, the biggest slaughters came from those preaching tolerance. "Tolerance" has always been a cloak for guillotines. Despite disclaimers, you have not abandoned, only switched absolute Truths (e.g., reason), impossible as even that is within an evolutionary framework. Secular skepticism just isn't skeptical enough. Christian skepticism, however, is the hope of the future, a future of true peace and tolerance.

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