Religion vs Atheism. Creation vs Evolution. Science vs Religion. Many of the great debates today are phrased in the context of Faith vs Reason. It is assumed that faith and reason are incompatible opposites. Caricatures of both sides are often accepted as fact. Atheists are seen as having of no faith in anything besides themselves, living sad and worthless lives. The religious are seen as having no capacity for reason, blindly believing the words in an ancient book, living sad and worthless lives. Neither view seems to be particularly useful as a starting point in a genuine discussion. As such this article will seek to reframe the discussion. Are faith and reason truly opposite viewpoints, opposing frameworks from which to view the world? Are they mutually exclusive concepts?
Rene Descartes is perhaps one of the greatest voices for reason. Descartes was a philosopher and a religious man who wrote the Meditations to “the dean and doctors of the sacred faculty of theology of Paris.” He sought to prove the existence of God and the Soul through his philosophic reasonings. In his treatise “Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy,” Descartes realized that he distrusted everything that he knew, ultimately questioning the fact of his own existence. He came to the famous realization “I think, therefore I am.” (Humorously he posited the opposite conclusion as well, essentially, he who doesn't think, isn't. One wonders what he would have thought of our current society with its emphasis on mindless entertainment.) With “I think, therefore I am” he reaffirmed his reality and began to rebuild his knowledge with the facts and truths that he could discern himself and be absolutely certain of. With such an emphasis on reason and absolute certainty you could logically expect that the conclusions which he reached would be unimpeachable, beyond doubt. If you have read the Meditations you are at this point chuckling to yourself. Descartes ultimately reaffirmed his own views and pet theories, in physics, medicine, and more. As is to be expected his conclusions were in some areas incorrect, in others, inadequate. He also determined that he was unable to fully reprocess and prove for himself all of mankind's knowledge and was therefore forced to trust in the efforts of like minded men, in essence, having faith in their discoveries and shared knowledge.
In 1997 a group called Heaven's Gate believed that God was going to cleanse the earth and that in order to survive they needed to leave the planet. They believed that a spaceship was trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet and could take them to safety. In order to go to the spaceship and escape the earth the 38 cult members entered into a suicide pact believing that by severing their connection with their physical bodies they could leave the earth and leave on the spaceship. This group had faith. There however seemed to be little reason involved.
Faith is essential to the atheist, to the scientist, to everyone. A single individual cannot fully grasp all of the concepts of microbiology, astrophysics, statistics, genetics, quantum physics and others that are essential to fully understanding the modern view of life, the universe, and everything. One must take on faith the conclusions reached by others. One must also have faith that the inadequacies of modern knowledge are not leading to fatally flawed assumptions in our core sciences.
Reason is essential to the God fearing person. Without reason we are dependent on emotions/feelings. Emotions and feelings are vital to faith but can be easily swayed with charisma, strong smells, barometric pressure, and good meals amongst other factors. Faith supported by reason can point to a Bible that is full of accurate and fulfilled prophecies, accurate archaeological and historical facts. Reason can allow one to explain why committing suicide to catch a ride on a cosmic taxi is a bad plan.
For a Christian to deny the power of reason, to hide their head in the sand and remain deliberately ignorant of scientific theories and hypotheses is short sighted at best. For an atheist to deny the faith exercised in their lives, and to believe that there is absolute certainty to be found in human understanding is equally short sighted.
Everyone uses a combination of faith and reason in order to determine what they believe. The discussion to be had is not faith versus reason, the two are not competitors, are not mutually exclusive. The discussion is all about faith. Where do I put my faith? In God? In man? In the creator or the created? In God's revealed Word, or in the ever changing and evolving realm of human knowledge?
Hebrews 11:1 "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes