Reason and Religion, Oil and Water

reason and religion
Balog Pal, “Oil on Water,” Flikr.com, CC 2.10

For long centuries, the Christian establishment has promoted the conceit that reason and religion are intimately conjoined.

But it’s a self-delusion. In fact, supernatural theology of any kind versus the material actualities of the cosmos that undergird philosophy are “non-overlapping magisteria,” as so elegantly phrased by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). The former is almost entirely based on airy wishfulness, the latter, utter concrete-ness. Never the twain shall meet, no matter how wishful we may be.

Yet, before the Church began to claim its doctrines were fully based on reason it had long demonized evidence-based investigation of existence. The switch came soon after ancient Greek skeptical philosophy disturbingly re-emerged in the West around the 15th century after a millennia of dormancy following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

As far back as the 5th century, Catholicism pioneer St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) had damned reason as “the disease of curiosity … which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us of nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”

Even many centuries later on the cusp of the Renaissance, rebel German priest Martin Luther (1483-1546), the guerilla commandant of the Protestant Reformation, was still vehemently condemning reason, once referring the desire to comprehend the physical reality of existence as “the Devil’s greatest whore.”

“Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed,” Luther once railed. “Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight … know nothing but the word of God.”

However, some other earlier medieval Church paragons, such as Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinus, wary of the dangers skeptical philosophy posed to faith, tried to split the difference with mind-numbingly complex—and illogical— arguments for the reasonableness of believing in phantasms.

But the argument really only boiled down to this: Look around at the complexity of the world. How could any reasonable person not have faith! Eventually, theologians discovered the dreamy, otherworldly, mystical musings of legendary philosopher Plato, decided they melded nicely with Catholicism and proclaimed that Plato’s “reason” permanently ratified the “truth” of faith. The faithful were immediately convinced.

These arguments have hardly gotten less obscure over the years.

In a Christmas day op-ed in The New York Times (ironically titled “How Can I Possibly Believe That Faith Is Better Than Doubt”), conservative writer Christian Peter Wehner thinly argues that “to emphasize faith is not to cast out doubt [read: cast out reason].”

“In fact, it is precisely to take doubt seriously, but also to understand the doubter more completely,” he wrote, “not just as a reasoning mind but as a full person, possessed of a divine spark [my italics] that lets us see, now and then, right through the walls we have built between faith and reason.”

I’m not sure exactly what all that muddle means except that, for it to mean anything, one must accept beforehand what “divine spark” means and that, in fact, such a thing actually exists.

Without evidence.

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