So, while I wasn’t looking, a friend of mine has become a somewhat notable neo-atheist (I’m not sure if it’s fair to call him that, but that’s how he’s being perceived, at least). He’s a philosopher, and we both met while teaching philosophy, and sharing an office. We live on opposite coasts now, so I don’t see him very much. I don’t think he was exactly a believer when we were in the same city (New Orleans), but his ideas have certainly gotten more radical—and more public—since then. He’s always been a provocative teacher, and that’s one of the things that I like about him. I like that he challenges students to make reasonable arguments. After all, in many ways that’s what philosophy is all about. And I know from my own teaching how hard it can be to get students to risk making any argument sometimes!
From what he’s been saying lately, it seems he’s coming down quite hard on students who make arguments based on faith (though precisely what he means by faith, I can’t be sure). I don’t object to that. I have done the same myself, not in a dismissive way, but in a way that I hope helps them make more coherent arguments. After all, Christianity has long held that faith and reason are by no means incompatible. I suspect my friend would agree (or at least he would have in the past). What I fear, though, is that those who listen to him will get the impression that this is not the case. And that is a disservice to them. The Letter to the Hebrews says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for.” Do we really want to rob people of hope, in the name of truth? And, can I really rid my life of what might be called “reason informed by faith”? It would certainly make life more difficult.
I would have to stop introducing my parents as my mother and father, since I have never seen a DNA test proving that I’m even related to them. Barring that, I can only offer faith-based arguments that they are, indeed, my biological parents. Indeed, I might need to go so far as the philosopher David Hume to contend that I really have no way of knowing, despite the fact that it has always been my experience, that if I drop something heavy it will fall down instead of up. For isn’t there a “faith” involved in assuming things simply because we have never experienced things otherwise? Yes, we might find ourselves escaping Plato’s cave one day and finding that things are far different than we ever thought. But does that mean that I should live my life in constant anxiety that my experience of it may not be what it seems to be?
But one might object. That after all is “trust,” not faith. A rose by any other name? And, besides, what is objectionable is not that kind of faith (if you want to call it that), but religious faith. How is it different, as my friend put it in a recent talk, than believing in the Easter Bunny? Well, for one thing, I know now that the things the Easter Bunny was once credited with doing were actually being done by the people I call my parents. But were they? Why should I believe that what they have told me is true, and that they are not just trying to protect me from the reality that there is indeed an Easter Bunny? But I have never seen the Easter Bunny, and I have seen and learned to trust those who claim to be my parents, so the truth of their assertion is at least more probable.
But here’s where they’ve got me! Since I have never seen God, isn’t he just as ridiculous a notion as the Easter Bunny. Well, it depends again whether you are willing to trust what people have told you. I come from a tradition that descends from the historical encounter of a people called Israel with a real God. I come from a tradition that believes that God also entered history in another way in the person of Jesus Christ, a human person who lived, whom other people experienced, who died, and who, according to their accounts, visited some of those very same people after his death and rising from the dead. I have to take their word for it. I also have to take the word of the millions of people who have also experienced God in a variety of ways over the centuries. Sure, some of them were probably crazy. But even crazy people can argue from experience. I may be one of them.
But I don’t just have to take their word for it. I have experienced God for myself. Anyone can say that I’m just making it all up, that I’m delusional. Certainly, if there is no God, I have made a joke of my life. I can say that. But, interestingly, I’m pretty sure that’s something my friend would never say to me, or even believe of me. He has experienced the concrete effect that my belief in God has on who I am, what I do and why I do it. He knows that much of my life is based on reason, informed by faith, and that some of my life rests on faith alone. He objects to what a lot of “faithful” people do—and so do I. But that doesn’t make faith objectionable to me, it just means that people can mistaken conclusions based on faith, as they can commensurately so based on reason. And life is a mixture of mistakes and successes based on both.
It’s Holy Week. And this week that is the story we remember. A story of mistakes and successes, of friendship and betrayal, and a love that expresses itself in a way that is both reasonable and which transcends reason. It’s a story that we know really happened—people experienced it, history records it. Yet it is also a story that for those of us who believe, who have faith in Jesus Christ, happened once and for all time. It is no less real today than it was on the historical date that it happened. And it demands something of us that is not reasonable. It demands that we give our lives to over to the mission and the person of Jesus Christ—completely. In doing this, we do not ignore the fact that people have and continue to do hateful things in the name of Jesus Christ (which is one of the atheists’ favorite bludgeons), or that peopledo amazing, loving and heroic things also in the name of Jesus Christ. Or that people do both, without believing in Jesus or God. They can be as heroic or fallible as those of us who do have faith.
I’m not offended by the offense they take at my faith. I am, however, concerned that in championing the truth, they might, even if unwittingly, take people’s hope away. Especially because I suspect that, ultimately, they are looking for “the substance of things hoped for” too. Their substance is just different than mine. Mine is Jesus Christ, who I have experienced, and who calls me, guides me, lives in me and loves through me. Theirs is, well, I’m not sure. Hope in Jesus may be as ridiculous to some as the Easter Bunny, but it is everything to me, and the community of faith to which I belong. It’s just how we roll . . . (if we can say for sure that anything, in fact, rolls.)
If people replaced hope with curiosity, do you think there would be that anxiety you wrote of?
Is curiosity hopeless? I am a big proponent of curiosity, imagination, doubt, etc. But these are hopeful things, I think. At least they are for me.
If only the religiously inspired “substance of things hoped for” was always beneficent. But the things hoped for are often malignant and destructive. The mass murderers on 9/11 hoped for life eternal in paradise and god-sanctioned changes here on earth. Millions more hope that the end of times is nigh and that unbelievers like me are an instant away from inhabiting a lake of fire. Still more in their prayers hope for a better world but take no action. Hope with action is futility; hope without reason is insanity.
If only. I’m with you on that. Honestly, though, I’ve never understood why the evil actions of supposed believers in God, religion, ideology, makes the beliefs of those who are inspired to good and (to use your word) beneficent acts illegitimate. The idea that taking the lives of innocent people–or even guilty ones, for that matter–can get one into heaven, is absurd. And evil. That some people are deluded or desperate enough to think so, doesn’t move me to consider abandoning my faith. Other things might (faith is not certainty), but that does not. So, far none of my doubts have been compelling enough to convince me that my faith is illegitimate or absurd.
Father Mark wrote:
“After all, Christianity has long held that faith and reason are by no means incompatible. ”
There are many different flavors of Christianity. In Roman Catholicism, there’s a belief that the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Jesus, LITERALLY. It is hard to find any more blatant contradiction with reality than that claim.
FYI, I have some videos at my YouTube account which talk further on the topic of “Science vs. Christianity.”
PS: I was raised and confirmed as a Catholic, now a Secular Humanist (atheist).
That faith and reason are not incompatible does not mean that all beliefs of a faith tradition can be explained by means of reason. I would be the first to admit that there are some things about my faith that are “unreasonable,” but I don’t think that makes them untrue.
Father Mark wrote:
“I would be the first to admit that there are some things about my faith that are “unreasonable,” but I don’t think that makes them untrue.”
So then if a person comes to you and says that they are Jesus (as many people actually do think in psychiatric hospitals around the world), you can’t argue with them. How could you, appeal to reason? You just admitted it is ok to have beliefs that are unreasonable.
But, I’m Jesus! (kidding) I’m afraid I don’t follow your logic. You’re saying: Therefore, everything unreasonable is true? (So, maybe I am Jesus?)
Rather than belabor this, however, maybe we can just agree to disagree?
Father Mark, I’m just trying to say that if you agree that your faith can be unreasonable and go against logic, then how can you understand anything? Everything we know in the world is from induction and deduction.
We know the Catholic Church claims that the bread becomes the literal body of Christ after it is consecrated. But we also know it doesn’t look, taste, touch, or smell like anything has changed. Therefore, we know it hasn’t changed. How can you believe it has changed? Doesn’t it seem like a perfect analogy of the story “The emperor has no clothes.” Only instead of a naked Emperor, the naked thing is the statement that something has changed when it obviously hasn’t. A little child can see it, and call it out (as in the Emperor story). “But daddy, how can the Priest say it has changed when we see it hasn’t?”
Isn’t that a perfect example of a delusion (claiming something that is real that isn’t)? Isn’t it claiming something is the literal body of Christ when you know it isn’t?
This is so obvious to anyone who isn’t a Catholic. Just like you can study and see obvious errors in Mormonism (assuming so), can you apply the same critical thinking to your own faith?
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I don’t eschew critical thinking (in fact, I teach it). However, it seems clear that what counts as knowledge for you and what counts as knowledge for me are two different things. If I claimed something as true when I knew it wasn’t, that would be delusional. But I don’t claim anything true that I know not to be, though I might claim something to be true that you don’t believe to be true. I expect you would say something to me like: How can you claim that God communicates with you, when you know that God doesn’t? But I know that God does. How can you claim the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, when you know that it isn’t? Well, I know that it is (otherwise celebrating mass would be a rather absurd thing for me to do). You make it sound as if have never considered the possibility that it could be otherwise. But, I’ve been thinking about it all my life.
Things like beauty and love speak truths to me that are much more than that which I can just “induce” or “deduce.” I have chosen and continue to choose a life that includes more than just those things that I can be certain of.
People in the world of philosophy and theology like to speak of thinkers having different “methodologies,” ways of approaching things, ways of seeing the world. Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche had many remarkably similar insights, but their ways of seeing and understanding what constituted the “real world” were markedly different. Perhaps you could say you and I have different methodologies. According to yours, you might just dismiss me as a deluded, and that’s fine with me. I, however, would just say that we are different.
Hi Father Mark-
I don’t think you are staying on topic, about the Eucharist. Why do you believe it is literally the body of Jesus, when it doesn’t look, smell, feel, or taste like it? Simply because the church proclaimed it because of their interpretation of the Bible; and you choose to believe the church over your own reasoning? How can you dispute the fact that it remains bread and is NOT the literal body of God? You can literally slice it into as many pieces as you want, look under a microscope, and don’t you think all you’ll see is the substance of bread? If the substance is still bread, why do you believe the substance is literally the body of Jesus? Do you admit this is simply blind allegiance to whatever the Roman Catholic Church declares, and that it runs contrary to your own reasoning? And if so, can you fault someone for denying it because they insist it is more of a virtue to follow one’s conscience, than it is to pledge blind allegiance to an organization which declares something to be true against one’s reasoning? Shouldn’t you agree with me that everyone should evaluate their own religious beliefs to examine if they are in the truth or not? Shouldn’t you appeal to one’s mind in order to accept the faith, if the faith was true and based on reality? If God really did create humans and their brains, shouldn’t he be proud of his creation when they use their brains to their fullest extent, proud of them as any parent would be proud of the child for bringing home good grades from schoolwork?
I have not faulted you for anything. I’m not trying to make you believe what I believe. But, “if God did really create humans” a lot more things follow than just that God would be proud of me for using my brain. It means that I am created to have a relationship with God which, by its very nature, includes what you might perceive as “blind allegiance,” among other things.
I do find this discussion interesting, however, because you are being far more “evangelical” than I am. Why is it so important to change my mind? And do you really think that a brief exchange on a blog is going to get a lifelong Catholic, who in this case is also a priest, to deny something as central to his faith as the Eucharist? While you might find me willing to concede some things, that’s not going to be one of them.
So, if staying “on topic” means arguing about the Eucharist, this discussion is not going to go anywhere. I am not going to change your mind about something about which you are already convinced. The scientific aspect of what you say is true, it’s the sacramental aspect that makes the difference, for me (and millions of other Catholics). But sacramental truth would fall under what you call “blind allegiance,” so that would leave us at an impasse.
Hi Father Mark-
I wasn’t arguing, I was asking you questions (they were real questions, not rhetorical). But you didn’t answer them. Have you just decided that there’s no use in trying to apply reason to faith? Is the way to resolve the faith-reason conflict by ignoring it (denial)? (Not rhetorical, but real questions again.)