Faith and Reason: One Way or the Highway?

I thought this might be a good place for my last blog entry from So, here are some of my thoughts on faith and reason.

Another Common Ground blogger, Ian Kluge, directed our attention to the new atheists position that there is an inherent and irreconcilable conflict between faith and reason.

Christopher Hitchens sums up their position this way: “All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule.” (God is not Great, p. 64)

Sam Harris, meanwhile, claims that “Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity—a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.” (The End of Faith, p. 25)

Richard Dawkins agrees: “religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation, which usually seems to trump all others.” (The God Delusion, p. 346)

I’d like to examine the rhetoric here and consider its effect on the discourse. Let’s take Hitchens’ statement.

“ALL attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason ARE consigned to failure and ridicule.”

I’m immediately skeptical when someone informs me that ALL of anything is a particular way. In any field of human endeavor this is especially problematic given the sheer diversity among individuals and
the groups they form. But the simple reality of this sentence is that it passively assigns failure and ridicule without telling us who would regard attempts to reconcile faith and reason (if indeed they require reconciling) in this light.

Obviously, Mr. Hitchens and his fellows would view any attempts at reconciliation as failed, but that makes the statement no more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a dialogue about faith and reason, whether he intends it to or not, a statement like this one kills discussion. He has essentially told his audience, “You cannot communicate with me about this subject. No matter what you say, my mind is made up.”

Isn’t this the very mental behavior that Harris and Dawkins decry in their statements?

If we accept Hitchens’ statement as exemplary of new atheist doctrine, does it not create—to use Harris’s words— “a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible”? It is certainly a viewpoint that claims to “trump all others”. At least when it comes to a discussion of faith, science and reason.

It has been suggested by new atheist thinkers that when it comes to any proposition made from a religious point of view, one should simply say “no.” Don’t think about it; don’t even consider it; just set it aside as irrational and worthless, shut your ears, and move on.

I am used to encountering arguments from fundamentalist religionists that their faith, alone, is the truth and that believers should shut down their rational faculties when confronted with any other doctrine. (“Your mind is a tool of the devil.”) But hearing this same litany from people who claim to be the antithesis of dogmatism is … well, it makes me smile.

Or it would be if the stakes were not so high.

We have a plethora of problems in this world—gaps of understanding between individuals, families, cultures, political and religious movements, entire nations and ethnic groups, genders. And these gaps breed dissension, antipathy, apathy, and bloodshed. The new atheists have something to offer toward the solving of these problems: on the face of it, they encourage people to think outside the box, to question long-held assumptions, to think, think, think (as Pooh Bear would say).

This is a good thing, and it is a point at which I, as a Bahá’í, am in full agreement. But to propose restrictions on where we may look for solutions to our problems simply provides another box for our minds to inhabit. To demand that we toss out the Golden Rule or Buddha’s assertion that “hatred ceases by love”, or Christ’s insistence that our first order of business is to “love one another”, or Bahá’u’lláh’s statement that “the world is one country and mankind its citizens”, is to demand that humanity work with one hand tied behind our collective backs. To insist that we solve our problems without the resources faith affords us is a waste of those resources. To push that insistence to the
level of conflict is a waste of precious time and energy that could be devoted to working together on solving our problems.

That is what dogmatism does. It cheats us. It causes us to think that things must be done one way and only one way. We will not work with people who don’t agree with us. We will start our own church (or
unchurch) to which people must turn if they are to be saved.

This is what the new atheists are saying—in some cases, very stridently. It does not seem like a rational position to me, no matter which end of the religious spectrum it comes from. The enemy of reason is unreasonableness, no matter where it comes from. The enemy of free and independent investigation of reality is dogmatism—again, whether it wears religious or irreligious garb. I’d like to suggest an alternative to simply shutting off discourse or thought based on the source of an

“Likewise, when you meet those whose opinions differ from your own, do not turn away your face from them. All are seeking truth, and there are many roads leading thereto. Truth has many aspects, but it remains always and forever one. Do not allow difference of opinion, or diversity of thought to separate you from your fellow-men, or to be the
cause of dispute, hatred and strife in your hearts. Rather, search diligently for the truth and make all men your friends.” — Abdu’l-Bahá, from a talk delivered in Paris, 1911.

The above statement is one that millions of people strive to live by because it forms part of the sacred writings of their faith. If we are to take the new atheist thinkers at their word, however, we must consign this advice to “failure and ridicule”, merely because of its source.

How reasonable is that?

Views: 88

Comment by sukhdeep on December 3, 2010 at 6:20pm
a facebook comment put my friend comes to mind after reading this.
friend: Why don't science and religion just make out and make peace.
Me: because god is delusion, it would be masturbation.
i'm not big into philosphy because it just beats around the bush. (just like buddha did not have to leave his wife and kids to find inner salvation and stuff). this baha' guy is doing the same thing. and actually your last paragraph sums it properly as everywhere around the world different scientists work on a single problem from different angles to come to a solution. as richard dawkins in one of his books talks about a story of his professor who was big on one of his theories and had worked all his life on it but when an american came to visit and gave him a different idea. he got up and shook his hand and said "THANK YOU" so much for helping me and changed his view on that subject. sorry could not give u the exact details of the story.
Comment by Allen J. Thoma on December 4, 2010 at 9:10am
Nice point and well made by Dawkins: Science is a way of making a rational objective attempt to understand the world that is self correcting when presented with new and contradictory information, whereas religion is an entirely subjective understanding of the world based on revelation and historical texts that is not self correcting.
Comment by John Siqueiros on December 4, 2010 at 1:23pm
Where is it assumed there is no reasonable argument for the following:

"To demand that we toss out the Golden Rule or Buddha’s assertion that “hatred ceases by love”, or Christ’s insistence that our first order of business is to “love one another”, or Bahá’u’lláh’s statement that “the world is one country and mankind its citizens”, is to demand that humanity work with one hand tied behind our collective backs."

Well, that would only happen if there is no rational argument for, say, the Golden Rule. One need not rely on divinity to support that theory of living. As Pooh Bear would say, "think, think, think."
Comment by John Siqueiros on December 4, 2010 at 1:43pm
Well, that was quick thinking Pooh Bear Doone! Sometimes I wonder if people who say they need religion to follow the Golden Rule are folks struggling with their sociopathic tendencies. And, they invented concepts like Original Sin because they wrongly assume others are as screwed up as they are.
Comment by Maya Bohnhoff on December 4, 2010 at 6:59pm
@Adriana: The quote from Abdu'l-Baha is part of Baha'i scripture, so if presented as such would be ruled out by Hitchens either Bronze-age antiques or "nebulous humanism". I read every word of God is Not Great and took copious notes. The context is that Hitchens says ALL religion is either Bronze-Age anachronism or dressed up humanism. He leaves no other options. He even goes so far as to say that: "“Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago ... or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism. We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday.”

He does not contemplate someone claiming Prophethood in the age of steam. Understandable, but it limits the applicability of what he has to say.


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