Is Faith Opposed to Reason?
I was listening to a broadcast featuring R.C. Sproul, host of the Renewing Your Mind radio ministry, and he said something that caught my attention. He said that many people want theology to be unreasonable and they want science to be rational. Sproul’s comment (a view to which Sproul does not subscribe) caused me to wonder what were the underlying assumptions that accompanied this view.
Since I cannot pretend to know the exact motivations behind such opinions, nor can I source Sproul’s claim, my guess is that the more we hear something repeated, the more true it seems. Some people have heard that religious beliefs belong essentially in the realm of fantasy (characterized as irrational) so frequently that, today, it enjoys widespread acceptance. I want to address a slightly different observation than what Sproul raised. Let’s assume that faith is based upon feelings and science is based in facts.
Since theism (belief in God) forms the content of faith (religious belief), then, faith must belong essentially to the realm of feelings (emotions or felt needs). This is not just hypothetical. In fact this is what I was taught in an introductory psychology course in college. You may have heard the familiar assessment coined by psychologist Sigmund Freud, namely that belief in God stems from a person’s need for a divine father figure. In other words, faith is based on feelings.
On the flip side, the prevailing popular view of science is that it belongs strictly in the realm of facts; or, at least, science is the best explanation for all of observable reality (note: not all scientists agree with this observation). We may grant that science deals in facts. However, to assume, on that basis, that every aspect of science is rational and, conversely, that every aspect of faith is irrational is short sighted.
To be sure, both perspectives are flawed. True, some areas of religious faith engender emotional feelings, but that does not warrant the reduction of faith to feelings. By the same token, to elevate science to the level of fact misconstrues the scientific enterprise. Science is an industry of exploration where some questions are answered but more frequently, questions remain unanswered.
In other words, some areas of science deal in uncertainty, just as many religious beliefs are maintained without the benefit of absolute certainty of those beliefs. While there is more to faith than this basic definition, it definitely is part of what it means to have faith (i.e., active trust). It is the sort of belief that we possess when we do not have all of the supporting data at our disposal. At the same time, there are sufficient grounds for holding to such beliefs (which means they are not irrational).
Scientific beliefs are similar in this way. Certain branches of science (such as quantum theory/theoretical physics) deal in high degrees of speculation. That is not all bad. This is how discoveries are made. However, many of the conclusions that some theorists hold are held tentatively. They have not reached the level of fact or consensus. Rather, they represent possible explanations, models, or educated inferences about the fundamental machinations of the universe. Thus, the jury is still out on many aspects of science. That does not mean that science is unreasonable. There is a lot that we still do not “know.”
For the same reasons, faith and theology are in the same boat. On this score, the short response to Sproul’s comment (above) is: if theology is unreasonable, on the basis that there are unanswered questions, then so is science. I doubt that many scientists would grant such a conclusion. Finally, some people do have religious beliefs that are irrational. That does not mean that all people have religious beliefs that are irrational. On the question of whether faith is opposed to reason, given that the foundational teachings of the Christian faith are supported by good reasons, we need not conclude that faith is opposed to reason.
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