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Science vs Religion: Faith or Reason?


I find this fictionalized episode in Einstein's childhood, a Macedonian commercial, very accurate in depicting that religion is not devoid of rational thought at all.

In today’s world, we view religion as the exact opposite as the scientific. One is magical, the other is technological and all the other “-logical”s including just plain logical. The idea of applying anything other than mysticism to religion does not occur to us.

Is science completely contrary to religion? Is rationality inconsistent or contradictory to faith? Certainly not synonymous with it! After all, wasn’t Galileo imprisoned (house arrest, but still arrest), for defying the millenia-old belief of geocentrism, held since the days of Aristotle and earlier? True, Aristotle was a philosopher and scientist, but the Church, so we're told, couldn't reconcile the Bible with a spinning Earth. Weren’t there countless witchhunts across Europe and America, despite the ban on the mere belief in witches as superstition since the Middle Ages (Council of Paderborn, 785 AD)? Modern technology has come about only through science, not religion. Those unacquainted with the history of theology, at least as far as Christianity is concerned, can be forgiven for thinking that the issue is as simple and clear as that. But since the first step that Jesus’ foot took on his ministry, to the last book written on him and his church, every major Christian writer used all the modern methods and knowledge available to him in his day. Jesus constantly proved who he was claiming to be to the Jews with miracles, and not the kind a faker or impostor or even demon could make (cf. Matt. Acts 16:16-18; 19:11-20; Gal. 1:8; 2 Cor. 11:14; 2 Thess. 2:9-12. See also Luke 9:49-50). The Apostles, like Jesus, used both reason and proof (Mark 12:35-37; Acts 2:22-23) as well as prophecies from Scripture (Luke 24:27; Acts 3:17-26; 8:30-35). Paul used proof, not blind belief, when he referred to the witnesses to the Resurrection (1 Cor 15). The countless Christian apologists since then, such as Quadratus (c.125 AD), Tertullian (200 AD), Origen (~230 AD), St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), St. Anselm of Canterbury (†1109), St. Thomas Aquinas (†1274) all use reason in their discussion of belief.

In fact, the biblical word for “faith” is not a set of doctrines to be blindly believed: it is a living dedication to correct behavior – fidelity, faithfulness, not simply “belief” [Hauer and Young, Introduction to the Bible (7th ed.), p.157]. Nowhere is blind faith demanded and Paul praises the Jews at Berea for verifying his claims and coming to their own conclusions through reasoning (Acts 17:11).

Which is Greater: Reason or Faith?

But it would be a mistake to consign faith, trust in the unseen and unknown, to the corner and relegate it to the background in the face of reason and facts. Since Kant in the late 1700’s, it’s been a major philosophical premise that true knowledge is an assumption, albeit a well-working one, but not justifiable as any kind of absolute, immutable proof. One is well-off settling for the golden approach of the probable, like Cicero. Think of it this way: you’ve never had to prove that bread feeds you or water quenches thirst. If we delve deeper and show how the food is converted into energy and the water into plasma and cytoplasm, we’ve gone a step further into our quest for confirmation. But how do we know that the connection is real and there isn’t another unseen force at work, like gravity was for the pre-Newtonian age when many deemed it ridiculous, especially in ancient times? Occam’s razor can’t help us, not least of all because it’s also a philosophical presumption that can easily be due to assumption (e.g. a magic trick with a complicated sleight of hand). The further we go in proving an original suggestion or seemingly obvious fact, the even more we have to go to prove that next step. This is basically what Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems proved: there are things that can be true, but are unable to be proven. We can know they’re true, but not by our presupposition of “Knowledge only by proof,” or “reason, logic, and facts.”

And this is all assuming that what we’ve presumed to discover is true. Many philosophies and theories have existed which might be self-consistent, and therefore valid, but not sound. Ptolemy’s model for planetary motion is one example. It fit all the data. But in the end it was the Copernican model that was true. Wisdom is certainly a powerful weapon against ignorance and its results: suffering. But in a miscalculated direction it can often end up being the sword upon which one falls. It is because the authorities and scientists of Copernicus’ day were so adamant about their superior understanding of the universe, the printer of the first edition of his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium felt compelled to include a preface stating that the writing was a work of fiction – a “what if” scenario for amusement purposes. Thankfully Copernicus never saw it when it was presented to him on his deathbed. This is why John 7:14-18 (and Augustine’s commentary on it) says not to place trust in one’s own reasoning over revelation: the result is often erroneous and usually leads to, if not already the product of, one’s own vanity (cf. 3 John 1:9; 2 Cor. 10:10-12; 11:5-6; 12:11). The 12th century philosopher, Peter Abelard, had similar sentiments and saw this as one of the main origins of heresy:

Those who claim to be dialecticians are usually led more easily to [heresy] the more they hold themselves to be well-equipped with reasons, and, to that extent more secure, they presume to attack or defend any position the more freely. Their arrogance is so great that they think there isn’t anything that can’t be understood and explained by their petty little lines of reasoning. Holding all authorities in contempt, they glory in believing only themselves—for those who accept only what their reason persuades them of, surely answer to themselves alone, as if they had eyes that were unacquainted with darkness. [Theologia christiana 3.20]

Hence why the Bible both praises (Proverbs 4; 1 Cor. 12:8; 13:11; 2 Cor. 11:6) and mocks wisdom (1 Cor. 1:17-25; 3:19). It’s probably for this reason that the well-known verse in Ecclesiastes 1:18 tells us that, “much wisdom brings much grief,” “and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (compare Ecclesiastes 1:16-17 and Acts 26:24, 1 Cor. 13:1-3). There must be a balance of the correct point of view so that it could be actual, useful wisdom (Matt. 10:16; 1 Cor. 2).

Famously, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica ends abruptly; unfinished. The story goes that Aquinas received a vision of amazing things, which compelled him to stop writing. His perception of his work, a mighty compendium of argumentation, now a tiny plaything in the hands of fate. Was he so mesmerized by a glimpse of what “ear has not heard, and eyes have not seen” (1 Cor. 2:9), like Moses seeing God on the mountain? Or did he see how little he knew compared to the advances of science in the future? Whatever the case, he felt this dwarfed his knowledge and it proved to him how little he or anyone knew. It is exactly with such humility that we must approach anything that originates in ourselves. My sentiments couldn’t be better expressed than by St. Anselm of Canterbury. Unequaled in erudite scholarship in his day, he strove that, “nothing whatsoever in these [philosophical] matters should be made convincing by the authority of Scripture, but whatsoever… the necessity of reason would concisely prove.” However, he summarizes the relationship between reason and revelation much as the original title of one of his works, the Proslogion, as:

”faith seeking understanding”, which intended “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God”. Once the faith is held fast, however, he argued an attempt must be made to demonstrate its truth by means of reason: “To me, it seems to be negligence if, after confirmation in the faith, we do not study to understand that which we believe”. Merely rational proofs are always, however, to be tested by scripture and he employs Biblical passages and “what we believe” (quod credimus) at times to raise problems or to present erroneous understandings, whose inconsistencies are then resolved by reason.

His position can be summarized as: “The Christian ought to go forth to understanding through faith, not journey to faith through understanding” (Christianus per fidem debet ad intellectum proficere, non per intellectum ad fidem accedere) and “The correct order demands that we believe the depths of the Christian faith before we presume to discuss it with reason” (Rectus ordo exigit, ut profunda Christianae fidei credamus, priusquam ea praesumamus ratione discutere) Philo of Alexandria wrote, “The pursuit of the truth of God, even if one fails to achieve it, is the most noble cause.” Of what use is knowledge if it has no purpose? No one buys a tool if it’s not going to have a purpose (Matt. 25:14-30). And what could this purpose be? Of what use is education if it doesn’t produce a career? Of what use is knowledge or anything else, if it doesn’t bring happiness? Quite simply, the whole point of Christian apologetics and of revealed religion overall, the same as the Greatest Commandment: to love God and your neighbor (1 Cor. 13:8-13).