We all have always heard people say (atheists often but sometimes Christians, too) that faith and science are at war with each other. There is an assumption that science is about being rational and faith is about being irrational. But Greg has always thought that science and faith are complementary. Of course there are points of tension, but overall they should work together, with one taking over where the other leads. This matters because it is this mistaken belief that keeps people from taking Christianity seriously, and causes many people to leave.
Case in point: 97% of scientists believe humans evolved, but only 24% of evangelicals believe this. This is why there is a perception that faith is anti-intellectual. The number one reason given by young people who leave the church is this disconnect, there is a perception that if you’re going to be a Christian you have to check your brain at the door.
Greg’s own experience validates this. He was a fundamental pentecostalist in high school, but then his first semester at the U of M he took Intro to Evolutionary Biology. Partly because he needed science credits, but partly because his plan was to dismantle the argument for evolution! He had read three books on it and thought he was an expert. His grand vision was that he would convert people and maybe even convert the professor!
Well every point he brought up the professor had an effortless response to. Other students were starting get annoyed by his interjections. By the end of the semester, he felt he had no choice but to give up the faith. He didn’t want to, but felt he had to because it was proven wrong. Those nine months after giving up faith were the worst of his life.
He got lucky in that he was able to come back to a revised faith, but many people give up and never come back.
So where did this dichotomy, that faith and reason are at odds, come from? Well, it’s not from the Bible.
Matthew 22:37 tells us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your MIND.”
Acts 1:3 says that Jesus “presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” He did not expect them to believe just because he said so. He knew they would need proof/evidence.
And 1 Peter 3:15 tells us to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The word used for answer is “apologia”, it evokes the argument you might hear from a defense lawyer.
God expects us to use our minds and think. We are expected to take what our mind was meant to do (think) and direct it towards God.
The Bible is in fact very rational and assumes faith should be, too. So where did this idea that faith and science are opposed to one another come from?
To answer this, Greg shared a video called The Philosopher’s Corner. In it, they teach that Pascal said we should believe in God, because belief is “practically useful.” But Kierkegaard, the 19th century philosopher adopted Fideism — a school of thought that says religious belief has to come from faith alone. It says arguments and evidence kill the thing that is great about faith which is wonder and mystery. “The fantastic thing about belief in God is that it’s entirely irrational — you can’t do it with your brain.”
Greg points out that Kierkegaard was a good thinker, so this is not actually a fair representation of what he believed. It is true that he emphasized how irrational it is to believe in one who is fully God and fully human, and he did say that reason can only take you so far and then you have to take a leap. But he never suggested that the leap itself is something that is irrational. In fact it is very well informed.
“For dialectics [meaning the reasoning process] is in truth a benevolent helper which discovers and assists in finding where the absolute object of faith and worship is… Dialectics itself does not see the absolute, but it leads, as it were, the individual up to it, and says “Here it must be.”
– Søren Kierkegaard, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments” page 436
What he is saying is that reasoning can point you in the direction of truth but it can’t get you all the way there. You do have to take a leap at the end. Faith always goes beyond reason but does not (and perhaps should not) have to go against it. You might end up believing some things that defy reason like Jesus being fully God and fully human, but it is because you’ve got good reasons to affirm that.
This aversion to reason definitely was taught by many thinkers and preachers though. In fact Luther taught this, believing that human reason is fallen and so you can’t trust it because it can be used by the devil to deceive us. So we have to trust authority, not our own reason.
And Tertullian famously is quoted as saying, “I believe because it is absurd.” [Though it is worth mentioning that some scholars dispute he actually said or meant this, while others argue he did]. Greg heard this one quoted a lot in grad school because it became the centerpiece of “existential absurdity” which was a fad in the 70s. It was almost like the more absurd the better. But this whole position is ridiculous because there are far more absurd things to believe than that God became human. Why stop there? Why not believe God became a tadpole or a sock?
There is another kind of Fideism held to by the theologian Karl Barth (who is otherwise a thinker that Greg very much admires).
“Belief that the Bible is the word of God presupposes that the Bible has already proved itself to be the word of God. But when there is this proof it must be a matter of the word of God itself. We have to recognize that faith is a miracle and it’s a miracle which we cannot explain apart from faith, or rather, apart from the word of God in which the faith believes. Therefore the reality and possibility [of faith] cannot be maintained or defended at all part from faith and the word.”
What he is saying here is that you can’t have any evidence or reasoning that the Bible is the word of God, rather if you believe that the Bible is the word of God, that itself IS the proof that the Bible is the word of God! The problem with this argument is that it is viciously circular. You can’t simply repeat your belief when someone asks you why you believe it — even though people do do this very thing all the time!
We are supposed to be able to give a defense for why we believe what we believe. If you have not arrived at your beliefs through thinking about them or your own reasoning, then the only way you got them is that you must have inherited them, whether from your parents or the church or the culture at large. This means that you have them by chance — if you had been born in a different circumstance then you’d believe something else. But things we believe are supposed to be TRUE, they are supposed to match reality. And truth cannot be determined by chance. You can’t roll dice to determine whether or not something is a fact. If truth is the goal, the only way to get there is by thinking and considering options. And this is the biblical position.
Imagine a group of 10 people go on a walk in a forest and they get tired and take a nap. They wake up to the crackling of fire and smell of smoke, they know there is a fire but they can’t see their way out of the forest. But they can’t agree on what direction will get them out of there. Why do you think this is the right path between those trees as opposed to that clearing over there? You have to look at evidence and use your thinking. Maybe you’d see your footsteps from when you came in. You’d use your reasoning. It’s the only way to go about deciding which path to take.
You can wish that the evidence was stronger but you can only act based on the evidence that you have, not on what you wish you had. Reason can only take you so far but at some point you have to commit because you only have so much time. You can spend a lot of time asking questions and gathering evidence, but at some point you have to act.
And to not act is to act. Agnosticism is having faith that the world is the kind of place where it is appropriate to suspend judgement indefinitely, where you have the right to demand a higher level of evidence than what you’ve got. But you don’t know if that is appropriate, that assumption itself is an act of faith. You might be wrong about that, and in fact Jesus had some teachings about that. There is no non-faith way out of the forest that we find ourselves in.
Everybody has faith because we live in a world with woefully limited certainty. Everything else is a best guess. For example, every time you leave the house you have faith that you will get to your destination safely. You don’t know that you won’t be hit by a bus or that a piece of a satellite won’t fall on you, you are exercising faith (based on the reasoning that these things are rare).
You really don’t realize how much faith you have until you interact with someone with a phobia. There are people with agoraphobia who will not leave the house because they don’t have that faith that something terrible won’t happen. But you did. It’s because you had faith that it wouldn’t. You didn’t know it for certain. You took a chance.
And when you fly in a plane or sleep in hotels, or eat at restaurants or go to sporting events, it’s the same thing. Every time you are going beyond the evidence of what you absolutely know for certain and acting.
Much of the bad rap that religion gets stems from Galileo, who like Copernicus before him believed that the sun was the center of the solar system. The church however had always taught that the earth was the center, so they used their authority of the church and the authority of the bible to squash a scientific view that was arrived at through reasoning and evidence. This is the first (or earliest notable) time in history that the church pitted faith against reasoning and evidence.
Galileo’s response to this was actually very good and is a good place for us to start as we reconcile this tension. He said that the Bible is the word of God so it should be taken seriously, but that it is the story of God — there is also the story of nature and it has things to tell us. We are supposed to have loving dominion over it, so we should listen. We should interpret the two together.
Galileo quoted St. Thomas Aquinas in saying “All truth is God’s truth.” Because God is self-consistent, and the truth of the Bible will correspond to the truth of nature, if we are understanding it correctly. So when we find what appears to be a conflict, we should assume that there is a deeper truth that will resolve the conflict, it’s just that we don’t fully understand it yet. Hide Extended Summary