Faith, Reason, and Debating the Existential “Big Questions”

I’m past college, and with those years has passed the incidence of earnest debate about things like religion and the meaning of life. That I attended a Catholic university and majored in a “Great Books” meant that I fielded my share of challenges from those who believed something different than I did, and one of the most pressing questions that came up at that time was why.

Why do you believe?

There is something fantastic and mythological, certainly, about the story of a God coming to earth in order to offer Himself up as a perfect, spotless sacrifice in order to atone for every human sin, past and future, and reconcile the human race to Himself as God. The particulars of the story are indeed quaint and uncomfortably sentimental: a sweet young woman chosen to miraculously conceive God’s child; archetypal authority figures hatching dastardly plots and darkly scheming to stop this bright young hero; a set of bumbling accomplices; an impossibly evil death; and the most mythical and unbelievable thing of all: that he was killed and then came back to life.

To my friends, well-educated and mostly liberal humanists, the tale of Christ bears too many similarities to the quaint myths of many other cultures, and is only the biggest myth in a child-like narrative of the world with a stylized creation story and a lot of horrible barbarities. Compared to sophisticated promise of modern disciplines like sociology, psychology, and specialized sciences, a primitive culture’s myth seems plainly archaic. How could anyone believe this, much less someone college-educated?

The challenge about answering this question is that it is ideological rather than academic. Those who ask it have a certain perspective which I don’t understand, but which seems to preclude the idea of a supernatural. Some profess to be humanists, who believe that continued enlightenment in sciences will eventually conquer our social and personal afflictions. Others profess to be rationalists, believing only in those things that science has proved or theorized.

Such alternative belief systems are not, in and of themselves, ideological. They fall more truly into the existential category, defining who we are and why we exist. But they seem to come with a lot of ideological baggage these days. After all, elements of our society today are unabashed and even aggressive apologists for faith (professing the Christian doctrine of sola scriptura) and many of them speak in terms of condemnation, specifically condemnation of those who disagree with them, to hell. They often stand for uncomfortably traditional values as well, like maintaining traditional gender and socio-economic roles. Now all of a sudden we aren’t talking about a different moral and existential perspective, we’re talking about an ideological opponent. And, to be fair, there are fundamentalist Christians who are offensive and judgmental in proselytizing their beliefs.

But to turn the tables, many so-called rationalists and/or humanists can be just as aggressive, and I am skeptical that their explanations of the world are actually more ‘rational’ than a faith-based one. It’s easy to talk about gravity or astronomical relations and say that we can “prove” real science empirically, but I doubt that many of us have empirically viewed the behavior of a virus, or the release of certain brain hormones causing affection or depression. We accept that viruses and brain hormones work a certain way because we have studied the effect of those things and measured them in actual humans, so we know they exist and they affect, somehow, our health or mental state. We also believe people called “scientists” when those people tell us about viruses and brain hormones (and the behavior of chemical elements, and many other things), because we have faith that their education and certification makes them intrinsically trustworthy on certain issues.

Whether or not you trust a scientist or a theologian (or a priest) is really the question, unless on. An Op-Ed in the Washington Post recently pointed out very thoroughly that the two sides are not mutually exclusive. I have little to add to the writer’s argument because I agree with him — I believe in the story of the Christ and yet also pursue understanding of scientific matters, because I want to know more about us and this world we inhabit. He ends with a marvelous paragraph worth quoting in full:

The problem comes when materialism, claiming the authority of science, denies the possibility of all other types of knowledge — reducing human beings to a bag of chemicals and all their hopes and loves to the firing of neurons. Or when religion exceeds its bounds and declares the Earth to be 6,000 years old. In both cases, the besetting sin is the same: the arrogant exclusive claim to know reality.

The answer to the question of why I believe the entirety of the Christian story, with it’s quaint mythological narratives about paradisiacal gardens and apples of knowledge of good and evil and floods and prophets and whales and the Son of God is that I find it more plausible than any of the alternatives. It really makes more sense to me. Not necessarily in they physical particulars (“do you really believe that some prophet actually parted water to create a passage?”), but in the tale it tells of how humanity became prone to doing bad things and how God then came Himself to redeem humanity from its sinful nature.

The Christian tale is plausible to me mostly because of my own experiences in sin and redemption. The vast majority of these experiences are with my own sins and redemptions in my life so far, and a few of them are observations of other peoples’ sins and redemptions. On a precious few occasions I recall witnessing a miracle, or experiencing a beatific presence I attribute to the Christian God. These things are open to interpretation in an academic sense, of course. Rationalists might argue that my experiences of good and bad in myself and others are filtered through a strong inculcated Catholic belief system. They might doubt that I, in fact, saw or experienced so-called “supernatural” things, and point to the demonstrated phenomenon of humans to manufacture memories that suit their subconscious perspectives. And as far as that goes, they may be right. I can’t transmit my experiences to others, so therefore I can’t expect anyone else to believe my conclusions. And yet I can no more forget them than an astronaut could forget his view of a round earth from space, or an astronomer could forget the sightings and calculations that the earth and nearer bodies revolved around the sun in elliptical trajectories.

My point here is not to convince anyone in my beliefs. I don’t think that’s possible — neither a rationalist nor a faith-based belief system can be truly transmitted via dialectic. Any belief system has to be experienced to be believed, personally and deeply experienced. And for a human, that means engaging both the intellect and whatever part of the brain controls belief.

Someone who believes that human emotions like love and depression are a combination of neuron activity and chemical activity in the brain has probably actively engaged the subject: he or she likely wondered why people experience love and other emotions, and pursued the answer until they found an explanation. That’s the activity of his or her intellect. He or she also had to exclude other explanations for emotions (presuming they found others), such as activity of a metaphysical soul, or instinctual behavior bred in by evolution, which is primarily a decision of faith. Does he or she trust neurologists who measure neuron activity and brain chemicals? Priests, philosophers, and/or wise men and women, who have reached a supernatural explanation due to their long experience in considering and/or observing human behavior? What about sociologists and/or biologists who study behavioral patterns and instinct activity?

Personally, I don’t believe that a scientist is intrinsically a better person than a priest or a philosopher. All three are human, which means they are subject to the same ideological myopia and vices, as well as the same inspiration and virtue, as the rest of us. No single person knows everything, and experience teaches that even if a person did, he or she would forget part of it, or hide part of it, or even use it to his/her advantage. Positing that it’s possible to know everything, and use that knowledge correctly, is coming dangerously close to positing God. Whether we follow to that conclusion, or stop short — and who/what we decide to trust and therefore believe — well, that’s just our obligation as rational beings. We each must individually decide what to believe.

It’s natural that each of us would seek like-minded friends in the world, and so it’s easy to see how we would gravitate towards those who believe the same things. So begins ideology, or the pursuit of actualizing an ideal, which carried to the extreme ends up forgetting that ideas are not more important than people — or so I argue as a Christian: that individuals have the highest intrinsic value; ideas may be valuable but they’re not worth more than life itself.

I plead that we don’t let this social instinct push us into prejudice. I and many people I know believe in the teachings of Christianity and yet also follow the progress of scientific knowledge. Many of these people are scientists or doctors themselves. And likewise, I know that people who religious faith (Christian or other) is irrational do not reduce the human experience to the peculiar behavior of a peculiar animal, enslaved to instinct and evolutionary imperative.

So let’s not discuss these existential issues of faith, science, reason, and belief with a desire to win, especially to win by painting other belief systems in pejorative colors. Rather let’s do it to better understand ourselves and each other.

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On Proselytizing

A recurring discussion in our democratic world is the role of religion in society. The issue is divisive and applied to all manner of tangential issues–immigration and abortion are the first that come to mind.

Historically, Christianity was the dominant religion. By the numbers, it still is, though at one point there was a sizeable Jewish minority and there are growing Islamic and atheist communities. The percentages have changed with immigration and secularization, which is the process by which a growing number of Americans who were raised in a religious tradition leave it behind as adults.

Theoretically, none of this matters. The First Amendment ought to make the United States a nation in which all religions can be practiced freely, as well as a nation which does not endorse one religion over another (or, perhaps, any religion at all). But historical oppression of Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Muslims by a majority has illustrated the fragility of the First Amendment in the face of the mob. I say a “mob,” because the United States is not meant to be governed by ‘majority rule,’ it is a country which purports to protect minorities–whether they be racial, religious, intellectual, sex, or sexual orientation–from the tyranny of the majority.

But of course it matters. Research in psychiatry and psychology has noted that humans, as social creatures, respond most positively when they are a part of something larger than themselves–little wonder, then, that religion is so dominant a perspective in our lives. I use the word “religion,” but I mean any articulated belief system (and yes, a rationalist perspective advancing the supremacy of science is an example of an articulated belief system, and may be described in this manner as a religion). After all, we can understand and have complete faith in the efficacy of gravity (it has literally never been disproven, as far as humanity knows) without knowing the why; postulating that the why is irrelevant–or, for that matter, speculating on the why at all–is literally an act or statement of faith. In any case, what matters to a discussion on these belief systems is the uncomfortable fact that each of us tends to have beliefs that we regard as truth, such as: that Christ died for our sins; that there is one God and Jews are His chosen people; that good people are rewarded in heaven, and bad ones condemned to hell; that God is the ‘opiate of the masses’ and humanity is steadily progressing toward a socialist communal lifestyle of rational equality; or even that there is no God at all, and He was invented as a panacea for the terrible greatness and apparent unpredictability of our world, and that we have developed so far as to understand that, and may eventually understand all things. Such beliefs are examples, of course. They are probably facile and archetypal. I don’t pretend to speak for any person, though I suspect that some kind of core belief lies at the bottom of every human’s value system.

From the standpoint of meaning, there is no connection between recognizing the importance of belief in human cognition and self-regard, and the truth or fiction of the beliefs themselves. I am a Catholic, and I believe Jesus Christ was a real person who was also really God, who suffered a horrible death made worse by my sins, and who in doing so redeemed humanity. That belief has informed my entire perspective on the world, and mostly unconsciously–I bet it’s engrained upon my soul in ways I will never, ever comprehend (even after a lifetime of reflection). It is almost certainly the primary source of my values and therefore of my interaction with the world. So, from a psychological standpoint I actually need that belief, because without it there is no foundation for my perspective. I need that belief the way a Jew, a rational humanist, a principled atheist, or really anyone else needs their own core beliefs.  Yet the need for such a belief does not–cannot–imply that such beliefs are either true or false. Just because something is necessary does not mean it is manufactured. Truth or falsehood is another matter entirely, and one for the theologians and philosophers.

Truth and falsehood are also very touchy subjects. I know many an atheist who would brindle at the very suggestion that his or her rational world-view is in fact a sort of faith (religion) with its own doctrine and structure. By making that faith-based critique, I am quite literally attacking the foundation of his/her self, the place of his/her most deeply held beliefs. It’s important to remember that. When encountering a news story about a legal decision favoring a religious group, or perhaps an email or social media anecdote about one person getting the better of another, or even lamenting or lauding a decision regarding Christmas Nativity scenes or the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, most people will react strongly because the perceived ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ is either very self-affirming or very threatening.

On that note, I’ll remind my fellow Christians that “proselytize” is a negatively connoted word, implying that the proselytizer is representing or practicing their beliefs in a way that intrudes upon the victim. Comments like “God is watching!” and “God would be so happy!” on a story, picture, or other piece of internet media are proselytizing comments. They actually condemn (though indirectly) those who don’t share the commenter’s particular perspective. In the New Testament, Jesus pretty explicitly forbids condemnation, as does the Apostle Paul. I think the Christian community (and the world) would be much better served with comments like “I disagree with…” or “I think this is wonderful…,” mostly because such comments establish a perspective based on values, and therefore acknowledge the dignity of other people’s values, without intruding upon them.

Traditional Catholics may point out that one of the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy is to ‘admonish the sinner.’ I agree, though I would add that admonishing the sinner does not excuse one from respecting their essential dignity as a free, rational human being, and would beg to recall Jesus’ own comment about the mite in one’s neighbor’s eye with respect to the beam in one’s own. Besides, disagreeing with someone out of conviction does not condemnation of their world-view. And for those who find value in the act of asserting themselves (the “I won’t apologize if someone else is offended!” set), then I would reiterate Jesus’ call to Charity and turning the other cheek, and remind that causing offense, even if it’s unwarranted, is a sure way to cause further division.

Finally, I’ll say that no-one should have to tiptoe around their beliefs. I certainly don’t. But if the First Amendment’s promise is to come true in our society regarding religion, then we all need to practice our own belief system–rational or faith-based (or both)–with courtesy and respect for others. A good first step for this is to stop proselytizing and to engage others’ values instead of their beliefs, and by extension their essential personhood.