Reason vs. Faith

[This was published in the Chicago Tribune, November 2, 1998]

In today’s industrial civilization, people recognize the difference between the secular and the religious. Even those who believe in the Bible, for example, would generally not proclaim Scripture to be science–any more than those who faithfully read their horoscopes would declare astrology to be part of astronomy.

Pope John Paul II’s recent encyclical, however, seeks to erase that distinction. Titled “Faith and Reason,” it seeks to “unite” the religious and the secular—in order to establish dominion by the former over the latter. How does the Pope try to do this? By presenting the Church—an arch-enemy of reason—as reason’s friend.

Faith and reason represent antithetical philosophies. The advocates of faith declare that we must accept as true that which is unknowable to the rational mind—that we must believe the pronouncements of some “higher” authority in the absence of any objective evidence, or in outright contradiction to the evidence.

The advocates of reason, on the other hand, maintain that man grasps the truth solely by a process of reason, which is based on the data provided by the senses.

What, then, does the Pope mean when he calls for a “unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith”? Does he mean that reason is to be used to reach conclusions contrary to Church tenets? That is obviously intolerable to the Pope—as he makes clear throughout the encyclical:

“The Christian faithful not only have no right to defend as legitimate scientific conclusions opinions which are contrary to the doctrine of the faith . . . but they are strictly obliged to regard them as errors which have no more than a fraudulent semblance of truth.”

“Unity” thus means that reason is to be used—whenever faith allows it. This amounts to the repudiation of reason, as it is relegated to the role of religion’s handmaiden.

At any moment, and across any lifetime, the choice is always either/or: either follow your reasoning mind, or abandon it and place something above it. There is no “middle-of-the-road.”

The entire encyclical is an insidious attack on reason, and on the human capacity—and the human right—to live by means of one’s rational thinking.

The Pope ascribes such modern evils as moral relativism and totalitarianism to what he calls “the crisis of rationalism”—i.e., the replacement of faith by reason. But the reverse is true: these evils are the product of the same anti-reason philosophy endorsed by the Pope.

Moral relativism holds that there are no rational, universal principles of ethics, but only arbitrary preferences. It holds that since reason is an inadequate guide, we should blindly follow our emotions. The religionist too says that reason is unreliable—and that we should blindly accept the dictates of the Church. One says, “It’s so because I feel it”; the other, “It’s so because I believe it.” Neither says: “It’s so because it can be proved.”

Totalitarianism, too, is a product not of reason but of its opposite. For it is faith that requires force to implement its beliefs. If two rational people disagree, they use logic to try to persuade one another. And if they fail to agree, they understand that each individual ought to follow the convictions of his own mind, free from the threat of force.

But if mystical faith is the basis of knowledge, logic and persuasion are irrelevant. There is only the brute assertion: “Well, that’s what I feel like believing—and I believe that you better believe it too.” There is no recourse but force.

Throughout history, wherever religion has dominated, freedom has disappeared. From the Catholic Inquisition’s persecution of Galileo for accepting the evidence of his mind, to the Iranian Ayatollahs’ sentencing of Salman Rushdie to death for expressing his views about Islam, to the current attacks on abortion clinics in the name of religion—the only way mysticism has been implemented is by force.

The Pope wants man to be governed by faith. But he does not want the faithful simply to renounce the modern world of reason—the world of science, of technology, of productive thought; he wants to rule that world too. So he “unites” the two realms—in order that the Church can eventually reign over everything.

At root, the Pope wants to return to the Medieval era, when philosophy was theology, when “science” was just an examination of revelations and miracles, when the reigning “thinkers”—the Scholasticists—taught the Bible as the source of all truth. The Pope wants today’s intellectuals also to nominally use “reason”—but only as directed and circumscribed by the edicts of faith.

There is indeed an urgent need to defend reason. But let the battle lines be clear. The war is between those who subordinate reason to other considerations—whether subjective whims or supernatural dogmas—and those who intransigently uphold it.♦♦

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