Faith and Reason: Why Can’t We Be Friends?
Faith’s bad rap, reason’s inflated reputation, and the nuance of human actions.
Faith gets a bad rap. It’s a shame, really. But like anything that gets its image tarnished over the years, it tends to be because of what its adherents do and say, as opposed to anything intrinsic to it. A great example of this is the Rick and Morty Szechuan sauce incident. A perfectly good television show makes a quirky reference a few times, and its fan base takes it to an unimaginable extreme. In essence, the fans ruined it.
In the case of faith, I see its use by theistic religions (the ones that believe in a single all-powerful god) as an age-old case of “the fans ruining it”. Faith is misused by fundamentalist Muslims to justify their take on jihad, which can be a beautiful concept about the spiritual struggle to which we’re all subjected. Faith is misused by fundamentalist Christians who claim that the earth was created only thousands of years ago, and that homosexuals will rot in hell. Those in the “reason” camp take the bait, and engage in a war of words where the incredible power of faith is discarded like so much wrapping paper on Christmas morning.
Once again, the fans ruined it.
But really, faith is something worth talking about — whether you believe in a god or not. And there are two things about faith that are particularly powerful:
- Faith is an incredibly powerful, yet overlooked tool for everyday living.
- Faith is something that we as humans naturally practice constantly.
But first, let me just talk about what faith is.
The Meaning of Faith
A simple definition of faith is a strong belief in something for which there is no prevailing proof. And by that definition, faith is neither a uniquely religious phenomenon, nor is it one confined to those familiar with the word and its meaning. Faith by this definition is also not quite a belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is simply strong belief beyond what an objective analysis of the evidence would suggest.
In that sense of the word, we use faith in many of our everyday activities. I hear stories of contaminated water and boil orders all the time, and I know almost nothing about the municipal water supply in my area, yet still I drink from it daily. I have faith that the system is working.
I regularly fly on airplanes across the country in giant commercial airliners that would certainly harm or kill me if one of the thousands of moving parts malfunctioned. Again, I know very little about how aeronautics works, or how planes are inspected, fixed, or built. And yet, I buy tickets, wait in lines, board, surrender my bags, and click my seat belt closed. I have faith that we’ll take off an land without incident.
I used to comfort myself by characterizing this as reason. There have been numerous successful flights over the years, and most people aren’t dying from drinking tap water, and I’m relying on that as evidence for my trust in the processes. And while perhaps others are thinking through the number of successful flights, clean water supplies, and other such things — that doesn’t factor into my thought process. I put my faith in these things — particularly in the people that uphold them — and it is as simple as that.
The entire structure of most people’s days is supported by a network of faith — faith in each other, faith in themselves, and faith that things will largely go on that way that they have for an extended period of time. None of us knows enough about the things we do every day to have made a purely rationalistic decision to support our actions.
I Believe I Can Fly
Let’s tease out the airplane example a bit more — take it back to the birth of aviation. Wilbur and Orville Wright — as well as the various other pioneers working on aviation — threw thousands of hours and billions of dollars chasing manned flight when the evidence available to the experts dictated that it wasn’t probable.
The Wright Brothers weren’t exactly working with a large body of evidence to motivate them to try this expedition — and in fact, the numerous failures they experienced made the evidence accumulate clearly against them in their endeavor. What they did use — at least until they started logging successful hours of flight — was faith, a faith in themselves and their mission.
I’m not saying that faith wins out over reason, of course. Reason is vital in our lives as well, but I think we tend to give reason its proper credence — even if we fail to deploy it properly all the time. All I am suggesting is that we give faith a chance. Actually, we’re already giving it a chance by using it regularly, I’m just asking that we stop acting like the faith we operate with every day is actually reason.
And here’s the funny thing. The ardent skeptics who I’ve argued this point to excercise a large amount of faith themselves when they insist that all of my examples of faith can be shown to be actually be reason. They have faith in their ability to deconstruct complex emotional and cognitive motivators in people to show them as based solely on evidence and logical thought processes.
That’s the other thing — and it’s kind of like what the Wright Brothers showed us — what ends up being pretty solid reason in later generations almost always started off as faith.
I Hear Your Objections, but…
I wholeheartedly believe in science. I believe that in building a map of reality and all of its intricate laws, we will do our best work if we proceed from hypotheses, define what data would disprove our hypotheses, and gather the data. It’s what we’ve done for centuries now, and it has done well for us intellectually speaking.
But we’re simply fooling ourselves if we believe that faith played no part in our initial efforts to make sense of and manipulate the world. The fact that we have for so long set out to try to make sense of and manipulate the world — and continue to do so — is a great example of faith in action. We act in faith that we will someday figure out what no one else has.
Faith and reason are not enemies, but friends. They work in tandem, even if one soars to great heights and leaves the other behind and often forgotten.
As with so many other things, I just can’t say it as eloquently as someone else, so I’ll simply cite them. Here’s Lisa Miller from The Washington Post:
Reason is one way of measuring the world — an excellent and crucial way, to be sure. But intuition is also part of intelligence, as are hunches and feelings. The value of these more instinctive approaches to human experience has been lost in the relentless, rationalistic efforts to prove who’s stupid and who’s smart. Thus, the ephemeral mysteries of existence are reduced to equations on a board in an AP math class….
Faith and reason can live happily together: It’s narrow-mindedness, by the faithful as well as by atheists, that leads to stupid thinking.
Miller uses the term intuition here, but her target includes my characterization of faith here. The point is that there is a great deal of debate that rests upon a supposed chasm between faith and reason. But that chasm doesn’t really exist — either between people, or within them. And even if it does exist, it’s not really chasm, but more like a small crack — one that anyone can easily and gingerly skip over.