Living with reason, science and faith
Reason and science have brought humanity many blessings. But they have proved unable to limit human evil. To overcome evil the world needs the spiritual renewal promised by Christian faith. Reason, science and faith are all necessary for a good life.
Atheists insist that our lives should be guided by reason and science and not by faith. They see these two as not merely different, but as opposed to one another. They point back to the European Middle Ages, often referred to as the Dark Ages, as a period of cultural and economic stagnation which was the result of the rule of faith. To avoid everlasting punishment in hell, people then believed what the church taught them and lived as the church required. Progress came, they go on, only with the development of scientific means of inquiry, and with the Renaissance of classical values in art and the humanities focussing on the pleasures of earthly existence. The goal of humanity now became happiness, not holiness. The church and the feudal society it supported began to lose relevance, and today progressive thinkers want to sweep away the last vestiges of its influence and its faith.
Critical reason and scientific inquiry have brought immense benefits to humankind. Unjust feudal structures have been replaced by democratic ones, and advances in medicine, engineering and technology have been amazing. No wonder atheists believe that reason and science are all that people need to live well. With writers like Richard Dawkins the optimism of the eighteenth century, based upon its faith in reason, has surfaced again in the twenty-first.
The achievements of reason and science are the result of their ability to discover the truth. Religious faith has often obscured the truth. For example, the church often preaches that God loves everyone He has made, or at least those who believe in Him. But this statement needs qualification in the face of dreadful suffering that He allows to occur. Only by applying critical reason to such statements can the truth be eventually discovered: God wants His love to be expressed through people. Then again, the church sometimes teaches the opening chapters of Genesis as scientific fact, whereas the findings of science tell another story, one much more likely to be true. Genesis has a lot to teach us about the relations of God, humankind and nature, but when science so overwhelmingly diverges from it, we should follow science if we want to live by the truth.
Strictly speaking, one should say that reason and science are more likely to reveal truths about the world than can be discovered by uncritical faith. The conclusions of science are superseded from time to time as scientific theories change. But the scientific method of devising theories to account for observations has proved a very useful way of arriving at reliable beliefs about the world.
Then why not agree with atheists that we should live by reason and science and not by faith? Because reason and science are powerless in combating evil and injustice, and in developing goodwill towards all. Only a spiritual transformation based upon Christian faith will foster the steady altruistic love that a good life and a good community require.
When evil people employ reason, science and technology to achieve their ends, the results can be horrific. Nazi and communist dictatorships are the paradigm cases, but evil dictatorships elsewhere around the world have produced untold misery as well.
How can evil be overcome? Kant argued that human will can overcome immoral desires, and that human reason can judge which maxims are just and deserving of respect. Sometimes indeed people can see what is just, and find the will to pursue it. But very often, as St Paul said in Romans, people do not act as they know they should. His conclusion was: “if I do no what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Romans 7: 20)
St Paul knew that the solution to this problem involved religious faith: faith that God was willing to forgive his sins and that God wanted him to live by His Holy Spirit, who would give him the wisdom and desire to live honouring God and in the service of others, as Jesus did. (All this he explained in the following chapters of Romans.)
Why, then, have more people not embraced St Paul’s solution to the problem of evil? One reason is that many people are unaware that there is a problem. To live for others is difficult, but many people live just for their family and friends, and so do not encounter the difficulty of loving God and their neighbours very often. And those whose hearts are set on increasing their wealth and even their power are relatively insensitive to moral concerns, and of the need for spiritual renewal.
Another reason for ignoring St Paul’s message is that it requires religious faith, which many think is irrational superstition. Notice, however, that faith in God and in his Holy Spirit is not contrary to reason. The truth of God’s existence and the power of his Spirit cannot be proved rationally or scientifically. But there is evidence of God’s existence in the ingenious systems and regularities of nature and evidence of the Holy Spirit in the spiritual transformation of believer’s lives, so it is not irrational to believe in these things. Indeed there are great benefits in doing so.
Civilizations have benefited immensely from the application of critical reason and scientific methods. But they are in danger of collapse from moral failure. There is, therefore, an urgent need for the world to pay attention to St Paul’s advice on overcoming moral evil. Then people will employ critical reason and scientific understanding not to exploit others but to help them, in the hope of creating a glimpse of heaven here on earth.