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Unlocking the Tension Between Faith and Reason

Over the past two months the ongoing battle between faith and reason has gotten rather personal for me. The perennial battle between faith and reason has largely become a caricature with the opposing sides largely exaggerated at the “fringes” but dying the death of a thousand qualifications for most people living somewhere in the middle. Or so I thought. In August of this year I taught a class at a local evangelical church titled “The New Atheism” in which I sought to expose my students to some of the main arguments of this growing movement. While many in the class were appreciative of what I was trying to do, the class ended with a woman, Bible held high in the air, publicly excoriating me for bringing the heathen, foolish ideas into her sacred space and accusing me of typifying everything wrong with the church and Christianity today.

altA conversation that started with me explaining these events to a friend (who also claims to be an evangelical Christian) ended with him telling me that I am intellectually dishonest,  downright vicious, and deserved to rot in hell. Recently, I attempted to have what I thought was a civil conversation with a person (who by any reasonable definition could be labeled a Christian fundamentalist) about some ideas related to faith and how best to understand it in a modern scientific world largely dominated—at least in the academy—by Darwinian naturalism. Throughout the conversation, my protagonist-turned-antagonist called me intellectually dishonest, ridiculous, narrow-minded, antagonistic,  and that I exhibited partiality against views not my own. I was also told that I'm being deceived and that I'm detached from reality.

In my more honest moments, I have to acknowledge that the common denominator in all these scenarios is me and I became very interested in the locus of all this vitriol. I’m certainly open to the idea that I, because of some egregious blind spot, have brought this on myself and this is something on which I continue to reflect . However, analytically, I’ve come to realize that there is something deeper going on. Each person in these interactions have little in common beyond their faith yet the anger they exhibited and the  terms they used to display that anger were too similar to chalk up to mere personality conflicts. Faith positions that attempt to conserve what could be viewed as a classical position—that the power of faith comes not from its ability to explain the world but from its ability to transform it—is finding itself drastically removed from—and therefore increasingly in conflict with—a Western culture that is seeking to get by in this world by better understanding how it works.

The explanatory power of religion to address the workings of the physical world that have the greatest existential importance for humans is almost non-existent. In fact many modern religious apologists seem even to be minimizing the work design and cosmological arguments can muster—arguments which once served as defensive infantry, and are now using God to explain one of the last and greatest mysteries: the human mind. Things have gotten so bad, that physicists of  the stature of Steven Hawking are able to come out boldly and claim that the God hypothesis (and philosophy in general for that matter) is no longer needed to unlock the most hardened cosmological puzzles. Physics is more than adequate for the job (see his recent The Grand Design).

This leaves religion very little room to maneuver and when one’s worldview is backed into a corner, responding with anger and vitriol is both very human and very indicative that even people of faith feel the warmth of the lion’s breath on their cheeks. I’ve come to realize, however, that the tension is introduced not from the fact that the sciences have so much explanatory success (which they most certainly have), but from the desire on the part of the religious to remain unreservedly committed to the axioms of a pre-scientific faith but also to somehow adopt that faith to a modern, rationalistic, scientific world. In a very real sense, the weight of scientific discoveries is driving a growing intellectual wedge in the minds of  these believers who are finding it more and more difficult to keep everything unified. This results in anger, frustration, and increasing isolationism (an us-them mentality complete with a superiority complex flavored with moral victimization). Surely such a scenario affects secularists as well but I tend to think that secularists are coming out of this state while religionists are just entering it.

Of course much of this has been predicted by forward thinking people over the last century and in future posts I will explore this idea further looking at some important philosophy that provides us with both the psychological and philosophical basis for a dynamic that is just starting to show its teeth. The next decade will be an enormously complex time for religion as it seeks to find it’s place in a world that increasingly has no idea what to do with it. I will attempt to show that the tension is not due to an essential incompatibility between faith and science but rather due to efforts on the part of religionists who are attempting to shoehorn modern science into traditional models of faith and scientists who want to eradicate religion by reducing everything it stands for to biological function.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

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Dowling College Hosting Undergraduate Philosophy Conference

Oakdale, Long Island, New York, April 8th, 2011

In order to increase student awareness of and interest in philosophy, and to encourage contributions to the scholarly community, Dowling College Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies invites students to submit papers relating to any philosophical topic or period. Authors of accepted papers will be given the opportunity to present their work at Dowling College’s first undergraduate philosophy conference.

Deadline for Submissions: January 15th, 2011

Submission Guidelines:

  1. Although papers must relate to a philosophical topic or period, that does not mean that other areas, such as psychology, sociology, neurology, biology, etc., are excluded. As long as the paper engages with its topic in a philosophical manner you are more than welcome to submit the paper. Presenters should plan on having 15 minutes to present their work (approx. 8-10 pages long). Time limits will be strictly enforced.
  2. Attach a copy of your submission in .doc or .docx format to an email, and send it to Adam Kohler at and Christian Perring at Within the email, please include your name, email address, and college/university that you are affiliated with.
  3. Please do not include your name on your paper, so that it may be reviewed “blind” by a committee of conference organizers.
  4. Authors whose papers are accepted will be notified by Feb 15, 2011.
  5. When you submit your paper, please indicate whether you would be interested acting as a discussant for another speaker's paper.

Please remember that you do not have to be a philosophy major to submit a paper! All currently enrolled undergraduates are welcome to submit their work.

The Rudolph Campus of Dowling College is located in Oakdale, NY. This is 50 miles from NYC, and 25 minutes walk from the Oakdale LIRR train station.

For more information contact Adam Kohler at

Creation out of Nothing

This article in The Wall Street Journal is a promotional article summarizing a central argument in Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow new book, The Grand Design . In the article, Hawking and Mlodinow explain that the universe appears to be fine tuned to support life but no Designer is needed to do the fine tuning or the creating. Laws of physics predict universes like ours.

Father Spitzer demurs. In this article, Spitzer explains that Hawking and Mlodinow employ a faulty metaphysic to explain their physics. Spitzer has a new book as well called New New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy.

Thanks to Ben Olsen and Stan Dokupil for the links.

See also:

Hawking declares philosophy dead?

Hawking’s M Theory

Where’s God When You Need Him?

DeusExponditusA problem in theology and philosophy known as the hiddenness of God has challenged thinkers for centuries. The rational arguments have gone back and forth and even many of the New Atheists employ it in their books. Rick Pimentel provides a brief survey of some of these arguments—and some responses—in his latest article for the Table Talk series. He observes that many of the responses given by theologians don’t seem to provide an adequate response and then offers a possible way out. What do you think?

See the full article here.

What Hath Jerusalem to do with Athens: On Faith and Reason

Philosopher Gary Gutting of the University of Notre Dame in an article for the New York Times’ blog The Stone explores the relationship between religious faith and philosophical inquiry. His topic resonated with me as I had an impassioned discussion with my father over this very question recently. The path of discourse seems to be a well-worn one. Just as Gutting explained how he challenges his mostly Catholic undergraduates to think about why they hold religious belief, I found the discussion with my father exploring a variety of similar topics including religious diversity, the problem of evil, philosophical arguments for and against God’s existence and inevitably personal faith.

Problems with personal faith

Personal faith. The term itself admits of an impenetrable epistemic keep. As Gutting observes, playing the “faith card” tends to be a discussion-stopper. Instead of having to wade through the morass of complex issues and incomprehensible philosophical jargon, faith leaps over the complexity and lands the claimant on apparently firm ground from which he waves confidently at the poor sap stuck in the confusion he just avoided. I understand this move very well as I employed it for years. But grounding religious belief on faith alone ends up creating a series of difficulties itself. While employing faith as an epistemic trampoline one may leap over the philosophical mire, she finds on the other side not solid ground but a sinkhole.

The argument goes something like this. Either reason is the ground for religious belief or faith is. Reason cannot be the ground for religious belief. Therefore, faith must be. The reasons given for accepting the second premise tend to have to do either with a postmodernization of truth or are based on a polemic involving the corruption of the human mind and the inability of human reason to get at truths about things eternal. Gutting explains how he quickly is able to show his students that no philosophical, scientific, or historical arguments have been given that conclusively settle questions about specific religious truth claims. The essence of this claim is about an authoritarian juxtaposition: faith is on one side and reason is on the other. To affirm reason as the final arbiter of truth, one places the person and his or her ability to use reason as the epistemic authority. To affirm faith is to place God as the final authority. (Don’t ask me how that’s supposed to work exactly but that’s how it’s been explained to me.) Since human beings are fallen and unable to see God through the light of reason, faith must be the final bulwark against skepticism or atheism.

But immediate problems arise. There is an initial challenge that is both simple on the surface and becomes more complex the more it is explored. If one is going to exercise faith in a God or religion, in which God or religion does one exercise faith? It’s a rather obvious fact that people generally have faith in the religion that is the closest to them. If you grew up in the West, you will have a much greater tendency to have faith in the Judeo-Christian God. The object of faith tends to become what is epistemically a live option for us. Yet most monotheisms teach that through faith we come to believe in the true God. But if one exercises faith in the only God or religion one has available at the time of commitment then it’s difficult to see how faith is truth-conducive.

Yes, but . . .

I’ve encountered two classes of responses to this problem. The first, and most prominent, is to cite evidence for God’s existence or the truth of Christianity. “I believe in this God because there is good evidence that proves this God exists.” To general arguments against God’s existence, believers may respond with logical problems associated with disbelief. Gutting captures the idea in this typical response by his students, “’Well, if there’s no God,’ they say, ‘how can you explain why anything at all exists or why the world is governed by such precise laws of nature?’” But this response lands one right back in the morass she was trying to avoid. Reason now becomes the final arbiter: I have faith in the God for which there is the most evidence: reason chooses the “right” God then one exercises faith in that God. Once this move is made, the honest person will have to contend with the messy rational arguments for and against God’s existence or for and against one’s religion. “This seems to bring us back to where we started.” as Gutting notes.

The other class of responses avoids this difficulty by rejecting the dilemma. What I’ll refer to as the existential response rejects the idea that truth plays any role in the decision to exercise faith. Faith indeed is blind and genuine faith must be blind. I posed the religious diversity problem above to an existentialist friend of mine. I asked him how, if faith is all that is required when grounding religious belief, one should decide which God to believe in. He, an admitted Christian, answered, “It doesn’t matter.” He explained that the very question I posed is misguided. Faith is not about deciding to believe in a particular God, it’s about believing in God. When religion—any religion—is a live option for a person, he or she must make the choice whether to exercise faith and that alone is what matters.

An Existentialist Response

This response may sound puzzling at first particularly when you consider that it may come from someone who confesses allegiance to a particular religious faith. It is quite sophisticated however and comes from the thought of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He attempted to change the angle from which the problem is viewed so that the puzzle dissolves. Kierkegaard argued that reason could not be used to decide the truth of matters of religion. He did not deny reason’s ability to get to truth because of some inability of the mind. Rather, he said that questions of religion and theology are so complex and difficult when viewed through the lens of reason that it would take a lifetime to sort through all the evidence and to decipher all the arguments. Even if one had a lifetime, one may not get to a conclusion that decides the matter. Gutting makes a similar point in his article. Regarding the role of philosophical arguments in deciding matters about God’s existence, he writes,

“There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals.  Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus.

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.”

There’s a problem here says Kierkegaard. Agnosticism for relatively “trivial matters” like whether there is alien life or black holes is perfectly acceptable. If one goes to his grave undecided about the truth of life on other planets, there is no great consequence. But matters of religion are not trivial. They are, in the words of Paul Tillich, matters of “ultimate concern.” Agnosticism about matters such as these could prove eternally fatal. Since reason is unable to help us sort the matter out, one must take a leap of faith. One must decide to believe in God and commit one’s whole life to Him to avoid the abyss of indecision.

But doesn’t this land us right back to the problem I raised earlier? Which God do I choose? Again here, Kierkegaard’s position is that we’re asking the wrong question. Faith is less like a choice between wrong and right and more like a commitment in which one is faithful or disloyal. In fact, exercising faith in God is similar to falling in love. In agape, reason is a non-starter. One does not tend to rationalize love (or if one does, it’s fails to be love). One does not consider all the arguments and wade through tons of evidence before deciding with whom they will fall in love. Most of the time, people know very little about the person. They, in a very real respect, take a leap of faith.

Likewise, it’s odd to speak about the “right” person where “right” means I should love this one person and it would be wrong to love any other person. While we romanticize about our “soul mate” and talk as if we’re looking for the one person fate or God has chosen for me, in reality, most people have a range of options and there isn’t one single person for whom we must look. Similarly, we don’t have the option of love anyone. We typically fall in love with a person who is in close proximity; with those who are live options for us.

Faith is very much the same primarily because faith, according to existentialism, is about a relationship not about adhering to a formal religious system (which Kierkegaard abhorred). The God one relates to is the God that is nearest, the one that is a live option. The person must choose to love or to reject that God. This, according to the existentialists is the essence of faith.

He lives within my heart

While this approach may provide a way out of the quagmire of reason, notice that it also completely privatizes faith. Faith no longer an object of public consumption or, more importantly, influence. People of like faith can come together and commune but that community has no epistemic ground to challenge another’s belief or even disbelief. In fact, this is locus of the postmodernization of religion. Postmodern epistemology focuses on the idea of truth as a product of community agreement. Within the community there is truth. But there is no such thing as Truth that transcends a particular community and applies to all communities.

Gutting closes his article discussing the Reformed epistemology of Alvin Plantinga. While Plantinga is not a postmodernist or an existentialist, Gutting observes that while Plantinga’s epistemology may ground a rational belief in God, it does not help specify which God or which religion is true. “Believers may have strong feelings of certainty, but each religion rejects the certainty of all the others, which leaves us asking why they privilege their own faith.” Or, we could add, having faith at all. At this point, it seems that reason must play a role if one is to make strong claims that their faith community is the “right” one or the “true” one and the expect others to agree with them.

Indeed, this has been a fundamental concern of modern atheists. Some religious communities have eschewed their privatized status and gone public. Many also eschew reason and are using force--either in the form of physical force or legal force—to get others to accept their claims. When reason isn’t an option, force is the only option. And this takes us back to the question Gutting raises in his article: what does philosophy and faith have to do with one another?

Gutting’s answer seems right, “philosophy and religion can and must speak to each other, and that those who take their beliefs seriously need to reflect on [questions about why one believes], and that contemporary philosophical discussions (following on Hume and Wittgenstein) about knowledge, belief, certainty and disagreement are highly relevant to such reflection — and potentially, to an individual’s belief.”

Further Reading

The Essential Kierkegaard by Soren Kierkegaard, edited by Howard and Edna Hong

Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga

Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity by Robert McKim


Recent Book Calls for Reclassifying Works of Heidegger

A new book with the unambiguous title, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 apparently breaks new ground in identifying Heidegger much more strongly with Nazism. In the book the author, “appeals to his readers to recognize ‘the vital necessity of seeing philosophy free itself from the work of Heidegger.’” The author, French philosopher Emmanuel Faye apparently draws his conclusion based on evidence found in scores of material not available to the general public or even many academics.  According to this review in The Christian Century, Faye is unambiguous about his goal to debunk Heidegger and about the moral, social, and religious implications of Heidegger’s work. 

“[Faye] throws down the challenge that Heidegger's works ought to be removed from the philosophy sections of university libraries and housed, if they are housed at all, in the section on Nazism. This point, more than any other, is likely to outrage critics and discourage people from reading Faye's book.”

Religion in the New Millennium

Moving to the top for the updates.

7/24/2010 UPDATE: A friend sent me a link to an excellent article by noted theologian Stanley Hauerwas titled, “America’s God is Dying”. This is both an historical and ideological analysis. Hauerwas writes, “America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the society Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. Put as directly as I can, I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end. It is dying of its own success.”

7/20/2010 UPDATE: I just came across this interesting bit on CNN Belief Blog in which “progressive” Evangelical leader Jim Wallis makes the claim that the Religious Right “is over” because they no longer attract the younger generation. According to the article’s author, Wallis believes that “a younger generation of evangelicals . . . care more about how their leaders live than what they say.”

A few years ago, I made a prediction to some close friends that Western Christian Evangelicalism had roughly about ten years left. This intentionally provocative statement did not mean that Christianity was over and would die off. I mainly meant that the way Christianity is practiced and understood will undergo a fairly radical change and will look very much different from my parents generation. My reasons were based on a number of factors. The impact of the new atheism (which was just emerging) would be sociologically devastating. I noticed that the generation that followed mine was eschewing doctrinal commitments and what is know as “exclusivism” and biblical literalism—tenets on which existing Evangelicalism was firmly grounded. The flattening of the world was making the world very small religiously and more young Christians would be introduced to other ways of believing not as an exception—many of my peers had been exposed to committed believers in other religions though “mission trips” and the like—but as the rule. The technologicalization of social constructs would reduce the impact of peer commitments to a given religious belief and allow divergent opinions to flow more freely and openly (it’s a lot easier to disagree in email or a text message than it is in person). I also saw the scandals in the Catholic church as having a negative impact on religion in the West in general. Finally, the sociological impact of evolutionary theory in academia was in full bloom and would marginalize the explanatory power of most religious arguments.

A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to this Christian Science Monitor article entitled “The coming evangelical collapse”. The author, Michael Spencer opens the article with the words, “We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity.” His reasons differ from mine as he places the locus of the problem mainly on political and familial breakdowns. I view his reasons as symptoms and the problems themselves as deeper and more substantial. Nevertheless, he sees a problem and offers a picture of Western protestant religion in the post-post-Christian era. In his view, large, centralized churches will fade away and give rise to smaller, home-based churches. Charismatic and Pentecostal churches will replace doctrine-heavy, “Book-based” churches (I think he’s correct and for good reason which I note below). Evangelical political activism will give way to more of a discipling approach focused on local rather than national change. These are interesting predictions and its difficult to say exactly how things will evolve. The theological and philosophical impact that will provide the foundation for these changes also interests me. More...

How Much Would It Cost To Study Character?

Well $3.67 million would be a good start. Three professors—two psychologists and one philosopher—at Wake Forest University were awarded that sum by the Templeton Foundation to explore the nature of character. The project will be directed by philosopher Christian Miller.

The multi-faceted approach to understanding character will include competitions for scholars around the country seeking funding for research on character, research projects by Wake Forest psychology and philosophy professors, two research conferences, a summer seminar, an essay competition with nine prizes of $3,000 each, and other elements.

All three scholars either have published or are in the process of getting published in areas related to moral theory and will be expanding their work to look at what character is, what types of character people develop and what ought we strive to achieve.

Read more here.

7/20/2010–NDPR Reviews of Philosophy Books

Lukas H. Meyer (ed.)
Legitimacy, Justice and Public International Law
Reviewed by Laura Valentini, The Queen's College, Oxford
Jonathan R. Cohen
Science, Culture, and Free Spirits: A study of Nietzsche's Human, All-too-Human
Reviewed by Julian Young, Wake Forest University
David Hyder
The Determinate World: Kant and Helmholtz on the Physical Meaning of Geometry
Reviewed by Lydia Patton, Virginia Tech
David L. Hildebrand
Dewey: A Beginner's Guide
Reviewed by Michael Eldridge, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Berys Gaut
A Philosophy of Cinematic Art
Reviewed by Carl Plantinga, Calvin College
Pablo Muchnik
Kant's Theory of Evil: An Essay on the Dangers of Self-love and the Aprioricity of History
Reviewed by David Sussman, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Georg W.F. Hegel, Robert F. Brown (ed., tr.)
Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6: Volume I: Introduction and Oriental Philosophy
Reviewed by Robert R. Williams, University of Illinois at Chicago
Theodore L. Brown
Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science
Reviewed by Steve Fuller, University of Warwick
Joshua P. Hochschild
The Semantics of Analogy: Rereading Cajetan's De Nominum Analogia
Reviewed by E. Jennifer Ashworth, University of Waterloo
Sharon Anderson-Gold, Pablo Muchnik (eds.)
Kant's Anatomy of Evil
Reviewed by Robert Gressis, California State University, Northridge

What Do Simone de Beauvoir, Patricia Churchland, and Philippa Foot Have in Common?

The obvious answer is that they’re all women philosophers. But another commonality is that, as professional philosophers, they’re also rare. A recent Sydney Morning Herald headline asks, “why aren’t more women philosophers?” According to the article, women tend not to like the combativeness of academic philosophy nor can they reconcile the apparently misogynistic views of the many dead white guys in philosophy. Sociology not natural interest is the culprit. Oddly, the article appears to be saying not that men have kept women out of the discipline but that women somehow keep themselves out because they don’t like (can’t deal with) what men are doing in the discipline. I’m fairly sure that’s not only inaccurate but itself mildly disrespectful. Regardless, the University of NSW is doing something about it.

The Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference at the University of NSW this month unveiled a database and website to increase students' awareness of women's contributions to philosophy, and enhance the diversity of philosophy curricula.

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