The above image by James Woodend, UK can be found at Images Inspired by Nature. It is the winning image in the Royal Observatory’s annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year award, 2014, in the category Earth and Space.
This week’s entry got delayed by the beginning of Oxford term and some other writing commitments; apologies about that. Also, this is a week in which people have been much concerned with issues surrounding freedom of speech and its violent opponents. A brave champion of human rights that I would like to mention is Raif Badawi, now a prisoner of conscience in Saudi Arabia and subject to barbaric and unjust forms of “punishment” for actions that, as far as I can tell, were in fact balanced and truthful.
How to write a blog about science and religion in a world where things like this are going on?
How much we all need to champion reason and rationality, along with all the other components of a full and grown-up humanity!
This essay, as I said in my previous blog post, is about the fact that reason and rationality are not alternatives to trust in the “Father” spoken of by Jesus of Nazareth, but, on the contrary, they are its partners. They are championed by such faith.
This is not the place to write an essay on religion in general. That is too vast a topic. Nor is it the place to enter into a detailed critique of unjust forms of government which claim for themselves some sort of legitimacy based on a “Holy Book” or a revered leader. But I do want to claim a bit of intellectual space in order to assert some simple truths. The simple truth, for example, that there is a difference between all and some. Although many forms of religious speech and practice are pompous and parochial, and some are downright irrational, not all of them are. Some are a bit more clear-headed. Some care about reason and rationality. Some promote genuine scholarship and are brave enough to give it free reign.
What I want to object to here is the attempt to equate reason and rationality with atheism. People have been trying to do that for at least three hundred years, and it has never been fair, nor properly supported by argument. It has always carried with it many of the attributes of a political manoeuvre. It is the equation that is wrong, the attempt to suggest that the one implies the other. Does a high regard for reason and rationality necessarily imply atheist conclusions, once one has thought hard and looked into all the richness and depth of human experience? No. And if one embraces atheism, does that necessarily imply one also embraces reason and rationality? No again. But what I hate, what I truly loathe, is the culture in which a friend of mine could find it possibly to say, as if it were an established thing, that “of course” reason and rationality are only to be found with those who don’t go to church. That he has reason, and I have something else. Something called “faith” or some set of “beliefs”. But I know for a fact that I have thought my own commitments through with as much thoroughness, honesty, rationality and hard work as I can muster, and whatever else they are, they are not unreasonable. There is absolutely no antagonism whatsoever between reason and a well-placed trust, but the latter is not merely an example of the former.
One could multiply analogies. Reason says you should trust your friend; a reasonable faith is actually to trust them. Reason shows you the bridge looks like it could be sound, given certain basic assumptions; a reasonable faith steps onto the bridge. Reason says you need help; faith asks for help. Reason arrives by deduction from given starting points; faith seeks the best starting points. Reason shows you that the universe cannot be completely pinned down in analytical language; a reasonable faith ventures to try further languages.
Another thing I strongly object to is a pair of ways in which the precious and important word “faith” is abused. First there are those who promote ill-argued, unwise or unfounded beliefs and call it “faith”. Secondly there are those who claim that all faith is simply an abandonment of reason. Neither group understands what it is talking about.
Again, it is the difference between “all” and “some” that I want to insist on. Please do not invent a sub-class of human being, a class not quite fully grown-up, or with defective reason-detecting abilities, and then equate that class with the set of people who take personal language about God seriously. It is easy to do. Just adopt glib catch-all terms such as “believers”, without bothering to inquire whether some believe things for reasons every bit as fully thought-through as your favourite atheist philosopher. Just join the community of young adults who think it ever so grown-up to talk about the “religious people” as if they were some sort of uniform group (uniformly irrational) who can be safely disdained. Or join the professional commentators who give them permission to do that.
I would like to finish on a calmer note. You can still, if you want, join the community of those who, whatever their conclusions about God, refuse the option of sweeping rich and lengthy human phenomena into simple categories that can be safely disdained. You can decide that learning is nine parts listening, one part speaking, not the other way around.