Can Reason and Faith Coexist?

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Among the many characters woven into the storyline of the popular Marvel series, there are two heroes at the center. One is a highly moral, idealistic, and theistic traditionalist who sees the world as black and white: Captain America. The other is a progressive, irreligious materialist whose complete hope and identity is rooted in himself and his mastery of technology, science, and “artificial intelligence.” He is Iron Man.

Initially, these two men are both highly skeptical of one another; a common enemy, however, brings them together to combine their individual strengths in a fight to preserve humanity. Eventually, their different views of the world—and how to best protect it—lead to distrust and a civil war between them.

Captain America and Iron Man are helpful representatives of two dominant forces that together have helped to shape and advance Western Civilization as we know it. The traditionalistic Captain America is representative of religious faith, specifically Christianity. The progressive, cutting-edge Iron Man is representative of science and reason.

At one time, science and reason had a complementary relationship with faith, but that world seems to have vanished. Today, there is a growing sense that these two forces are now at war and are diametrically opposed. Many believe that the moral, ethical, and religious tradition of the Christian faith has hindered scientific and intellectual progress. There is a growing sense that the influence and voice of Christianity are no longer needed nor wanted.

In our dangerous and hostile world, do we need a Captain America or an Iron Man? Which one is better equipped to deal with injustice, issues of morality, and ethical dilemmas?

Does Reason Have Limits?

One of the key pillars of atheism is “the notion that science is sufficient to account for all of human knowledge and experience.”1 Among those who would affirm this perspective are those often described as Positivists, who “maintain that all knowledge must be scientifically verifiable.”2 The assumption behind this is that collective society can determine what is best for everyone by scientific methods and reasoning, providing the morals necessary for people to be happy and fulfilled. Religion is no longer needed to determine the good and meaningful life.

In his book The Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains, “For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.”3 

In 1966, sociologist Philip Rieff composed a seminal work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, in which he foresaw an age when the pursuit of ‘feeling better’ will overshadow the quest for justice, forgiveness, or redemption. In this new cultural context, he asserts, the main core value of society will be happiness, and thus the religious person, who was ‘born to be saved,’ will be overshadowed by the psychological person, who is ‘born to be pleased.4

Joseph D. Chatraw

While we can find examples of areas where belief in God may seem unnecessary or no longer relevant, are we sure that science and reason alone are sufficient to lead us to real meaning and purpose—the good life?

How can scientists determine what is good and define happiness for the collective? Even within one segment of a community, this would be an exercise in futility. What makes one person happy may offend or at least annoy another.

As Martha Nussbaum put it, “Pleasure is only as good as the thing one takes pleasure in: if one takes pleasure in harming others, that good-feeling emotion is very negative; even if one takes pleasure in shirking one’s duty and lazing around, that is also quite negative.”5

The problem of looking to science as the source of meaning, purpose, and the good life is that science simply cannot deliver. Science may be able to discover and explain many things such as gravity, the solar system, thermodynamics, or the composition of an atom; can it tell us, however, whether or not it’s wrong to steal or to take a life? Can science establish that all lives are equally valuable, and that no person’s life has more value than another person’s life? Can it find an answer to these moral questions by a series of lab tests and trials?

Sure, science can explain a lot, but it is not without its limits. Looking to science for the definition of what is good, much less moral and right, is like using a calculator or tape measure alone to build a house. Both a calculator and tape measure can be extremely helpful, but they are tools with limited purpose.

Holmes Ralston explains: “Science is never the end of the story, because science cannot teach humans what they most need to know: the meaning of life and how to value it…After science, we still need help deciding what to value; what is right and wrong, good and evil, how to behave as we cope. The end of life still lies in its meaning, the domain of religion and ethics.”6

Science may be able to map and navigate the human brain or genome, but it is unable to explain the conscience, or why humans love, or the impulse to serve and sacrifice one’s base desires for the good of another. According to James Speigel, “Only theism, with its assurance that God has designed our minds to form true beliefs, provides adequate grounds for our assumption that thought reflects reality. Only theism can justify our belief in the truth of our beliefs.”7

Together is Better

Is it wise to assume that Christianity is no longer needed and that science is sufficient for all of life’s challenges? The success and continuation of Western Civilization are irrevocably attached to both the ethical and moral contributions of the Christian faith, as well as its nurturing of science and reason that led to the Enlightenment. If the Christian faith is the foundation our society was built upon, then eliminating that foundation can only cause the structure of our civilization to crumble and collapse.

If the survival of civilization is at risk, the world is better off with the combined forces of Captain American and Iron Man together rather than opposed. Samuel Gregg said his hope for the future of the West was that we would “experience the fullness of life in a civilization that will overcome its present traumas and regain the confidence to allow itself to be nourished by ratio and fides—always together and never apart.”8

1 James S. Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010), 28.

2 James S. Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist, 28.

3 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 18.

4 Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Reflective, 2020), 108.

5 James Davidson Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 161.

6 James S. Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist, 30.

7 James S. Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist, 60.

8 Samuel Gregg, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2019), xv.

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