Affirming the Inherent Worth and Dignity for Every Person...
ON WINGS OF FAITH AND REASON
by Ronn Smith, presented March 4, 2007
The 5th source of our living tradition is perhaps the one most often associated with Unitarian Universalism. Reason is the common thread that binds UU history; and it has steered UU faith toward humanity rather than divinity. To some degree, all faith seeks support from reason, and every reasoned argument exposes an underlying faith. Reason and faith transcend one another, yet they cannot escape one another. When they work in opposition they force our opinions to dangerous extremes. Conversely, when they align themselves too closely they compromise our thinking. But when they strike the right balance they become, in the words of Pope John Paul II, "two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." Acting in concert they elevate human discourse, each one curbing the excesses of the other.
To me, this struggle for balance defines liberal religion. By the late 19th century Unitarian rationalism had become a victim of its own success. Perhaps fearing a spiritual void, Unitarians spearheaded the rise of humanism, a guarded alliance between faith and reason. By faith, I mean commitment to values that people hold sacred, ideals that may or may not be personified by a God. John Dietrich reinvigorated the Unitarian movement with the values of human dignity and responsibility, compassion, ethics, and the arts. In 1930 Unitarian activists Charles and Clara Potter published "Humanism: A New Religion."
If religious humanism moderated the excesses of faith and reason, to some it combined the worst of both worlds. Atheist Sam Harris blames Unitarian reason for making a worn-out Christianity more palatable, and tolerance for giving cover to fundamentalism. He maintains the "theology of wrath has far more intellectual merit" than inclusive theologies, and attributes social conflict more to the respect accorded religious faith than to faith itself. In Harris’ black and white world, the real enemy is gray.
I would argue that respecting the ideas of others is not only part of our humanist heritage; it is essential to sound reasoning. I worked with a team of Japanese scientists who were relentlessly rational, yet always modest and respectful. If we did not agree on something, they never argued their position. Instead, they asked me to help them understand my position. They persisted until either they saw the light or (more often) I came face-to-face with my own error. In science or religion, the goal of true respect is clarity, not charity.
If you will allow a household analogy, your washer and dryer plug into separate circuits, but connect to a common ground. Without this shared reference, the individual grounds would drift apart in voltage and you could get electrocuted by touching both appliances at the same time. I look at reason as the common ground that ties our minds to others and prevents our private realities from drifting too far apart. Like the electrical ground, reason supplies no energy. But it channels our passion to productive purposes. Without reason, differences in faith can be lethal. Just as a proper ground requires a low-resistance path between circuits, effective reason requires free communication between different points of view. That will not happen without mutual respect, the essence of our humanist faith.
While humanism has tempered the intellectual tone of Unitarian Universalism, it continues to defend reason against the abuses of faith. Critical thinking is virtually off limits within modern fundamentalism, and this pales in comparison to the Dark Ages. In those days, ecclesiastical and political power combined to create a tyranny of dogma. Any who defied church doctrine were punished or killed for heresy. Enslaved to religion, reason was understood to be the sole prerogative of God or his representatives. Saint Augustine reasoned (somehow) that only the will to believe can produce knowledge. He equated virtue with celibacy and was preoccupied with the damnation of un-baptized infants.
Attitudes toward disease typified the primitive state of reason before the Enlightenment. People felt the same need we do to explain a perplexing world. But for them reason was like a dull knife, inflicting damage without cutting to the truth. Abuse and torture of the mentally ill were justified by the need to rid the patient of evil spirits. Across Europe and colonial America, suspected witches were hunted down and executed. Wesley said questioning witchcraft was tantamount to giving up the Bible, citing Exodus 22:18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Vaccination aroused protest because it endeavored to thwart a divine judgment. Today, few people believe in supernatural causes of disease. Yet, many still believe in supernatural cures – more optimistic, but no more rational.
Of course, superstition has always resisted the advances of science. Only recently did the Catholic Church apologize for persecuting Galileo, whose theories disputed the primacy of Earth. Calvin criticized the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, noting that "Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth." In modern times, the chapels and classrooms of America are battlegrounds for the war on evolution. Threatened by the shrinking status of humans in the universe, narrow theologies have grown hostile toward science and revealed themselves as little more than "organized ignorance" (Russell).
Thankfully, the Enlightenment ended a millennium of ecclesiastical rule and loosened the grip of superstition. Rene Descartes, eminent mathematician and philosopher made two profound contributions to human thought. He said inquiry begins with doubt (for Augustine it began with desire) and reality begins with individual consciousness. Unwittingly, he dealt a double blow to church authority: it is right to question, and that right inheres to every person. He also set the stage for a tug-of-war between skepticism and respect. The faculties that entitle me to doubt and to discover reside in your mind as well.
German philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished between knowledge based on inner reflection (pure reason) and knowledge based on experience (moral reason). He dismissed pure reason as a valid basis for religious belief, postulating that moral reason informs ethics and religion. He has been revered and reviled for splitting these domains of thought, but is without peer in systematically balancing faith and reason.
The Enlightenment ushered in a new rationalism that transformed nearly every sphere of human endeavor. In science, Newton revolutionized mathematics and revealed the laws of nature to a world still under the spell of Aristotle. In politics, John Locke championed the inherent right and ability of common people to think for themselves, and to participate in their own governance. In religion, Thomas Paine wrote "The Age of Reason," showing the acumen and the courage to contest Christian doctrine. He used pure reason to point out contradictions in the Bible, and moral reason to awaken the reader to its horrors.
Short of destroying faith, rationalism re-fashioned it to conform to new discoveries. Paine, though vilified as an atheist, was a deeply religious and principled man. As a Deist he believed that God created human rationality as an instrument for understanding and mastering the natural world. To him faith was a matter of conscience rather than duty.
While the triumphs of the Enlightenment permeated the popular consciousness, Christian institutions were slow to adapt. Martin Luther appealed to "the testimony of the scriptures" and "clear reason" to condemn the Catholic Church. Yet, once he became invested in his theology (and at odds with science) he referred to reason as a "harlot…the enemy of faith." This newfound contempt didn’t stop him from rationalizing. Believers in his era became quite skilled at devising some divine purpose behind every facet of their existence, with one notable exception – the common housefly. Luther finally surmised that the devil must have put flies on Earth to distract him from his literary endeavors. Having read Luther’s writings, Bertrand Russell suggested this theory might have some merit.
Early Unitarians and Quakers infused American religion with the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker asked why religious truths should rest on the authority of their revealer, when scientific truths stand on their own merit. William Ellery Channing recognized the dangers of reason, but saw an even greater danger in "that church which proscribes reason and demands…implicit faith." In a compelling appeal to moral reason, he decried that orthodoxy had replaced a loving Creator with a vain and vindictive God, "whom we cannot love if we would, and whom we ought not to love if we could." Unitarian activist William Bentley fought valiantly against the religious test for public office, arguing that a person who treated his neighbor with honesty and kindness would "probably conduct honorably toward the public." Quaker abolitionist and feminist Lucretia Mott proclaimed, "Truth for authority, not authority for truth."
Albert Schweitzer demonstrated what I believe to be a universal urge to justify our core beliefs. After tremendous soul searching, he concluded what most of us take for granted. "The ethical acceptance of life… has a foundation in thought." Even devout believers want to make some cosmic sense of the events and purpose in their life, often voicing the conviction that everything happens for a reason. Thomas Aquinas founded scholasticism, a formal perspective based on rigid logic, to make sense of Catholic theology.
Why has this common impulse to rationalize failed to unify religious belief, when it has led to such remarkable consensus in science? First, theological assertions can’t be verified or falsified by an impartial observer. They are virtually unassailable, enjoying the safe haven of "an immaterial realm of thought not subject to the risks of action" (Dewey). As Parker mused, "Every man plays the philosopher out of the small treasures of his own fancy."
Second, reason can take on two different forms. Theologians like Aquinas favor deductive reasoning, going from the general to the particular. They accept an unqualified premise (e.g. the infallibility of scripture) then draw conclusions consistent with that premise. Inductive reasoning, first championed by Francis Bacon, goes from the particular to the general. When evidence shows a consistent pattern, the conclusion or principle follows with some degree of probability. Deductive reason secures, without expanding the knowledge base; inductive reason expands, without securing the knowledge base. Deduction emphasizes the validity of an argument (as with issues of law in a court proceeding), whereas induction is more concerned with the truth of the argument (as with issues of fact).
As an outgrowth of deductive reason, claims of religion tend to be absolute and therefore divergent. Findings made through the scientific method (inductive reason) tend to be tentative, piecemeal, open to refinement and therefore convergent. Scientific beliefs are founded on evidence, not authority or revelation. They do not pretend to encompass the whole truth.
We might apply inductive reasoning to absolute statements of faith, where religious diversity has led to countless contradictory claims. Logic demands that no more than one can be true, but inductive reasoning goes one step further. This pattern we observe suggests the literal claims of all religions are probably mistaken or overstated. Susan Jacoby noted, "The presence of many religions, unchecked by the inquisitor’s rack and pyre, tends to impeach their claim to absolute truth and spiritual authority."
In matters of theology and metaphysics, human comprehension is easily mystified. The intelligent design argument cites natural order as evidence of God; testimony of divine intervention (or miracles) points to the suspension of natural order as evidence of God. Which is it? The acceptance of both arguments by faithful Christians proves only their predisposition to believe. In reality, the supposition of miracles relies on mystical, not rational claims. Russell reflected on the practice of fasting to obtain personal revelation. "From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven, and the man who drinks much and sees snakes."
Imagine you’re exploring a dark cave with a head lamp. The shadows are there, but you scarcely see them. In the same way, reason is often blind to its own errors. A survey by Cal Tech showed New York cab drivers tend to set a daily income target and quit when they reach it. This means they work less time on busy days and longer on slow days – just the reverse of the rational strategy. Economists have found that people generally value loss avoidance more than a gain of equal magnitude. Dewey said this conservative bias causes humans to "attach themselves readily to the current view of the world and consecrate it."
Reason is thus clouded by imperfection and subjectivity. Neuroscientists depict a human brain far less mechanistic than the one envisioned by the Enlightenment. Reason is entangled with desire, language, culture, and evolution. As an organic and highly social process, it requires that we interact with other minds, questioning our own ideas as eagerly as theirs. Reverend Dale Arnink said, "One cannot think for one's self if one has always had to think by one's self."
The cab driver survey showed that irrational behavior grew less pronounced with years of experience. Reason is a gradual, self-correcting process. The early missile launchers used their target’s position, wind conditions and complex equations to calculate a precise trajectory. Even so, they usually missed. Today’s guided missiles adjust their trajectory periodically based on feedback, and usually hit their target. Proximate solutions use error to their advantage; exact solutions can’t tolerate error. A free market of ordinary ideas will converge on truth faster than a monopoly of genius.
The best scientists complement reason with faith – faith that natural law is immutable and accessible to human comprehension, and faith that truth is worth knowing. Often, a productive theory starts with intuition. When experimentation and analysis lead to discovery, they can evoke Einstein’s "cosmic religious feeling…a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law…free of all dogma." Higher than the other religious emotions of fear and longing, he said it is communicated through art and science. To me this feeling harbors no expectation of divine benevolence. It is enough that the universe speaks from "benign indifference" (Camus), in uncensored language that, if only for a fleeting moment, I understand.
Without a faith that fosters humility, reason may swell into an object of worship. Forrest Church warned, "It is our virtues that are likely to betray us into idolatry." Reason and knowledge became instruments of control and domination during the last century. Even as the Humanist Manifesto was being drafted to promote reason in this country, Nazi Germany was sponsoring a rationalism that led to genocide. Materialism flourished in the 20th-century, while science introduced the specter of nuclear annihilation. Reason grew from humble servant to proud master of the modern world. Its power and precision left its disciples more secure and less aware, just as religious fervor had done in other times.
Like faith, reason loses its vitality when it tries to possess the truth rather than experience it. Once people think they’ve arrived, they stop asking questions and start defending their answers. Emerson said we have a choice between truth and repose (comfort, security), but we can never have both. Those who love truth will submit, in his words, "to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion." Those who stake an exclusive claim to truth, whether theistic or atheistic, choose security over objectivity.
In his book, "Mere Christianity," C.S. Lewis put forth a very thoughtful defense of the Christian faith. If he wanted to silence his opponents, he may have done that even before he started. He said he’d never heard a non-Christian admit to the defect of pride ("the utmost evil"). Aside from the irony of being proud that only Christians confess to pride, his pretense that they are unique in this regard reveals the vacuum in which he operated. I’ve heard confessions of pride from non-Christians, and will readily confess to it myself. But Lewis may have cut off any real dialogue by presuming at the outset to have the answer. For the sake of certainty, he traded away the opportunity to learn from his detractors.
Richard Dawkins, at the opposite pole from Lewis (but equally sure of himself), likens religious faith to delusion. He uses his considerable intellect to bludgeon those who disagree. How many minds do you think he changed? Like Lewis and Harris, he starts with a well-crafted, rational argument, but then overshoots by attacking the character and inflating the threat of his opposition. Reason makes a wonderful probe, but when it turns into a weapon we forget that we’re hunting the truth, not each other.
Born-again Christian Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, narrowly escaped this trap. In referring to agnosticism as a "cop out," he crossed the line between reason and judgment. But when challenged by an agnostic writer who expressed dissatisfaction with the current answers to life’s "ultimate mysteries," Collins softened. "I went through a phase when I was a casual agnostic, and I am perhaps too quick to assume that others have no more depth than I did." This earnest exchange surely broadened the viewpoints of both men.
In conclusion I return to the allegations of Sam Harris. He lends a vital voice to our outrage at the Muslim fanatics who authored 911, and the right-wing Christians who would appropriate our government. But he portrays a machine-like thought process whereby "Either we have valid reasons for what we believe or we do not." His message to the faithful is, "I do and you do not." Does this sound familiar? Channing characterized the religious extremist as an "idolater of his own distinguishing opinions, shutting his eyes on the virtues and his ears on the arguments of his opponents, arrogating all excellence…and all saving power to his own creed."
Harris ridicules faith as a license "to keep believing when reasons fail." But isn’t his writing an exercise in faith? What evidence does he have that he (or an army of skeptics) can persuade Christians to surrender a mythology that has survived the darkest and the brightest centuries of human inquiry?
I propose a different faith, equally untenable but grounded in humanism. I cannot accept intolerance as the answer to fundamentalism, even when it masquerades as integrity. The faith I propose matches reason with humanitarian principles that reason cannot prove. It honors any belief system that inspires upright and compassionate living. It trusts that a humble appeal to reason will resonate with people of other religions and cultures. I must believe they will rise to their potential for goodness – on wings of faith and reason – unless my own arrogance holds them down.
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