Faith and Reason

Framing the Debate: The Conflict Between Faith and Reason

The arguments I present in this blog, and indeed the arguments in all of atheism, rest upon a single, fundamental premise: that faith and reason are inherently at odds with one another. It is the suggestion that a scientific world view – one based on logic and evidence – is incompatible with a mystical world view based on personal revelation and subjective intuition. Believers may be incredulous at the suggestion that God's existence is, fundamentally, a scientific question; after all, isn't God supposed to be “outside” of our physical world, somehow beyond our ability to rationally and objectively measure? Indeed, such an assumption is a metaphysical one; however, it is also a scientific question to inquire as to whether metaphysics has any measurable value for us as human beings. Indeed, science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. But we must then ask ourselves – if God is indeed beyond our capacity for rational understanding, how then do we understand him? Most importantly however, we must recognize that God's existence, whether immediately provable or not, is scientific in the sense that he either exists or he doesn't, and a world without God would look very different than a world with God. Moreover, we can inquire about the validity of personal spiritual experiences – events and beliefs purported to be evidence of a divine orchestration to our world – and evaluate them scientifically to see if there are simple, rational explanations to allegedly mystical phenomena.

This, of course, should not be misconstrued to imply that one cannot be perfectly intelligent, or even exceptionally intelligent, and still hold spiritual beliefs. Yet the fact that there are surely intelligent individuals in the world who happen to be spiritual does not mean possessing spiritual beliefs is an intelligent thing to do. On the contrary, even the most intelligent among us are prone to whimsical foolishness or misguided logic. Generally speaking however, I find the “intelligent believer” to be a far more worthwhile conversationalist on the subject than the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone religious zealot. This is simply because people who possess an inquisitive mind are inevitably going to be more interested in what someone else has to say about their beliefs. I have far more respect for someone who has studied intently many facets of religious beliefs and come to a conclusion different than my own than I do for someone who brashly and stubbornly clings to their ideology with irrational defensiveness, neglecting to truly consider opposing views that may (or may not) offer them insights they may have not yet considered.

In my day to day life, I am relatively low-key about my feelings on religion and spirituality. I do not stand on street corners shouting atheistic dogma in a desperate attempt to convert the condemned masses, nor do I go out of my way to raise the subject with friends and family. I abide by a rigid “live and let live” policy; the only time I engage others in discussions of theology is when someone picks my brain about it, at which point I'm happy to have a vigorous but polite discussion about it. When I do criticize spirituality, I am not deliberately provocative. I express sincere concern about the place that faith and religion have in our society and their affects on us. While faith may often be relatively benign and harmless, it can also have devastating consequences – and I don't just mean jihadists who fly planes into skyscrapers. My goal, then, in any discussion about faith is not necessarily to “convert” someone or convince them that I'm right and they're wrong. Religious beliefs are deeply embedded into our self-concept, the way we perceive ourselves and our place in the world around us. It's simply unrealistic to expect someone to shed such deeply held beliefs without a great deal of private reflection. What I can hope for, however, is that I can offer a perspective that may not have been considered. Simply encouraging others to think for themselves by raising questions and introducing arguments they are unlikely to have pondered is a powerful step toward atheism, as religion rewards unwavering devotion and groupthink.

Importantly, I feel that many discussions and debates about religion are far too caught up in the details to be truly productive. I don't think it is necessary, nor that it should be necessary, to write volumes of horrendously fat books debating the theological or historical minutiae of various religions, nor do I feel that lengthy diatribes about the theory of evolution or cosmology are needed to make clear their philosophical implications. Indeed, I feel that such discussions often serve only to obfuscate the underlying logic that can otherwise be addressed in a straightforward way. And while I do feel that a general knowledge of scientific theories and methodology is paramount in rejecting religion, I do not feel that one needs a doctoral degree in the esoteric sciences to understand why they pose a powerful problem for faith. Nor does one need a doctorate in theology to contemplate the logical conundrums that all religions must face.

The Problem With Faith

At the heart of religious and spiritual thinking is the belief that there are qualities to us and our universe that transcend the rational mind. We often speak of there being “more to the world than what we see”. It could be said, for example, that God may not be observable or measurable in a scientific sense, but that is because he is greater than our natural world, beyond our feeble ability to analyze what we perceive with our senses.  He is our moral compass, imbuing us with an innate sense of right and wrong that is as real as it is infallible and absolute. He is transcendent of our rational understanding, but knowable through our own intuitive spiritual experiences. People often speak of personal revelations in which God speaks to them, guides them, or rebukes them. In my part of the country, the so-called “Bible Belt”, it's not even slightly uncommon to hear someone casually remark that God spoke to them about their career, their relationships, their finances, or any number of arbitrary personal challenges they may be facing. People have spiritual experiences on a very personal level, and share their experiences with like-minded others, reinforcing through the religious community the belief that the uniquely personal experiences of spirituality are as real as the ground we walk on.

However, the very notion that something can be transcendent of our rational understanding, yet still be useful to us, is a precarious claim. Science has a very absolute definition of truth – it is based upon corroborating evidence. Nobody had to take Einstein on faith that he could explain how gravity worked; he was able to demonstrate it through mathematical equations that predicted the behavior of the stars and galaxies with an unprecedented degree of accuracy. In the many years since his death as physics has evolved further still, his results have replicated by countless other physicists, further corroborating his hypothesis. This is the way all fields of science work – a hypothesis is proposed as a means of explaining a natural phenomenon; experiments are carried out to test the hypothesis, and if they can accurately predict the outcome that they seek,  it becomes evidence that the hypothesis is true. As more scientists scrutinize and attempt to replicate the experiment, evidence grows to create a body of knowledge called a theory. If, by some chance, a scientist produces results that appear to disprove the theory and provide a better explanation, other scientists with attempt to replicate those results as well, until the evidence is sufficient to form a consensus in the scientific community. Nothing is ever taken to be absolute, infallible truth. Instead, evidence is termed falsifiable – so named because no one could ever claim to know anything about the world around us with absolute certainty. Counterintuitively, it is unfalsifiable claims – those which reside beyond the realm of measurable scrutiny – that are considered by scientists to be absolute rubbish. That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Falsifiable evidence provides us with a universal truth, one that is equally relevant to all human beings. Scientific theories are not unique personal experiences, but knowledge based upon evidence that can be understood equally by all people. Einstein's theory of general relativity, for example, is as true for me as it is for you or anyone else. There is no one who can rationally choose not to accept it –  it applies to us whether we like it or not. With sufficient evidence, someone may of course challenge the theory and attempt to present a more accurate alternative (as many modern theoretical physicists are attempting to do), but for now we accept that general relativity provides us with the best and most accurate measurement of many natural  phenomena. Words like “fact” and “proof” should not be thought of in a colloquial sense to imply an infallible truth, but rather that for which we have the best evidence.

Spiritual claims, however, are far more dubious. Because they are not based on corroborating evidence, we have no rational means to discern whether a spiritual claim is actually true. Instead, believers rely on subjective intuition and personal revelation to express their spiritual certainty. But we do not have some magical “sixth sense” that allows us to objectively perceive things that transcend our rational thought; indeed, our rational minds are the only means by which we can understand our world. That which falls beyond our rational understanding falls within the realm of unfalsifiable evidence – which is not really evidence at all. It may be true that no one can prove or disprove that God is real. However, there are literally an infinite number of such things. I might not be able to prove that God does not exist, but no one else can prove that the magical panda fairy from dimension 426-B that watches over me and brings me good fortune is not real either.

Believers may make the claim that their spiritual experiences are “true for me”, because we cannot rationally scrutinize them. But if these spiritual experiences are true for one person, by what measure do we decide that it is true for anyone else? Since there is no rational means of understanding spiritual experiences, by what method can we accurately critique or measure them? There is a fundamental paradox at work in the minds of believers – that God cannot be fully understood through reason and logic, yet there are still universal truths about him that we can somehow understand. But the very notion that God is understood through these subjective personal experiences runs entirely contrary to the notion that any truth about him can be as valid to all of us as scientific truth is. To illustrate this logical paradox, we can examine the words of Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and a Christian, who explained the apparent conflict between faith and reason thus:

“It is true, of course, that organized religions do not point to a single, coherent view of the nature of God. But to reject God because of the admitted self-contradictions and logical failings of organized religion would be like rejecting physics because of the inherent contradictions of quantum theory and general relativity. Science, all of science, is necessarily incomplete—this is, in fact, the reason why so many of us find science to be such an invigorating and fulfilling calling. Why, then, should we be surprised that religion is incomplete and contradictory as well? We do not abandon science because our human efforts to approach the great truths of nature are occasionally hampered by error, greed, dishonesty, and even fraud. Why then should we declare faith a "delusion" because belief in God is subject to exactly the same failings?”

The simple answer to Miller's question is that we should fully expect religion to be full of contradictions and conflicts, precisely because it is based not on evidence but on personal revelation and subjective experiences. Anything that is not subject to the rigors of rational study is left to the limitless bounds of the human imagination. If radical Islamic fundamentalists want to wage a holy war on the rest of the world, what rational basis do we have to tell them that their beliefs are wrong? If I choose to believe that God manifests himself as an invisible, untouchable giant banana floating over my house, on what authority can any person of faith tell me that my belief in the Giant Invisible Banana God is more any absurd than their own irrational beliefs? And if someone professes to have had a spiritual insight or experience, by what measure do we determine that it is true? How do we determine that something “true for me” is true for anyone else? The irrational basis of faith is precisely what lends it to extremes of both the brightest and darkest corners of humanity.

The phrase “understand God” is fundamentally a paradox. The only means we have to understand our world and anything about it is through our senses, through our rational consciousness. If God is indeed “beyond” our rational consciousness, He is beyond us such that his very existence is a mere formality rather than knowledge that is truly useful to us. While anyone can profess to have had a profoundly enlightening personal spiritual experience, he has no means by which to demonstrate that anything he experienced should be true for anyone aside from him alone. Once we can equivocate these subjective spiritual experiences and beliefs with the infinite number of similarly unfalsifiable ideas, we can see that faith is, on its face, inherently in conflict with a rational world view.

1. Kenneth Miller quoted from


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