Faith’s Greatest Threat

The secular and materialist understanding of nature and human nature seem to be everywhere and they have come to inform what has been called “a new post-Christian narrative of life.” Witness the appearance over the past several years of a strident “new atheism,” a kind of “evangelical atheism,” evident in the popular books of scientists and philosophers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. This new atheism claims to be purely rational; it is quite often a kind of scientific idolatry that sees the natural sciences as completely sufficient to explain all that needs to be explained.

But contrary to what appear to many to be the current fundamental challenges to faith, the greatest threat to faith is not unbelief, the “new atheism” (or the older varieties, for that matter), the simplistic philosophical judgment that the world needs no explanation beyond itself and that, as Stephen Hawking once famously remarked, “there is nothing for a creator to do.” Rather, the greatest challenge to faith comes from a view often used to defend faith: the view that radically separates and opposes faith and reason and which, at times, maintains that belief is a matter of the heart and not the mind.

In the face of what appear to be challenges from reason and science, believers often retreat to a spiritual citadel, insulate themselves from such challenges, and embrace a kind of “blind faith” that appeals only to the authority of the Bible. We see such appeals in the debates about the great social issues, from abortion and human embryonic stem cell research to same sex marriage. But the wider relationship between faith and reason concerns every element of Christian thought and practice: from the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation to the sacraments and biblical interpretation. The failure to see the essential role of reason in what we believe is one of the great threats to the faith. It is also a threat which is not new.

In the eleventh century, St. Anselm summarized the importance of the fruitful relationship between faith and reason in a famous phrase: fides quaerens intellectum – faith seeking understanding. Two centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas often noted that faith perfects reason. God is the author of all truth, the truth that faith reveals and the truth that reason discovers. Not only is there no contradiction between these paths to truth. When each is properly navigated, there is a proper unity between them. Faith is a divine gift to a human being and a human being is an animal capable of reason.

Faith informs the human mind and will; it does not negate them. Rather it perfects both, by providing new knowledge and helping to orient the human will to virtue. Reason allows us to probe ever more deeply into what is believed, but even the initial act of believing requires the human intellect. Catholics believe, for instance, that the consecrated bread and wine have become the body and blood of Christ, that there is a new reality present. Reason cannot prove it, but through the doctrine of transubstantiation reason helps to make clear what is believed. Christian doctrines are examples of reason in the service of faith.

Mistrust of reason as the sole guide to truth in ethical matters has often meant that ethics has been reduced to religious belief and belief has been identified with mere opinion. Take abortion. When human life begins is not a matter of faith. That it is immoral intentionally to kill an innocent human being is not first of all a matter of faith. Faith perfects what we know about the dignity of each and every human life; that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God and, thus, is sacred. But the moral judgments necessary for a just society are first of all based on reason.

Faith enhances these judgments; it does not contradict them. That abortion is immoral is a conclusion of reason; that it is sinful is a conclusion of faith. This distinction between what is moral and just, on the one hand, and what faith requires, on the other, is also essential for coherent discourse about marriage and all forms of social relations. Without the proper cultivation of reason, claims about right and wrong based exclusively on faith are not only ineffective in public debate, but ultimately lack intelligibility. Of course, the proper cultivation of reason is not an easy task. Ethics is not geometry. The complexities, however, do not justify a retreat to relativism or the reduction of all moral judgments to matters of faith.

To flee from reason (and science) to the seeming safety of faith alone flies in the face of Catholic teaching and, ultimately, eviscerates faith itself. There can be no faith without reason. This does not mean that faith is subordinate to reason, even though faith presupposes reason. The new atheists are the ones who really have a restricted and distorted notion of reason. They think that there can be reason without God, or, even worse, that to embrace reason one must reject God. But faith helps the believer to see the full amplitude of reason: to see how reason, as well as faith, leads us to God.

William Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science, Blackfriars, University of Oxford.