Faith, Reason, and Secular Hegemony

About a year ago, I was invited to contribute to a book on the topic of political philosophy and religious beliefs, to be published next year by a university press. My chapter, tentatively titled, “Fides, Ratio et Juris: How Some Courts and Some Legal Theorists Misrepresent the Rational Status of Religious Beliefs,” addresses the claims of courts and legal theorists who argue that religiously informed policy proposals have no place in a liberal democracy because the religious worldviews from which they herald are at their core unreasonable, for they are dependent on irrational beliefs.

While preparing for this chapter, I read and reread scores of court cases and academic monographs. The judicial opinions, most of which affirmed or implied the irrationality of religious belief, did not surprise me, since the jurists who wrote them are often unacquainted with the sort of literature on the rationality of religious belief that has been the staple of Anglo-American philosophy for nearly five decades.

What did surprise me were the legal theorists. Their ignorance was embarrassing. Take, for example, this claim made by one of these scholars: “Secular science and liberal politics, both committed to the primacy of reason, necessarily deny that any truth is incontestable.”  We can put this claim in the form of a proposition:

A.    Reason necessarily denies incontestable truths

Is this an incontestable truth? If reason necessarily denies incontestable truths, and this author is offering A as a canon of reason, then A is not an incontestable truth. But in that case, it is not incontestable that reason necessarily denies incontestable truths. Thus, reason may in fact affirm incontestable truths.

On the other hand, if A is an incontestable truth, and the author is offering A as a canon of reason, then it is not the case that reason necessarily denies incontestable truths. Consequently, reason requires that we believe at least one incontestable truth, namely, that reason necessarily denies incontestable truths. In that case, reason is downright unreasonable.

But not only can one reject A because it is, as we philosophers like to put it, self-referentially incoherent, one can also reject it because it is simply false. Take, for example, these claims:

B.     All bachelors are unmarried males
C.    2 + 2 = 4
D.    C = 2πr

B, C, and D are necessary truths. They are true in every possible world. But necessary truths are incontestable truths. If it is reasonable to believe in necessary truths – and it would seem to be so because they are in fact “truths” – then it is not only not true that reason necessarily denies incontestable truths, but in some cases reason necessarily affirms incontestable truths.

      Back to basics: Christians must make the case that faith aligns with reason.

Now consider these claims:

E.     It is morally wrong everywhere and always to torture children for fun
F.     The proper end of the human mind is the acquisition of wisdom
G.    Human persons are beings of immeasurable worth and dignity

E, F, and G seem like perfectly rational beliefs for one to hold. They are, to be sure, not incontestable as are B, C, and D. But they seem far less contestable than Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, an established scientific theory if there ever was one. Nevertheless, one can easily imagine Einstein’s theory being refuted, but it’s difficult to imagine how one can ever be wrong about E, F, and G. So, it seems that there are beliefs that one has no obligation to contest or prove that are nevertheless perfectly rational to hold without the assistance of argument or evidence.

The legal theorists I read all claim to be experts in law and religion, and their works appear in law reviews published by prestigious universities. And yet, I could not find in them a hint that they had even a superficial acquaintance with the vast literature on religion and rationality produced by religious (and some non-religious) thinkers (mostly philosophers) over the past fifty years.


There was no mention of Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Robert C. Koons, John Haldane, William Alston, J. P. Moreland, Brian Leftow, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Linda Zagzebski, Charles Taliaferro, C. Stephen Evans, Dallas Willard, Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, Eleanore Stump, John E. Hare, or N. T. Wright.

These contemporary scholars, along with scores of others, have published some of the most sophisticated and carefully wrought arguments for important aspects of the Christian faith, including the rationality of belief in God, the failure of philosophical materialism, the existence of the soul, moral realism, the incoherence of scientism, the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, and the reconciling of God and evil.


Although references to these writings were nowhere to be found in the legal articles I consulted, their authors nevertheless confidently proclaimed that all religious belief is insulated from evidence and the ordinary standards of rationality.


It should not surprise us, then, that when political conflicts between church and state arise that academic and media elites treat the church’s point of view as if it were an irrational outlier to contemporary culture.  As I have come to reluctantly realize, they simply do not know any better, since their education insulated them from views contrary to the unquestioned secular hegemony that was ubiquitous in their intellectual formation.

This means that we Christians – Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike – cannot settle for mere cultural toleration (or just having the right to speak) without at the same time making the case that our faith, and all that it entails and presupposes, is aligned with reason. As Pope John Paul II once said, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” 


Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).