Faith, Reason, and Secular Ignorance

I have already noted and critiqued (here and here) several of the strange, and uninformed, claims about religion’s rationality embraced by some legal scholars.

Today, I want to discuss another one of these claims, namely, that the fundamental beliefs of religious traditions, unlike those of the sciences, are not revisable in light of new evidence.

There are several problems with this claim. First, it’s not clear what counts as a “fundamental belief” in the sciences. Theories, of course, change, or are replaced by other theories in light of new evidence or better theories that account for old evidence. But in either case, the scientific enterprise itself requires a commitment to first principles.

The scientist, for example, must assume that nature exists, that it is intelligible, that simple and elegant theories should be preferred over ones with ad hoc hypotheses, and so forth.  These are not deliverances of the sciences, but presuppositions that make the sciences possible. Thus, it is difficult to imagine what sort of “evidence” would require that we revise them.

Second, the idea of doctrinal development – the progressive changing of beliefs over time in response to a variety of external and internal challenges and insights  — is integral to both Protestant and Catholic Christianity, as well as to other faiths. Consider just four examples from the history of Christianity.

(1) One of the most important developments in Christian theology occurred as a consequence of its encounter with Greek philosophy. As some scholars have noted, most Christian thinkers in the Church’s first six centuries, rather than seeing pagan philosophical traditions as a threat, conscripted their insights to such an extent that the Early Church was able to formulate its most important creeds and resolve what otherwise would have been intractable theological issues. Later on, as Christianity moved into the Middle Ages and into the modern period, the Church’s philosophical inheritance continued to play an important role in the development of dogmatic and moral theology. Ironically, some writers, claiming to offer a more “scientific” understanding of theology, fault the Church for not insulating itself from the influence of Greek philosophy. 

(2) St. Thomas Aquinas, relying almost exclusively on Aristotle’s view of biology, held that the human fetus did not receive its rational soul until several weeks after conception. It was for centuries the dominant view of the Catholic Church as well as for many non-Catholic Christians. But as the science of embryology discovered more about human development, and biology rejected Aristotle’s views, the Church, though never discarding Aquinas’ metaphysics, embraced the view that an individual human being, with a rational soul, begins at conception.

(3) Although Darwin’s theory of evolution has been widely accepted in the academy, it has been rejected by some segments of the religious world, most notably among some (but by no means all) Fundamentalist and conservative Evangelical Protestants. Nevertheless, the wider Christian world has engaged evolution rather impressively, showing respect for the deliverances of the natural sciences while pressing for philosophical modesty and rigor on the part of materialists who mistakenly believe that evolution is a defeater to theism. (Alvin Plantinga’s most recent work is an impressive example of this.)

            God the Geometer (frontispiece, Bible Moralisee, 13th century)

The Catholic Church has dealt with the creation/evolution question by making important and careful distinctions between science, metaphysics, and Biblical hermeneutics. Several Catholic authors, thoroughly committed to the Church and its teachings, have made valuable contributions in understanding the relationship between science and theology and why the proposals by certain segments of the Christian world – e.g., creationism and intelligent design – may not be fruitful approaches.  

Others, from a variety of Christian traditions, have advanced similar efforts, though in some cases showing a bit more sympathy for intelligent design or at least the theoretical issues raised by it (while, however, engaging its critics).

What this shows is that Christian thinkers – regardless of where they may stand on the intersection of theology and science – are having an important conversation among themselves and with those critics outside their communities, precisely because they do not believe that their theological beliefs are insulated from external challenges that may lead to true development and better understanding. 

(4) The relationship between Christianity, its moral and political theologies, and the idea of religious liberty has clearly changed over time. As the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, S. J. has pointed out, “The problem of religious freedom, as understood today, has emerged only since the Enlightenment. In the Middle Ages, no doubt, the Church tolerated or authorized practices that strike us today as inconsistent with due respect for religious freedom. . .”

The changing cultural and political landscape of post-Reformation Western Europe called for Christians to reassess how they thought church and state should interact. But the Protestant and Catholic communities did not have the luxury of just affirming religious liberty by fiat. If they were to affirm it, it had to be consistent with Scripture and (in the case of Catholics) Tradition (including the Church’s prior authoritative pronouncements) and thus a legitimate development of doctrine.

If theology is truly a knowledge tradition – and thus must take account of, and not insulate itself from, serious intellectual and cultural challenges – thoughtful Christians had to proceed in this fashion. And they did. The Catholic Church, for instance, grounds its defense of religious liberty in its rich theological anthropology, connecting this doctrinal development to the deliverances of its predecessors, while other Christians have made a different sort of case.

For informed and careful scholars, believers and unbelievers alike, none of this is surprising. Why then does the alternative account have so much traction in the legal academy? After all, if it were about race, gender, or sexual orientation, rather than religion, it would be roundly dismissed as bigotry borne of ignorance. Perhaps that is the answer. If so, we must work “as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work. (Jn 9:4-5)


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).