Thursday, January 27, 2011

Treading Carefully Between Faith and Reason

© Loca Luna

Okay, here’s the caveat right out of the gates: I am exploring this issue to generate discussion. There is no judgment here. In fact, any comments on this post will be moderated viciously to make sure there is nothing inflammatory posted. I just think this bears open-minded, intelligent, honest, rational discussion. And an important note: In this discussion, when I use the word ‘faith’ I am not referring solely to religious belief. It’s also political or philosophical ideals. Even psychological. However, the religious argument is the biggest lightening rod for this discussion.

Still slightly fuelled by my last post and the discussion on it, and going through the Critical Thinking course, I stumbled upon a hot-button point. An obstacle to proper critical thought is the ‘blind faith’ paradigm, “It just simply is that way.” In a discussion analyzing truth and ‘how things work’ we are often driven, even subconsciously, to believe things on a gut level that can be proven to be wrong. But we are usually afraid to let go of our ideas, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Possibly because they resonate so strongly within us. Possibly because we are afraid to have a strongly held belief that could be wrong – a factor which only increases as we get older and thus more ‘experienced’ in the ways of the world. As was discussed in my last post, it takes a rare sort of bravery to expose our ideals to critical thought with a willingness to change them if they are proven to be incomplete or unsubstantiated.

Jürgen Habermas is a communication theorist with many decades under his belt. If he (and others who have read or studied his work) will forgive me for a gross oversimplification of his theories, then we can say that he has a belief that a rational population, given all the factual information in a discussion, will come to the same conclusion, because it follows logically from the evidence. In fact, studies have proven that since we all think that’s true, we automatically assume that detractors don’t have all the information. It simpler (an example of being a cognitive miser) to assume we know everything, they don’t and that if they knew what we did, they would agree with us. It’s much harder (and against our psychological tendencies) to believe that maybe none of us knows everything, and if we did, maybe we’d find out that we’re the ones in the wrong.

Where can faith and critical thinking overlap and where do they cancel each other out? Perhaps faith can be a logic leap to close a gap when critical thinking falls short of a complete analysis, but should that gap not remain open for discussion if new information comes to light? The crux: When is faith of any sort used as a crutch, a shield or an easy out? Do we use faith to help us make decisions and value judgments, or do we use faith to prevent us from having to change our decisions and value judgements.

To delve into the religious example of this argument for a moment… I have a friend whom I haven’t seen in a long time. She impressed me by being very critically religious. She refused the temptation to adhere to ‘blind faith’ and when issues or topics came up that weren’t satisfactorily answered by her religious tenets, she continued to seek out her own answers through critical thought and made her own peace with her religion. She acknowledged its shortcomings. I feel like she earned her faith, because she wouldn’t simply accept the ‘blind’ parts of it.

I believe in spirituality, connection to an essence that is ineffable, beyond our current understanding. But I’m also a strong adherent to the six blind men and the elephant idea. Whatever exists beyond our ken is, well, beyond our ken. I don’t believe there are easy answers, yet we are capable of such amazing thought and discovery that we can continue to find answers. But we are arrogant to believe we have them all now. Or (in my opinion) that we ever will.

Who of you has strong religious or political beliefs? Who doesn’t? Why? What was your journey to your particular location on the path between faith and reason? Did you come to it through struggle and self-discovery or was it a part of your family environment for as long as you can remember? Did you inherit your belief systems or did you fight for them? Is your journey still continuing? Do you believe that faith is something we should just adhere to, whether it conflicts with our rational minds or not? Or do you believe that nothing is valid without concrete evidence, that faith is simply a crutch?

Or are you somewhere else, delicately treading the path between faith and reason?

A comment reminder: Anything that is personally inflammatory to anyone involved in this posting will be removed. Be bold, be insightful, but don’t be judgmental.


  1. I can't offer insights into this blog post. I'll share my story, though, and perhaps that will prove useful.

    Religion, in one way or another, has often been a source of tension in my life. I grew up in a secular household, but, according to the 2001 Community Profile at Statistics Canada, in Lethbridge, Alberta, the small city I grew up in, seventy-six percent of the population is Christian. As a result, I often interacted with people with beliefs very different than my own. Sometimes these interactions were friendly; other times they were not. I converted to an Evangelical sort of Christianity when I was twenty-one. Not long after, I graduated from the Drama program at the University of Lethbridge, moved to Edmonton, lived as a theologically conservative Christian, and worked as an artist in the largely secular theatre community. I regularly dealt with the tension one experiences when they find themselves caught between two different cultures. My family, friends, and some colleagues expressed annoyance that I joined the Christian church. Likewise, I made few friends at church due to my vocation and more liberal predilections. After four years, I lost my faith and reverted to agnosticism, a difficult decision considering my wife was (and still is) a devout Christian.

    At all times, I ensured my chief priority at all times was to seek the truth, that is, to find out what is really going on. I refused to limit myself to any particular ideology. I sought evidence. The evidence initially led me to Christianity. As I continued to conduct research, further evidence led me to abandon that belief sect. No matter what, my focus remained fixed on facts, not beliefs. Indeed, the only conviction I continue to hold is to seek the truth, not pillars to support what I already believe.

    I learned a great deal through this experience. I learned that Christians love a truth-seeker, so long as that seeker is showing interest in the Christian tenets. As soon as I abandoned my belief in that ideology, many individuals got very angry at me. The pastor who married my wife and I told me I was disloyal. Another person (who previously applauded my critical thinking) told me I was gullible. Yet another person told me I chose to side with the devil. Finally, a number of people told my wife to leave me.

    Secular folk didn't treat me much better while I was religious. I received many sarcastic remarks about being brainwashed. Others accused me of being homophobic and judgemental when I said nothing to suggest such a thing. I even had an Atheist friend who frequently told me that, even though I never did anything violent or destructive, my faith was evil. One night, a member of my family nearly lost her mind with rage that I was religious.

    In my experience, it's the people who are less willing to question their beliefs who are also the most antagonistic towards those who believe differently. I remember asking an honest, sensible question during one bible study; most participants acknowledged my question with mutual interest, but one group member snarled at me and told me to keep such questions to myself. I also tried to explain to one secular person that Christianity does not fit the definition of a cult - he just about flipped the table over and socked me!

    My wife and I are able to live under the same roof while asking many, many hard questions about one another's beliefs. We can live together because we both acknowledge we could be wrong. As a result, we're willing to be critical of our respective ideologies (as well as gracious). In a way, she's telling me about her end of the elephant while I tell her about mine. And with those two puzzle pieces, we make as much sense of the beast as we can.

    And then we go to bed.

  2. Excellent thoughts Andrew! Thanks for sharing your personal story!