Reason, Unfettered by Faith
The Harvard University faculty and Pope Benedict XVI might be considered unlikely intellectual allies, but both have recently promoted an odd — and, I would suggest, oxymoronic — connection between reason and faith in the context of the university. That has already caused problems for both the pope and Harvard.
In a speech at the University of Regensburg, where he once taught, the pope emphasized the role of theology in correlating faith with reason. He argued that within the university it should be accepted without question that "it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason."
That speech created an uproar in the Muslim world — not because of the pope's contentions regarding theology, but because of his reference to a 14th-century dialogue in which a Byzantine emperor questions Islam's reliance on holy war, and implies that because spreading faith through violence is unreasonable and "not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature," Islam is both unreasonable and ungodly.
Given the history of Christianity since at least the First Crusades, that was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, and it is not at all clear what the pope's logic was in recalling the provocative comment. Especially if taken out of context, it is not surprising that the reference would offend some Muslims. But though I am not a Muslim, as a college professor, I too am troubled by the reference.
A few weeks after the pope's speech, Harvard University's Task Force on General Education issued a report that proposed new general-education requirements for Harvard undergraduates. Among the new requirements listed was "reason and faith." The rationale was that secular institutions are not giving students sufficient preparation to deal with issues of faith in modern society.
That would have been a remarkable shift, making Harvard, one of the world's pre-eminent universities, perhaps the first secular institution to require undergraduates to study faith within the context of a core curriculum. But Harvard has apparently decided to drop the requirement, according to a letter from the task force to faculty members in mid-December. The university now says the requirement is not needed because religion-related courses will be offered in other areas of the curriculum. However, it is nonetheless remarkable that Harvard has considered juxtaposing reason and faith, as if they are in some sense equivalent.
The paradox behind Harvard's original proposal and the pope's more-general statements is that faith often is fundamentally irrational: It can involve a belief in something for which there is no objective evidence.
Consider how religious faith is transmitted from one generation to the next. Even though extremist religious indoctrination, like that shown in the recent documentary Jesus Camp, is isolated, throughout the world children are generally introduced to religion — in churches, synagogues, and mosques — long before they are old enough to develop sophisticated analytical-reasoning skills.
The philosophical and metaphysical issues associated with the possibility of divine intelligence are well beyond the cognitive powers of most young children. Many of them are exposed to those notions by their parents, however, because the parents feel it is essential for their children to come to believe in their religion's version of God before they have enough experience to seriously question that belief. That type of what, in another context, would be called brainwashing may be done for altruistic reasons — for example, from a sense that such beliefs will instill morality in their children's actions, or secure them a safe haven after death. But promoting religious faith in that way is certainly not done by recourse to reason.
Of course one may attempt to apply reason to the study of faith, as the pope remarked. Because of my own efforts to defend science against religious attacks, I have had the opportunity recently to learn a tremendous amount from distinguished theologians. For example, I find fascinating the intellectual machinations that the Roman Catholic Church has used to accept historical facts associated with the evolution of life and, at the same time, to insist that the facts are consistent with a divine plan and free will.
But such analyses are esoteric at best. Why should college students or the religious faithful be held accountable for connecting reason and faith when reason is as irrelevant to the experience of religious faith as it is to, say, romantic love? As the French have known since Blaise Pascal's day, nearly four centuries ago, "the heart has its reasons which reason does not know."
It is true that religious faith has profoundly affected human history, and that students need to understand the role of religion in both the past and the present — for example, its impact on current American politics. But if Harvard feels that its graduates need such knowledge, should the university not expect them to get it through required courses in world or American history?
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, voiced similar concerns in The Harvard Crimson shortly after the Task Force on General Education released its report. Religious faith may have been a powerful historical force, but, Pinker argues, "so are nationalism, ethnicity, socialism, markets, nepotism, class, and globalization. Why single religion out among all the major forces in history? ... For us to magnify the significance of religion as a topic equivalent in scope to all of science, all of culture, or all of world history and current affairs, is to give it far too much prominence. It is an American anachronism."
But Pinker's principal reservation, and my own, is more basic. As he puts it: "The juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like 'faith' and 'reason' are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. ... It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry." To equate reason with faith at an institution that defines itself in terms of the former rather than the latter does a disservice to its goals.
Similarly, I would argue that for the pope to equate theology and faith by demanding that deeply religious individuals base their faith on rationality is inappropriate and fundamentally illogical. His motivation may be to produce a peaceful, more tolerant world, but history suggests that his approach simply won't work. Even scholars with years of training in theology and history have trouble combining the possible existence of divine purpose with a universe governed by natural laws.
Indeed, it is not uncommon for religious leaders to advocate acting on faith in the face of reason — as when Catholic priests forbid married women to use condoms even when their husbands are infected with AIDS. If we accept that the priests believe following such an irrational dictate will ultimately guarantee salvation, how can we criticize the irrationality of Muslim clerics who dogmatically advocate jihad?
Of course we can hope that people will act reasonably, but those actions would be based on reason, independent of faith. One definition of sanity is accepting the reality of the world around us, as evidenced by our senses. In the modern world, our senses are aided by modern science, so the reality of the universe includes such things as the historical facts of evolution and the age of the earth. Whatever their religious convictions, rational people accept those facts.
The physicist Steven Weinberg, of the University of Texas at Austin, has said: "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil, but for good people to do evil — that takes religion." No doubt some would consider that too extreme a condemnation of religion. But while I recognize my own biases, as both an educator and a scientist — albeit one who has come to better appreciate the significance of faith in everyday life — I remain convinced that reason must be unfettered by faith if we are to truly educate our children and our students, and if we as a society are to overcome violence committed in the name of religion.
Lawrence M. Krauss is a professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University and, for this academic year, a visiting professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book, Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities, From Plato to String Theory (By Way of Alice in Wonderland, Einstein, and The Twilight Zone), was published in paperback last year by Penguin Books.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 19, Page B20