Reason and Faith:  Perfect Together!!

            Some of the most provocative, engaging and energizing college debates pit atheists and pagans against religious:  the Sophists against Socrates and Plato, the Enlightenment thinkers against the authority of the Catholic Church, and even St. Augustine against St. Thomas Aquinas.  Saint Aurelius Augustine (354-430 A.D.), Bishop of Hippo, asserted in general that faith must precede and provide a proper context for reason, because reason alone, without a will that is fundamentally grounded in love, grace and a yearning for God, is essentially powerless and even perverse.  (See, e.g.,  D. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom, p. 218 (7th ed.)(Wadsworth Cengage 2010)).  For St. Augustine, it is man’s preoccupation with reason and the resultant pride in man’s self, devoid of true faith and love, that inevitably lead to the downfall of human beings and great civilizations such as the Roman Empire.  Augustine’s famous two kingdom’s passages in his studied work the City of God teaches that man without faith and grace cannot achieve a just, earthly society.  For St. Thomas Aquinas, it is reason that can powerfully and persuasively lead man to a sincere belief and faith in God.  Aquinas’ five proofs or ways for the existence of God continue to stand as a testament to the power of reason and command serious consideration from university students everywhere.  For Aquinas, natural reason precedes faith:  “for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected.”  (See, P. Kreeft, A Shorter Summa, p. 52 (Ignatius Press 1993)(quoting Summa Theologica I, Q2, A2).  Yet, both of these compelling philosopher Saints, whom together formed the foundation of Western Civilization’s consciousness for over 1,000 years, agreed that faith and reason together are essential to obtaining wisdom and discerning and understanding Truth.  As Pope John Paul II writes in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, “[f]aith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”    


            Sounds great, right?  But how are we supposed to make sense out of everything without faith in a diverse, pluralistic university setting, right?  Theology is separate from philosophy, isn’t it?  There are even separate departments for Philosophy and Religion!  You’re missing the point!!!  Religion and philosophy are not neatly divisible and separate disciplines.  Reason is not the sole expositor of truth, nor is faith for that matter.  Philosophy, religion, faith and reason have always intertwined and will continue to do so despite efforts to make you think otherwise. 


5.  On her part, the Church cannot but set great value upon reason’s drive to attain goals which render people’s lives ever more worthy.  She sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life.  At the same time, the Church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it.


Fides et Ratio, Par. 5 (emphasis supplied).   The famous admonition of Socrates, to know thyself, is a universal call to every generation to probe and strive to comprehend the human condition of man.  It is a call and a challenge that we as Christians, and particularly Catholic Christians, must embrace zealously through our studies and in our lives.


            This is (or should be) the true meaning of education.  The study of ancient and medieval philosophy is particularly challenging, interesting and fundamentally important to understanding our modern world and the problems we face.  You will meet Socrates whom, at the outset of Western civilization and prior to Christianity, will challenge you to see truth, not as relative, but as objective.  Among other things, Socrates attempts to demonstrate an essential link between truth, reason, faith and our human nature as ensouled, spiritual beings.  Plato, his famous student, creates an “ideal” society in his work Republic that is premised on the indissoluble links between family and society and between justice, virtue and government.  His efforts to harmonize the conflicting theories of reality ascribed to Parmenides and Heraclitus resulted in the concept of Platonic Dualism, the notion that reality is of a dual nature that consists of the visible and intelligible worlds.  According to Plato, reality is dominated by the intelligible world through which virtue, goodness, reason, science, and universal knowledge, wisdom and truth can be known.  Plato’s dual reality foreshadows the depiction of the earthly and heavenly cities in St. Augustine’s City of God.  Aristotle discovers our natural yearnings toward goodness, virtue and excellence that represent a profound and mature happiness in life, while St. Thomas Aquinas promotes a natural theology that harmonizes faith, reason and Aristotelian virtue theory with the Christian faith.  Through all of these classic philosophers, we can readily discover the truth of a transcendant, spiritual dimension to reality that is personal to each of us yet rooted in our common humanity.  Through these philosophers, we can know profound, universal truths about God, our human condition and our dignity as human beings. 


            We can know this confidently because faith and reason are consistent and originate from a single source – our Creator.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses faith and understanding at sections 158 and 159:


158  “Faith seeks understanding.”  it is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in whom he has put his faith, and to understand better what He has revealed; a more penetrating knowledge will in turn call forth a greater faith, increasingly set afire by love.  The grace of faith opens the “eyes of the hearts” to a lively understanding of the contents of Revelation:  that is, of the totality of God’s plan and the mysteries of faith, of their connection with each other and with Christ, the center of the revealed mystery.  “The same Holy Spirit constantly perfects faith by his gifts, so that Revelation may be more and more profoundly understood.”  In the words of St. Augustine, “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.”


159   Faith and science:  “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason.  Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.”  “Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.  The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”

What about our human origins?  Does this mean Darwinian evolution and natural selection are true?  After all, science too is an objective, empirical exercise of man’s reason, right?  Do we have to repudiate science in order to keep our faith?  These are all great questions – ones that you will discuss and read about often during your college years, and well beyond your graduation too.  Learning doesn’t end when you get your diploma. 

            While on campus, however, you will encounter questions about reason and the Enlightenment, evolution and intelligent design, and perhaps even about Natural Law.  All should challenge you to think critically.   All involve significant and scholarly debates that require serious study and honest scrutiny.  All involve the interplay of faith and reason and all should be considered and understood through the light and depths of your faith before settling confidently upon your response to these questions.  The comprehensive evaluation and study of these questions are simply beyond the scope of this website, but basic, reliable and informative resources that will assist you in your personal endeavors to reconcile faith and reason follow the featured article, a presentation delivered by Dr. Edward Furton on faith and reason at an Intelligent Design Conference held in October 2009 at Villanova University. 


  “A Brief Defense of Intelligent Design”

Copyright 2009

Edward J. Furton, M.A., Ph.D.

Ethicist and Editor

The National Catholic Bioethics Center 

 Opening Story

When the well-known researcher, Craig Venter, was working on his “minimal conditions for life” project, press accounts claimed that he had created, in his laboratory, a living organism. Reporters suggested that this was the long awaited discovery of how to produce life out of non-living matter. Art Caplan, the “bioethicist” from the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a column saying that this would finally compel religious believers to give up their superstitious belief that there is some difference between living and non-living things. A few days after Caplan’ s remarks, I got a call from a reporter in Paris, writing for Le Monde, asking for my reaction to this devastating development.

What Venter did was take a living organism, remove as much of its genetic code as he could without killing it, add another gene or two, and voila! (to dip into my French), a new living organism! Of course it was living. The organism was alive the entire time. He did not bring it to life out of non-living matter. He just changed some of its parts. When I told this to the reporter from Paris, our conversation quickly came to an end. He had no story. Because the theme of the story was that yet another religious belief had been destroyed by science.


Raising Questions

Scientists often complain that not enough Americans accept the Darwinian theory. They say that too many Americans are backwards, excessively religious, hostile towards science, etc.,  but I think the the biggest problem with the Darwinian theory is that it is so boring. The atheists, who have co-opted it, want us to conclude that there is no God, no immortal soul, no freedom of the will, no objective good or evil, and no reason for any hope beyond the present moment. No objections or questions may be raised against the theory, lest we slow the progress of the sciences. We must close down the classroom to honest questions from students, stifle any theological inquiries, and turn education in biology into a monotonous victory march for Charles Darwin.

The Darwinian theory has become a dogma, but one without a divine mandate. Accepted at face value, it leads to conclusions that any sensible person would reject. Obviously, if we are just sophisticated animals, and not distinctive creatures with a resemblance to God, then there can be little justification for the great calling of the moral life that marks the Christian faith. The teaching that we ought to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated is incompatible with a philosophy of the survival of the fittest. (And I realize that Darwin may never have used this phrase, but it is an apt summary of atheistic evolution.)

One charge leveled against the “religionists” is that we supposedly invoke the idea of God to stop all debate and thus bring scientific inquiry to an end. Whenever some question has no immediate answer, we say, “God must be the explanation.” But this fault now belongs to science. Sometimes, when reading a science article from the newspaper to my children, I point out to them that one could substitute the word “God” for “evolution” in every instance and arrive at virtually the same meaning. Evolution is a self-justifying explanatory principle, a sort of “that than which nothing greater can be thought,” that must command our attention and stand above all criticism. But is this self-justifying first principle of nature God or evolution? It does make a difference.


The Catholic Faith on Reason

The Catholic faith, in one of its more interesting and forgotten teachings, holds that we are obliged to affirm that God’s existence is evident to reason.  More than evident, that nature gives us certitude of God’s existence. This is an odd teaching if one supposes that religion is nothing more than an act of faith, but Catholics have an intellectual tradition, which is why there are so many fine Catholic colleges and universities. In fact, the claim that knowledge of the existence of God is possible only through faith is rejected by the Church, which holds that there are a variety of such proofs. For Catholics, faith is added to reason. Our religion does not start with a leap of faith, but with a set of preambles, known to reason, that are the basis for our further commitment to supernatural doctrine. This is one of the central differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, at least as Protestantism began.

For Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s greatest theologian, philosophy is a science, and so is theology. Science is defined by its object: the eternal and unchanging. Knowledge is made true and certain by its object. Philosophy and theology are the highest sciences because they concern the highest of all eternal and unchanging objects. Mathematics is also a science because the truths about numbers are likewise eternal and unchanging. 2 + 2 will always = 4. Physics, a broad category of disciplines, is the search for the first principles of motion. Though the particulars of the world undergo constant change, and so are not themselves scientific objects, the principles that govern their motion are eternal and unchanging.

Science, at that time, was not restricted to empirical inquiry, that is, to the study of the material objects that are evident to the senses and to the instrumentation that extends the reach of the senses into matter. Science was not defined by its method. Today science means the advancing of hypotheses about material nature and their testing through experiment. Moreover, the scientist often assumes that the study of matter gives us the whole of knowledge. Philosophy and theology are not higher sciences. Philosophy may help science clarify its language or to think more logically, but it has no independent standing. Similarly, theology is nothing more than private belief.

The modern restriction of science to empirical inquiry, that is, to objects that are known to the senses, has produced great advances, but it is like the magnifying glass that can only bring things closer by ignoring the larger field of vision. As I examine what is within the glass, I lose track of the world that exists outside it. One of the areas that goes unseen in modern science concerns the eternal and unchanging. Are there any true and certain first principles in biological science? Or is even the theory of evolution evolving, as it were, so that no true knowledge of its ultimate principles is possible? And if there are eternal and unchanging first principles, how could evolution, a process permeated by constant change, give rise to them?


Truths of Reason


The argument from design is the fifth of the five ways in Aquinas’ famous proofs for the existence of God. The argument from design is not, Thomas says, the most obvious. That is the first way, the proof from motion, but I think the argument from design is far more obvious today than it was then. The discovery of DNA, for example, remains one of the most remarkable findings of the 20th century. Here, at a single stroke, is a sign of intelligence, a genetic code, written into every cell of every living thing. How did that mark of intelligence get there? By chance, the atheists say. But how can order come out of chaos? How can the higher come from the lower? How can something that lacks intelligence, such as a cell, give rise to intelligence? The discovery of DNA is a remarkable and recent example of strong evidence for an Intelligent Designer.

This observation shows that the defenders of intelligent design are not invoking a “God of the Gaps” theory, in which God is called in to explain whatever science cannot. God’s design is evident in what we already know, and in what we are discovering every day as science progresses. It is not a question of choosing between God and science, but of seeing in nature, through the progress of the sciences, the increasing evidence of design. And yet, there are gaps. There are great big gaps; for example, the gap between living and non-living things. Every living thing that exists today has descended from a living thing that existed in the past. There are no examples of any leap from non-life to life in nature or the laboratory. To assert, as many scientists do, that living things come from non-living things is to affirm a belief; not a truth that is known to reason. 

When we say that God is known to reason, do we make a scientific or a philosophical inference? Either way, the atheists say we cannot make that inference, but which is it? If modern science concerns empirical objects, and if all empirical objects are material things, then I do not think we should be in a hurry to claim that we can know of God’s existence through modern science, for the only conclusions possible from purely material premises would seem to be those of the same sort---and God is not a material being. God is a spiritual being, not “a man in the sky,” as I heard an atheist recently scoff.

What would help here is a greater appreciation for traditional Catholic philosophy. The Catholic faith has a philosophical tradition that is equal in stature to its biblical, spiritual, and dogmatic traditions. Among the truths affirmed in that tradition are that the human will is free, that the soul is immortal, that good and evil exist objectively, and that thought is a spiritual phenomenon. All of these truths are known to reason; faith is added to them. Few Catholics are aware of this tradition. Of course, those who cannot understand the arguments, as Aquinas says, can substitute faith for these truths; nonetheless, these are subjects of “scientific” demonstration, in the classical sense of science.

Also known to philosophic reason are the Divine Attributes, so brilliantly deduced by Aquinas in the first section of his Summa Theologica. The order of the universe, he says, shows us that God is the Divine Providence, for all things are directed to the good. Not all achieve the good, and death is inevitable in this world, but every living creature seeks to preserve itself in life and seeks to give birth to others of its kind. There is an order in nature through which God exercises his governance, and it should be obvious to any observer who reflects on the purposes of nature.

God is also infinite. This attribute holds a place of particular importance in any discussion of an inference to God. Aquinas calls it “a negative judgment,” the realization that God is not of this world. The word literally means “not finite.” God is not finite, not material, not created. As such, when the mind moves from the attributes of this world to the attributes of God, we must realize that God is intelligent not in the limited way that we are, but infinitely; that God is powerful not in the limited way that we are, but infinitely; and so forth. When we conclude that there is an Intelligent Designer, we are speaking about a truth that transcends scientific knowledge, at least, if the word “science” means the study of empirical objects. We make a negative judgment that both flows from and yet passes beyond what science tells us, and so arrives at the highest of all eternal and unchanging objects.


Critique of Theistic Evolution

            There have been various efforts to reconcile the evolutionary theory with the Catholic faith. Given the intellectual temperament of our time, these efforts almost always make unacceptable concessions. Consider theistic evolution. This is a form of deism, and so necessarily conflicts with a proper conception of God. Under theistic evolution, God winds the universe up like a top, sets it down, and lets it go---only to wander off to look at something more interesting elsewhere. The image is one of a gigantic child who treats creation as a plaything. Supposedly, this enables us to retain the most essential elements of the evolutionary theory, though the atheists certainly object even to this modest insertion of theology. But a God who is known by reason to be the Divine Providence cannot be reconciled with a God who has lost interest in the world.

We end up with a bifurcation of reality into an objective world of scientific fact and a subjective world of religious opinion. The goal of the evolutionary theist is to make room for the possibility of a God, who can then become an object of subjective belief. But the division of the world into a realm of objectivity, which is the exclusive domain of the scientist, and a realm of subjectivity, which is the area of faith, conflicts with the Catholic philosophical tradition. The god known to the evolutionary theist is not the God of Faith and Reason, but a god who has surrendered his authority to the impersonal forces of evolution.  Some say that God could exert more control, if He wanted to, but has decided against. Others say that He is simply unaware of the world in which we live.  He suffers from a supreme case of Attention Deficit Disorder.

Any description of God as lacking in ability, interest, power, or knowledge is in principle defective. Equally problematic is the willingness of theistic evolution to say that only scientists are qualified to make objective judgments about the world.  As already noted, our faith holds that certain philosophical and theological truths are evident to reason, and these follow from observations on nature. Nature, for example, gives evidence of design. This judgment does not follow from any personal opinion or private act of faith, but from observation on the purposeful movements of plants, animals, and human beings. The defenders of theistic evolution do not agree. They hold that there is no objective evidence of design; only room for subjective belief. But our faith is not based in subjective belief---that is traditional Protestantism---but on certain preambles that are known to reason.

The effort to avoid the conflict between atheistic evolution and religious conviction through such schemes is fruitless. There is a conflict between Catholic philosophy and atheistic evolution, and it does no good to deny it. Both claim that their conclusions are grounded in an objective evaluation of the evidence given in nature. Here I agree (for once) with Richard Dawkins. Science and religion are not separate magisteria, as Stephen J. Gould has suggested, but are in a struggle over the same data of experience and how to interpret it. Both claim nature as the source of truth. Today, evolutionary theory is the principal ground of this conflict, because there is a disagreement about whether there is any design in nature.

Gould suggests that there is no need for conflict between religion and science so long as the believer admits that religious convictions have no objective basis in fact, but are instead an expression of interior hope and feeling. If our truth claims exist in different worlds, then the conflict is resolved. But Dawkins sees what is obvious: science and religion have regularly clashed over the course of history, and will continue to do so, whenever their claims about nature conflict. Science and religion find themselves in conflict today over whether nature gives evidence of design. The correct answer to that question should be obvious to any objective mind.


Additional Resources


Saint Thomas Aquinas' 5 Proofs for God's Existence

Excerpt from Summa Theologica, Q.2

More on Aquinas from EWTN    

Intelligent Design Evolution Awareness Center

"Reasons to Believe" by Dr. Scott Hahn

Stephen C. Meyer on Intelligent Design

Design Inference Website:  William A. Dembski

YOUTUBE:  World Famous Atheist Embraces Intelligent Design

Introduction - "The Reason for God" by Tim Keller

"Survival of the Fakest" by Jonathan Wells

"The Language of God" by Francis S. Collins  

"Creation and Evolution:  To the Debate As It Stands" by Christoph Cardinal Schonborn