Reason vs Faith?

Barney Zwartz on the four great secular faiths of the last 150 years.

Faith, as a system of explanation and providing meaning, purpose and values, comes in many forms which are by no means necessarily religious.

As Christianity’s certainties came under attack in the 19th century, four great secular faiths arose, each of which still exists but each of which is at least as tarnished as the great religions are – which only demonstrates that their failures are the usual human ones.

Those faiths were science, culture, nationalism and socialism, each presumed by its adherents to render (supernatural) religion redundant.

In my experience, few people are so unreasonable as those who say they are guided entirely and only by reason.

Of course the separation was not always quite so neat: Hitler preached national socialism, held that science proved Aryans to be the master race, and believed that German culture was uniquely important. Americans blend Christianity and nationalism so much that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other starts.

Science – or perhaps I should say “scientism”, the belief that only science provides ultimate answers – cannot recapture its 19th century innocence after such facts as eugenics, biological weapons, Josef Mengele and deliberately distorted research projects to advance commercial interests.

For a century or so, many educated people preferred Culture (yes, with capital C) to religion, teaching that great art could unite people and the numinous, and venerating Beethoven and Goethe as the greatest apostles. Postmodernism has knocked the stuffing out of that. It’s easy to forget that nationalism is a relatively recent invention (with the nation-state), but its negative side has been amply demonstrated in the past 150 years.

Soviet and fascist socialism persecuted religion and set up alternative rituals, explicitly aiming to replace Christianity, which they saw as their great internal rival.

These days the anti-religion argument tends to hinge on reason. Atheists whom I have read or engaged, tend to claim ownership, taking it on faith that reason is better developed in them than believers such as myself, rendering them clear-eyed and neutral against my blindness and bias.

In my experience, few people are so unreasonable as those who say they are guided entirely and only by reason. They have usually done little or no philosophy, and do not understand how value-laden and structured reason is, or how much evidence requires interpretation.

The great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume taught that reason is always the slave of the passions, largely supported by modern psychology. When it comes to values and morals, we often use reason to rationalise and justify positions we have reached through our emotions. We all operate by faith to a large extent, inevitably and properly, yet here as much as in reasoning we are flawed by our human failings. Such is life.

This article first appeared in The Age.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.