QUESTION: Is religion in conflict with reason?

SHORT ANSWER: This shibboleth has bogged our culture down unnecessarily.

ANSWER: As always, it depends what one means - in this case, what one understands by ‘religion’ and by ‘reason’. If you approach the question from the philosophical side you can ask: Is your faith reasonable or do you only have faith in reason? And if you have faith in reason, is doing so reasonable? What reason can you have for thinking that reason provides knowledge? After all, reason is the deduction of one truth from another, so for every truth that reason produces there has to be at least one previous truth that is taken on faith. There is no reason without axioms and generally several such. If you take anything that you think is reasonable and keep asking why? or what does that mean? you are liable to come to a point where you have to say, It just is! but is that reasonable? We are probably familiar with the child who goes on asking "Why?" until the parent in great exasperation exclaims "Because I say so!" Doubting is a chain with no end. Descartes though that the end was ‘cogito ergo sum, but many philosophers have since demolished this idea.

Generally speaking, people with a shallow idea of reason mean that it is only reasonable to believe things for which one has positive evidence, but we know that much positive evidence in the world is misleading. Or, it may be said that one should not believe in things that have their basis in imagination. A problem with the last idea is that it would mean stopping believing in money, nationality, government, law and most of the things that shape our lives. All of these are ‘metaphysical’ in the sense that they have no grounding in the physical world that a crow would recognise. We might imagine that some crows are French and some are English, but they do not imagine that.

If we approach the question from the religious side, we might ask: well what experience do you have? Do you find that when you pray, meditate, make offerings, sing hymns, join in ceremonies etc that your life improves? Does taking religious rather than ‘worldly’ principles as axioms give stability to your conception of the world or to your ability to make important decisions? Does it give you courage to face life? If the answer to these questions is yes, then, for you, it might be reasonable to be religious. There is plenty of evidence that people who do say yes to these questions, statistically speaking, have saner, happier lives, but it is not a hundred percent so. For some people, religion is the foundation for some sort of madness or destructive frenzy.

This brings us to the fact that not all religion is the same. In the terms just mentioned, some styles of religion are more reasonable than others - we might say, are more wholesome.

People often turn to religion when social life is breaking down. They derive stability and meaning from different sources - in Buddhist language we would say that the ordinary person ordinarily tends to take refuge in worldly things until those things let them down. Then they look for a meaning that transcends the triviality of worldly life. However, there are other people - generally a minority - who see worldly life as trivial even when it is going well. Those people turn to religion while their friends are still making money and chasing social security. Of course, many people have one foot in each camp, thinking that it is not unreasonable to hedge one’s bets!

The expression ‘turning’ to religion perhaps reveals something important. Real religion is an alternative. It does require a turn. Some of us may be born already ‘turned’, but I think the idea still has a value. Turning toward Amida, the Tao, God, Allah, etc. involves a renunciation of some kind and people make such a renunciation when they doubt many of the things that other people take for granted - all the substance of conventional life.

Here we are talking about ‘real’ religion. There is another kind of religion that is merely social convention, where religious form has been absorbed into worldly life - the bishops go out and bless the troops, crown the monarch and generally provide sanction for conventional society and conformity to its laws. When this is all that religion does it has become hollow and I think it is reasonable to regard such hollow religious form as not being the real thing. There is a legitimate role for religion in bringing a wholesome influence into conventional social rituals, but true religion retains its true spirit only by continually casting doubt upon the value of a merely conventional life.

It is the existence and practice of such hollow religion that has turned many people away. When the only religion that you see is of that type then it is not unreasonable to think that it is not really religion at all. In a sense, to turn away from hollow religion is actually to follow a truly religious instinct and to do so is reasonable.  

In debates on this subject over the time since he lived and wrote, one often hears the name of Charles Darwin. Darwin himself was not an irreligious man, but he was a free thinker. He felt it to be his Christian duty to show that all humans were a single species and that racial prejudice (and slavery based upon it) was irrational. Nonetheless, his theory of evolution is commonly used as a kind of alternative to religious explanation. It is said that we do not need religious explanations since we have evolutionary ones. To this I would say, firstly, that ‘explanation’ is not the central role of religion and secondly, that if evolution is to be taken as a justificatory system then evolution justifies religion because religions have evolved in virtually all human societies. It would seem reasonable to think that religion must have an evolutionary value or it would not be so common and widespread. The real problem, however, is that while the theory of evolution is wonderful and extremely revealing, it does not, in itself and alone, provide us with guidance for a wholesome life. Many of the iniquities of history make perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view since they eliminated the so-called ‘less fit’.

The subject of the place of reason and doubt inside and outside of religion is endlessly fascinating - though whether ‘fascination’ is reasonable or not could occupy us for a few more hours.

Views: 56

Replies to This Discussion

Dear Dharmavidya, A complex question answered very well.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts here.  I feel grateful to be able to read it.  I understand what you are saying and it is also my experience but I don't think I would have been able to articulate it as well.  Thank you.  I want to like it but the button above is not allowing me so I will say it here.  Thinking of you and sending you lots of love.  NAB.

Thanks, Juline. I hope you like button comes back into action :-) Shallom, Salaam and Namo Buddhaya.



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