Richard Dawkins, like the religious fundamentalist who believes that he knows and carries out the will of God, fails to recognize human limitations. With his all-encompassing faith in reason and the declarative, he believes that human beings may “discover that there are no limits” to understanding. As a consequence, he derides religion as being entirely “irrational”.
He argues, “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument”; people who have faith are not “taught to question and think through their beliefs”. Yet, according to the classic definition of Christian faith, theology is fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding” (Anselm). It is faith venturing to inquire, daring to ask questions, to fight the inclination to accept things as they are, challenging unexamined assumptions about God, ourselves and our world. Although there is a place for mystery in the recognition of the limitations of being human, there is also a place for reason.
According to Daniel Migliore, faith must be distinguished from fideism, which says we reach a point where we must stop our inquiry and simply believe; faith keeps on seeking and asking in dialogue with experience and scripture, a hermeneutical circle. Truth is only ever partially possessed as faith sees only dimly, not face to face (1 Cor. 13:12) (Migliore 2-3). And reason plays a key role in this struggle. Writes Augustine of Hippo:
I ascended to the power of reasoning to which is to be attributed the power of judging the deliverance of the bodily senses. This power, which in myself I found to be mutable, raised itself to the level of its own intelligence, and led my thinking out of the ruts of habit. It withdrew itself from the contradictory swarms of imaginative fantasies, so as to discover the light by which it is flooded. (Confessions VII.xvii.23)
Saint Augustine is understood to have “attained to that which is” only through the use of his faculty of reason (Confessions VII.xvii.23).
Writer Richard Harries states that the idea of faith and reason being inherently opposed to one another is “mind-boggling in its lack of historical perspective”. He notes that all philosophers, ancient and modern, have believed that reasons can be adduced for and against a religious view of life: “Most of them have, in fact, believed in God but all have thought religious belief a matter of rational argument.” Religious belief is not a matter of two plus two equals four, but of considered judgement. It involves our aesthetic sense, our moral judgement, our imagination and our intuition. These judgements can be the basis of reasoned discussion, but they also involve the whole person.
Thus, religious believers do not necessarily view their sacred text as a source of truth that is absolute, plain and unchanging (even as others, less inclined to rationality, considere these believers the height of hypocrisy). They interpret their canon with an eye to competing sources of truth, including modern science and philosophy. Likewise, they consider the changing condition of society for its impact on their religious understandings.
Accordingly, many religious believers form and revise their beliefs, constantly striving to maintain an overall belief structure that is logical and coherent. Hardly impervious to persuasion, they are broadly open to rational dialogue, both within and outside their religious community.
Whether they were considering a strident unbeliever like Dawkins or a dedicated but intellectually inspired believer like CS Lewis, Winston Churchill and George Orwell summed up so-called intellectuals so succinctly, how they are a weakening force because firstly everyone assumes what they say is right because they’ve got a reputation as intellectuals, even when they’re wrong, and that believing these intellectuals can have such dire consequences. He said it about Britain but it could so easily be any Western country today. Here’s what Winston Churchill said about them 78 years ago:
“Historians have noticed, all down the centuries, one peculiarity of the English people, which has cost them dear. We have always thrown away after a victory the greater part of the advantages we had gained in the struggle. The worst difficulties from which we suffer do not come from without. They come from within. They do not come from the cottages of the wage earners; they come from a peculiar type of brainy people, always found in our country, who, if they add something to its culture, take much from its strength. Our difficulties come from the mood of unwarrantable self-abasement, into which we have been cast, by a powerful section of our own intellectuals. They come from the acceptance of defeatist doctrines by a large proportion of our politicians. But what have they to offer, but a vague internationalism, a squalid materialism, and the promise of impossible utopias? Nothing can save England if she will not save herself. If we lose faith in ourselves, in our capacity to guide and govern, if we lose our will to live, then indeed our story is told.” —Winston Churchill, 1933