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Reason And Faith: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

Since his debut back in May 25, Amanuel Sahle has enriched with several eloquent and highly readable articles.  In its introductory piece, said about him that “he spends most of his time reading on and writing about social and philosophical issues”.  What failed to mention is that he also doubles as a staunch critic of religion. In almost every article he wrote, Amanuel consciously and deliberately challenges us to rethink or reevaluate our views on religion and he does so not offensively or aggressively (I am happy to note) but with a finesse and style that seems to sprout from a mind that has contemplated such issues deeply and for some time.  I have also pondered over the issue over the years though mine, unlike his, led me to faith and appreciation of religion.

My goal in this article will be to invite Amanuel to look at the other side of the issue a little less rigidly, a little more humbly, and a little more openly.  Humility is of the utmost importance because despite grandiose notions we have of ourselves and despite our best efforts, we (humans) have consistently failed to decode the universe on our own.  To date, no scientist or philosopher has been able to prove conclusively that atheism is true or preferable.  Even Bertrand Russell, the most vehement critic of religion (particularly of Christianity) had to concede that there is no “conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God”. Nor can theologians prove God’s existence to the satisfaction of atheists.    In other words, scientifically we can neither prove nor disprove conclusively the existence of God. A true position of a scientist should therefore be a Spock-like assertion: “insufficient data”.

Not only do we lack the wherewithal to decode ultimate reality scientifically but what we don’t know is also infinitely greater than what we do know.Nothing is rich but the inexhaustible wealth of nature” Emerson once said about the natural world she shows us only surfaces, but she is a million fathoms deep”. Compared to the dazzling expanse of the cosmos or universe, we are but a mere speck with an over-sized ego. How beautifully Shakespeare depicts this human vanity when he penned!

“Man, proud man,
 Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he ’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep”

Yes, we are full of “fantastic tricks” that help us build cities, armies, flying machines and talking machines but like a kid with a new toy, we are also wont to flaunt our knowledge not realizing that we remain “most ignorant” even of what we are “most assured”! Man can walk on the moon yes but despite his intimate knowledge of the inner working of the human body, a trifling ailment like the common cold eludes and teases him endlessly as if to make a mockery of all his achievements not to speak of grand failures in curing the big killers like cancer, diabetes and a host of other incurable diseases man is heir to.  It seems that for every advance in science that massages our ego, something like an AIDS virus comes along to deflate it of all air.    

That is why sober scientists almost unanimously acknowledge that we have barely scratched the surface in deciphering the universe. Carl Sagan, the famous Astrophysicist and cosmologist, for example wrote about the limitations of our sense organs and about how the universe is intractable, astonishingly immune to any human attempt at full knowledge.”  “We cannot on this level” he adds significantly “understand a grain of salt, much less the universe.” Lord Rees, the English cosmologist and astrophysicist agrees saying that some aspects of reality — a unified theory of physics or a full understanding of consciousness — might elude us simply because they’re beyond human brains, just as surely as Einstein’s ideas would baffle a chimpanzee”.

We must therefore begin our inquiry by first acknowledging our own ignorance and limitations.   I hope Amanuel will concede to at least that much because without such a concession, a discussion would be impossible and futile. Assuming then that a more humble and less presumptuous Amanuel has just come aboard, what can we say about his critique of religion?   If Amanuel had been content with merely stating his beliefs or if his contention had been that full knowledge of God and reality is beyond reason, I would find little to quarrel with him. Understanding the concept of God or religious faith in its entirety is certainly beyond reason but this is not the same thing as saying, it is against reason.  Reason alone cannot fully penetrate the mysterious realm of eternity and infinite being. That is where religion comes in.  Religion or faith alone is inadequate to sustain us in the material world.  That is where reason or science is needed.

But for Amanuel, religion is not just unscientific or unreasonable in itself but it is also incompatible with reason. “Marconi has invented the radio not by hovering above reason”, he tells us but by getting down to reason and abiding by its laws” and as if to drive the point home even more for those who may not have gotten the essence of his message, he declares bluntly but eloquently:

“In the world of metaphysics to which religion belongs, reason drops dead out of exhaustion, logic regrets its creation and intelligence groans for release and freedom. Well, while in this mortal world, I prefer to rely more on my reasoning powers than in my believing faculties.”

I too want to rely on my “reasoning powers” but can do so without abandoning my faith. In the above sweepingly categorical statements, Amanuel unjustifiably creates a false dichotomy between reason and faith by constructing an either/or logical syllogism.  He is telling us that reason cannot survive an encounter with religious faith (“drops dead”).  But to what extent – we need to ask – do his statements accord with the objective world as we know it historically and in real time?  In other words, does belief in God or religion really prevent (or has it ever prevented) people from using their “reasoning powers” and vice versa? 

No. Of course not!  Though I wouldn’t expect a radio to suddenly popup in response to my prayers, I can still pray to God for success in the endeavor while I simultaneously strive to invent that radio using reason. We are talking about religion in general here but the argument is even stronger in the case of Islam in history.  If faith really drove away reason, how can we account for Islamic civilization that sprouted out of faith? Islamic civilization not only practically demonstrated that reason and religion can coexist in this world but also that such a union can lead to excellence in science and philosophy. Belief in religion or a supernatural being neither detracts nor adds anything to our reasoning faculties.

Another way to examine the topic is to flip the coin and ask: did those who use reason lose faith in religion? The answer will again be no.  Modern monotheism that continues to thrive in the most advanced nations of earth and among highly reputed scientific personalities of our age belies such a dichotomous presupposition.  Though as we have said earlier the mysterious realm of religion cannot be fully comprehended by reason alone, many people (including some outstanding intellects in history) have come to some faith in God through reason

Francis Bacon, who is generally credited with the establishment of the Scientific method, for example believed that “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion. In a similar vein, William James, the father of modern psychology, maintained that “Faith is one of the forces by which men live and the total absence of it means collapse.” Isaac Newton was a firm believer in God. So was the German physicist Max Planck, founder of Quantum Theory. Francis Collins, current director of NIH is another believing scientist. 

Voltaire that Amanuel quoted in one of his articles as having said “even if there is no God, we have to invent Him” believed in God.  Amanuel was paraphrasing him of course but the exact quote is: If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”.  Oddly, fourteen years ago, I used the same quotation by Voltaire to argue the opposite – to prove that Voltaire saw so much value in religion that he felt that even inventing God wouldn’t be so bad but Voltaire himself believed in God as is evident from the following story.

It is related that when Voltaire was on his death bed, a catholic priest came to read him his last rites. Voltaire jokingly requested to see credentials that prove that the priest was indeed a representative of God on earth. The priest was infuriated, cursed him and left. Voltaire then dictated to his secretary one of the most memorable quotes in history as follows.

‘I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies and detesting superstition.’

In a manner analogues to Voltaire’s “if God didn’t exist…” Immanuel Kant (who is considered a watershed character in the transition between the Enlightenment period and modern secularism) postulated that even if we cannot demonstrate the value of religion on the basis of theoretical thought alone, we desperately need to do so on the basis of practical consideration. I do not necessarily agree with his purely utilitarian approach to religion but he makes an important observation that man without religion is like a dog without a leash and as we have seen in the twentieth century, man’s inhumanity to man was at its worst ever when the restraint that religion provided for centuries was suddenly taken away.

Estranged from religions that often taught humility and mutual respect, it didn’t take long for man to progress (degenerate may be a better word) from social Darwinism to Nietzsche’s superman to Hitler.   Dubbed the bloodiest ever, the twentieth century (during which atheism thrived) was not just about invention of airplanes and automobiles but also about World Wars, imperialism, colonialism, genocides, anti-Semitism, racism, and a host of other countless evils.

Humanity longs for definite answers not a dry list of theories or a bunch of maybe’s. Science’s ambiguity has led many to ask in consternation: are we all looking to emptiness beyond – a brief sojourn on earth and then dust?  Man’s very nature instinctively recoils from such bleak scenario.  Reason or science is unable to quench this primordial hunger.  Religion on the other hand provides an answer that is both satisfying and nourishing to man’s spiritual quest. Though admittedly unable to prove scientifically its own truth to the satisfaction of all, religion’s accord with human yearning gives it certain plausibility and utility that science lacks.  That is why religion has always been popular and that is also why its absence resulted in more chaos.

Reason dies (if it does) not because of a metaphysical assault from above as Amanuel contends but from its own inability to fathom the totality of being.  Reason dies because of the profound emptiness that ensues when reason is divorced from faith.  Though man has reached great heights materially when faith waned, he soon realized that the pinnacle is lonely when human life is divorced from the fervor, ecstasy and passion that are derived only from spiritual experience. 

Religions survived millenniums for this reason and still thrive today all over the world while Communist Russia, the first state that was built upon the altar of atheism would collapse within a single century!  Communism is not synonyms to atheism but it represents the first multi-pronged attack on religion that almost seemed to succeed.  Communism is not the only materialistic based philosophy that failed in modern times.  We have seen similar failures of materialistic philosophy in many other areas including in the areas of psychiatry and psychology.  Freud’s wild theories about religion as “universal neurosis” for example have been totally discredited.  Today we wonder if he himself was not under some kind of enlightened neurosis.

If atheism could at least make us happier or healthier on this earth, it would score some points.  But atheism neither provides heaven on earth nor promises it in the after-life.  Religion does. Modern research has shown that the faithful are physically healthier and happier than atheists or agnostics.  Time Magazine(1996), for example, notes: “More than 200 studies that touch directly or indirectly on the role of religion have been ferreted out by Levin of Eastern Virginia and Dr. David Larson … Most of these studies offer evidence that religion is good for one’s health.”

Modern research has also shown that the faithful are psychologically healthier. A 2009 study by University of Toronto Scarborough for example showed that religion protects against stress and anxiety.  Numerous other studies have shown that religious people are also less prone to high blood pressure, drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, mental illnesses, and teenage pregnancy.  Even in the areas of marital and sexual satisfaction, religious people fare better than atheists according to some studies. It is this preponderance of overwhelming evidence of the positive effect of religion on overall health and wellbeing that led Dr. Benson to glibly assert that human beings are (or must be) “wired for God”!  

Thus neither historically nor empirically can we say that religion is an impediment to the use of reason.  Nor can we embrace it for purely utilitarian reasons or for its value to humanity.  I therefore respectfully plead with Amanuel not to belittle religion in the name of reason or science. I suggest instead that he take a second look at the grand cosmos with a heart full of awe and wonder. What the universe unfolds is not just a bunch of “nuclear infernos” or “emptiness yonder” or a lifeless celestial body as Amanuel put it but the handiwork of a master designer who knew exactly what He was doing.  In the words of Newton: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” Shouldn’t we at least be thankful to the Almighty for lovingly and protectively placing us far, far away from those raging infernos?

About Ismail Omer-Ali

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  • Here’s an interest take by Prof. Richard Dakins on the subject:

    “I think it’s important to realize that when two opposite points of view [there is a god or there is no god]are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong.”

  • Dear Daniel, I quite like my new title: Reverend Merhawi! 🙂

    I think you make a fair comment there about proving and disproving the existence of god.
    One more question for you if I can: what kind of proofs (or proving) do you have in mind? What proof will demostrate god’s existence for you?

    Rev. Merhawi (hahaha)

  • Dear Merhawi,
    In its everyday use the word rational (adj.) means any of these: reasonable, sensible, measured, practical, right. I used the word alongside everyday words : sincere and comfortable to mean any of the underlined words.
    Demo. It is not rational to kill a fly with a gun. Meaning: Choose any of the underlined words.
    We cannot prove the existence of God; neither can we disprove His non- existence. Therefore, the existence or non-existence of God is unknowable. The conclusion is rational meaning: Pick any of the underlined words.
    Now that you are word-wise good luck with your new church and am waiting to be enlightened by you, Reverend. Tit for tat you know … .

  • Dear Daniel, I think I can make a good case against your point that all god’s are men’s ideas and creation…thus the gods come and go…perhaps another time! But for now:

    “Agnosticism in no religion. It is only a philosophical stand point regarding the truth.” I agree with this 100% but my question is is it rational? You said so and thats what interested me in the first place!

    Peace brother!

    • Hi Ismail,
      I have a confession to make. As I commented on your article I thought you wrote in a general way about, “ In every article he wrote, Amanuel , consciously and deliberately challenges us to rethink or reevaluate our views on religion.” As it happens you were answering to a particular article ‘ Is Religion Compatible With Democracy” written In August 24, 2010, an article which, somehow, I missed to read. Had I read it before I commented, I wouldn’t have reached to the conclusion that Amanuel intends to modernize God. It was a conclusion based on a hasty assumption. I regret this mishap terribly and apologize by both of you. As it seems the whole idea is only mine. As I find the theme interesting and misunderstood, I will try to expound on it soon.
      Thanks for your very stimulating article.

  • Dear Merhawi,
    Your capacity to misunderstand is tremendous.
    1. I claim all personal gods (including The God) are men’s creations. The creator of gods, man, can also reform them. Christianity is a reformation of Judaism. Islam claims to be the reformation of both. Bahia tried to unite the best of all three. Gods are only men’s ideas of gods and l like any ‘idea’ they can be developed.
    2. Agnosticism in no religion. It is only a philosophical stand point regarding the truth.
    3. To enlighten you to create a new religion and then serve you … what a perversed wit! No thank you, I am allergic to anything ‘organized’. Besides, what you can, I can ,too; and I wouldn’t even make you to my left hand.
    4. One can enlighten only himself. You need to work for it dear Pasha. For a starter try simple definitions in Wikipedia.

  • Two things I thought are interesting that Daniel writes.

    1) Making god in our own image hey….a modernized god who we can play tit for tat when we are in trouble or in need of wanting to feel happier and healthier…I am gonna start this religion. I am agnostic whether someone else has started it already, Daniel can you enlighten me? For this, I’ll let you be me my right hand man. Obey now!

    2) Agnonsticism is a rational possition? Sincere, yes! Comfortable, yes! But rational?
    How so?


  • Daniel Tesfai
    Yes Ismail you’ve stated it right the existence or non-existence of God is not provable. That is why I am an agnostic- a sincere, comfortable, rational position in the middle. This existing/non-existing supernatural being doesn’t affect my life in anyway. People pray to God for help. They even post letters and petitions. A prominent Jewish Rabbi was once asked if God really reads and answers all the letters left for him in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. (Some of the petitions might even read, “ Please God destroy the Arabs!”) The learned man said, “Yes, God reads and answers all the letters. He then added, “ Even if he doesn’t answer that is also an answer.” One cannot argue against such an answer. Can it be that this God plays dice on us? Anyway, I think It is unfair for anybody to ask for a supernatural help when we are fully and adequately equipped to run about our own earthly businesses and problems.
    God’s existence or non-existence doesn’t disturb me at all. What disturbs me is how we conceptualize and institutionalize Him in rigid, outdated, outright barbaric, sectarian religious forms and rituals that amounts to superstition. I cannot conceptualize of a God who sides with one religious group to massacre other religious groups. I cannot think of a God who allows the brutalization of women. I cannot believe in the God who is so ignorant He cannot even correctly locate the position of the moon in the Universe which is His own creation. If we want to believe in God, let us at least make Him believable. I think that is what the Master Demystifier Amanuel Sahle is trying to accomplish- to modernize God. I mean to rationalize/out rationalize the bunch of common senseless beliefs, rituals, rules, taboos etc. Otherwise, he is a Believer.
    Yes, faith and reason are exclusive to each other. But if we put them in separate files each in its own, then they won’t devour each other. Deeply examined, I don’t think all the as ‘believers’ described scientists believed in a personalized God. At least not as personalized in the so-called Holly Scriptures (Torah, Bible, Quran). Their mood can be better described in what Einstein once said, “ I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand In awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” He goes on to say,” I am a deeply religious nonbeliever.” As philosopher Daniel Dennett put it, they ‘ believed in belief’. And why not? It is safer, healthier and comfortable because, then, they belong to a clan.

    • Selamat Daniel. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. First, the prayer issue: Why God may not always grant our wishes. This can be likened to a relationship between a parent and a child. As a parent may not grant a child’s every wish for his/her own good, so God in His infinite wisdom may not always accept our prayers (also for our own good or for a larger purpose.) Parents often find themselves unable to explain to the child why his/her wish was not granted in terms that the child can understand. And just like the child, we will sometimes find it difficult to understand why God did not accept our prayers but as in the child’s case, that does not mean that there were no good reasons. The Rabbi’s answer was thus a shrewd one in that sense.

      About proving or disproving God’s existence….
      When I said one cannot prove God’s existence scientifically and conclusively, I did not mean that there are no other ways to ferret the truth as many indeed have. It simply means one cannot prove the existence of a non-material being (God) materially or mechanistically as science requires.

      About modernizing God…
      If, as you said, Amanuel is trying to “modernize God”, I say good luck to him but I consider such a task an impossible undertaking. You misunderstand the concept of an eternal God if you think He can be “modernized”. For those who believe in Him, God cannot be modernized simply because He is believed to be beyond space, time, and history. And for those who deny Him, He also cannot be “modernized” because for them He doesn’t even exist! If the teachings are artificially tweaked, few would believe in such an adulterated version of their religion.

      About Einstein …
      You are right about Einstein (he was ambiguous about his beliefs) and that is exactly why I didn’t mention his name in my article but you are wrong about the others. In fact, when scientists were asked in a 1916 study if they believed in a God that communicates with human beings (a personal God), 40% of them said they do. An identical result (40%) was obtained when the poll was repeated in 1997.

      About compartmentalizing reason and faith…
      As for putting reason and faith in separate files, Stephen Gould advocated what he called “non-overlapping magisteria” which is essentially what you are proposing only to receive criticism from both sides because of its impracticability short of trivializing the beliefs of each side.

      You said:
      “I cannot conceptualize of a God who sides with one religious group to massacre other religious groups. I cannot think of a God who allows the brutalization of women. I cannot believe in the God who is so ignorant He cannot even correctly locate the position of the moon in the Universe which is His own creation”

      my answer: neither can I! Plese do not believe in that god!

      I have to leave it there for now but thank you for raising some very good points. Thanks also to all 4 who commented on the topic.


  • Thanks a million to all the fine/excellent writers in this marvelous website, that is unequivocally and factually living up to its well claimed slogan – Inform, Inspire, Embolden and Reconcile. I can also call it to be the Eritrean University that is and will be graduating well meaning Eritreans equipped to reclaim its lost/stolen dreams of becoming the Singapore/Korea/Japan of Africa.