Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Reason and Religion

Okay, I know I use the word "interesting" a lot, but I really can't help that the word so often applies. It's reasonable to use it, where it fits, and I must be reasonable, whenever possible. Speaking of reasonable and interesting, there is an interesting examination of reason and religion, at The Weekly Standard. Lee Harris looks at Joseph Ratzinger's (the Pope's) speech from September 12th, which addressed the question of critical self-examination in the West regarding faith and reason. Harris digs deeply into the question of whether reason has any business consorting with God. Because it at one point questioned the reasonableness of Islam's tendency toward conversion by the sword, the Pope's speech has created a firestorm of debate, and anger in the Muslim world, which much of the West, supposed adherents of modern reason, have supported. Harris examines this support, and concludes at length that reason does not justify it. This is a wide ranging discussion, from Greek philosophy to modern reason, from atheism to Christianity to Islam, from Ratzinger to Socrates.

Harris' basic argument, drawn from Ratzinger's speech, as well as noted philosophical thinkers, boils down to the notion that atheistic, modern, scientific reason must make an ethical and religious judgement, between a religion that would demand belief through violence, and a religion that would decry that coerced belief is no belief at all. Harris points out that the very foundation that allowed modern reason to develop came from a unique convergence of influences: Biblical faith, Greek philosophical inquiry, and Roman heritage:

Modern reason is a cultural phenomenon like any other: It did not drop down one fine day out of the clouds. It involved no special creation. Rather, it evolved uniquely out of the fusion of cultural traditions known as Christendom.
Harris goes on from this point to clarify this debt of reason to Christendom, and I think what he has to say here is worth quoting at length:

A critique of modern reason from within must recognize its cultural and historical roots in this Christian heritage. In particular, it must recognize its debt to the distinctive concept of God that was the product of the convergence of the Hebrew, Greek, and Roman traditions. To recognize this debt, of course, does not require any of us to believe that this God actually exists.

For example, the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was an atheist; yet in his own critique of modern reason, he makes a remarkably shrewd point, which Ratzinger might well have made himself. Modern scientific reason says that the universe is governed by rules through and through; indeed, it is the aim of modern reason to disclose and reveal these laws through scientific inquiry. Yet, as Schopenhauer asks, where did this notion of a law-governed universe come from? No scientist can possibly argue that science has proven the universe to be rule-governed throughout all of space and all of time. As Kant argued in his Critique of Judgment, scientists must begin by assuming that nature is rational through and through: It is a necessary hypothesis for doing science at all. But where did this hypothesis, so vital to science, come from?

The answer, according to Schopenhauer, was that modern scientific reason derived its model of the universe from the Christian concept of God as a rational Creator who has intelligently designed every last detail of the universe ex nihilo. It was this Christian idea of God that permitted Europeans to believe that the universe was a rational cosmos. Because Europeans had been brought up to imagine the universe as the creation of a rational intelligence, they naturally came to expect to find evidence of this intelligence wherever they looked--and, strangely enough, they did.

Harris' article continues with an examination of whether reason should not judge between a God of free will and a God of slavery, and gets further into the points that Ratzinger made in his address, regarding critical self-examination in the West. The piece is far too long and complex of topic for me to do justice to it in a brief blog post, but I encourage you to read it for yourself. You may agree in part, and disagree in part, as is often the case with people of reasonable mind, but Harris' main point is that reason should have a place in religious discussion, and, because science cannot answer every question put to it, religion, ultimately cannot help but enter the discussion in matters of modern reason. The point seems reasonable to me.