Faith and Reason

A few years ago I asked my sister about her views on Christianity. She replied: “I don’t believe in God; I believe in science!”

Her sentiment is not uncommon amongst western millennials. I currently live in the city of Cambridge, where skepticism and atheism are revered and religious belief of any kind is often sneered at. Over time, I have come to enjoy the confused looks of people when I tell them that I study theology.

“Don’t you mean geology – like rocks and stuff?” 

“Hang on, does that mean you’re religious?” 

“Do people still study that? I thought we disproved God in the Enlightenment period?” 

“Does that mean you’re a virgin!?!?!?!?”

I have legit been asked all of those questions countless times. It has become quite amusing.

Now, to be fair to the skeptic, Christians have not done particularly well in publicly showing that: a) we’re not stupid, b) we’re not boring, and c) the relationship between faith and reason is not necessarily one of contradiction. Now, I cannot address the issues in b) because I am a massive nerd. However I will try my best to tackle a) and c).

First, let’s dispel the myth that to be Christian is to be stupid. This view primarily stems from a crude understanding of what actually happened in the Enlightenment period. The general narrative tells us that an oppressive ecclesial institution once ruled the world, and then a bunch of rebel scientists came along (cue Star Wars theme music), put up a struggle, and then saved the day by overthrowing and effectively “disproving” the claims made by this embarrassingly archaic system. This did not actually happen.

James Hannam, who has a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge, published a book in 2011 called The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. In it, he outlines how the theology of the Church, far from being a hindrance, led directly to the development of modern science. Moreover, people are quick to forget that many of the scientists who contributed to the scientific revolution were in fact Christians. Issac Newton is one example. Even today, Christian scientists continue to excel: 65% of Nobel Prize winners have been Christian, and you can find the full list of them here. The notion that “science” and “religion” are equal opposing forces that contend with one another is very new, and according to history, factually incorrect.

Second, let’s address the claim that faith and reason contradict one another. They are different, yes. But too often we assume the wrong kind of difference, and extrapolate this to a false dichotomy. One of my supervisors often says:

“Faith and reason are not like chalk and cheese, but rather like gin and tonic.”

Let me explain.

When we speak of things that are different from one another, we need to understand that there are many varieties of difference. One type of difference is called “contradiction.” It applies to things that are mutually exclusive: if it is not one thing, it must me another. In logic terms we call this P and -P. In common parlance, we can call it “chalk and cheese.” Another type of difference is called “contraries with intermediaries.” (please don’t be put off by the name) In a nutshell, think of this kind of difference as a sliding scale. It is not “black and white”, but rather, “black with varying degrees of grey.” With this second kind of difference, we can see how things can be different from one another, but can still participate in each other. Grey is different to black, but still participates in black to a certain extent.

Stay with me.

We can acknowledge that faith and reason are different. Christians are taught that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Reason, by contrast is the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgements logically. Unlike faith, it sometimes depends on things that are seen or observed in empirical evidence, and sometimes makes use of logical deduction. I appreciate that the definition of “reason” is a little more complicated than this but you get my point.

Now, some thinkers assert that Faith and Reason are so different from one another, they cannot possibly interpenetrate. John Locke is one example. In Book IV of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he provides a zero sum relation between faith and reason, with reason having the upper hand. He concludes that faith is a kind of superstition, and is only ever used when reason fails us. Importantly for Locke, it cannot intermingle with reason. For him, they are like chalk and cheese.

A rather different view is put forward by a thirteenth-century theologian called Thomas Aquinas. Thomas was an immensely influential thinker, who wrote on Biblical exegesis, theology, and philosophy. He was also a jurist in the tradition of scholasticism. In a nutshell, when it comes to the history of Christian theology, he is a very big deal. Almost every paper I have taken in my theology degree has required that I read something of him. For Thomas, the end goal of humanity is salus (a latin word meaning wellness, happiness, wholeness and salvation). Salus is beyond human comprehension and can only be found in God (see Summa Theologiae Ia. I,1). Thomas also tells us that human reason is a good thing, however, it is limited and can only take us so far. Hence, 2 Timothy tells us “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Human reason is good, but it can make mistakes. To comprehend things beyond reason (like God), we need divine assistance.

Thomas tells us that philosophers and scientists (albeit, science was defined slightly differently back then) can observe certain truths through their natural observations. Aristotle, for example, had attempted to prove that there is a God. Thomas concurs that Aristotle was right in that there is a God, but he was wrong in the kind of God that his “proof” came up with. Crucially, for Thomas, arguments of human reason can in no way prove the things of faith, because that would demerit the value of faith. However reason can be used to show that faith is not irrational:

“All the same holy teaching also uses human reasoning, not indeed to prove faith, for that would take away from the merit of believing, but to make manifest some implications of its message. Since grace does not scrap nature but brings it to perfection, so also natural reason should assist faith as the natural loving bent of the will leads to charity.” – Summa Theologiae Ia. I,8.

So for Thomas, faith and reason are different, but we are talking about a different kind of difference than the one asserted by John Locke. Christianity need not shy away from the skeptics, but rather take them head on. Faith is not a cop out from reason, but rather a divine gift that can help us comprehend the things beyond our grasp. Likewise, reason does not have to be an accuser of the things of faith. It can in fact be used within the framework of Chrisitan belief to explore the things of God.

Becoming a Christian does not require you to throw your brain away. We should rather use our cognitive faculties to assist us in our journeys of faith. Lets be people who read. Who debate. Who keep up with the latest issues in the world.

In short, faith is important and valuable. So is reason. But they need not contradict one another; instead they can be used to enhance one another.

Like gin and tonic.




Published by sarahcoppin

I write about theology, philosophy and everyday life. You can check out my blog at

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