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Science, Because Faith: Why Religious Belief Is Rational

science because faith

The following is an excerpt from Rodney Stark's newest book, The Triumph of Faith.


Whether or not it is so, the universe testifies to intelligent design. Even the militant atheist Richard Dawkins agrees that “living systems give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Of course, Dawkins goes on to argue that this is a false appearance—that the whole universe is an accident without purpose or meaning. But the point stands that life, indeed the entire physical universe, seems so complex and yet so orderly that to regard it as a pointless accident seems absurd. Again, the truth of intelligent design is irrelevant to my purpose here. That design seems self-evident to most people is sufficient.

To assume intelligent design is, of course, to assume a creator, and this, in turn, supposes that there is a supernatural consciousness. Thus have humans repeatedly “discovered” the existence of a god or gods. And if people accept the existence of a supernatural consciousness, it is inevitable that they will seek its blessings, for the supernatural is a plausible source of many things humans greatly desire, some of which are otherwise unobtainable. Many of these desires are for tangible things such as good crops, protection against the elements or enemies, health, and fertility, and potentially tangible things such as life after death. People also desire intangibles, such as happiness or that there be meaning and purpose to life. In pursuit of all such rewards, people will attempt to enlist the aid of the supernatural, which raises the question: what does the supernatural desire? Sometimes this question is answered through reason (theology), sometimes through trial and error; and sometimes people experience what they perceive to be communications from the supernatural (revelations). This is how religion arises and endures.

[…]

Religion and Rationality

There are two rather different claims involved in the charge that it is irrational to be religious. One is that religious beliefs are, in and of themselves, irrational because they are demonstrably untrue. The second is that people do not reason about their religious choices but simply take them for granted based on the culture into which they are born. Both claims are easily exposed as false.

Although endlessly proclaimed by professional atheists, the charge that religion is intrinsically irrational is based on the ignorant claim that scientific “laws” about the material world govern the immaterial realm postulated by religion. Carl Sagan frequently and smugly asserted that miracles can’t happen because they violate laws of nature. For example, the Red Sea could not have parted to allow Moses and the Israelites to escape from Egypt because no physical principles involving tides or currents could have made it possible—as if that would come as shattering news to the religious believer. What Sagan could not grasp was that nothing qualifies as a miracle unless it violates laws of nature. The Old Testament does not claim that Moses chose the very moment of a rare tidal phenomenon to lead his people out of Egypt; it says that God worked a miracle and parted the sea just long enough for the Israelites to pass. It may be that this miracle didn’t happen, but to say it could not have done so because it violates the laws of nature misses the point entirely.

More generally, the claim that science disproves religion is nonsensical. Science is limited to study of the natural, empirical world. It can say nothing about the existence or nature of a nonempirical realm. Of course, one is free to argue that there is no nonempirical world, but one may not cite “scientific proof” of that claim.

Secularists insist on portraying science and religion as being in opposition. But the truth is that modern science arose because of religion. Science began and flourished only in the West. Why? Because only Christians and Jews conceived of God as a rational creator and concluded that therefore the universe must run according to rational principles that could be discovered. Elsewhere in the world it was assumed that the universe was an incomprehensible mystery, an object suitable for meditation only. The uniquely Judeo-Christian notion of a universe functioning according to rational principles inspired a group of learned figures—mostly very religious people—on to groundbreaking scientific discoveries. A study of the fifty-two most important scientists of the era known as the “Scientific Revolution” (1543–1680) demonstrated that thirty-one were extremely devout (many were clergy members, in fact), twenty were conventionally religious, and only one (Edmond Halley) was irreligious.

As to whether or not people are rational about accepting and practicing their religion, consider that 44 percent of Americans have adopted a religious affiliation different from that of their parents. Although a few American sons and daughters of religious parents choose to drop out of religion entirely, the majority of those raised in irreligious homes choose to become religious. Moreover, even those who don’t leave the religion in which they were raised choose whether to be active or inactive in pursuing their faith, and this is true around the world. Choose is the critical verb; it assumes rationality.

But to assume rationality is not to assume that human beings follow the path of pure reason in all ways at all times. No competent social scientists who begin their analysis of human behavior with the assumption of rationality believe our brains are little computers that always choose to gain the most at the least cost. Instead, everyone knows that humans are subject to many factors and forces that affect their decisions. It is more accurate to say: Within the limits of their information and understanding, restricted by available options, guided by their preferences and tastes, humans attempt to make rational choices.

The first part of this proposition—within the limits of their information—recognizes that we cannot select choices if we do not know about them, and that we cannot select the most beneficial choice if we have incorrect knowledge about the relative benefits of choices. The second part—within the limits of their . . . understanding—acknowledges that people must make choices based on a set of principles, beliefs, or theories they hold about how things work. Such baseline assumptions may be false, as the history of science demonstrates, but the rational person applies his or her principles because these are, for that moment, the most plausible assumptions. Finally, of course, people may select only from among available options, and the full range of choices actually available may not be evident to them.

If humans attempt to make rational choices, why is it that they do not always act alike? Why don’t people reared in the same culture all seek the same rewards? Because their choices are guided by their preferences and tastes. This helps us understand not only why people do not all act alike but also why it is possible for them to engage in exchanges: to swap one reward for another—as a child I often traded my dessert to my sister in return for her second pork chop.

Get the rest in Rodney Stark's new book, The Triumph of Faith! Get the rest in Rodney Stark's new book, The Triumph of Faith!

Of course, not all preferences and tastes are variable—clearly there are things that virtually everyone values regardless of their culture or upbringing: food, shelter, security, and affection among them. Obviously, too, culture in general, and socialization in particular, will have a substantial impact on preferences and tastes. It is neither random nor purely a matter of personal taste whether someone prays to Allah or Shiva, or, indeed, whether one prays at all. Still, the fact remains that within any culture, there is substantial variation in preferences and tastes. Some of this variation is at least partly the result of socialization differences—for example, we probably learn our preferences concerning highly liturgical services as children. But a great deal of variation is so idiosyncratic that people have no idea how they came to like or dislike certain things. As the old adage says, “There’s no accounting for tastes.”


Rodney Stark is the author of How the West Won, The Victory of Reason, The Rise of Christianity, God’s Battalions, and many other books. He serves as Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, where he is codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion.

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