“Wait, you’re religious? But you’re so smart!”
I sighed and sipped my soda while the dance floor boomed behind me. The evening had been going well. This guy had been nothing but charming, clever, and funny… until now.
Sadly enough, this wasn’t the first time a prospective date had said that to me. In fact, this backhanded attempt at a compliment had been thrown at me repeatedly over the years, becoming more frequent as I went to college and started living on my own. Every time I heard it, it got increasingly more difficult to swallow.
Every time someone says it, I can feel their esteem for me start to slip. I know that my intelligence is being called into question over one crucial point: my faith.
Educated And Devout: The Impossible Combo
It’s surprising how people’s opinion of me shifts as soon as they learn I’m religious. One moment I am the poster child of the Career Center who always makes Dean’s List and gets the highest score on the midterm. The next, I’m the walking paradox that, for some reason, needs solving. My classmates often jump at the chance to puzzle it out:
“It’s a phase, right? You know, I was Mormon once. You grow out of it.”
“Is it more of a spiritual thing? A need for morality? I mean, you’re not part of a cult, right?”
“It’s so sad that your study of philosophy has taken you so deep into nihilism that religion is the only way you can find hope again.”
Listening to them try to make sense of how I live my life drives me crazy. I started looking for answers as to why people believe I can’t be both intelligent and faith-driven at the same time.
Spoiler Alert: It Begins With Descartes
In order to understand why the world around me sees my existence as illogical, I turn to philosophy. Writers and thinkers from centuries or even millennia ago set into motion the undercurrents of popular thought that we often refer to as “common sense”. Ideas or beliefs that feel like practical knowledge often aren’t. Instead, they are opinions that skyrocketed in popularity and became intellectual canon.
One of these ideas is absurdly famous: Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am.
It’s the philosophical soundbite of the millennia from a philosopher for whom I have incredible hostility: Descartes. Partly because he was (in my opinion) an intellectual coward who didn’t push his ideas as far as they could have gone, but primarily because he invented the Cartesian Coordinate Plane, and I still haven’t negotiated an armistice with algebra.
With “I think therefore I am,” Descartes created a basis for a whole new way of discovering the truth that later was developed into the modern-day scientific method. My interest in his ideas, however, has little to do with what he built, and everything to do with why he felt the need to build in the first place.
During the time of Descartes, religious authority was the only way to define truth. People could win scientific arguments by quoting their priest, which understandably made philosophers uncomfortable. Descartes went looking for a way to find objectively observable truth that didn’t depend on the word of one individual. Even though he tried to base his entire method for finding truth on God, the Catholic Church still banned his ideas, as they did those of Galileo.
Just like that, we have our first answer. Modern intelligence, particularly its ties to the factual and scientific, was at odds with organized religion from the very beginning. It’s no wonder, then, that faith is viewed as science’s opposite. This strain of thought didn’t stop with Descartes, however.
I Kant Even.
In case anyone forgot, Immanuel Kant was kind of a big deal. For those who could use a refresher on their 21st Century Continental Philosophy, let’s quickly review the Phenomenal and the Noumenal.
For Kant, the Phenomenal is everything you can experience empirically, or through observation according to our intuitions of space and time. These things, according to Kant, rely on us for their existence, because they have to be observed. The Noumenal, however, are things in themselves and include ideas like justice, truth, morality, and God.
If the Noumenal seems like a shaky category, that’s because it is. Kant refined the Scientific method, constructing such a strong argument and empirical process for the Phenomenal that the Noumenal was doomed to die through that same process. One great example of this is Kant’s argument for God.
Nothing screams, “Please don’t burn me at the stake” quite like Kant’s argument for God.
According to Kant, God exists because the Transcendental Ego (or soul) is immortal. It’s immortal because morality exists, which implies the existence of Justice. This world isn’t perfect, so Justice cannot be reached in this life. That means there needs to be a next life we all must be resurrected too. And for that to work, there has to be a being both powerful enough to resurrect everyone and perfect enough to judge everyone. In other words, God needs to exist, so He does. By the way, we can’t know through reason – nor revelation – that God exists, so all of this is just the “necessary hypothesis” that He does.
If this argument appears to have gaping logical holes, that’s simply because it does.
Kant was also a central figure of the Enlightenment. One of the main thoughts of the movement – Rationalism – led to the belief that arguments shouldn’t have emotion. Why? Well, popular intellectuals believed that passionate speeches masked illogical or false arguments. With religion having deep roots to emotions and feelings, anything having to do with faith was quickly categorized as intellectually unsound.
In summary, Kant’s absurd argument for God during the Enlightenment added fuel to the fire and struck a killing blow to religion: anything based solely on faith became illogical and unreasonable. In other words, uneducated stupidity.
Breaking Down The Method: Hypotheses & Experiments
Personally, I think empirical science and faith have nothing to fight about. At their core, they are completely the same. They are the method we use to try and understand our experiences in the world around us.
Both of them require a leap of curiosity, a spark of “what if”? In other words, both are made up of millions of experiments and hypotheses. These include:
What happens when I pray versus when I don’t?
Will my acne go away if I cut dairy out of my diet?
What if I follow through on that feeling to call them?
What happens if I substitute rice vinegar for rice wine?
Life is a maze of crossroads, and we as humans are maneuvering it as best we can on the daily. Faith and science are how we manage to do that, hammering out workable theories as we test hypothesis after hypothesis.
Science and faith are the same, both spring-boarding off a sliver of hope, a fragment of imagination, an audacity to believe that our actions can change the world.
What’s The Problem, Then?
If the scientific method and faith are exactly the same, why are they portrayed as opposites?
The answer is that empirical science is often only the vehicle through which people attack faith. What fuels the engine is the belief that those who adhere strictly to science are intelligent, and everyone else is not.
Over the years I’ve noticed that the complaints or incredulity concerning my faith have two main themes: morality and irrationality. This surprises me because I don’t entirely believe that the logic and science associated with modern ideas of intelligence are free from either.
Often, morality falls in the category of situational ( a.k.a. “messy”). Individuals, circumstances, and particulars of a singular experience determine what is the “right” or “wrong” thing to do. There are no blanket statements that work in every situation. It’s the reason why our justice system exists.
If “right” and “wrong” are flexible, it’s a threat to anything that claims to be universal “Truth”. In other words, it’s a threat to logic, math, and science.
Despite this apparent threat, math, logic, and science cannot untangle themselves from morality. Science will produce data, but people interpret and apply it. We do this based on our ideas of “okay” and “not okay”. The ways we communicate our experience, present our graphs and prioritize our daily activities all spring from our individual understanding of morality.
Arguing that science, math, and logic is superior to or can stand in place of morality is fruitless for one simple reason: science cannot say why science is important. Neither can logic nor math. People are the defining factor. People are the creatures that assign significance to everything, relying on morality to do so.
The idea that irrational conclusions are contrary to logic, math, or science is just as absurd.
For example, somehow there is this belief that science clearly lays out what is happening and why every step of the way. The truth is, however, that science rarely knows what it’s doing. Why else would we call it research?
While discovering new behaviors, phenomena, and patterns, we often reach conclusions that don’t immediately make sense. It is the basis of our favorite detective stories, a sentiment beautifully expressed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:
During research, scientists reach plenty of irrational conclusions, yet sit there completely confident and secure in their ignorance. When pressed, they say “We don’t know why yet. All we know is that’s how it is. We’ll figure out the “why” eventually.” They trust in their expertise and their work. They trust in the method, the numbers, and the overarching belief that it’s all connected.
In other words, they trust in themselves and their judgment, as well as their ability to tap into and understand something bigger than themselves. Put simply, they have faith.
Now, you may have noticed there is a flaw in my argument: If faith and the scientific method are truly the same, then why is there only one science when there are multiple religions?
The answer is three-fold: centuries of culture, individual experience, and lust for power.
In a way, it is similar to how science develops. There are trailblazers who go off and do their own research, eventually coming back and sharing what they learned with others. People who hear the results attempt to replicate them, experimenting on their own. If they are able to replicate the results, then they are more likely to uphold the original findings as truth and share them with others.
If there are aspects to their religion they don’t quite agree with or understand, practitioners are willing to wait. They trust the method, as well as the word of those who have spent more time experimenting and therefore have more experience and understanding. They also trust their own past experiences experimenting within their religion and the results they gained.
The only difficulty is this process is found in every religion. So depending on which religion someone starts experimenting and getting results from, they will continue to pour their experimentation and subsequent loyalty into that one religion. The result is hundreds of religions that all believe they have a universal truth.
Does faith really lead to universal truth? I would argue it does. A brief exploration reveals that the core values of religion have more similarities than differences. These include:
Loving oneself and others
Living a good life
Knowing that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves
Everything connects, or that there is order or balance in the universe
Moderation and self-discipline
There is meaning to life
Our experience here concerns learning and growth
If faith leads to universal truths, just like the scientific method, why haven’t they all realized this and consolidated it into one religion?
The answer is a tale as old as time: desire for wealth, status, and power.
Throughout history, individuals seeking power have used and abused the faith of others. They place themselves in positions of trust and respect within the religion, then force coherence in order to better consolidate their power. Their unity, however, doesn’t come from belief in truths individually gained through experimentation and collectively upheld. Instead, it comes through condemning questioning and encouraging blind allegiance.
Demonizing another religion also helps individuals retain power because it allows them to control their followers through mobilization. Claiming that there is no time for explanations, questions, or disobedience because we’re at war is convenient for those in power.
Despite the potential for abuse, organized religion in and of itself is not a bad thing. While we can discover truth through faith individually, having a bit of guidance doesn’t hurt. There is also a strength and understanding that comes from talking with others who share our beliefs. In a way, it’s similar to scientists getting together to form research groups. Sharing experiences are like submitting reports for peer-review while lessons on truths gained through faith are like conferences.
The key to healthy organized religion is faith. Faith in the sense of experimentation and individual exploration, not blind trust. This puts the burden of responsibility and therefore growth on the individual and helps them find the truth. In other words, it allows us to be independent and find the truth for ourselves. It is the system that Descartes and Galileo were blacklisted for bringing back because nothing is more threatening to those in power.
The Imaginary Divide Between Faith & Intelligence
The sad thing about doing a bunch of research on your own is that the world doesn’t become enlightened alongside you. I’m still getting incredulous comments about how I can be intelligent and devout. Some people believe that faith somehow limits my knowledge. They think I will not accept certain scientific theories for fear of offending an unknown being that nobody’s ever seen or heard.
People who believe this fundamentally misunderstand faith. Faith and the scientific method are one and the same. Both rely on hypotheses and experimentation, and both use observation and subsequent interpretation to make sense of experience. Both ultimately lead to Truth. They are the method for understanding and growth. Treating them as opposing forces only causes confusion and distorts reality.
If scientists discount faith, all those who believe in faith will similarly discount science. We see this playing out in the world today, and it is unbelievably dangerous. Writing off half of experience as nonsense causes us to lose the full picture. Those who think that we don’t need anything that is as cold-hearted as science or emotional as religion are fundamentally misunderstanding intelligence.
Intelligence is not defined by how we obtain information, so technically it has nothing to do with faith or the scientific method. Instead, it has to do with how we deal with that information.
I would add that intelligence isn’t just being able to hold the two opposing ideas and acknowledge their equal validity. It also is being able to see the connection between the two and realize that there are more similarities in this world than differences. Taking information and then drawing creative, inspired conclusions from the gossamer web of infinite connections our experience in this world has to offer – that is true intelligence.