The law of unintended consequences: often our actions have effects that we do not anticipate and do not intend. This applies also to faith.
Last year I posted a blog titled “The Trouble with Faith,” which laid out a history of the meaning of the word and how in religious usage the meaning of faith had shifted away from the usage of New Testament authors. In New Testament usage pistis, usually translated “faith,” meant allegiance, loyalty, trust, or confidence. In this context, “faith” describes a relationship.
Later, especially after Constantine and the Nicene Creed, “faith” took on the extended sense of faith in a proposition. Faith became more intellectual rather than relational. The creeds furthered this development. “I believe in . . .” In an even later development “faith” became synonymous with religion, as in the “Christian faith.” Other religions, such as Judaism and Islam, are not faiths, but practices. Christian imperialism often forces them into the straitjacket of religion as faith.
Throughout the medieval period faith and reason were seen as allies, with reason assisting faith. Thomas Aquinas worked out a developed schema in which faith and reason were two ways of knowing. Faith through revelation has access to a higher and more certain knowledge of God. Reason assists faith to work out an apologetic for revealed truths. Reason without faith can know the truth, although not the highest truth, and can also err. Thus, non-believers can attain the truth, just not the highest truth. This was how he justified his use of Aristotle and the Arab commentators. There can be no conflict between faith and reason because reason is subjected to faith. If reason and faith are in conflict, reason is in err.
Some version of Aquinas’ position was accepted by both Catholics and Protestants. This position still largely holds for Catholics.
Galileo and the Inquisition
The medieval two ways of knowing model came under stress with the rise of modern science. Two moments are for me archetypes in this debate and conflict: Galileo and Darwin. Because of what he saw through his telescope, Galileo challenged both Aristotle and Scripture. Indeed, it is unclear whether he was more on trial for challenging Aristotle or Scripture. He argued on the basis of physical evidence that the earth revolved around the sun. In 1632 the Inquisition found him “vehemently suspect of heresy,” and he was required to adjure his writings and opinions. He was put under house arrest until he died. (See Reston, Galileo: A Life.)
Galileo Galilei, of course, was right and the Inquisition and the church were wrong. Catholics have tried at various times to explain away the conflict, blaming the historical situation, the context, etc., but to my mind to no avail. (For a recent effort in this vein see Scotti, Galileo Revisited). Their efforts miss the point. The Inquisition relied on faith, revealed truth; Galileo relied on physical evidence. That is where the split really is and that is where Aquinas’ two ways of knowing flounders. Faith needs no physical evidence; science is founded on physical evidence.
With Galileo the rules of the game changed. Aquinas had evidence, the evidence of revealed truths. Galileo had evidence but of a different nature. He had physical evidence. Galileo is reported to have said as the Inquisition forced him to adjure his position, “And yet it moves.” Religion, the church, faith, and theology in the face of Galileo’s physical evidence are reduced to an appeal to authority, whether that of revelation, tradition, social prestige, or political power.
The Oxford Debate
Caricature of T H Huxley. Vanity Fair, 1871.
The second moment is in response to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). In the year following its publication, at the annual meeting of the British
Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford, Thomas Huxley, sometimes called Darwin’s bulldog, and Bishop Wilberforce, one of the great
orators of the age, faced off. While their exchange is often referred to as a debate, no formal debate occurred. No verbatim record of what happened exists, and legend has certainly elaborated the events. But this meeting has become emblematic of the relationship between faith and science.
Bishop Wilberforce, mocking Darwin’s theory, rhetorically asked whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that
Caricature of Samuel Wilberforce. Vanity Fair, 1869.
Huxley claimed descent from a monkey. Huxley replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. (Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, 114–28 for a thorough discussion of the significance of this encounter.)
Unlike Galileo, who went silent due to the power of the Inquisition, Darwin and Huxley did not go silent and in the end Darwin’s position on evolution became the scientific position. One hundred and sixty years later it still dominates. Religion has retreated more and more from the intellectual sphere. Among Darwin’s correspondents and supporters were many English clergymen. Natural History, as it was called then, was an advocation of many a rural clergyman. (See Gilbert White’s classic The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, continuously in print since 1789). Instead of resisting Darwin and evolution, the church could have engaged and evolved.
Outcome for Faith
From this point forward faith became divorced from evidence. Even more problematically and paradoxically, because a belief lacked evidence it became more believable—perversely reversing Aquinas’s position. The parody of this position in Alice in Wonderland hits the mark.
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Faith now trains people to believe things because they lack evidence. It trains people to believe things that are untrue. It trains them to believe that the evidence is unimportant. It trains them to believe that faith trumps evidence, that it is true because they believe it. As Sam Harris noted in his book The End of Faith, a book with one good chapter, this is dangerous in a democracy.
A majority of white American Christians have been voting for Republican presidential candidates since Regan in increasing percentages. There are many and varied reasons for this, but one unnoticed conjunction between the Christian religion and the Republican party is how faith operates in a post-Darwin situation. Like religious faith, the Republican party has become detached from evidence.
The Laffer curve, famously sketched out on a napkin, is a great example of this. The Laffer curve argues increasing taxes reduces production and that by cutting taxes the economy will grow and tax revenue will increase. This so-called supply side economics has undergirded Reaganomics, the Tea Party, and Republican orthodoxy. Republicans have tried it three times, and each time the deficit has increased. Evidence does not seem to matter. Orthodoxy persists.
This tracking of faith and Republican positions continues. Just as religion has turned anti-science, so has the Republican party. Denying human responsibility for climate warming has become Republican orthodoxy. Just as faith denies the evidence, “Yet still it moves,” Republicans have denied the scientific evidence of human responsibility for the climate warming.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that faith has trained many Christians to ignore the evidence, all in the name of religion.
The election of Donald Trump has continued this pattern. According to the Pew Research Center, “fully eight-in-ten self-identified white, born-again/evangelical Christians say they voted for Trump, while just 16% voted for Clinton. Trump’s 65-percentage-point margin of victory among voters in this group—which includes self-described Protestants, as well as Catholics, Mormons and others—matched or exceeded the victory margins of George W. Bush in 2004, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.”
Significantly the qualifier “white” in the above quote indicates that religion is not the sole explanation, but race plays an important, maybe dominant, role.
The continued attraction of this group to Trump despite his lying, dismissal of science and evidence, and in the phrase of Kellyanne Conway “alternative facts” should not be surprising. Their religious practice, their faith, has trained them that the truth, evidence, does not matter. What they believe is what is true. Because they believe it, it is true.
Faith and Evidence
Did faith have to go in this direction? Counter-factual history (the “what if” question) is always interesting. No, the Inquisition did not have to condemn Galileo and Bishop Wilberforce could have been humbler and more open to learning. But the more important question is, given this history can we reclaim faith? Or is it too late? That is a topic for another blog.
Browne, Janet. Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. New York: Knopf, 2003.
Darwin, Charles, and Julian Huxley. The Origin of Species: 150th Anniversary Edition. Reprint, Anniversary edition. New York: Signet, 2003.
Harris, Sam. The End of Faith. W. W. Norton, 2005.
Reston, James. Galileo: A Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Scotti, Dom Paschal. Galileo Revisited: The Galileo Affair in Context. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017.
White, Gilbert. The Natural History of Selborne. Sagwan Press, 2015.
Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
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