Can Christians Reason in an Age of Unreason?
I have recently published a book titled, Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century. The world is increasingly divided and our problems are far from resolved. In this book, I attempt to show how we can understand each other in the best possible way.
Up in the Air is about how two large ideological opponents, Christians and atheists, will have to battle out some of what are the biggest problems of this century from the “Age of Unreason” to moral ambivalence, to human rights violations, factory-farming and man-made climate change, to nuclear war, and nihilism. In today’s discourse about everyday moral and political issues, from abortion to animal rights or the legalization of gay marriage, we tend to jump to conclusions instead of fully understanding what the “opposition” is saying.
In this blog post, I address the “Age of Unreason” and the Christian capability to tackle it, or not.
Christianity and the Age of Unreason
[God] catches the wise in their craftiness. (1 Cor 3:19)
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? . . . Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Cor 1:20–21)
Imagine a world where we stop inquiring into the wonders of life: how life came to be, how societies developed, how our ancestors survived, or where we got our moral intuitions from. This world would arguably be unlivable or, at least, quite unsatisfactory. We would not have long conversations into the night about exciting questions we disagree on with our close friends. For some reason, we find it satisfying to understand the world we find ourselves in.
Because of the rapid prevalence of social media in society, many social commentators are starting to think that our reasoning capabilities are deteriorating. As Heath’s manifesto in my introduction warns, we see an increase in fast thinking and a “Fast Life” regarding social and political issues. It’s hard not to. Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of social media promise conversation when, in reality, most of what they end up manifesting are echo-chambers and shouting matches.
Many are losing hope for careful thinking. Leading intellectuals across the political spectrum from Jonathan Haidt, Bobby Duffy, Joseph Heath, Keith Stanovich, Daniel Kahneman, and others, say that strict objectivity is a lost cause. That view is not shared by everyone, however. And Christians are particularly disinclined to stand by the research that suggests it because of their distaste for anything that remotely resembles relativism.
We may find ourselves in a society that stops inquiring into the wonders of life. It is hard to tell for sure. Many writers have warned us of this trend, but we do not know if this is just the all-too-human tendency to think that our young are simply stupider than we were in their age. Al Gore, in his book The Assault on Reason, warns of the decline of reason in political discourse, Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur, looks at the problems with group thinking and herd mentality, Douglas Murray echoes the same in The Madness of Crowds, others follow suit.
Susan Jacoby in The American Age of Unreason, for example, makes a case for a steady incline in intellectual ambivalence in America. Only 57 percent of adult Americans had read a nonfiction book in the past year, she claims. Belief in man-made climate change had declined from 70 percent to less than 40 percent in the past decade. Jacoby explains that our tendency for conversations is also declining. In fact, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam showed that right-wing populism, the dreaded political shift in society, is directly connected to weakening face-to-face interactions that started increasing in the 1960s.
Without conversation, people turn to the only source of information they can muster in today’s age: the polarized media. Indeed, the instant gratification of the media is rewarding society more rapidly and with less work than the joys of reasoning about everyday questions concerning life, morality, and our place in this world.
Is Secularization to Blame?
Christian thinkers will love to blame secularization for this impact on society. For myself, that connection is less clear, and the primary reason I am starting this book with whether Christianity can provide a consolable place for reasoning in the world for the 21st century.
As a Christian, I cherished reading about God, getting to know His character, and how He wants His followers to live. I found immense comfort in thinking about biblical issues as a teenager. I know that many Christians do not share these natural inclinations. The Bible does speak of God’s spiritual gift of teaching for those that have intellectual tendencies, in the end (1 Cor 12:28). Despite this, the Bible calls on all Christians to reason, which, if your knowledge of Christianity primarily comes from popular secular writing, may come as a surprise to you.
Many prominent atheist thinkers have thought that religious faith and reason are fundamentally at odds with one another. Michael Shermer, in his book The Moral Arc, writes that Christian reasoning “promoted” and “justified” the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, and Protestant wars.
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, writes that religious faith does not depend on rational justification. Dan Barker writes in Mere Morality that “Purely religious teachings are most often divisive and dangerous,” suggesting that religious teaching is not based on reasonable argument. These passages stand as direct attacks at their special relationship with God and their communities for many religious people.
As atheists, who are we to persuade if we continue to slander each other with these sentiments? Barker’s statement, for example, is correct. Yes, Christianity has often been divisive and dangerous. However, it is not only divisive. But I will touch on that later on in the book. For now, let’s turn to whether Christians can stir us away from the supposed age of unreason that is enveloping society.
Christians Are Called to Reason Well
Christians are not merely called to think about everyday issues as the rest of us are free to. Yes, of course, Christians can be world-renowned thinkers on biology, mathematics, or physics. Indeed, many Christian apologists boast prestigious academic careers, whether that is Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, John C. Lennox, the renowned Christian thinker and Oxford mathematician, Sir Robert Boyd, the Vice-President of the Royal Astronomical Society, or Isaac Newton, the “father of modern science,” who wrote more on theology than he did on physics.
However, when it comes to everyday Christians and what the Bible expects of them, it is not purely to think about global concerns. Indeed, it isn’t easy to establish the primary area of focus for the Christian. Christians are called to “think” about whatever is honorable, just, lovely, commendable, of excellence, and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8). However, that seems to include just about everything that edifies others. It is clear, however, that along with thinking about earthly matters, such as mathematics, physics, and the rest, which are by no means exclusive to Christianity, Christians are also obligated to think about heavenly things, setting their minds on things that are above (Col 3:1–4) and to a “mind” reminiscent of Jesus Christ, their Lord (Phil 2:5). Thus, the Christian priority is not merely to understand this world since this world will fade away. Nonetheless, they are still called to think. Indeed, there are many passages in the Bible that call for a life of the mind for the Christian:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:2)
Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. (Eph. 5:10)
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)
We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col. 1:9–10)
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge. (2 Pet. 1:5)
I am going to confront you with evidence before the LORD. (1 Samuel 12:7)
Let us reason together. (Isaiah 1:18)
Love the Lord your God . . . with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)
Jesus said: ‘believe on the evidence of the miracles (John 14:11).
Paul ‘reasoned . . . explaining and proving’ (Acts 17:2–3).
[D]efending and confirming the gospel. (Philippians 1:7)
Stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Corinthians 14:20)
[B]e ready to give answers to anyone who asks questions. (Colossians 4:6 [CEV])
[A]lways be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have . . . ’ (1 Peter 3:15) (54–5).
[The Scriptures] able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:9)
Christians are repeatedly advised to value reason throughout Scripture. Many, even the most important Church leaders such as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon, failed to follow these principles consistently. But their mistakes in reasoning are not enough to dismiss the Bible’s call to reason well. In the end, along with being influential Christian thinkers, they were men of their time and era.
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I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,