MAXWELL:  Faith and reason

1/16/2005 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

In the aftermath of the South Asia tsunamis, people worldwide are trying to justify their faith in the beneficence of the supernatural entity they worship, and they are trying to rationalize their place in the great scheme of things.

Adding to the quandary, U.S. news outlets are flooding the newsstands and airwaves with stories and commentaries extolling faith.

In a Cox News Service article titled When tragedy strikes, faith provides support, for example, Dennis McCann, professor of religious studies at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta and a former Catholic priest, said: “Orthodox Christians like myself have to recognize that if God is all-powerful, there’s no point in denying that God is involved in the sufferings of this Earth. What you have to have is faith and trust that there is a purpose.”

In the same article, Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, said: “Whether a disaster happens when you’re on an airliner or in a fire or a hurricane, if your faith and hope is in Jesus Christ you know that should you die, you will live eternally in heaven. That is the tremendous comfort for people who have faith in Christ.”

Such blind faith fosters a false reality. Humankind is endowed with many essential capacities. Faith is but one of them. The most essential capacity is the awesome power to reason, to think logically about the human condition and its relation to the unknown and its relation to natural and physical phenomena.

But instead of using reason, empirically accounting for the tsunamis, too many religious people have sunk into faith and have dismissed science and reason as sacrileges.

Literature about the carnage in South Asia sidesteps the major source of faith: fear.

“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear,” wrote rationalist and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell. “It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind elder brother who will stand by you in all troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis for the whole thing _ fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. …

“Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look round for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the Churches in all these centuries have made it.”

Such fear manifests itself in today’s tortured explanations of the tsunamis’ destruction.

McCann: “Whether it’s personal tragedies or massive tragedies like this one, it becomes pretty clear that if you are a believer, part of the process of growing in faith is struggling with what experience is teaching you: that if God is good, the goodness of God is not tailored to our personal convenience or our personal desires.”

Are God’s fingerprints at the scene of the tsunamis? If so, why? If not, why? Either way, fear is the consequence. The answers we get from the religious community do not explain the scientific design of oceanic earthquakes or describe the natural destructiveness of big waves. Instead, the answers, supported by biblical citations, simply embrace the origins of things that appear unbelievable and matters that contradict one another.

After the tsunamis struck, I reread Peal S. Buck’s 1947 novel The Big Wave, which I read as a child. Buck said the story, set in Japan, of boyhood friends Kino and Jiya grew out of her memories of living near a volcano in a house on a hillside above the sea when “a big wave came up and washed away the fishing village on the beach.”

I highlight The Big Wave because Buck’s characters are based on real people, because they understand the relationship between natural forces and humans and because they offer us, in 2005, valuable lessons about the gift of reason.

After the volcano erupts and causes the ocean floor to explode, a big wave rushes ashore. Jiya’s family is swept away, and he must live with Kino and his family. While discussing the calamity with his father, Kino asks: “Father, are we not very unfortunate people to live in Japan?”

Without mentioning faith or waxing apocalyptic, the father replies: “To live in the midst of danger is to know how good life is. … To live in the presence of death makes us brave and strong. That is why our people never fear death. We see it too often and we do not fear it. To die a little later or a little sooner does not matter. But to live bravely, to love life, to see how beautiful the trees are and the mountains, yes, and even the sea, to enjoy work because it produces food for life _ in these things we Japanese are a fortunate people. We love life because we live in danger. We do not fear death, because we understand that life and death are necessary to each other.”

Buck’s characters know that the volcano and the ocean routinely conspire to create a big wave that devours everything in its path. Understanding the forces of nature, the people reject the fear that is at the heart of faith.

“We may define “faith’ as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence,” Russell wrote. “Where there is evidence, no one speaks of “faith.’ We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the Earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.”

Former Times columnist Bill maxwell is scholar-in-residence at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.