Our public atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al.) are correct to point out the difficulty in using syllogisms to prove the existence of God. But they misconstrue the nature of reason when they then assert the irrationality of theism. The mistake is not theirs alone.
At least since the enlightenment, the public conception of reason has been limited almost exclusively to syllogisms. Indeed, the syllogism is the important analytic component of reason. It clarifies the implications latent in premises, drawing out the consequences of ideas and occasionally demonstrating their incompatibility. And its value in practice was proven during the enlightenment when applied to the religious wars of the time, exposing the incoherence at their roots and laying the foundation for the modern conception of tolerance. The syllogism has since been basking in the reflected glow of that success.
Thus, it is often forgotten that reason has a broader concern than clarity and consistency. Reason is in the business of providing an account, of giving explanations and justifications, of answering the questions, “How?” and, “Why?” But the syllogism cannot do any work without premises. Since there are no self-evident premises, reason entails a creative capacity that furnishes premises with explanatory power. The syllogism was successful during the enlightenment because it then had rich material on which to work. But, in our society, the creative capacity of reason has been trumped by the analytic, and the analytic ascendancy produces little because of a dearth of creative premises.
It is this context within which Kierkegaard’s understanding of religious faith is most attractive. In our society, many people want to participate in a religious tradition, but syllogisms seem unable to provide compelling proof of religious claims. Thus, faith is likened to a blind leap, considered absurd in the technical sense that it cannot be justified; it is either embraced in a moment of existential passion, or scorned.
Advocates on either side rush into a debate. Those against faith indict the Inquisition and Crusades and interpret religious commitment as a crutch. Those for faith indict the atheism of communism and note the increase in charity and life expectancy that often accompanies faith. The debaters spill much ink but rarely convince each other of anything. Both religion and irreligion have black marks on their historical record in politics. In social science, religious faith is in some ways opiate, in other ways nourishment.
Perhaps the incomplete understanding of reason in our society is best expressed when those against faith assert their allegiance to “following the evidence wherever it leads.” The problem is that mere experience does not lead in an obvious and uniform direction. Any compelling account of human experience is an interpretation of human experience in terms of creative premises. The analytic is impotent without the creative. Because the debaters accept the analytic as the whole of reason, their arguments can only be negative. It is thus necessary to reclaim the creative capacity of reason as a prerequisite of compelling explanation.
This reclamation suggests that reason may be compatible with scripture and faith. It is not necessary or possible that one person carry out all the creative work of supplying premises. Communication becomes paramount in reasoning, with the living in conversation, with the dead through books and scripture. Reason combines individual creative efforts with the best of other sources; at its foundation, it is a project in collected creativity. Though the existence of God is still unlikely to be the conclusion of a syllogism, perhaps a scriptural God is the premise in terms of which the fullest account of human experience can be given.
Debate over what constitutes the fullest account of human experience will be the mainstay of this rational project, and many will reject the religious account. But for those who accept it, religious ideas would be the premises, and faith the conclusion, not the other way around. Faith would not be the competitor of reason, but instead its culmination.
Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.