Is Faith Irrational?

The CMA group at my medical school recently had the privilege of hosting Dr. John Patrick, a physician from England who lectures on matters of faith, science, and medicine. He was an awesome speaker, and I want to take this opportunity to reflect on some of what he said while it’s still fresh in my mind. So basically, I don’t take credit for the following thoughts. I’m paraphrasing a man who’s brighter than I am.

During the dinner talk, one of my classmates asked the following question:

“How do you suggest we respond to colleagues in the medical profession who regard our faith as irrational?”

Dr. Patrick’s response really stuck with me. He suggested, first of all, that we explore what’s meant by “irrational”. The word “irrational”, after all, is just a polite way of saying “crazy” or “insane”. If our faith is insane, one would expect that to manifest itself in visible ways. One would expect our lives to be chaotic, inconsistent, or disordered. Instead, we most often find the exact opposite: our lives reflect a sense of meaning, our relationships become healthier, and our thoughts and actions become subject to a higher set of standards.

In other words, living a godly life is the easiest way to dispel the notion that our faith is irrational.

Furthermore, Dr. Patrick suggested talking about men like Pascal, Boyle, and Kepler (who scribbled prayers in the margins of his lab notebooks). Many of history’s greatest scientific thinkers were also men of profound faith.

The funny thing is that people of faith have plenty of room in their lives for reason. It’s modern-day secularists and rationalists who have no room in their lives for faith. Which is the bigger box? Who, then, is being small-minded?

To paraphrase the words of Dr. Patrick, our Christian faith is neither “rational” nor “irrational”. It’s supra-rational. It recognizes that human reason can only extend so far, and that there is an ultimate source of Truth beyond our powers of understanding. Science is a powerful tool, but we should recognize (with some humility) that there are certain questions that it cannot answer.

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28 thoughts on “Is Faith Irrational?

  1. It is always wonderful to meet physicians of Faith. My Physician is a practising Muslim here in Canada, and his wife is also a GP. They don’t make a show of their love for God, but it is abundantly evident in their quiet, determined, thorough methods of getting to the bottom of their patients’ medical issues. Being ordained myself (Presbyterian) I have belonged to the Jewish/Christian Dialogue of Montreal and participated in many interfaith endeavours. My own Faith has been deepened recently by exploring the theology and writings of the Elders of Mt Athos (Orthodox), the most ancient of all our Christian roots. Meeting Medical Doctors of Faith has almost always resulted in meeting people who have a humility about them–unless of course they feel their own specific and particular approach to Faith is the only possible one. Thank you for your post and leading us into more thought.

  2. Beautifully written. Great points. I was just reading about the life of Kepler last night. Indeed, without our faith, Western culture would not have evolved at all into what it did. Not that the Gospel was meant to just be a cultural force, but there is something in the Christian lifestyle that encourages the prerequisites for science: humility and willingness to learn, a curiosity about the nature God has created, an appreciation for life, a suspicion towards superstition, the freedom of conscience to think deeply (thanks to faith), and the need to know the world better (missions). The list could go on, but I believe it is all there. Kepler is just one of many in a long list of priests, monks, clergymen, and Christian thinkers and artists who paved the way for the developmetn of universities, scientific experiments, etc. Our reason and science owe faith a bill it can never repay! Thanks again, great post.

    • “…there is something in the Christian lifestyle that encourages the prerequisites for science: humility and willingness to learn, a curiosity about the nature God has created, an appreciation for life, a suspicion towards superstition, the freedom of conscience to think deeply (thanks to faith), and the need to know the world better (missions).”

      Well said! I was just talking with a friend today about the difference between the naturalist philosophy of many modern scientists (the assertion that nothing exists beyond the physical universe) and the way that science has always worked historically (with the belief that God created a universe that is generally predictable and follows specific laws).

  3. We Americans can learn much from the less confrontive style of many British apologists for the faith. It is always good to follow the model of the Savior and pose questions for the skeptic that “puts the ball back in their court.” Dr. Patrick did this in a masterful way and I suspect not only wins the argument intellectually but makes great progress in approaching the heart of those sitting on the fence of unbelief. Thanks for this Matt.

    • British apologists do certainly seem to be masters of the Socratic method.

      And yeah, I was on the edge of my seat throughout Dr. Patrick’s entire talk…and I’m usually the guy who’s leaning back with his feet propped up on something, haha.

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  5. Really interesting argument. I like it. I’m a man of faith but am also often criticised for being overly rational 🙂 Might prove the point or might prove I’m crazy 😉

    • Hey, I saw from your blog that you’re from Ghana! I spent a month there back in 2010, teaching at the Morning Star school in Accra. Beautiful country.

  6. Hi there, whether faith is irrational depends on one’s definition of faith. A definition of faith is: Your understanding of the INVISIBLE GOD of whom we cannot see and whom we hope in. To grow your faith is to develop your understanding of who GOD is, His Ways, etc.

  7. “If our faith is insane, one would expect that to manifest itself in visible ways.”

    You talk to something that isn’t there, you believe a book to be true with no evidence, you believe in the paranormal; hey, some of you even believe strange stories about talking animals and people turning into lumps of salt.

    It seems perfectly rational and sane to you – of course it does. To us, it just seems slightly mental. And I say this as a recent former Christian.

  8. “irrational” doesn’t mean “insane” anyway.

    “One would expect our lives to be chaotic, inconsistent, or disordered.”

    Nonsense – I have a book on tarot reading which is perfectly structured and orderly, however (of course) belief in tarot is irrational as there is no evidence for such things working.

    • Strictly speaking, I agree that the definitions of the words “irrational” and “insane” are different. Yet when a person refers to the Christian faith as being “irrational”, this is often just a polite way of implying that the beliefs are insane (you confirm this by describing them as “slightly mental”).

      I also suspect we would agree that it’s perfectly possible for a person to believe irrational or insane things, yet still have relatively “normal” lives. I think this is where you were going with the tarot book analogy.

      So while it’s true that people can often compartmentalize irrational beliefs, I don’t know that the same can be said for the **religious** beliefs of someone who’s devout in their faith (since these so-called “irrational” beliefs will necessarily influence everything about how we live our lives and see the world).

      So we would very much expect someone’s life to be chaotic, inconsistent, or disordered if their **central belief system** was inherently irrational.

  9. Thanks for the nice reply, but I disagree with the conclusions you have made from your final point. If I believed I had to worship the sun and believe it created the universe, it would be irrational, but it clearly wouldn’t make my entire life “unstructured”, “chaotic” and “inconsistent”. I could have a perfectly structured and consistent idea of how the sun created us etc. You’re simply pretending the word ‘irrational’ means more than it does. Ironically, you repeat this with ‘insane’ – synonyms are not ‘unstructured’ or ‘inconsistent’. ‘Insane’ simply means crazy, or abnormal. It doesn’t mean any of the words you have pretended it means.

    Thanks for your comment as well Dan. I know I exist, because I experience consciousness. Outside the realms of philosophy and inside the realms of practicality, I know everything else I experience exists, too. On the subject of paranormal beliefs, requiring evidence before I submit to claims seems to work well.

    • Btw, even if faith were entirely coherent, it wouldn’t make the subject of your beliefs true. Faith is irrational if we are using ‘evidence’ as a criterion, but it is perfectly rational if we are using ‘anecdotes’ and ‘stories’ as a criterion for validating truth.

      Scientific method has showed us the importance of using evidence as that criterion. Anecdotes simply don’t cut it and we can end up believing in all sorts of things (as they did in the Bronze age and highly superstitious times – I’m thinking witches and sorcery and the likes).

      That is where the term ‘irrational’ to describe religious belief stems from. It doesn’t actually imply craziness at all.

      Religion may influence somebody’s life, but it is one of many contributing factors. Your argument would only be valid if religion were the only influence in somebody’s life, which of course it is not whatsoever.

    • “Your argument would only be valid if religion were the only influence in somebody’s life, which of course it is not whatsoever.”

      Although certainly not the ONLY influence in our lives, for devout Christians like myself these beliefs are nevertheless the central and predominant influence.

      I actually do think you make some strong points. People can believe all sorts of irrational, insane, or bizarre things and still live relatively “normal” lives. The difference between being a Christian and believing we were created by the sun (for example), is that my own faith has direct, explicit teachings on **how** we ought to live. It can’t just be reduced to abstract, easily compartmentalized beliefs.

      For example, many of my colleagues find Biblical teachings on morality, marriage, parenting, prayer, etc. to be irrational. Yet in my experience, those of us who strive to follow these “irrational” teachings end up with lives that don’t look very irrational at all. Christianity, if taken seriously, is much more than just a set of beliefs; it’s a lifestyle. I can’t speak for Dr. Patrick of course, but I think this is primarily what he was driving at.

      Anyway, thanks again for the feedback! You seem like a pretty decent and intelligent chap.

  10. Matt,

    I like that thought about “living a godly life is the easiest way to dispel the notion that our faith is irrational.” We do live what we believe.

  11. This is a subject I think about all the time. Your post was inspiring… hope this poem does justice to your words. The evidence is in our lives as we become alive in Christ. I read a good book called A Brain Gone Wrong. Has anyone read it? I added a poem below which summarized what I got out of it.

    A close colleague in the medical field

    Stated that faith is irrational

    That we were “crazy” he politely revealed

    But in truth we are suprarational.

    As human reason only extends so far

    It expands us to think outside the box

    To an ultimate source, a northern star

    Adding, to life, meaning that faith unlocks

    A Brain Gone Wrong
    There’s a correlation to a brain gone wrong
    With trauma and poor decision making
    The destructive behaviors which are strong
    Form the challenges our youth are facing

    There’s a correlation to faith and prayer
    With activity in the brain’s front right lobe
    This is the area only human’s share
    Where one’s values, judgments and thoughts disrobe

    The mind of man is the brain and the soul
    For spiritual forces must and do exist
    And when persons share a faith- filled goal
    Or when service is given- healing is witnessed

    Dr. W. Dean Belnap
    A Brain Gone Wrong
    Hope for the troubled teen

  12. Thanks for your response.

    “Although certainly not the ONLY influence in our lives, for devout Christians like myself these beliefs are nevertheless the central and predominant influence.”

    I disagree with you. If I may personify the brain for a bit here, your brain is specifically designed to make sure that everything you believe seems true or rational. That’s why everybody justifies their beliefs through all sorts of reasons. That’s why murderers can think they’re doing the right thing. Even though they KNOW murder’s wrong, they justify it to themselves. Cognitive dissonance is hated and your brain won’t let you have it. It wants you to have beliefs and it wants you to justify those beliefs.

    Your brain won’t let everything descend into chaos; it makes sure that any contradictions in thought are resolved, or gives you a feeling of ‘confusion’ that you naturally try to ignore. The brain is a marvellous instrument.

    Furthermore, conditioning from society and by the people around you are the most dominant influences in your life, simply because you interact with those things the most. Although religion will naturally begin to corrode your ability to rationalize sensibly and use logic, it will NOT interfere with other thought processes to a large degree, in terms of saneness and coherence.

    “I actually do think you make some strong points. People can believe all sorts of irrational, insane, or bizarre things and still live relatively “normal” lives.”

    Absolutely. This is exactly the point I’m trying to make.

    “The difference between being a Christian and believing we were created by the sun (for example), is that my own faith has direct, explicit teachings on **how** we ought to live. It can’t just be reduced to abstract, easily compartmentalized beliefs.”

    Ah, but the teachings are not irrational. They are simply moral guidelines, like everybody has and refers to implicitly and explicitly from different sources (indeed, memory of past actions and consequences is very much the basis of our conscience).

    It’s the supernatural beliefs that are irrational – the ones about an Almighty Creator etc. Although the two are cognitively connected, the influence it has on your life is minute compared to all of those other influences.

    “For example, many of my colleagues find Biblical teachings on morality, marriage, parenting, prayer, etc. to be irrational. Yet in my experience, those of us who strive to follow these “irrational” teachings end up with lives that don’t look very irrational at all.”

    What do you mean ‘a life that looks irrational’? How can an entire life be ‘irrational’? We’re irrational creatures at our core, but we LARGELY manage to justify that and keep ourselves relatively samey. You’re yet again implying ‘irrational’ means so much more than it does. You seem to think it means ‘insane’, but unless you have bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, how will your religion EVER turn you mental?

    “Christianity, if taken seriously, is much more than just a set of beliefs; it’s a lifestyle.”

    I know. I’m a recent former Christian.

    Thanks again for your response but we obviously have highly different definitions of these words. ‘Irrational’ to me means ‘lacking in reason’, simple as that. How belief in any deity would impact somebody’s entire reasoning capabilities is beyond me – they’re subconscious and the brain is BUILT to reason. That’s the whole POINT of religion – it’s borne out of our brains tricking us into thinking there’s causation in EVERYTHING, and we have to know what it is NOW.

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