Guest Post: Analytical Thinking and Religious Belief

TwoCatholicGirls note: Ryan Kaup is our first official guest blogger on Two Catholic Girls! As you can imagine, he is Catholic but not a girl. He’s a seminarian for the Diocese of Lincoln and has a degree in philosophy from St. Gregory the Great Seminary. He loves talking and talking especially about this subject, so we thought he’d be a good one to comment on this subject. Please, don’t heckle him too much – he’s new to our site and we don’t want to scare him away too quickly! Pax.

When was the last time you sat down and questioned your decision to believe in God?

For me it occurs about once a week.

Am I in a constant state of faith crisis? No.

Am I on the border of abandoning the Catholic faith I was brought up in? No.

But, for my Catholic faith to grow, for true human flourishing to occur within me, and for my conviction to preach the Gospel message to have any backbone at all I must ask questions – I must think critically.

For too long our world has placed faith and reason in a death match against each other. They are raised up as two burly giants duking it out for the human mind – and only one can reign victorious. There can be no overlap between them. You’re either in faith’s corner or reason’s, but you can’t cheer for both fighters. This article from CNN, while more nuanced and less black-and-white, puts forth this same dichotomy. And yet, if we look at human experience, at what it means to be fully human we begin to see how wrong this division truly is.

As a seminarian we are required to get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy (or the equivalent certification, if one already has a bachelor’s in a certain area). Maybe people ask me in confusion, “Philosophy? I thought you were studying about God? Why do you have to know about Kant and Nietzsche?” First, there is more to philosophy than those modern name drops. Philosophy has a rich history that predates Christianity itself. Secondly, not that long ago every educated person studied philosophy. This makes sense, because until one learns how to encounter the big questions of the world and think critically, how can he truly delve into any other subject? Philosophy and theology are higher sciences and thus all modern sciences receive their fundamental principles from them. (No modern science can answer the question of “why” concerning its methodology).

Philosophy aids the theologian by providing principles of critical thinking necessary to avoid contradictions that can lead to heresy. Philosophy on its own can reason to the existence of an Ultimate Being, laying a solid foundation for theological studies. So are faith and reason diametrically opposed? No, in fact they compliment and strengthen each other. It is true that reason can only take a person so far, for there are things beyond him that he will never be able to fully grasp – and this is where faith steps in, never destroying the need for reason, but taking man even further into the truths of reality.

There’s the background, but let’s look more closely at the article itself.

First, I think there’s a problem saying that religion primarily springs forth from “intuitive knowledge” rather than “analytical.” There is evidence of religion in every ancient civilization. Why? Because man recognized that there was Something beyond him, Something more powerful, Something he could not control. The little pagan farmer saw that he couldn’t control the rain and one year there was a drought and all his crops died. Thus, he reasoned that he must have ticked off Rain God #1 to cause this misfortune. This religious belief didn’t come from him looking within himself for some intuitive knowledge, but rather by looking at the world around him – by looking at cause and effect and seeking an explanation that could account for it. And while intuitive knowledge is important (sometimes we just know something has to be true) I don’t think it’s fair to raise it to supreme status in the religious realm.

Second, to say that analytical thinking makes one waver in their religious beliefs may be true at least in a conditional way. Maybe asking that big question makes you doubt God for awhile, but when reason is used correctly in conjunction with prayer, this questioning should lead you into an ever-deeper encounter with God. Doesn’t everything make sense all of the time? Do you always feel über close to God? No, because we’re fickle, ever-changing human beings, but that doesn’t mean that one’s religious beliefs are merely wishful thinking. In the struggle comes the glory.

So here’s the bottom-line: religion began because man asked questions. There is an inherent desire in all of us to ask the ultimate questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of everything? When we’ve asked these questions and found an Answer that satisfies our thirst something resounds deep within us. Before the time of Christ many philosophers made great strides in answering these questions (i.e. Aristotle, Plato, et al.), and when He came to earth, He opened our minds to even greater realities through the merciful work of Revelation. Yet, even with this newfound Revelation, their philosophical work still has immense value.

I have found the Truth of the Catholic faith, but for me to fully encounter it, to probe its depths to the best of my ability, and to make it my own, I have to ask questions – always recognizing that the Ultimate Answer is beyond me. Our God became man; He condescended that we might know Him more fully and He desires that we use all our faculties and powers to grow in our love and knowledge of Him – and this includes our reason. So whether I stare at Rodin’s “Thinker” for hours or read Calvin and Hobbes, I’m still going to think critically about my faith and I encourage you to do the same. Continue looking for answers and seek help from a priest when you run into a wall.

“It’s not likely you would argue someone out of a religious belief very often because they don’t hold those beliefs on argumentative or reflective grounds in the first place.”

Hell if I don’t.

One more for good measure

Why can’t science and religion work together? Why are we shocked when we discover that some physicist believed in God or that a biologist believes in life after death? Science and religion have basically everything in common. They attempt to answer the giant questions that float around in our head while we are in the shower or trying to fall asleep. And for many reasons I don’t understand nor agree with, society tells us that one is respectable and valid and the other is idiotic and old-fashioned.

Gregor Mendel is most famously (and basically) known as the scientist who looked at bean plants and somehow figured out genetics. What I did not know until recently was that Mendel was an Augustinian friar.

A Danish Catholic bishop named Blessed Nicolas Steno helped pioneer geology with the theory of stratigraphy. I really like Steno because the theory he came up with is a huge deal in geology (I learned this in my Geology of National Parks class) and he is a Blessed, on his way through the canonization process.

Alhazen was a Muslim scientist who started the idea of the scientific method and wrote respected commentaries on works by Aristotle. This guy is a triple threat because he has religious beliefs, basically started the scientific method, and read (and, I’m assuming, understood) philosophical works. Furthermore, Roger Bacon was a Franciscan friar who added the idea of inductive reasoning to the scientific method and added on to the studies done by Ptolemy concerning human eyes and how they work.

My personal favorite, Gabriele Falloppio, a 16th Century priest who is one of the most prominent anatomist and physician of his time. Fallopian tubes are named after him.

I want this back. I want people to be able to study science and still have religious convictions and not be completely discredited for them. I want to be able to look at my hand and be amazed that my skin is just thick enough to protect it from most things, but still porous enough to receive oxygen and then thank God for created me like that. Or how the planet Earth is just the right distance away to get warmth and light from the Sun by not be completely incinerated by it. This is why I love space and everything NASA does because it is a perfect combination of scientific fact and complete spiritual awe at something that is infinite.

I want it to be okay to think scientific things are beautiful and that religious things can be factual. I want it to be okay for religious people to believe in things like evolution and dinosaurs because there is factual proof of it, and for scientists to accept that some questions will not be answered in this lifetime.

Love, Caitlin

Why I’m Not Stupid: Faith and Reason

A lovely and devoted reader of the blogge here suggested this topic for our discussion. She probably has been wondering why we haven’t posted in a while and thought this might be a way to light a fire under our pens, as it were…so briefly I must apologize if this post smells of burnt ink. But I was immediately intrigued by the topic and decided, why the heck not?

CNN Belief Blog recently published an article titled “Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief.” The premise of the article is based on a study conducted by researchers from Canada’s University of British Columbia which concluded in the Science journal that “analytical thinking could decrease religious belief.”

On UBC’s website, I found the following summary: “Researchers used problem-solving tasks and subtle experimental priming – including showing participants Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker or asking participants to complete questionnaires in hard-to-read fonts – to successfully produce “analytic” thinking. The researchers, who assessed participants’ belief levels using a variety of self-reported measures, found that religious belief decreased when participants engaged in analytic tasks, compared to participants who engaged in tasks that did not involve analytic thinking.”

The Thinker by Rodin. He’s contemplating cheeseburgers, I bet.

Okay, so, The Thinker by Rodin. Great statue. CNN aptly used as the cover photo for their post. Because I was curious and love to know when famous people are Catholic, a quick Google search verified what I had already assumed – Rodin was Catholic, and actually considered religious life for a while. He entered the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament for two years in Paris, and actually, St. Peter Julian Eymard, founder of the order, recognized Rodin’s talent and urged him to pursue his vocation as a sculptor after observing his work. Pretty cool, I know – but I digress.

The UBC’s conclusion was that subjects were more likely to experience “a decrease in religious belief” after performing analytical tasks. The researchers then concluded that consistent thought about analytical tasks tends to decrease the likelihood of religious belief.

Okay, hold your horses there, CNN. First of all, because this is a blog (I’m assuming) I couldn’t even understand what this study actually did from your article. I had to source the actual journal…also known as journalistic fail. Step up your game – I expect more of you.

Second of all, I felt insulted after reading this article. Maybe I’m just touchy today, but come on –what you’re basically implying by publicizing this research is that “reason” is for smart people and “intuition” is for the less intelligent – oh, and all believers fall under that “intuition” category.

I don’t mean to brag, but I’m not unintelligent. I got a decently high ACT score, I actively receive good grades in my college courses, and I am constantly challenging myself to pursue knowledge in areas outside of myself. I am not someone to jump at certain answers because they are easy – as an English major, the surface answer is never the truest answer. Yet what you’re implying is that because I full and heartily believe in my Catholic faith, I somehow lose belief in it every time I use analytical thinking.

No.

I consistently challenge myself in my faith, as do most Christians (and Catholics) that I know. I do not abandon my very intellectual and determined character every time I encounter religion. It’s not as though I have a switch in my brain I turn on (or off) every time I think about religion or try to understand it. In fact, I make the case for the very opposite.

I find myself the most intellectually challenged when researching and learning about my Catholic faith. Now, this is not to say that secular knowledge is worthless or not challenging. But the Church probes me with intellectual difficulties at every corner. Whether that be in areas I find hard to believe, or theological mysteries that are too deep or philosophical for my untrained mind, I have never regretted researching further into the teachings of the Church to discover what they mean, how I fit in, and why they matter.

Nor do I think that analytical thinking in secularity somehow lessens my belief in Catholic doctrine and teaching or in Jesus. In fact, I would argue the exact opposite. For example, the other day I was watching an episode of Scrubs with my roommate. (I promise this connects, just bear with me.) On it, J.D. was explaining to Turk some disease that was affecting one of his patients. Turk turned to J.D. and said, “The body is crazy, man!” because he was so amazed and surprised at how the body could adapt and react to the situation it was facing. Obviously, I’m not a med student, but the TV writers had dumbed down the explanation enough for me to grasp the basics of the problem at hand – and I completely agreed with Turk. (Maybe that’s because I am Turk…but that’s neither here nor there.) The body IS amazing. Thinking about that case (while, admittedly, on TV) was a secular subject. But learning more about the way the body works made me think about God and his beautiful design for us as humans. To think about a body being programmed to overcome hardships and disease without any direction or prompting? That is amazing, and deepened my faith in God.

Whatever you say, Chocolate Bear!

Not only does the Catholic Church consistently provide me with areas to explore my ignorance, but none of its members shy away from the so-called “hard questions.” In fact, they consistently do the exact opposite. Caitlin’s post has a lot of examples of both Catholic and non-Catholic philosophers, scientists, researchers, and thinkers whose faith did not hinder but helped them go further and further and understand the world in a bit better way. And Ryan’s guest post (a little bit later) explains how he has come to think critically with the basis of philosophy, one of the world’s oldest and most revered sciences.

To be honest, I’m not sure what I’m trying to prove with this post. I know that I think often, and deeply, and that my thinking has often caused me to question my own decision to believe in God – but that further thinking has always led me right back to Him. And I know that CNN offended me somehow by assuming there was no way I can use my analytical thinking in terms of theological issues.

Whatever, take it all as you will! EEEEEAAAAAGGGGLLLLLEEEEEEEEE

Use your words

I have a giant saint crush on St. Francis of Assisi, and honestly I think everyone should as well. Fr. Benedict Groeschl once said (and I paraphrase) that St. Francis is one of the most perfect examples of an imitation of Christ. I’ve said this before and I will say it again, St. Francis is so much more than the patron of animals and the guy who wrote the Make Me a Channel of Your Peace song.

There’s a pretty big seal community in Assisi

Which is why I dislike when the only thing people know about him is this quote:

“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words” –St. Francis of Assisi

I know a few men and women whom I would qualify as St. Francis scholars and many of them said there is a pretty high likelihood that he never actually said/wrote this.

For all blogtensive purposes, let’s say he did say this.

Now, my real beef with this quote is that we (as Catholic especially) use this quote as a cop out, we hide behind it. We say that we are living the Gospel ergo it’s not necessary to use words. That’s crap and we know it.

I would say that St. Francis lived the Gospel pretty radically. He left his family, was kidnapped by his own father and imprisoned in his house, ran away, publically renounced his father, sold all of his belongings (which were many), started a brand new order (even though the Pope had previously said ‘no new orders’), he met St. Dominic, inspired St. Clare, received the stigmata and basically evangelized Italy (and arguably the world). There is a reason he is so well known in the Catholic and secular community.

“While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart”

So, yes he lived the Gospel. And do you know what else? He was a famous preacher. He spoke charitably to all he met. He used words because it was necessary. Even his nearly perfect example of living the Gospel wasn’t enough for him, he used words as well.

Of course there are times where our actions are going to speak louder than our words. There are some hearts and ears that are not willing to listen to what you have to say verbally. But when it is necessary, when the Holy Spirit has opened those hearts and ears, you better be ready to speak His words.

Always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence 1 Peter 3:15

Speaking of actions and words, today is the beginning of Fortnight for Freedom! Click and read how you can get involved and defend our religious freedoms.

Love, Caitlin