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.