The Messy Line Between Faith and Reason

When we notice the overlap between the divine and the secular, we can see how nuanced human belief is: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Photograph of a statue of a man thinking with clouds floating over part of the statue
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

A cancer diagnosis is a shocking blow for anyone. But you might imagine that someone like Timothy Keller, a Presbyterian minister who has spent years talking with people about mortality, would be well prepared to deal with that kind of news. Keller has sat at people’s bedsides as they died, and he’s written a book called On Death. Perhaps most crucially, he believes in God and an afterlife. And yet, when Keller received a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, he was terrified. No matter what you believe, you’ll have to face an end to this life, and all of death’s unknowns.

The differences between someone like Keller and someone who doesn’t share his faith can feel profound. But upon closer inspection, simplistic understandings of each tend to fall apart. Even those who wouldn’t call themselves religious are likely to subscribe to some magical thinking. When we encounter something mysterious, argued the physicist Alan Lightman, we all reach for explanations—but some prominent scientific theories aren’t testable. Each of us commits to beliefs that can’t be proven, and lets them guide our worldview.

Empirical inquiry—often considered strictly a province of the rational—can also be fueled by fervent belief. Take the character Gifty in Yaa Gyasi’s story “When My Mother Came to Stay”: Though she’s strayed from Pentecostalism, the persistent presence of some sacred mystery drives her research career. And in real life, people sometimes use scientific methods to investigate otherworldly phenomena—like the community, including some respected physicians, studying the neuroscience of near-death experiences to prove that an afterlife exists.

Most of us acknowledge the complexity of our own beliefs, and know they don’t fit neatly into boxes. But it can be tempting to make assumptions about what others hold to be true. In “From a Window,” the poet Christian Wiman implies that skeptics who try to debate faith away are missing the point: You can endorse rationality and still celebrate what feels holy. Indeed, faith and reason aren’t separate at all. And when we notice the overlap between the divine and the secular—or cast aside those labels entirely—we better honor how nuanced, unpredictable, and messy human belief can be.

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What We’re Reading

White wings against a grey cloudy background

Trent Parke / Magnum

Growing my faith in the face of death

“One of the first things I learned was that religious faith does not automatically provide solace in times of crisis. A belief in God and an afterlife does not become spontaneously comforting and existentially strengthening.”

A white bed against a large silhouette of a face, filled in brown with teal circles, against a teal background

Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

When My Mother Came to Stay

“Though I had done this millions of times, it still awed me to see a brain … I had to try to understand and to extrapolate to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his kingdom, as one of my high-school biology teachers used to say. That belief, that transcendence, was held within this organ itself. Infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical. I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know.”

A person lying in a hospital bed with a glowing orb in front of them

Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

The science of near-death experiences

“All of this makes NDEs perhaps the only spiritual experience that we have a chance of investigating in a truly thorough, scientific way. It makes them a vehicle for exploring the ancient human belief that we are more than meat. And it makes them a lens through which to peer at the workings of consciousness—one of the great mysteries of human existence, even for the most resolute materialist.”

A bright orange x-ray image of two hands around a bright orb

Balarama Heller

Where science and miracles meet

“The inconvenient truth about both of these explanations of the fine-tuning problem—intelligent design, on the one hand, and the existence of a multiverse, on the other—is that neither can be proved. Both must be taken as a matter of faith by their respective supporters.”

A window to a tree, against a black background, with golden swirling marks coming out of it

Miki Lowe

From a Window

“And though a man’s mind might endow / Even a tree with some excess / Of life to which a man seems witness, / That life is not the life of men. / And that is where the joy came in.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Faith Hill. The book she’s reading next is Nothing to Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes.

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