Faith and Reason: Friends or Foes?

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“The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” Like many before and after him, Benjamin Franklin recognized that faith and reason are opposites. Men, he thought, can seek truth by using either reason or faith, but not both. Many people today, however, do not believe that there is a conflict between faith and reason. They are quick to point out that faith has nothing to fear from reason because reason is not the enemy of faith, but its allied partner in a common search for truth. But serious practitioners of faith today are more than willing to shut their eyes when reason contradicts their beliefs, and as a result, censor those who exercise rational thought. The results of this conflict impact every aspect of human life. Today, more so than during Franklin’s time, faith is exerting an alarmingly strong influence in America’s culture.

For many decades, American universities—including religious ones—have chosen to subordinate faith to reason by stating in faculty contracts the rights of university professors to full freedom in research. However, a recent incident at Ashland University in Ohio points to an administration that has accepted such standards, but later chose to do otherwise. Professor John Lewis, for six years Assistant Professor of History at Ashland, was denied tenure this spring because, in the words of Provost Suggs, his “writings” show that Dr. Lewis’ “views [are] in direct opposition to Judeo-Christian principles,” principles which he claims constitute the very essence of the university’s mission.

The decision concerning Dr. Lewis’ future employment was the result of many back-and-forth disputes among faculty committees and three high-ranking administration officials. The committees, on the one hand, voted to promote Dr. Lewis because of his exemplary past achievements. Not only was Dr. Lewis an active participant in many of the school’s academic affairs, but he was also a “well-prepared, respectful,” and “demanding” instructor who worked conscientiously to “meet the needs expressed by the students.” These credentials, along with Dr. Lewis’ scholarly achievements, were enough to convince committee members that Dr. Lewis was “a valuable member of the university community.”

But Dr. Lewis’ commendable portfolio did not satisfy three officials, who argued to deny Dr. Lewis tenure for reasons that went beyond his previous accomplishments— that is, for his religious beliefs. All three officials admitted in writing that Dr. Lewis “[exceeded] the standards set for promotion…as stated in the Rules and Regulations.” Six years worth of feedback from students, Provost Suggs admits, provided good evidence that “Dr. Lewis is not an ideologue” who preaches his atheist viewpoints, but “appears to set his beliefs aside while he teaches.” Dean John Bee agrees that Dr. Lewis’ scholarship is exemplary. In his evaluation letter, he affirms that “Dr. Lewis’ recently published book on Solon is…a sturdy work of scholarship” and “a fine display of [his] strong classical training.”

The problem with Dr. Lewis arose when they considered “[his] loyalty to and advocacy of Objectivism,” which surface in his writings published in The Objective Standard and The Intellectual Activist. In his summary letter, the university provost damned Dr. Lewis by directly quoting a passage from the Ayn Rand Institute website, which noted that, for Objectivism, “reason is man’s only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action.” This, History and Political Science Department chair David Foster emphasized, “implies a rejection…of any superior being,” a view very much at odds with Ashland’s Judeo-Christian character and a compelling reason for Dr. Lewis’s dismissal.

In an interview with The Undercurrent, Dr. Lewis pointed out that the situation at Ashland University was different in the recent past, especially during his five years as faculty member. President Benz, Ashland’s former president, interpreted the university’s mission statement primarily as an educational mission largely separate from religion. Faculty members were expected to respect the University’s values, but not to embrace them personally. In fact, the university administration was well aware of Dr. Lewis’ alignment with Objectivism, and gladly accepted a substantial grant from the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship so that Dr. Lewis could devote part of his time specifically to the study of Objectivism. The new President, however, interprets the school’s mission primarily as a religious mission. Convinced by the arguments of the three administrators, he has cast aside as relatively unimportant all other criteria for tenure and fired Dr. Lewis for holding views contrary to Christianity.

The issue here is not whether a university has the right to hire or fire professors who support or fail to support certain values. University administrators do have the right to make hiring decisions, as long as they do not violate the requirements outlined in faculty contracts. What is important to grasp from this incident is the fundamental conflict between reason and faith. Reason, in essence, demands that one form conclusions and answer questions based on concrete, real-world observations. In the case of Dr. Lewis, his study of history has led him to criticize certain religious eras and doctrines. Faith—whether faith in God, another individual, or any entity—demands that one form conclusions based on another’s judgment and independent of evidence. This standard of faith Ashland’s administrators used to decide Dr. Lewis’ future employment. They ignored all evidence that pointed to Dr. Lewis’ competence as instructor and scholar and violated his contract simply because his conclusions, which are based on his study of history, conflict with their faith in religious doctrine.

In isolation, the incident at Ashland University may appear to have only local significance, but it takes only a quick glance at our culture to realize that the method of faith used by Ashland’s administration is shaping our policies, laws, and system of education. From President Bush’s position against abortion to Governor Romney’s opposition to gay marriage to the growing popularity of creationism and intelligent design in education—faith-based thinking is permeating the American scene. And in light of the fact that faith erodes reason, this is a trend worthy of concern.

Benjamin Franklin was indeed right when he observed that those who “see by faith…shut the eye of reason.” When a person attempts to use both eyes simultaneously to reach a decision on a particular issue, he discovers that the two eyes often see things differently. Ultimately, he either follows God—a feeling for which he has no evidence—or he follows reason. No other alternative is possible. Unfortunately, our culture is bag-full of people, especially leaders, who choose the former course on a majority of very important issues. But the character of our culture can change, and its course will depend on which eye you, the reader, choose to use.

Kelly Cadenas is a fourth year undergraduate at Harvard University, where she currently pursues a degree in Biochemistry.

Posted by on October 18, 2007. Filed under Culture, Fall 2007. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry