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Brisbane Mathematician talks faith and reason and warns of falling for ‘false dichotomy’ trap

St Pope John Paul II: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”

CELEBRITY atheist and author of the top-selling novel The God Delusion Richard Dawkins said faith was “the great cop-out”.

The “great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence”.

Professor Dawkins is notorious for avoiding sophisticated theological debate on faith and reason, and he rarely engages in public discourse with Catholic religious.

When debating Prof Dawkins in 2016, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford John Lennox said, “My faith in God and the son of Christ is no delusion, it is rational and evidence based.”

He said, “part of the evidence is objective, some of it comes from science, some comes from history and some is subject of coming from experience”.

At this point Prof Dawkins interrupted saying: “We only need to use the word faith when there isn’t any evidence”.

Prof Lennox’s rebuttal to Prof Dawkins was a humorous checkmate.

“I presume you have faith in your wife ñ is there any evidence for that?” he asked.

Prof Dawkins said, “Yes, plenty of evidence”.

The punchline here is that Prof Lennox was proving a point about the harmonious relationship between faith and reason – a relationship that isn’t always measurable by science alone.

Senior lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Queensland Dr Michael Forbes regularly gives lectures on faith and reason.

Mr Forbes has had a long association with NET (National Evangelisation Teams) Ministries as well as menALIVE, and said those who were anti-faith, or anti-science were often motivated by ignorance rather than anything else. He answered questions about faith and reason.

How should we view the relationship between faith and reason?

I think St Pope John Paul II best sums this up in a letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

What are some of the most common misconceptions about faith not being able to co-exist with reason?

A lot of people see faith as somehow being anti-science and science as being anti-faith. A lot of this comes down to ignorance – just not being aware of the many faithful Christians who were also great scientists, such as Fr Gregor Mendel who was an Augustinian friar and abbot and the founder of the science of genetics, or Fr Georges Lemaitre who discovered that the universe was expanding and first proposed the Big Bang Theory. Another factor is the influence of American Christian fundamentalism. A lot of people think all Christians believe in Creationism, but this has never been the position of the Catholic Church.

Why is it problematic when people say ‘I believe in science’, as a reason to not believe in God?

This is a good example of the philosophical trap known as a false dichotomy. It goes something like this: Either science is true or religion is true, science is clearly true, so religion is false and God does not exist. The mistake is in the original either/or statement. As Catholics we are happy to hold that both science AND our faith are true, and in the words of JPII above, “Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

Why do you believe in God and what is the evidence for God?

The evidence for God comes down to two main arguments: evidence for an initial act of creation, including the creation of time, and the extremely fine-tuned nature of the universe. Both these arguments go into a lot of technical scientific detail. But the clear conclusion is that belief in God is rational, based on the evidence. When I combine that with my personal experience of God, I am more than convinced.

Why do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead? What is the evidence?

The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is two-part. First, from the texts and from the amazing growth of the early Church it seems the apostles believed Jesus rose from the dead. They all went to their deaths asserting this. There’s a whole lot of other supporting evidence about this question of what did the apostles think happened, it’s a whole field of scholarship, and the only reasonable conclusion is that they thought Jesus rose from the dead. The next question to ask is whether they were right or somehow confused or deceived. Given the diverse backgrounds of the apostles, and the down-to-earth nature of tax collectors and fishermen, and Thomas’ outright doubting nature, it seems very unlikely they were confused or deceived.

So, given that I already believe in God, then the possibility, indeed likelihood, of Jesus’ resurrection seems reasonable. Again, when I combine that with my personal experience of the risen Jesus I am totally convinced.

Why would an all-loving, all powerful God allow suffering?

This is a very difficult question and one that I will to some extent leave to better-qualified theologians. I’ll just make two points. The first is that a lot of the “pat answers” we use as Catholics are really fairly offensive to those who have suffered extreme suffering, and to some extent show a lack of imagination about just how bad suffering can get.

The second is that the question of suffering makes no sense at all unless you believe in the resurrection. Paraphrasing something I’ve heard from Archbishop Mark (Coleridge) a few times, the only way we can reconcile an all-powerful God with the presence of suffering, pain and death is if suffering, pain and death no longer have the last word. And they don’t. God has the last word, and that Word is Jesus and his resurrection.

Written by: Nick Holt
Catholic Church Insurance

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