Faith or Reason?

(Published in The Arizona Daily Star, March 5, 2023)

Consider the following scenario: there is someone you have known for years, practically your entire life. You love and trust this person who has always been there for you, no matter what, and has even saved your very life a time or two. As it turns out, this person is arrested for some terrible crime and, worse, the evidence is so compelling that s/he is found guilty. What goes through your mind? Based on your personal experience, are you convinced this person is innocent, whatever the evidence? Or do you decide that, because the evidence is so compelling, this person must be guilty. You may be saddened, even angry, to have found out the truth, but the truth is the truth.

Your answer will give you an idea as to how mystically inclined you are. Mystics invariably disregard rational arguments or physical proof, invariably talking about their personal experiences of the divine and how nothing can overturn that. Empiricists are inherently skeptical of personal experience as the senses are so easily deceived. They look for objective confirmation before they will believe anything.

It is interesting that, as scientific as the West is generally portrayed, its religions traditionally emphasize faith that goes beyond reason. It is no accident that the first of the 10 Commandments and the first of Islam’s Five Pillars are essentially the same: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” and “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is His prophet.” respectively. The existence of God is simply asserted and the follower is expected to believe. In the New Testament, the point is even clearer. “Doubting Thomas,” one of Jesus’s disciples, insists: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25) Eight days later, Jesus challenges Thomas to physically put his hand in the wound. Only then does Thomas believe, but he is rebuked: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Compare that with the Buddha’s instruction as to whether one should accept his teachings: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” (Kalaama Sutra) Taoism is indifferent to faith. Like the Law of Gravity, the Tao works whatever anyone may believe. If one jumps off a cliff, one will fall—no matter how fervent the belief may be otherwise. Therefore, one is best served by learning the principles of the Tao and behave accordingly.

Hinduism, with its myriad gods, goddesses, and demons, is often seen as one of the least practical of the world’s religions, but that conclusion is misleading. There are four types of yoga: karma (service to others), bhakti (devotional prayer and ritual), jnana (intellectual reason), and raja (a combination of the three others). The goal in each is not to “believe” or be “convinced.” Rather, as with any meditation, one is supposed to get so involved in the activity that one loses the sense of the ego self—and thereby reaches nirvana.

So which is the “right” approach? As with the opening scenario, it is possible, even likely, that one will never “know” whether the beloved is “really” guilty or innocent. However, imagine reversing the roles. Suppose you are the one who has been eternally faithful to your dearest companions and assume you have been unjustly convicted of some terrible crime. You watch as you see those closest to you of so many years debate your guilt. Do you think you could respond with Jesus: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”? Would you shrug them off with a Taoist “Let them believe what they like. I know I am innocent.” Or would you trust in the Divine that, in some way, shape or form, your innocence will ultimately be vindicated?

And would you be at peace with your verdict?


  1. I have often wondered (been haunted actually) how children come to terms with an incarcerated parent, or a parent who provides them the basics but behaves destructively or illegally.

    I have personally known people who treated me well but came to discover they were intolerant of other races. Since humans are typically contradictory in nature (including yours truly), must I reconcile something I believe is unethical in order to sustain that friendship? If so, how do I do that? Should I accept people as they are instead of ending said friendship?
    This arises over and over in varying scenarios of my life. I still find no workable solution.

    1. It’s a great, important question. It sounds like you are looking for some broad rule of thumb to cover all circumstances. “Unethical,” for example, may be the clue. It is a black and white term that is inflexible. Of course, that may very well be the point. Even so, maybe there are degrees of “unethical.” After all, since no one is perfect, to say we are not going to have anyone with any unethical behaviors would mean we would never have any friends at all. Therefore, if someone occasionally tells white lies, that’s not great, but it may be acceptable. Or, take your example where someone who is “intolerant of other races.” What does that mean? If the person is a member of the Ku Klux Klan or Nazi Party, that may not be acceptable. However, if someone believes in stereotypes–“All ‘x’s’ are ‘y’s”–but still treats everyone fairly and politely, that may be distasteful, but not unacceptable. In other words, there is no general rule as everyone is different. Put another way, I think we would all say that we only want to be friends with people who are “basically good.” In determining “basically good,” maybe our focus should be more on people’s behavior than their thought processes. Does that make sense?

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