Thoughts on Reason and Faith Inspired by Charles Darwin and Dr. William Lane Craig

The main hall of Natural History Museum. This view includes the Statue of Charles Darwin (by Sir Joseph Boehm.)

In Dr. William Lane Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith, he addresses the role of reason, or the lack thereof, in faith. At one point, he responds to a somewhat common position – that we don’t need reason; we just need to preach the Gospel – this way:

“Now, there is a danger…. Some persons might say, ‘We should never seek to defend the faith. Just preach the Gospel and let the Holy Spirit work.’ But this attitude is unbalanced and unscriptural, as we shall see in a moment. For now, let us just note in passing that as long as reason is a minister of the Christian faith, Christians should employ it.”

While just preaching the Gospel isn’t necessarily wrong, we shouldn’t abdicate the use of philosophy, logic or reason in support of the Gospel. Of course, there is another, danger: an unwarranted and non-critical confidence in human reason.

An atheist, scientist recently took issue with Dr. Craig and the statement quoted above. He astutely noted that Craig’s suggestion that reason should be employed only if reason “ministers” to (supports) Christian faith implies that Dr. Craig believes reason should not be used if it doesn’t support the Christian faith. In a recent podcast, Dr. Craig confirmed that is exactly what he meant.

For the atheist, scientist, the suggestion that reason should take a backseat to faith is anathema. Reason is the highest standard, the “magisterial” standard, of arbitrating truth for the materialist who doesn’t ascribe to the Person of God, the supernatural or metaphysical reality. No surprise there of course.

For the atheist/materialist, there is no higher standard of proof for determining reality than human thought.

As important as I think sound human reasoning is, I agree with Dr. Craig. I have long held that the human capacity to reason should not be given such a magisterial place in a material world. By that, I mean that a materialist’s confidence in his own capacity to reason is utterly misplaced if he is right about materialism.

It’s an interesting conundrum. A materialist has no choice but to rely on his own capacity to reason on a materialist worldview. He has no other tools in the toolbox, but this tool is not adequate for the job required of it. Let me explain.

I like to lay out “the case against reason” (on a materialist worldview) using Charles Darwin’s own words. Charles Darwin said,

“At the present day the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons…. I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body”[1]

But, Darwin reasoned that such an “inward conviction of the existence of God” would only be valid if all men had it.[2] On the basis of his reasoning, then, Darwin rejected the “inward conviction” of the existence of God.

The key here is that Darwin implicitly trusted his capacity for rational thought over his inward convictions. Indeed, he goes on to provide a rational basis for belief in God that Darwin asserts is more compelling than an inward conviction:

“This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity.”[3]

While Darwin acknowledged the sensibility of this rational view on belief in God when he wrote the Origin of Species, he ultimately rejected the rational argument:

“But then arises the doubt,” Darwin says, “can the mind of man, which has as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”[4]

Implicit (again) is Darwin’s ultimate reliance on his own reasoning ability. Darwin doubted “the grand conclusions” that others make about the existence of God because the mind of man developed from a mind as that possessed by the “lowest animals”.

This is where the materialist view, a view that excludes anything in the universe but the “laws” of physics and random chance operating on matter, breaks down. Believing, as he must, that the human mind is nothing but the result of this materialistic process evolving from lower, cruder life forms, Darwin rejected his inward convictions.

On what basis does Darwin draw such a conclusion? On this basis of his own mind!

I don’t think it is impolite to ask, “Can the mind of Charles Darwin be trusted when it draws such conclusions?” (Assuming, as he does, that his mind, too, developed from a mind as that possessed by the lowest animals.)

If we should accept Darwin’s reasoning, we shouldn’t trust any of it! Including the reasoning of Darwin’s mind! (or your mind, or mine for that matter).

When Darwin urged as a basis to reject inward conviction that not all men have such an inward conviction, one must wonder at the same time why he didn’t reject the human ability to reason on the same basis. Just as all men do not have an inward conviction in the existence of the divine, not all men have reached conclusions on the basis of human reason in support of the divine (or of materialism).

On what basis should we have confidence in the human ability to reason if Darwin is correct about human convictions? Both the mind that has convictions and the mind that reasons developed from lower life forms. What confidence can we have in the inward convictions or reasoning capacity of a monkey’s mind?

In this way, the materialist is painted into a corner by his own understanding of the world. It is incoherent at best.

A materialist has no choice but to rely on his own capacity for reason, but he has to be skeptical of it for the very same reason – it’s nothing but the result of a long process of evolving random matter in motion.

The materialist is painted into a corner by his own understanding of the world.

Dr. Craig addresses the objection to his treatment of reason and faith from a different angle in a recent podcast (Scientists Discuss Reformed Epistemology). Dr. Craig acknowledged the objection:

“[S]ome people disagree with what I have said about the role of argument and evidence. They would say that reason can be used in a magisterial [authoritative] role, at least by the unbeliever. They ask, ‘How else could we determine which is truth – the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad-Gita – unless we use argument and evidence to judge them?”

Like the materialist, this view posits humans reason as the final arbiter of truth. Perhaps, we might have to agree that omniscient reason, reason that is not limited by the finitude, ignorance and limits of man, might actually be magisterial in the sense in which it is offered in this argument. But of course, we (humankind) do not possess omniscient reason (otherwise, we might justifiably have confidence).

And this, I think, is what Dr. Craig is getting at in the following statement on the matter of reason and faith:

“The Holy Spirit teaches us directly, which teaching really is from God, but let me suggest at least two other reasons I think those who support the magisterial role of reason are wrong. First, such a role would consign most believers to irrationalism. The vast majority of the human race have neither the time, the training nor resources to develop a full-blown Christian apologetic as the basis of their faith. Even the proponents of the magisterial use of reason at one time in the course of their education presumably lacked such an apologetic. Otherwise, they would be believing for insufficient reasons. I once asked a fellow seminarian student, ‘How do you know Christianity is true?’ He replied, ‘I really don’t know.’ Does that mean he should give up Christianity until he finds rational arguments to ground his faith? Of course not! He knew Christianity was true because he knew Jesus, regardless of rational arguments. The fact is that we can know the truth whether we have rational arguments or not.”

Another way of saying this, I submit, is that finite beings, such as human beings, could not know God or the truth of the existence of God without God revealing it. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s a direct revelation. We don’t need reason to grasp it.

That is not to say that belief in God is unreasonable, irrational or devoid of reason. Far from it!

It’s just that our capacity to reason is limited at best. Even the greatest minds among us are limited by the provincial perspective we have, necessarily, as finite beings. We don’t know what we don’t know, and our judgments (our human reasoning) is insufficient as a magisterial arbiter of truth.

We must, necessarily, rely on a greater authority if we are to know truth – if there be One.

On that score, we have the testimony of many men and women, legions of them, over many centuries. Men and women of nearly every tribe and tongue around the world profess to have had an encounter with the very Holy Spirit Dr. Craig identifies. This is the same Holy Spirit Paul, the Apostle, said “testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children”.[5]

While this testimony is not universal, as in every man and woman, it is widely attributed across the globe, spanning the length and breadth of it. The commonality of experience with the God of the Bible defies cultural, historic and psychological limitations.

CS Lewis, in explaining his journey from atheism to theism to Christian faith, said that a truly universal faith would have to be one that was accessible (and I paraphrase) to the imbecile and the genius alike. That Christianity purports to offer this kind of accessibility to God – to the imbecile and genius alike – is what we might expect from a God who makes Himself known to us.

Faith is fully supportable by reason, but it doesn’t require reason. It certainly doesn’t require omniscient reason, because none of us possess it.


[1] The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: Including an Autobiographical Chapter, Volume 1, D. Appleton (1887), p. 281.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Id. At p. 282.

[4] Id.

[5] Romans 8:16

One thought on “Thoughts on Reason and Faith Inspired by Charles Darwin and Dr. William Lane Craig

  1. I have come to the conclusion that I am limited in my confidence in reason because of my own individual lack of confidence in my own reasoning abilities. It’s not that I’m totally incompetent, to be clear, but I tend not to trust myself on the strength of my own reasoning skills. Hence, I will consider multiple points of view in the hope that I can arrive at something approximating a confident decision.

    Liked by 1 person

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