God, Reason and Religion, the title of Steven M. Cahn’s book, fit uneasily together. Or so it would seem. Cahn, a philosophy professor, collected together in this little book a set of sixteen short, provocative essays keyed to major topics of the philosophy of religion. I’m always skeptical when I see Reason and Religion together on a book cover. It seems like an unholy plotting is going on. Perhaps it’s because those of us who study religion are often classed together with those who use slipshod techniques to “study” a subject they’ve already made up their minds about. Any scientist who’s seriously tried to learn Akkadian might have to reevaluate that premise. Happily, Cahn is not trying to promote such an idea. He states in the introduction, “My conclusions may be surprising, for although I am not a traditional theist, I find much to admire in a religious life, so long as its beliefs and practices do not violate the methods and results of scientific inquiry.” For books with Reason and Religion on the cover, that can be quite a concession.
One of the biggest faults of religions is their lack of introspection. That is a gross generalization, I know, but there is truth in it. Most religions have been severely challenged by the empirical method. Reason, it turns out, can explain most of what required one—or a multitude of—god(s) to accomplish. At the same time, religion makes people feel secure and happy. My experience of science has often been enlightening, but decidedly prickly. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Nevertheless, Cahn takes the reader through a maze of ways to think about religions from different angles. What is the tie between religion and ethics? How do we tell a good deity from a bad one? What is faith and is it a safe bet? Do miracles happen? These kinds of questions, when viewed rationally, don’t always have the dreadful results so often feared. So maybe the laws of physics aren’t violated, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop praying. Did I mention that Cahn makes concessions?
We are the cultural children of our logical, Greek forebears. They taught us to trust our reason and we’ve developed that to a high skill. Yet reason has its limits. Consider the Republican Party, for instance. Or Snooki. In life not everything adds up. Facing their final moments, few have the fortitude to keep their thoughts purely on the rational. What lies beyond we just don’t know. Science has no way of answering. So Reason and Religion should get along. There may be more than one way of knowing, and some things in our world may bridge that deep gulf between Reason and Religion. That bridge may sometimes be difficult to find. If you decide to seek it out, however, I would recommend taking Cahn along for some good reading. Even the most serious search must offer some concessions.