Faith is difficult at the best of times, but these days finding and holding on to faith is even more difficult. I recently completed a book after undergoing both a brain tumor and chemotherapy for lymphoma, and faith has been much on my mind. The book is intended to answer the claims of recently published works on atheism, but more, it is a journey of spirit. In this political season, I hear the same tropes of faith and fear of faith.


There is no doubt that faith begins where reason does not hold sway. So does almost every starting value of life. Why get up in the morning? Why care for another? Why sacrifice yourself, or your interests, for the good of people whom you do not know?

As I read through books on promoting theism, I kept hearing how reason was a guide to life. This is simple minded and unrealistic. Reason proceeds from premises. Compassion is a premise, often an unreasonable one. Faith is supported by reason but does not rest on it.

If you read these books you will hear a good deal about Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor is a rhetorical principle teaching that entities or assumptions should not be multiplied beyond necessity. It is named after William of Occam (c. 1288-1347), an English Franciscan Friar and philosopher. Occam’s razor is used to propose, for example, that in theorizing about the creation of the world, if one can account for it without Creator, so much the better. Your philosophical checkbook is balanced. Not a cent wasted. No reason to ‘add’ the idea of a Creator if you can do without one.

Actually to expel God requires a bunch of other assumptions. While Darwinism supposes that the less complex becomes more complex in biology, as single cell organisms make their way up to become Bach, to suppose that complexity arises in physics may not work so easily by analogy. Imagining the universe came from nothing might be far more complicated, and require many more assumptions, than to believe something outside the universe got it started.

So Richard Dawkins writes: “...however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!” This is a startling example of applying the laws of physical beings, and indeed physical beings that have evolved on earth, to God. If God were a biological creature like the possum or the crawfish, Dawkins would have a sound point. But here biology is doing the work of theology. The argument for the unity of God, which was formulated in different ways by all the great medieval theologians, was intended precisely to prove that God is an intangible unity, not a complex or compound organism.

So Occam’s razor, as intended by Occam himself, can actually do the work of faith. Throughout the centuries many educated and unlettered people have been able to understand the idea that God created the world. It might be in many ways the less complex idea.

Here is a strange contradiction: To believe in God, we are told, is simultaneously too simple minded and too complex. It is far easier and economical, to believe the universe arose without a guiding intelligence. Yet it is also simple minded to believe in a guiding intelligence. In other words, religious people are too unsophisticated to realize that the belief they hold is too intellectually complex for the problem.

In place of Occam’s razor I would like to propose that the key medieval parable for our time is Buridan’s ass.

Jean Buridan (1300-1358) was a French Priest. His name became attached to a parable that apparently predated him, but no matter. It still speaks to us and is worth remembering.

To put this in context recall how often the ‘god’ of reason is invoked in writings by rationalistic anti-theists. “Reason” Sam Harris tells us in The End of Faith, “is the guardian of love.” More, he writes “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.” Hitchens writes “...we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason”

Now reason is an invaluable tool. Without it nothing, including faith, can flourish. But reason alone is not only dangerous but virtually impossible. Such is a ringing truth brought to us by Buridan’s ass:

Imagine a donkey equidistant between two barrels of hay. Now imagine that this donkey is a rationalist, someone who will do nothing if it is not in accord with the dictates of reason. He cannot reason why one mound of hay is superior to the other. He stays in the middle trying to decide which should be his supper. Since there is no reason to move to one or the other, in time, the donkey starves to death.

Obviously Buridan’s ass is a parody, although a parody with serious intent. In making fun of philosophers Buridan was teaching that reason bleached of value starves us. Reason does not give us a reason to live, to get up in the morning, to improve the world, to help another who will not be able to return the favor. Reason is a powerful tool to accomplish ends that are established by means other than reason. The neurologist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that when people who suffer brain injuries that destroys their capacity to feel seek to make decisions, their decisions are disastrous. Reason alone, unaided by emotion, by vision, is a poor compass to navigate this world.

When Leviticus counsels “love your neighbor as yourself (19:18)” it is not a counsel of reason, but a command of faith. The world needs reason, but reason alone will doom the world. To fashion a reason that will help us survive, the world needs God.


Religion did not bring fighting into the world. Religion entered a world in which human beings fought, over and over again. What was the world like before belief in one God? Were the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, the Greeks, peaceful people? The chronicles of the ancient world are unrelentingly savage.

The simple antidote to the simple conclusion that religion causes war is to remind ourselves that people have always fought because, alas, that is what people do. Conquest and subjection are part of the dispiriting narrative of human history at all times, in all parts of the world.