A Sermon delivered by the Rev. Ernest Penn
on an unknown date at
Park Street Unitarian Church, Hull

Religion and Reason

"Can religion and reason ultimately be compatible?" is a question which exercises us considerably and agonisingly. Some rationalists will say that if they follow reason then there comes a point where religion becomes superstition. Some religionists claim religion goes beyond reason and then ultimately we have to abandon reason for faith. This usually means in practice the unthinking acceptance of authority which may be invested in a Book, a Church or a creed.

To such people, religion and reason are ultimately mutually exclusive. But there are those who find religion and reason complementary - because in their experience they are conscious that they think with their whole being and they feel with their whole being. Religion has to do with all life experience. We worship with our whole being. Worship involves our feeling, thinking and doing.

As a religious movement we need to be ever reviewing our religious expression, to ensure that it is and continues to be reasonable. Similarly for each individual: I have the responsibility for re-examining my religious beliefs, to ascertain how they are in accord with reason. Subjecting our religion to the bar of reason and conscience [is] a kind of self-regulating system to keep faith relevant. The relations[hip] between religion and reason is especially important in this day and age [of] modern science, technology, [and the] modern scientific revolution. That which suppresses one of any of these cannot be true worship. That which excludes reason cannot be religious; that which excludes 'religion' cannot be reasonable. The union of reason and religion is perhaps not so much a fact as a task and our ideal - but in pursuing it we must be careful that our attempts do not result, as so often happens, in a sort of syntheticness, which includes everything and means nothing.

Religion in its many forms has played a highly significant part in human history. People have fought and died for their religion. Art and literature have flowered forth as expressions of faith. In religion many institutions and customs have found their formative principles. Countless men and women have acknowledged religion as the basis or strength, hope and significance in their lives. To that extent, religion has been historically significant. Today its significance is questioned, for there have been and still are particular forms of religion which are insignificant: lacking in formative power for the life of individuals or societies, and without depth of insight or effect.

Now to say that religion has been on the whole important in human history is not necessarily to say that its influence has been wholly good. There is a common fallacy that religion is good because it is religion, and then the cure for evil in the world is more religion. Actually, great evils often flow from it. When reason is abandoned and religion becomes fanatical, then religion expresses itself through bigotry, prejudice, cruelty, physical violence and persecution, or terrorism. These evils are natural results of fanatical, unthinking, thoughtless religion.

It is invalid to condemn all religion as superstition, as some critics have done, for it is also clear that much which goes by the name of religion has been associated with the highest levels of human experience. We seek a faith that is important rather than trivial, good rather than bad. What then makes religion significant and what makes it good? What will be our criteria? I suggest: We should regard religion as significant in the degree to which it concentrates a whole range of human experience: feeling, thinking, doing (the affective, intellective, active).

So a religion which is relevant only to a part of a person's life or a community's life would be relatively trivial.

This is a challenging thought - if we each for him/ herself think through the implications for us as individuals! In a time of uninterrupted quiet, ask yourself what is your religion and how does it influence your way of life. Does the religion you profess really have anything to do with how you live? For example, with how you relate to other people and the world as a whole.

Does the religion you profess determine how you behave and relate in your day to day work?

If you are a businessman, what kind of businessman are you? How do you feel? And how does the religion you profess determine how you deal with others? Can you afford to be religious in business? Etc. And what makes religion good? I suggest our standard of goodness in religion can be summarised in one word: Community! (Religion means binding together.)

By this test, any form of religion is good when it promotes community, and it is bad when it destroys community; good when it integrates, bad when it disintegrates and disrupts (a challenge to Northern Ireland!). Community is the harmonious inter-relation of individuals and groups.

Religion is good when it promotes community, and this may apply to the human and non-human environment: The achieving of community in: Family, neighbourhood, relationships human relationships and in society Local, regional, national and international levels Further sense of community with the total environment A sense of community with the universe and all there is This today issues in concern for the environment Conservation of the earth's greenery The survival of animal life and the protection of the elements air.

Or it may concern the co-ordination of diverse experiences in the consciousness of a single human being, [a] bringing together of the many different aspects of personality and experience into a single integrating whole, that is wholeness, spiritual health, a well integrated personality. This state of mental and spiritual health (wholeness) occurs in an individual when reason and religion are in balance and not in contention. Unitarians have always stressed the importance of reason in religion. Reason is not opposed to religion. Reason is a powerful ally of significant and good religion. Religion which disregards or opposes reason is trivial, or harmful or both. regard for the demands of reason is an essential of religion.

Unfortunately there have been varying degrees of opposition between religion and reason.

[Crossed out, via two diagonal lines] Religion has tended to be emotional, enthusiastic, impatient with the facts of this world, in preference for the hopes of the world beyond.

[Crossed out, via two diagonal lines] Reason on the other hand has often been opposed to feeling by insisting on the evidence of actual experience. Much so called "reasonable religion" is so lacking in emotional warmth as to fail in real significance. On the other hand the 'super-rational' faiths often do not attract people of liberal intelligence, nor lend themselves to ready communication to unbelievers.

As a Unitarian I believe that a union of reason with significant religion is both imperative and possible. It can be done by taking a generous view of both religion and reason. Irrational religions have been too limited in scope to embrace and integrate all human experience. (For example, they have suppressed reasons and conscience, [as with] Joan of Arc [and] voices).

Cold rationality, on the other hand, has involved too narrow a view of reason to admit the depth of meaning which is the essence of religious insight.

People can truly be religious and reasonable. Indeed, it is doubtful whether it is possible to have religion in the highest sense without it being true to reason. Now it is possible to be truly reasonable without at the same time being religious. The relation between religion and reason is especially important in our age which has seen the rise of modern science and technology.

The marvellous progress of science, bringing in the new age of the atom and computer, has been a triumph of reason, and has given men and women greater confidence in their ability to use reason to discover the nature of the natural world , including ourselves and society, to solve human problems in every area and to influence human destiny. This should make our life more wonderful not less, more religious not less. Parallel with this mounting prestige of science there has been a general decline in the prestige of religion. The consequence of this has been the often discussed predicament of modern man in which knowledge and technical skill have outrun moral and spiritual competence. Human personality has been all but submerged by the machine and its demands. In a modern welfare state society, large numbers of human beings are lonely, frustrated, confused and threatened by even more menacing forms of personal and social insecurity: family breakdown, divorce, drugs, violence, and the world stands on the brink of destruction. Despite much enlightenment in our time tension still exists between reason and religion. The continuing rise of science is associated with the decline of religion. The resurgence of religion is linked with an attack on reason - for example, fundamentalism!

Some say religion and reason are ultimately incompatible. Others conclude reason and religion occupy different spheres of human activity and hence may never be in conflict. Still others say that reason must be subordinate to religion, serving to clarify or express albeit inadequately. [It is a] fatal dualism: the next century will outgrow it. As Unitarians we need to suggest that religion and reason ought not to be related in such ways, as stranger, enemies or by subordination. But rather religion and reason are two constituents in the total life of whole human beings. Religious experience and consciousness has [have] rational elements and must draw upon reason for expression. Also the life of reason may draw upon religious experience for motivation and for part of its working materials.

However, the historical fact remains that reason has tended to disregard or discourage religious development, and that religious interests have tended to undermine reason. Thus the union of religion and reason is not so much a fact as a task and an ideal. It is for that task that Unitarians dedicate themselves, and Unitarian thought declares the unity of religion and reason. There is urgent need in our time for intelligible religion - religion which is adequate to the full measure of human life including all the insights of rational understanding.

Such religion makes possible greater spiritual resources for humans who cannot give up a scientific world view, and it provides the means by which religious experiences may be continually enriched with every type of rational understanding.

The late Rev. Ernest Penn


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful