REASON AND EVIDENCE
Every now and then, one reads in the press that “religion is irrational”. In fact, it occurs with increasing frequency – far more often than I would like, speaking as a churchgoer.
Or it might be “belief in God is irrational”, or someone might refer to “faith vs reason” as phenomena in mutual opposition. Or, belief in God might be frankly compared with belief in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus or someone even more remote and implausible.
This view of religious belief has been around for some time. What’s changed, besides the frequency of the statement, is the confidence with which it is made. It used to be a claim, now it’s more like a statement of accepted fact, as though it were preceded by “And, of course” or “As we all know”.
Although it’s a popular view in some quarters, it is demonstrably untrue. I’ve noticed that people of faith use reason just as anyone else does. It’s unavoidable: if you don’t apply the rules of logic (to draw reliable conclusions from stated facts and to adopt consistent conclusions), you’ll get called on it every time and attempts at communication would just break down. This doesn’t happen. Whatever we people of faith are, we’re not irrational.
The reason we sometimes reach different conclusions from our critics is not that we don’t use the common logic, it’s because we rely on additional facts (about God) to begin with. I should say “factual assertions” as these facts are contentious.
Speaking from a scientific viewpoint, atheist apologists typically require empirical evidence (evidence which, ultimately, appeals to our senses) to support any factual assertion. This is why we theists might be told, “Come back with some evidence and we’ll talk.”
This is the actual objection to belief in God.
So, in public critique of theism, “reason” and “rationality” are actually a red herring. Some of our critics are aware of this (it’s obvious enough, after all). So, if you were to ask why they call us “irrational”, I can only surmise that it’s because that’s what they “were told”. Tracing it back through atheist whispers, I think you’ll find that the promoters of this view believe “irrational” makes for better polemical marketing than “not evidence-based”. And they’re right. Also, “irrational” is insulting, which is a plus for many of our critics.
Still, the real objection to belief in God – the lack of “evidence” – is serious and important.
For the sake of argument, I accept that the required evidence is not available. I cannot demonstrate how to reliably observe God with the naked eye, with a telescope, microscope or other visual aid, or with any other sense or sense-enhancing technology. I can point to anecdotal evidence of millions of people who are neither idiots nor liars, but atheist apologists say this is of no value. This is unreasonable of them, but it is not the main problem with their objection to theistic belief.
The objection is misconceived at the outset. The demand for scientific proof of God derives from the idea (highly contentious) that everything is amenable to empirical or scientific inquiry. This may be true of everything in what is generally called the “natural world”, but the appropriate scope of a conversation about whether or not God exists is all of reality, not just the natural world. No-one has established that they are the same and there is no reason to assume that they are.
If I were somehow impartial on the subject (I can’t really pretend to be), I would observe that the atheists have rejected the theistic “delusion” and replaced it with an unproved assumption. And remark that this is not an intellectual advance.
Insistence on evidence limits the scope of the discussion about God, which falsely (and unfairly) loads the discussion towards no-God. God’s existence isn’t the kind of [alleged] fact that can be investigated empirically or scientifically.
I appreciate that science is indispensable and authoritative for inquiring into the natural world. And I understand why science-minded atheists might feel uneasy venturing into a discussion in which their scientific tools are of no use. However, the scope of the discussion should not be dictated by their methodology or convenience.
There is more directly analytical way of approaching the topic. The scientific (or “empiricist” or “materialist”) world-view is based on the following principle:
It is reasonable to believe that a statement is true (including a statement about something existing) only if the truth of the statement is proved empirically (ie by “evidence”). It is reasonable to believe a statement might be true only if its truth is provable (at least potentially) empirically.
I’ve done my best to represent the position correctly and fairly. The second sentence is added to accommodate the fact that science is still learning and, in honest hands, doesn’t make absolute claims about facts and knowledge.
The typical atheist believes the above statement of principle to be true. The truth of the statement has not been proved empirically. Nor is its truth provable empirically. The truth of the statement is assumed.
It is this statement which appears to give rise to the assumption that reality consists entirely of the natural world – amenable to empirical observation (or scientific inquiry).
Most people, probably everyone, have a starting-point in their thinking – a starting-point from which they proceed forward and outward. They aren’t necessarily aware of it. My starting-point is God. The typical atheist’s is the above statement. You can discover someone’s starting-point by asking “Why?”. Whatever the topic, if you keep asking “Why?”, you will find yourself delving more deeply into the other person’s thinking, layer by layer and, when you no longer get a different answer, you’ve reached their starting-point. I’ll end with “Because of God” or “Because God is God”, or similar.
There is a serious logical advantage to the starting-point of God: I take a leap of faith to God and always acknowledge that I’ve done so, so my thinking is consistent. The atheist takes a leap of faith (to the truth of the above statement) and, from that moment, scorns leaps of faith. That sequence of thought is profoundly inconsistent, indeed arguably “irrational”.
I am not arguing here for the existence of God (or anything else supernatural), much less against science. I am identifying and critiquing the assumption that reality consists only of the natural world. This assumption involves locking one’s mind inside an “empiricist box” and believing that, because it’s a very large box (as vast as the natural world), it’s not a box at all. This box represents a self-imposed and arbitrary limitation on reality and one’s ability to apprehend it.
The empiricist box is no place to find out whether or not God exists. Even if reality does consist only of the natural world, this will not be discovered inside the box. To think outside such a commodious box might seem like a lot to ask, but a serious God inquiry has to be seriously intrepid.
No-one likes their assumptions being challenged, or even exposed. There was a time when a person like me could safely assume “the other person” believed in God as much as I do. That would be a while back. I’ve had to learn to mingle and discuss far away from this comfort zone.
Being only human, atheists and other sceptics also relish intellectual and social comfort. I can’t help but think the empiricist box is a place of refuge for the sceptic. Atheists are not all as triumphant and disdainful, or even as confident, as their public apologists. Besides, most sceptics are not atheists at all, they just “don’t know”: many are actually curious, while many others find the subject of God exhausting or frustrating, or embarrassing. Many others, of course, are simply not interested.
Because it is superficially impressive, the empiricist argument provides a pretext for dismissing religious claims on reflex and for not pursuing any genuine curiosity about God.
The argument is actually misconceived and irrelevant, which is a problem for those many atheists who value intellectual integrity and would like their disbelief to have a sound foundation.