Rationality, religion and atheism
Religious teaching, insofar as it seeks to influence the political sphere, should be subject to rational scrutiny, argues Russell Blackford.
For those of us cultured upon the understanding that all teachings must be subject to rational scrutiny this may not be a ground-breaking thesis. It is nevertheless an argument increasingly made by advocates of a ‘new’ atheism.
Applying scrutiny to the argument itself however reveals that behind the innocent promotion of rationality lie many cobwebs that betray such an advocacy.
All truth-claims, religious or otherwise, should be subject to rational scrutiny. Rationality in its true broad sense, not in the narrow self-serving sense all too common from atheist circles.
The Atheist Foundation of Australia, for example, defines atheism as: “the acceptance that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural.”
This definition makes the conflation, intentionally or ignorantly, between rational evidence and scientific evidence, such that the former is restricted to the latter. In reality scientific (empirical) evidence is one type of rational evidence, but not the only type. Other types include the likes of logic, reports and conceptual analysis.
Logical syllogisms based on sound premises and a valid structure are entirely rational. The proposition that all men are mortal combined with the observation that Tom is a man establishes rationally and necessarily that Tom is mortal.
Numerous unrelated people informing Dick that they’ve been to Canada and that it’s a wonderful place proves rationally even for him (who has never sensorially-perceived the existence of Canada) that it exists.
Our acceptance of the concept that human beings are the product of a mother and father, allows us to establish, on analysis of this concept and its rational extension, that Harry had a great great grandfather.
None of these conclusions are scientific, for they do not involve the application of the scientific method. Yet all of them are rational.
So why do atheists persist in wanting scientific evidence for theist assertions? It seems the convenience of a straw man is appealing. Theists, by and large, readily admit that science cannot prove the existence of God. Not because it requires ‘faith’ (unless you’re an adherent of fideism, an untenable position in our view) but because of the limitations of the scientific method itself.
As for rational evidence for the existence of God, that has been furnished, debated, refined and presented centuries ago. Arguments based on logic and conceptual analysis go as far back as Aristotle and Plato, through the Muslim scholastic theologians such as al-Ghazali and al-Razi, and to Western Christian thinkers of medieval Europe such as Aquinas and Bonaventure as well as Enlightenment thinkers such as Leibniz and Clarke.
The Kalam Cosmological argument for example – the strongest proof in our estimation – was developed by Muslim scholars as early as the 11th century CE.
The argument is profound yet simple: the material world we sense around us comprises of temporal phenomena that depend for their existence on other temporal phenomena and so forth. Such a series cannot continue to infinity, for if it did no one thing would satisfy its dependence and nothing would exist. The fact that things do exist necessarily implies a finite series and, in turn, the existence of a being who determined both the existence of this series and the specific attributes or properties that define it.
By rational extension, this being must be eternal and without beginning, otherwise it is temporal and forms part of the series. It must also be sentient for a timeless cause producing a temporal effect requires an independent will. Finally, effecting so grand a creation as the universe and all that it contains necessitates knowledge and power.
Thus, by use of reason alone – no reference to scripture, ‘leaps of faith’ or assumptions – we deduce the existence of an eternal, necessary and transcendent being attributed with knowledge, power and sentience, otherwise known in the English language as ‘God’.
There are of course various objections to arguments like the above. Interested parties can navigate the hundred pages in the recently published Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology devoted to the presentation of a simplified variation of the Kalam Cosmological Argument together with all objections, responses and counter-arguments.
It is not the intent of this piece to assess any of these, but merely to show that rational arguments do exist, have existed for a long time, and are the subject of serious scholarly debate and discussion.
The problem with the atheist approach is that it refuses to recognise that rational arguments exist in the first instance. When presented, the mere raising of some objections or doubt is assumed sufficient to somehow negate the argument.
Such a search for certainty in the proofs of opponents coming from the heralds of science has a touch, a good dose rather, of irony about it. Perhaps they don’t know that science at its essence employs inductive reasoning and more often than not substantiates its conclusions in terms of probability and confidence?
Deeper epistemological considerations such as the varying strengths of different types of proofs, deductive v inductive reasoning, the structure, sources and limits of different types of knowledge are certainly missing from the populist atheist characterisation of ‘science v religion’. A characterisation fit for a children’s comic, but not for serious and sincere public discourse.
The result, at any rate, is a posturing that is anything but rational. The militant atheist bandwagon – driven by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett – continues to paint their theist opposition as irrational simpletons who favour superstition and myth over reason and science.
Worse still, the atheist approach fails to apply the rational scrutiny it calls for upon its own assertions.
Even as a negating proposition atheism makes numerous assertions, implicit if not explicit, that need to be substantiated.
Is the universe eternal? Can an infinite regress of temporal causes actually exist? Where does that leave the bulk of modern astrophysical evidence that points to a beginning of the universe?
If the universe is not eternal and had a beginning, this implies that something came from nothing. Can something come from nothing? An absurd proposition, surely?
And if the case is simply one of science not having yet answered the key questions about the origins of the universe, then is not a reasonable explanation (if not certain in the atheist view) better than no explanation? Are scientific explanations ever certain in the first place?
Further, the denial of God leaves atheists with little room but to subscribe to secular humanism, leading to more assertions that need substantiation.
Why should church be separate from state? Why should religion be singled out for exclusion from influencing public affairs? Religion is after all one worldview from amongst many.
The reality is that secularism is taken for granted to be the best way whilst it is at its core irrational. It is the result of a compromise solution for a geographically, historically, and contextually specific problem, that of pre-Enlightenment Europe. The centuries-old oppression of the Church was sought to be repelled by advocating the separation of religion from state. But this represents a classical flaw of jumping from a particular case to a universal conclusion.
An analogous case would be our arguing that because George Bush’s capitalist, liberal regime in America was oppressive, capitalism and liberalism should have no influence in society.
Devoid of a rational argument for secularism (compromise solutions are never strictly rational), advocates resort to a rather romanticised view of it as a neutral system which allows for a pluralist society where everyone is free to practice their individual beliefs. Yet secularism is built on a specific worldview and is no more neutral than any other ideology. It disallows those parts of other worldviews which contradict with it, just as they would.
We then also have assertions such as the espousal of human reason as a basis for morality. But how can the human mind determine good and evil? It will surely lead to a subjective morality? How is an objective morality and, in turn, moral obligation to be established? What is the ontological basis of morality?
These are just some of the core questions that need definitive answers for atheism and its sister ideologies to substantiate themselves. Mere criticism of opposing views, as aggressive as it may be, will not cover for holes in reason, or be a substitute for rigorous validation.
Perhaps when atheists start applying rational scrutiny to their own beliefs they’ll realise that ‘new atheism’ is little more than a novel product of modern and post-modern thought, and a manifestation of all their deficiencies, inclusive of bells and whistles.
In any case, our response to the call for rational scrutiny of religious teaching is, quite simply, bring it on.
Uthman Badar is the media representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia, the local chapter of the largest global Islamic political party.