Abandon Reason all ye who enter the Faith

Descartes

The question of whether religious believers are less intelligent than non-believers surfaces every now and again. The atheist blogs I read are usually courteous enough to say that of course believers are not less intelligent, and there are no studies that I can find that have considered the matter.

Evidently there have been intelligent Christians; C. S. Lewis comes to mind, Francis Collins of the Human Genome project and William Lane Craig are evidently intelligent men. (I can’t think of any obviously intelligent women who subscribe to religion; I suspect intelligent women are intelligent enough to avoid superstition altogether.) It seems to me though that what those who profess religious belief are prepared to do, is sublimate whatever intelligence they have and sacrifice intellect in the service of faith. They suppress their critical faculties, usually through a form of cognitive dissonance, and press rationality into the servitude of beliefs that have been arrived at irrationally. I might be wrong of course, but this what the evidence suggests to me.

A recent commenter on this blog by name of tides99, does seem to support to this hypothesis. tides99 originally wrote to say how his chosen superstition, Catholicism, is the one true way (aren’t they all) and that while I’m right to criticise Protestantism, I really should investigate Catholicism for myself. When I declined his very generous offer, tides99 responded – you’ll find his comments in the ‘the author’ section above – with a number of points about the limits of human reason. It is these I take apart respond to here.

tides99: I have a PhD in philosophy, so I certainly would not believe in anything that goes against reason or requires one to repress or contradict one’s critical faculties.
For one who professes a PhD in philosophy, tides99, there is some very sloppy reasoning here and throughout your argument. Already in this first sentence we see the contradiction between belief and reason; they are not the same and can’t ever be; belief doesn’t require reason. That is why it is often called ‘faith’.

Criticsl (sic) reason is only one way of encountering and assessing reality… You’re right, tides99, but not for the reason you think. Critical reasoning is one way of assessing reality, but is insufficient on its own. It needs the support of evidence. Evidence is supplied by science and the methods used in scientific enquiry that seek to eliminate, as far as possible, human bias and presupposed conclusions.

and there are aspects of reality that reason cannot adjudicate because it cannot access them. If there are aspects of reality that reason cannot ‘adjudicate’ (whatever that means) and that science cannot access, then how do you know these supernatural aspects exist? You feel them? Your church says they do? You’d like them to? Maybe so, but none of these mean that these mysterious ‘aspects’ really do exist. You’re sneaking supernaturalism in through the back door here, tides.

Rationalism is itself based Upon faith, of faith… Oh dear, this old chestnut.

in the ultimate intelligibility of the universe, and its perfect transparency to human reason. Is rationality really based on these things? Scientists concede there may be aspects of the universe which, while we might observe them or extrapolate mathematically, we might never properly understand or be able to explain. This doesn’t, to my knowledge, prevent the exercise of rationality.

This of course cannot be proven, yet you believe it anyway. Scientists and free-thinkers rarely go in for ‘proof’. Your use of the word makes me suspicious of your claims about your credentials. Things can be proven mathematically, it’s true, as can matters in a court of law (beyond reasonable doubt) but by and large science is more interested in theories, working models and demonstration. So, no-one is looking to ‘prove’ that the universe is ultimately intelligible and no-one ‘believes’ it is perfectly transparent to human reason. This is a strawman argument, tides.

It’s quite superstitious to have such faith, but yet have nothing really to ground it on. Whatever reason and rationality are based on, it is not faith in the universe’s intleligibility or transparency. The use of reason and the application of the scientific method are nothing like ‘faith’. Both are tools, and they are the best we have.

The truth is that the reason why reason exists is because the universe is ordered… Beware any statement that starts ‘the truth is’! Reasoning is a manifestation of the human brain. It is not something that has discreet, independent existence. It has not been floating around for aeons, out there somewhere, waiting for advanced apes finally to discover it and make it their own. The only reason reason exists is because the human brain evolved to the extent it became capable of reasoning. All the same, the brain did not leave behind its capacity for irrationality, unreasonableness and disorderly impulse. Might we not then claim, this being an equally viable proposition, that because these are human traits of even longer standing than our capacity for reason, that the universe must therefore also be irrational, unreasonable and disordered? Of course not, because the universe’s characteristics are not a reflection of the human brain’s abilities, and vice versa. The inclination to project human behaviour onto an impersonal, indifferent environment – to anthropomorphise the universe – exemplifies our irrationality, not rationality.

But, just a minute, we have another contradiction here, tides99. You have already speculated that there are aspects of reality beyond our grasp – and yet here you are telling us that, along with the rest of the universe, these supernatural aspects are ordered. How do you know this? How do you know anything about parts of reality which reason cannot ‘adjudicate’ and science cannot access?

and the reason why it’s ordered is, of course, because there is an orderer, namely God. And there we have it. It’s God. Of course it is. Far from demonstrating that the universe is ordered, you now conjecture that the order you claim for it has an orderer behind it. Yes, it’s another leap of faith, reason be damned. Anthropomorphising the universe leads inevitably to deities and, ultimately, the Christian god, who is merely ourselves writ large.

Speaking for myself, anyway, I can say this much. When I was an undergrad I came across the saying that learning a little philosophy leads you away from God, but learning a lot of philosophy leads you back. As a young man who had learned a little philosophy, I scoffed. But in later years and at least in my own case, I would come to see that it’s true.

It’s no good blaming a surfeit of philosophy, tides99. If what you say were true, all philosophers with PhDs would have reached conclusions similar to your own. The majority haven’t.

To summarise your argument, you claim – without evidence – that there are supernatural aspects to the universe/reality which reason and science can’t detect. You assert that nevertheless the universe as a whole is ordered and it follows therefore that there must be an orderer. This orderer, you then go on to assume, is the very God you’ve chosen, for entirely irrational reasons, to worship.

Science and reason tell us that every one of these assertions is wrong. You are projecting your beliefs onto the universe as you perceive it, tides99. Project away, by all means, but remember, these beliefs and your version of reality are only in your head. The real universe as science, and, I’d venture to say, reason demonstrate, is busy doing something else entirely.

 

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Have Faith

reason

So there we were in court. First time I’d been on a jury. Pretty serious case too. If it went against the defendant, he’d be facing the death penalty. So I suppose it was pretty serious for him too.

First up was the arresting officer. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘I have every faith this guy’s the culprit.’

‘How much faith?’ said the judge. ‘Is it real, deep-down, sincere faith?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said the cop. ‘Really unshakeable, supernatural faith. That’s him okay. We’re not looking for anyone else. Genuine conviction, you see.’

‘Yes, I do see,’ the judge said. ‘And very commendable it is too.’

‘But…’ spluttered the guy in the dock.

‘Wait your turn,’ the judge snapped. ‘We gotta hear the expert testimony before we get to you.’

The expert took the stand. ‘I believe it was this guy,’ he said, pointing to the man in the dock. ‘Yes sir, I’m sure it was. I have a really good feeling about it. This is him, definitely.’

‘You really, really truly believe?’ the judge asked and the expert nodded. ‘Well, that’s good enough for me,’ the judge said. ‘So… anybody got anything to add before I pass sentence?’

‘Er, yeah,’ said he guy in the dock. ‘What about the evidence?’

‘The evidence?’ said the judge. ‘Who needs evidence when we’ve got all this belief, faith and deeply held conviction?’

‘Well,’ the guy said, ‘far be it from me to say so, but isn’t the evidence important?’

‘Important?’ snorted the judge, resulting in guffaws all around the courtroom, including from my fellow jurors.

‘Yes,’ said the accused. ‘Important evidence like my watertight alibi. Like the DNA and finger prints that weren’t mine. Like the CCTV footage. Like… that other guy’s confession.’

‘Oh, come on,’ said his defence lawyer jumping up. ‘We’ve been over this. It means nothing. What’s really important is what people believe. Faith, like the officer here said.’

‘Well,’ said the guy in the dock, ‘I have my doubts about that.’

‘Oh, but doubt is of the devil,’ said his lawyer, ‘It’s faith that matters – faith and right belief.’

‘That hardly seems reasonable to me,’ said the man. ‘After all, it’s my life that’s on the line here.’

‘Now you’re just being absurd,’ said the judge. ‘What has reason got to do with anything?’

‘But I thought…’ began the accused, looking more perplexed than ever.

‘We’re none of us here to think,’ said the judge, ‘least of all you. How many more times must we tell you? Faith is all that matters.’

‘Well,’ said the defendant doubtfully, ‘if you say so…’

‘Great!’ said the judge, jumping in quickly. ‘I’m glad you’ve finally seen the light.’ Then he turned to us, the jury, and said: ‘I’m going to direct you to find the defendant guilty. The belief and faith of those here today is all we need to convict him.’

So we did, and the judge passed the death sentence. The condemned guy didn’t seem too pleased and as they led him away, started yammering all over again about evidence. I guess some people never learn. But I mean, faith, belief, conviction – call ’em what you will – they trump evidence any day.

God’s Chosen Ones

chosen The God of the Bible is not the God of Reason that Answers in Genesis, William Lane Craig, Tim Keller, Silence of Mind and others tell us he is. None of the evidence, some of which we’ve reviewed, supports the supposition. That’s because the God of Reason, like all gods, is a construct of the human mind. In much the same way as Yahweh was a reflection of irrationality, this God is a reflection of our rationality. He could not – and did not – exist before the Enlightenment, before Rationalism itself and the new understanding of mathematics, science and philosophy.

As appealing as his apologists try to make him, the God of Reason is demonstrably not the God of the Bible, who is defined by impulsive, destructive passions. No, he’s not the tempestuous Yahweh, nor is he the daddy-god Jesus imagined (who is just Yahweh with a few rough edges knocked off), nor the God of blood-sacrifice and atonement beloved of Paul. He is, like all those inventions, a fabrication of our own making. For Christians who are drawn to him, he is a false god. But then, aren’t they all?

Whichever version of the Christian God Christians choose to worship, however, they’ve got it wrong. They don’t choose to believe in him or to follow Jesus or whatever. Not at all; he chooses them (or not as the case may be.) Now known as Calvinism, the idea that God earmarked a select few to be his best mates right back at the dawn of time – while disregarding others who might want to be but aren’t on the guest list – is right there in the Bible. Paul first:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:29-30; see also 1 Thessalonians 1.4)

The idea is picked up by one of Paul’s imitators in the forged letter to the Ephesians:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1.4-6)

The same sort of time-loop paradox also finds its way into the gospels. In Matthew 22.1-14, Jesus tells a parable involving a man who has been asked to a Royal Banquet (i.e. the Kingdom of God) only for the King (Jesus) to take offence at the way he’s dressed. For this heinous crime he is bound hand and foot and unceremoniously thrown out. Jesus concludes his cheery tale with the aphorism, ‘Many are called but few are chosen.’

So much for ‘free will’, a notion that’s alien to the Bible in any case. If I were a Christian, which thank God I’m not, I’d really want some answers to the questions this bizarre idea throws up. We’ll take a look at what these are next time.

Picture shows Tim Keller, John Sentamu (Archbishop of York), ‘Pastor’ Rick Warren and ‘Pastor’ Steve Furtick. Chosen by God, every one. And some kids he couldn’t care less about.

 

The God of Reason strikes again!

planWe’ve been looking at how well The God of Reason™ fares in the reasoning stakes. Is he as logical, rational and reasoned as his self-appointed representatives on Earth say he is? Is he logical, rational and reasoned at all? He didn’t do so well in the set-up, those wacky creation stories at the start of Genesis. There’s nothing reasoned or rational about his behaviour there. So how does he do further down the line? Does his intelligence evolve or does he make like Donald Trump for the rest of eternity? (Spoiler alert…)

Having willfully allowed everything to deteriorate into chaos, God is upset again when his abandoned human creation doesn’t behave as he wants them to. Evidently he couldn’t see this coming, so he decides the most rational thing to is to drown everyone and everything, with the exception of a family left over from an earlier myth by the Babylonians and a floating zoo. Everyone else, every baby, every child, every pregnant woman, every living thing – from the smallest insect on four legs to brachiosaurs and the cutest lickle kittens – he murders in cold water.

After he’s annihilated them all, Yahweh is dismayed when Noah gets pissed and romps around naked in front of his son, who is called Ken Ham (can’t blame him for not seeing that coming) and he realises this plan hasn’t worked out either. Now where, in all of these larks, is rationality? More nul points for the great God of Reason and his ability to think things through.

Yahweh’s next cunning plan involves persuading a bloke who’s a few brain cells short of a pastry case himself to murder his own son and burn his body. Yahweh tells him this will be such fun. But then, at the last minute, just when the kid is trussed up on a pyre with his old man ready to plunge the knife into him, God sends a messenger to call the whole thing off. Turns it was no more than a test. Never mind the trauma to the kid and the damage to his relationship with his father, this was the only logical way for Yahweh to see if ol’ Abe was one of the good guys.

He follows it up with another great plan; he promises he’ll look after Abe and his descendants till the end of time, so long as – wait for it – they all slice off the end of their penises. Now, come on – that’s a well thought through scheme if ever there was one.

Isn’t it?  

The God of Reason

god4

The next three posts will look at the claim Christians make for their God being the God of Reason. The fact that he is, they say, demonstrates how inconsistent those who see no evidence for a deity are when we use his very attributes – reason, logic and rationality – to make a case against him. Here’s Dr Jason Lisle on Answers In Genesis:

…there is an absolute standard for reasoning; we are to pattern our thoughts after God’s. The laws of logic are a reflection of the way God thinks… Laws of logic are God’s standard for thinking. Since God is an unchanging, sovereign, immaterial Being, the laws of logic are abstract, universal, invariant entities. In other words, they are not made of matter—they apply everywhere and at all times. Laws of logic are contingent upon God’s unchanging nature. And they are necessary for logical reasoning. Thus, rational reasoning would be impossible without the biblical God.

The materialistic atheist can’t have laws of logic. He believes that everything that exists is material—part of the physical world. But laws of logic are not physical… The atheist’s view cannot be rational because he uses things (laws of logic) that cannot exist according to his (Godless viewpoint).

Similarly, Tim Keller in his book The Reason for God argues that the fact humans can reason is evidence both of God’s existence (because reason has to come from somewhere) and of our being made in his image.

According to Christians then, God is the only reason we can think rationally at all.

But then where did God’s rationality come from? Is he pure reason or is reason an attribute he acquired or evolved over time as we did? As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, the only reasoning intelligence we know of is our own, and it is the product of evolution. If God’s ability to reason also evolved – and we know of no other way it could have developed – then he must intially have been incomplete. He could not have been the supreme intelligence Christians claim he is now. If, on the other hand, God is and always has been pure reason, there should be plenty of evidence for it. Let’s take look:

We first encounter God in the opening chapters of Genesis, where he puts two naked humans in a garden and tells them not to eat the fruit of a tree labelled ‘The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’.* He sets this tree right where they can see it and then he leaves. The two people, who have no concept of right and wrong (that’s the point of the tree) each take a bite of its fruit. While taking his evening stroll in the garden, God discovers what they’ve done and is not best pleased. (I hope you’re getting just how logical all of this is.**)

This deity, who, according to Dr Lisle and Tim Keller is the epitome of logical reasoning, doesn’t then take the trouble to explain to his creations, ‘Look, I’m sorry I made you without a sense of right and wrong; I’ll put that right. But you’ve got to promise me you’ll do as I say from now on because you won’t like me when I’m angry.’ No, he doesn’t do this; instead he throws a hissy fit. He punishes the couple, who until they’d tried the fruit had no idea disobeying him was wrong, and, just for good measure, he trashes the rest of Creation too – forever. Because of a single act committed by two naive individuals who didn’t know any better, he ruins everything and then, irrationally, blames the humans for the mess he’s made. That’s his reasoned, reasonable and rational response to their upsetting him – which, if he was the omniscient being Christians tell us he is, he’d have known was going to happen anyway.

Of course the whole set up and God’s reactions are not rational, reasonable or logical at all. They’re not considered, proportionate or insightful either. The God of Reason, the God who is Reason according to Answers in Genesis and Tim Keller, scores on this, his first outing, zero points on the scale of reasoned, reasoning reasonableness.

Maybe though God was just having an off day and he improves later on, once his intelligence has evolved a bit more. We’ll find out next time.

 

* All my examples of God’s great thinking skills and ‘reasonableness’ are drawn from the Bible; there are, however, simply too many to reference throughout this series of posts. I would be happy to supply them to any who feel the need to see them.

** Yes, I’m aware it’s a myth but a) many Christians don’t and b) even as a myth the story seeks to address how humans became alienated from God, ironically by developing the capacity to think for themselves. 

 

Why I could never be a Christian

RidiculousIn Through The Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll has the White Queen boast that in her youth she could believe ‘six impossible things before breakfast’. Pfa! Only six? Today’s Christian can beat that with ease, and not only before breakfast!

To be a Christian you must accept through faith, and contrary to the evidence, that:

  • there is a reality above and beyond nature wherein exist angels, archangels, devils, demons, principalities (whatever they are), spirits (holy and otherwise) and God himself;

  • virgins can conceive and give birth;

  • a man who died 2,000 years ago is still alive;

  • this man could, when he lived, defy gravity; control the weather; sweat blood; reanimate corpses (his own included); pass through solid objects and project himself into space;

  • an intangible part of everyone survives death;

  • believing in a magic formula (‘Christ died for me’ or similar) leads to eternal life;

  • after death, believers will live again in an improved copy of the body they had when alive;

  • God reversed the laws on which the universe operates to make all of this possible, because he wanted to sacrifice a part of himself to himself;

  • he can do this because he is God;

  • he prompted men to explain his plan in a special book;

  • all you have to do to live forever is believe this book is true.

In addition to ‘essential’ beliefs like these, there are still more that Christians choose to accept on faith, add-ons that Christians are invited to see as the underpinning of ‘important’ doctrines. While not absolutely crucial, they are recommended as a means of adhering to (uncorroborated) biblical truth. Consequently, we find Christians who believe that:

  • God created the universe 6,000 years ago (because this is the time-scale that can be calculated from the Bible’s genealogies);

  • dinosaurs and humans co-existed (because this must be the case if the creation stories in Genesis are literally true);

  • evolution didn’t happen; God created the Earth and everything on it in just six days.

  • reality can be changed by the simple expedient of asking God to change it (prayer);

  • God directly controls the weather (omnipotence/divine irritability);

  • Jesus is coming back – with a selection of scenarios available to true believers about what this will be like (the second coming);

  • all unbelievers will be consigned to hell / oblivion / annihilation: again, take your pick (judgement).

There is not one scrap of evidence outside the special book that any of these items of faith are true. None is verifiable, and consequently none has ever been verified (accounts written inter-dependently fifty years after the alleged miracle-man lived don’t count).

There is, on the other hand, overwhelming evidence that virgins don’t conceive; that there is no agency behind the weather and natural disasters; that nothing of an individual’s self survives death and that dead bodies stay dead. This has always been the case and always will be. It was how nature operated two thousand years ago when all of the ‘essential’ items of faith, invented by the kinds of mind that believed earthquakes and floods were deliberate acts of God, were gaining currency.

Though I once did, I can’t subscribe to any of these ridiculously ‘impossible things’ in the vain hope that I might live forever.

Can you?