Is Religion Irrational?

is religion irrational

One of the most common modern beliefs is that science is rational while religion is not. This dogma has been asserted again and again, most loudly by atheist thinkers. I say “asserted” rather than “argued” because, like most dogmas, it is never actually argued for, only assumed. It is simply repeated, again and again, almost as if it were an incantation.

One scientist puts it this way:

Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry with only one science equipped to find real truth.

This is just one example of many similar statements of this belief, this one from atheist biologist Jerry Coyne. It is just another form of the scientistic creed: Credo in scientiam omnipotentem: ” I believe in all-powerful science.”

Coyne has invoked something he calls “secular reason.” No one is exactly sure what this “secular reason” is, but it apparently includes, as he states in a New Republic article, “science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science— every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe.”

All of the disciplines he cites employ intellectual tools that have analogs in science: Mathematics and logic employ formal reasoning skills; history and journalism involve empirical investigation; the social sciences employ research in coming to their findings. They are all broadly “scientific” in this sense.

But why does Coyne exclude religion from this list? In his New Republic article, he says:

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.

“It would appear, then … ,” he says. He speaks as if his view of religion as irrational is a conclusion from some previous reasoning process, but the reader will search for it in vain. Coyne has, it seems, simply defined anything as irrational if it does not conform with his materialist dogma of reality.

But surely one cannot prove something irrational simply by defining it so. Almost every religion offers arguments in its own defense. Christianity certainly does. An atheist like Coyne might say these arguments are invalid or factually wrong, but he can’t just pretend they don’t exist. In his Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius has his character, Lady Philosophy, explain the two ways in which one must question a position in order to show that it is not sound:

[I]f anyone finds it hard to admit the conclusion he ought in fairness either to prove some falsity in the premises, or to show that the combination of propositions does not adequately enforce the necessity of the conclusion.

In other words, the problem with any position is either that the facts it assumes are not facts, or that the reasoning from those facts is flawed: either because its conclusion is derived from false assumptions, or because its conclusion does not follow from its assumptions. These are two very different considerations and must be treated separately.

One of the problems with atheists like Coyne is that they are careless in their use of the term “rational.” Do they mean religion is not logical? Or do they mean it has its facts wrong?

To say that religion does not employ reason is simply to disregard the whole history of Western thought. There are more logical syllogisms in a single page from St. Anselm, St. Augustine, or St. Thomas Aquinas than in whole modern scientific treatises. A freshman student at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century would be able to reason circles around Coyne and his fellow atheists without breaking a sweat.

In his magisterial Science and the Modern World, philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead criticizes the Christian Middle Ages, but not for being irrational. Far from it. In fact, he criticizes the period for being a “rationalist orgy.” Medieval thinkers such as Duns Scotus, the “Subtle Doctor,” are criticized for going overboard on their application of reason to Christianity, not for disregarding it— for making distinctions that were too fine, not for being logically careless.

What about the traditional arguments for the existence of God— the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, as well as the argument from design Coyne doesn’t refute them; he ignores them.

Coyne’s accomplishments in biology may be impressive, but when it comes to rationality he is not in the same league as Augustine, Boethius, or Peter Abelard. And if the problem with Christianity is not the actual logic but the evidence, then what proof do atheists have that religion has its facts wrong?

In the case of Christianity, there is very clear evidence set forth by its apologists. Paul states the one major piece of evidence for Christianity in I Corinthians 15:

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.

So central is the fact of the Resurrection to the Christian faith that Paul states it as a necessary condition for the legitimacy of Christianity. There is a mountain of documentary evidence to support the claim by those who witnessed a resurrected Christ. Simon Greenleaf, who wrote the text that was for generations the standard work on legal evidence in American law schools, wrote an entire book explaining why the testimony of the New Testament witnesses stood the tests of legal evidence. So where is the atheist argument against the fact of the resurrection? Nine times out of ten the argument consists of pointing out that the Resurrection is a miracle and miracles are impossible:

No miracle is possible
The resurrection is a miracle
Therefore, resurrections are not possible

But look at the first premise: “No miracle is possible.” How does an atheist know this? Has he been present at every event that has ever occurred everywhere?

All the atheist has is another dogma. As G.K. Chesterton once put it:

The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.

The doctrine consists of the belief that there are “natural laws” and such laws can never be abrogated. But, once again, this is an assertion requiring proof, and there simply is no proof for such an assertion. In act such an assertion is not verifiable at all. It is a philosophical dogma, a faith statement. If the enemies of religious belief are going to charge their religious opponents with being irrational, they ought to at least have the appearance of being rational themselves.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher  Winter 2018 edition

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