Being Reasonable

It’s pretty common (and eminently unjustifiable) for atheists to argue that religion is somehow opposed to reason.  One book actually argues that atheists are trying to defend reason from an assault by religion.  Since being reasonable is good, which I suspect most people believe, they want us to be atheists.  Atheism, in their considered opinion, is the only reasonable option.

Now, there are any number of obvious logical flaws with this position–in addition to obvious historical flaws–of the sort that they largely ignore because they’re less concerned with being reasonable than sounding reasonable.  (Sadly, Christians have been far too ready to sound unreasonable by contrast.)  I can’t discuss them all within my thirty minute window, but I thought I’d point out a couple.

The first is (perhaps genuine) confusion between proximal and distal causes.  Imagine that a mobster is found dead in the street.  The proximal cause of his death might be that he was shot.  The distal cause might be that some rival mobster “put out a hit” on him, I believe the language goes.  Now, it’s entirely nonsense to argue that those two causes are in competition.  Nevertheless, this is the position atheists are in when they argue for the non-existence of God based on something like evolution.

They might say something like this, “Since humanity evolved, and we have good evidence it did, then it was obviously not created by any God.”  The truth or falsity of evolution is entirely irrelevant to creation; one is a question of How, the other a question of Why.  The question of How humanity came about is confused for the question of Why humanity came about.

Imagine another situation: let’s say that we’re discussing Susan, a new university student in Paris.  A parallel to the atheist argument might be:  “Since Susan arrived in Paris by bus, and we have good evidence that she did, then she was obviously not in Paris to attend university.”  Again, the question of How Susan arrived in Paris is confused for the question of Why Susan arrived in Paris.  We all know this to be ridiculous.

The same sort of error persists in any argument about the laws of physics, psychology, et cetera.  Having a clear understanding of How, even if we grant that we do always have a clear understanding of How, is largely irrelevant to the question of Why.  In fact it prompts larger Why questions about the very substance of the How.

So if we grant evolution, rather than explaining humanity, we now have an additional question:  why does this elegant unrolling of complexity work?  The beautiful answer that atheists give, and this is provided by the venerable Dawkins, is that it happens slowly.  I think at that point, the most appropriate Christian response is pity.

But there’s an associated error, which is sometimes tied up with Ockham’s razor, or simplicity, or necessity.  For those who are unfamiliar, Ockham’s razor is a pragmatic preference for the hypothesis that requires the fewest assumptions, or at least a balance that pursues the greatest explanatory power with the fewest assumptions.

A bolder form, put forth by someone, is that a premise which is unnecessary is irrelevant.  Atheists argue that they can explain the world and everything in it without having to rely upon God, and therefore since the God premise is unnecessary, it’s irrelevant.

Now, it ought to be evident that Atheists can “explain everything” only if we’re willing to be confused, or to ignore all of the parts that are interesting, meaningful, or complicated.  In short, they can explain all of the simple things and are willing to ignore what they can’t explain.

I’m not talking about ignoring things that are currently not understandable (like the existence of consciousness), or even things which might be obviously skewed to their opponents (like miracles), I’m talking about ignoring things which they’re own method precludes (like choice, or the reliability of Reason).  And this is ignoring the rather significant topic of consequences: what would it mean to live in a world of only How and no Why?

Atheist scientists will sometimes argue that Christian’s worship a “God of the gaps,” relegating to God anything which science cannot explain.  They then point out that science explains more each year, and that the purview of such a God is decreasing.  It’s entirely untrue that Christianity has ever had a God of the gaps, except as espoused by those who were mistaken about God, but atheists themselves serve a truth of the boundaries.  They have set very narrow limits on what premises they’ll accept, and they only call true what can be build from those premises.

And there’s the crucial bit, because they don’t choose those premises based on either simplicity or explanatory power.  They don’t decide based on Ockham’s razor, but on a sort of pragmatic selfishness.  They accept only those premises which require nothing from them.

As it happens, theism is infinitely simpler than the increasingly cumbersome acrobatics that atheists must pursue in order to explain our universe.  The most elegant solution they have is that we’re lucky.  We’re the lucky ones who happen to live a recursion of the universe which supports life.  And we’re the lucky one’s who live on a planet that supports life.  And we’re the lucky ones who benefit from life surviving in spite of the odds, and in fact multiplying and diversifying.  We’re the lucky ones who benefit from life emerging, unbidden and arbitrarily, from unlife.

But Luck isn’t, in and of itself, a simpler premise than God  It isn’t even a premise with more explanatory power.  It’s only a premise that doesn’t demand anything from us.  It isn’t reason that leads people to accept it; it’s fear.  An arbitrary universe is easier to accept than a created one, because an arbitrary universe will never say that I have sinned.

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13 thoughts on “Being Reasonable

  1. “They might say something like this, “Since humanity evolved, and we have good evidence it did, then it was obviously not created by any God.” ”

    We might say SOMETHING like that, but not exactly.

    What we’d actually say is “since humanity evolved, and we have good evidence it did, and we have no good evidence that anything supernatural is involved, we have no good reason to think a god had anything to do with it.”

        • I suppose what I would ask then is that you provide evidence or rationale for your disagreement.

          You can do this however you like, but to be most damaging to my argument you would need to:

          1.) Supply some simpler theory than theism, which nevertheless has the same explanatory power.
          Or
          2.) Show that the explanatory power of atheism is greater than what I suggested.
          Or
          3.) Illustrate a rational reason for dismissing the God premise that is not ultimately prejudiced by a desire to avoid God.

          Or, I suppose you could argue axiomatically, that the supernatural is axiomatically precluded. If you do that last though, you should admit that you’re making an irrational faith claim, rather than arguing solely from where reason takes you.

          In my experience, though I read atheist apologetics as sympathetically as I can, I haven’t found a single atheist who avoids either the errors I enumerated or the irrational faith claim I just suggested.

          • “1.) Supply some simpler theory than theism, which nevertheless has the same explanatory power.”

            This incorrectly assumes that theism has explanatory power. It doesn’t. Or at least, no more than ‘universe creating pixies did it’ does.

            “2.) Show that the explanatory power of atheism”

            Atheism doesn’t explain anything. It’s not meant to. It’s a position on a single issue.

            “3.) Illustrate a rational reason for dismissing the God premise”

            The lack of good evidence for it.

            • 1.) This is factually inaccurate and betrays a lack of investigation. The preponderance of Christian theology explains everything from existence, to society, to personality, to reason. That last especially is something which atheism cannot explain. Even atheist philosophers admit that reason’s efficacy is inexplicable in purely naturalistic terms. They subsequently assume it without explaining it, ignoring the fact that, if it’s assumed, then it’s application to their premises results in contradiction. (Assuming Reason + Naturalism disproves Reason.) So ignoring all the rest, which is a tremendous wealth, theism has explanatory power concerning why science works at all.

              2.) It’s actually a position on a bunch of issues, but we’ll leave that aside for now. The argument is this: We have facts X, Y, and Z which we can prove empirically. By the law of excluded middle, the God premise (we’ll call it T) is either true or it isn’t, so either T or ~T. The atheist argument that atheism is more rational supposes that ~T + X + Y + Z is sufficient to explain all the observable phenomenon. My claim is that T + X + Y + Z explains significantly more. To dismiss T as unnecessary then, you have to show that ~T is at least as effective as T. It isn’t (as suggested above.)

              3.) But here we have either a prejudiced or unjustified statement. There are innumerable evidences offered for God and have been for thousands of years. That you say there are none, or at least that none is good enough, means that you dismiss all of the evidence offered. You need to show a reason for dismissing that evidence. Either you need to a reason for dismissing the evidence for God, or you need to admit that disbelief in God is based not on evidence but on assumption. That latter move is common but not rational. The former move is harder than it seems, as is shown when rational people have been trying for centuries to establish a criteria for evidence that excludes theistic evidence but includes other necessary evidence, and they’ve universally failed.

  2. It also seems to be an a-(Christian)-theism. That is, the arguments you’re arguing against here assume the opponent has a distinctively Christian view of God. Which, obviously is what you care most about. But to argue that a god like the Christian god does not exist, is NOT the same as arguing that no other possible deity exists. Would you say that the main opponents of such atheists, then, are Christians?

    • Excellent point. I do tend to assume a Christian religion. I am most interested in the Christian religion. But then I also think that the Christian religion is the one which most claims to be rational. It’s the religion best equipped to address rational objections with rational answers. It doesn’t hurt that most of the apologetically minded atheists I’ve read are Western, we have a similar ideological vocabulary.

      Maybe I would say that Atheist arguments are directed against a religion like Christianity–if atheist claims are true then the Christian system falls apart in a way that Druidism wouldn’t, so it doesn’t seem likely that atheist apologetics are directed at druids–but are also least effective against Christianity: Christianity has rational basis which druidism doesn’t. Society tends to recognize the former but not the latter.

  3. BTW – My comment was not a criticism of what you were saying, but was intended to expose the weakness of so-called atheism, which is often a-Christian-theism.And I think your point about Xtianity vs. Druidism nailed it!

  4. Honestly, I am tempted to accuse you of attacking a straw man, but I give you the benefit of the doubt.

    Personally, I have never heard an atheist citing evolution as evidence against god. Even most Christians I know personally accept evolution – and stay Christians. The only thing that evolution contradicts is Creationism, but not religion itself. Evolution does not say anything about any god (except for the one who personally creates animals out of thin air, perhaps) and thus is as good for disproving god as is gravity (“because god doesn’t need to keep things on the ground personally”?).

    Of course, there are two problems with the question “Why”?

    a) It assumes that there IS a “why”, implying that there has to be a conscious reasoning behind it, instead of just pure chance.

    b) The answer “god” is completely random.

    • As the most obvious example of a prominent atheist who uses evolution as an argument against God, I would cite Richard Dawkins. But I agree, I know numerous people who accept both evolution and Christianity. But evolution isn’t actually central to my argument. The issue is of atheists suggesting that that atheism is inherently more rational than theism and citing science in support, assuming a contradiction where none exists. If there are those who understand that science doesn’t disprove Christianity, then they’re obviously not perpetrators of the error I discuss.

      As to why… Yes, I’m assuming that there is a Why, because it’s normal to assume a Why. Now, if there’s a logically consistent position which explains both the natural world and all the Why’s the humans ask, that would seem a superior position than one that can explain the natural world only by suggesting the Why questions aren’t important. That is to say, you have to begin with the assumption that Why doesn’t matter, which is a prejudice one cannot prove. That’s one of the things I meant in the paragraph about ignoring those things which fall outside of the evidence we find favorable to ourselves, so that we can ignore any evidence which is unfavorable to ourselves.

      And it would be interesting to unpack why you think a God premise is more random than any other premise. Lets say that, in the mob hit I discussed, we find out that the dead mobster had been seeing the other mobster’s wife illicitly. In a sense this might seem random, in so much as it isn’t logically implied by the scenario of the gunshot mobster, but that “randomness” doesn’t effect either it’s plausability nor it’s truth value. For those we judge based on whether it’s consistent with the rest of the evidence, and whether it has explanatory power. Do we have evidence that the dead mobster wasn’t seeing the other mobster’s wife? Does this explain something, such as providing a motive for the other mobster?

      I would argue that the God premise is both more consistent with the rest of the evidence than the “No God” premise, and that it has more explanatory power.

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