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I’m not an Atheist or a Religious Rationalist

But I have a hard time making a firm commitment on “religion.”

I know I’ll disappoint some of my skeptically minded friends by noting my hopeful agnosticism weighs in the direction of theism and universalism.

What I understand as “rationalism” is what man’s reason discovers pursuant to the laws of evidence, empiricism, objective rules of logic and fallacies. 2+2=4. A is A.

Thomas Aquinas and philosophers who followed in the philosophic tradition of “classical theism” (like Samuel Clarke) held that man could reason his way to “God.” (Ed Feser, in my opinion, does a notable job at defending the philosophical basis for classical theism.)

Even if we accept that man can reason his way to something above him (let’s call it “suprarational” in the same way that animals are “subrational”; or perhaps something(s) merely “rational,” but more advanced, like aliens) given what we currently know, reason cannot and will not lead to specific ultimate truth answers. And the different religions teach or tend to teach the need for belief in those specific places.

But maybe later we will learn more (hence the importance of the philosophical way of life, and to keep one’s mind open).

So for example, at the funeral of my beloved late paternal grandmother, who was agnostic or nominally religious for most of her life, only to return to Roman Catholicism after being diagnosed with terminal cancer (my other beloved maternal grandmother was a cradle to grave devout Roman Catholic, with a gentle but unshakable faith) the Monsignor inquired as to why “we” (my immediate family) weren’t practicing Catholics in good standing with the Church.

A contrarian, I replied something like “maybe I like what the Protestants teach better.” I was 18 and the Monsignor already in old age, of course had an answer (paraphrasing): “You shouldn’t be looking for what you ‘like,’ but the truth … and the Roman Catholic Church teaches the truth; the Protestants do not.”

The philosopher in me, of course, respects the Monsignor’s admonition to look for the “truth.” However, I was not and am not convinced he arrived at the proper destination. Though I do concede or at least believe the place he (as with my two grandmothers) arrived was “in good faith.” Therefore, I can’t imagine a just God or whatever holding it against them.

So, even if we concede — and it’s a big concession — certain “theistic” or “Christian” common denominators, the different particular sects tend to demand arrival at their specific destination. This is why I believe Pascal’s Wager is refuted. I know of a great deal of Protestant fundamentalists who would damn Roman Catholics qua Roman Catholics to Hell. Just as Muslim fundamentalists damn non-Muslims. And some Roman Catholics too (though hopeful universalism seems to have taken hold in conservative Roman Catholic circles) damn all non-Catholics. So it’s not just about choosing between belief and non-belief, but choosing the correct one among numerous doors.

How to tell which door? That’s something to which “rationalism” can’t answer. If you examine the debates between and among the different religious sects, one sees they can be quite rationalistic in how they argue. They must grapple with a vast knowledge of religious texts and historical understanding of such. And they must synthesize that data through the rules of logic and so on.

If they make blatant logical fallacies, misstate facts, or otherwise seem not aware of pertinent facts, their opponents will call them out and potentially make them look like buffoons. And indeed ignorant buffoons abound in abundance.

And, whether they argue their case well, they invariably use objectively sounding language like “I have refuted my opponents points and proven that Roman Catholicism is false, Calvinism true.” Now, maybe the Roman Catholic really did lose the debate. Maybe the Mormon won. The truth is what it is regardless of whether its advocates well argue the case.

(A sophist with a lie can beat a Forrest Gump with the truth according to the strict rules of “rationalism.”)

But we could narrow our look at what “the best” have to offer. We can view multiple live performances and examine their multiple written words. I confess, over the pass decade I’ve done a great deal of this, taking seriously religious arguments many of my skeptically mind friends do not. Closely watching the debates.

Here is what I have found: The folks who believe in traditional Christianity (i.e., Roman Catholics v. Protestants v. capital O Orthodox; 5 Point Calvinists v. Arminians who deny all 5 of those points, and on and on) cannot refute one another on rationalistic grounds (in terms of “we prove our conclusion” and so on). Regarding those “supernaturally” inspired books, supposedly “revealed” in a “God speaking to man” sense (which books belong in a “canon”) rational argument can’t settle which ones authentic (belonging in the “canon”) which not (that don’t). (How many books are there in the Bible? 66? 73? Or some other number?)

Rationalism is important in one sense: To test. If someone says “the Bible teaches that a giant Giraffe temps man in the Book of Genesis,” rationalism says no, it wasn’t a Giraffe, but rather a snake or some kind of serpent. Rationalism can also observe such things as “you have made a non-sequitur, your conclusion does not necessarily follow from the facts presented.” For example, if Jesus’ body was seemingly deceased but then disappeared, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he was an Incarnate God. He could have been an advanced, created Being. Or something else.

But still, some assumed truth can at a general level appear to meet rationalism’s tests. And once so apparently meeting, there is no one necessary place where such truth specifically terminates. Rather all sorts of different, incompatible, contradictory truths that apparently meet the test of rationalism (or certain shared assumed premises) can presently argue one another to Mexican Standoffs.

Roman Catholics can’t refute the reformed Protestants, who can’t refute the capital O Orthodox Christians and all of them, vice versa between and among themselves. But they aren’t the only ones. There are lots of others who we could add to the bunch.

Likewise, an advancement in discovery of knowledge can change the rules of the game. (The “game changers.”) Think about places in the past when knowledge of later discovered truths weren’t known. How does one believe in E=MC squared if it hasn’t yet been discovered? Before it was discovered such a truth was in “black box.” So I endorse belief in “black boxes.” Black boxes as “gaps.” As in “God of the gaps.” Or “aliens of the gaps.” Or “atheism of the gaps.” And so on.

Later I will elaborate more on the concept of mysticism. That when rationalism hits a wall, mysticism can perhaps transcend.

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86 thoughts on “I’m not an Atheist or a Religious Rationalist

  1. I think you need to keep in mind that logic and reason are only tools. Like a calculator. If your goal is truth a calculator is a fine tool. It is also a fine tool if your goal is to cheat on your taxes.


  2. I’ve never given much thought to god. As one religious person said, it’s about faith. Well, I ain’t never had it, but I’ll damn well respect those who do, assuming they aren’t just phoning it in. In general, I have tried to live a life that was filled with morality and honor. I’ve not always succeeded, but, should god exist, and I’m to be judged, so be it. I’ll not shirk from that.


    • I’m similarly faith crippled and this encapsulates my personal view pretty well. I’ve always resonated to the agnostic creeds response to the challenge of if God exists:
      “I don’t know and neither do you.”


    • How are we defining “morality and honor”?

      The best definition I can generally come up with on short notice is something like “the traits that the gods that I would like to believe in would like me to act in harmony with” but that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

      Though it’s better than Nothing.


      • Examples:

        I’m a man of my word. If I say I’ll do something I do it.
        I’ve rarely broken a promise.
        I rarely break the the law–at least the “real” ones, but I won’t let obedience to “the law” prevent me from doing what’s right.

        You want more?


          • Because that is the way I “should” live my life. It seems correct to me. There is no religion around it, unless you call some vague generalized cultural christian background, a “religion”, coupled with some remnants of the Old South manners and tradition, and a smattering of some other undefined stuff.

            Other people, of course, are free to live how they like. How they choose to do so is none of my concern, unless it impacts mine.


  3. Jon,

    As an agnostic who leans toward (something like but also unlike Christian*) theism, I look forward to reading your future thoughts on the subject.

    At first glance, I think I share your views about the limits of rationalism, assuming I understand correctly what you’re saying. I’m a big fan of C. S. Lewis, even though he has a lot more, er, faith in rationalism than I do. I will say that his “rationalist” arguments tend to be for me the least convincing aspects of his aplogetics. What I do like is that what he writes seems to resonate on a certain level once one gets passed his “trilemma” and his literary-historical proofs for the gospel’s authenticity.


    *I’m leaning toward believing in something that I’d call the “grace principle,” which Christians, for example, would call “Christ,” and some Buddhists would call “Enlightenment,” and believers in other traditions would call something else. That’s a sort of universalism–whether it’s the type you lean toward or not, I don’t know. And there are a lot of problems with my leanings. For example, I could, presumably, read something like a “grace principle” into almost any religious or even non-religious text, but there’s always the possibility that I’m forcing that interpretation onto a tradition where it doesn’t fit or is only one of several possibilities.


  4. I appreciate this post, I figured I would let you know!

    I do find the idea of a “god of the gaps” kind of silly, however. This idea presumes that god and knowledge are mutually exclusive, which is an absurd premise. It also, presuming that knowledge is finite, concludes that any such god is perpetually diminished, which strikes me as an absurd conclusion.

    I also don’t think that something like E=mc^2 is “discovered” so much as this is a synthesis of already existing observations that allows for clearer communication – like, if you were to say something along the lines of:

    “Frogs move. Frogs feed on organic matter. Frogs are comprised of many nucleated cells that have mitochondria.”

    and Einstein responded with: “Frogs are animals.”

    I agree with commenter above that logic and reason are tools, much like math and statistics. It remains to be explored whether or not logic and reason are tools that apply only to the human condition or whether they are universal, as math and statistics seem to be.


  5. I’ve read and heard quite a bit of theistic reasoning and a lot of theodicies. They often stand tolerably well in the realm of the strictly philosophical but have certain glaring weaknesses.

    -First and foremost none of the theodicies I’ve heard can attach to any of the actual functioning religions and faiths that operate today. The God they can logically defend is not the God that working religion prays to. Interestingly it seems like the Catholics seem to be aware of this on some level as they seem to be trying to sidle or inch incrementally in that direction.

    -Second, and practically, the God that can be philosophically defended is strictly supernatural or outside of observable nature and his only logical there fore’s are similarly mental and esoteric. This presents a serious problem, again, for working religions because working religions make significant temporal and material claims and demands on the faithful.

    So when a theist rolls up and proclaims “God exists!” I’ll nod somberly and say “Okay, assuming you’re right- so what?” If the theist replies:
    “God loves you, so you should strive to be kind to yourself, the world around you and your fellow human beings.” or some such similar spiritual stuff I can admit that the theist is standing on tolerably concrete philosophical grounds.
    But if the theist says:
    “God loves you and we have a direct line to his desires for how the world works and you should do physical thing X, physical thing Y and contribute financial thing Z.. oh and you are forbidden to do physical things A,B and especially C.” Those are some extraordinary claims with no logical hitch that holds them to a philosophically defensible god and I tend to dismiss them as a nutbar.

    God may exist, but if he does his existence holds very few natural implications for our material world or material actions.


      • I’ve seen nothing in the groundwork for Pascal’s Wager that actually supports the premise that believers are more likely to be rewarded and non-believers punished, vs. the believers being the ones unwittingly signing their souls over to an otherworldly slave master…


        • You skipped ahead to Section III. Turn back to Section II.

          While the Pensées are merely fragments, and therefore don’t contain the whole of his thought or reasoning, a pretty good rule of thumb when it comes to Pascal is this: if you’ve thought of it, he’s thought of it.


          • What’s more, the Wager is more specific than just “A coin toss between God and no God.” It is made within a context defined by two parts: a.) Christian faith (including scripture) and b.) “Natural lights,” reason, Natural Philosophy (science, broadly). The wager is frequently misused, as often by atheists as by theists, but Pascal’s version is immune to most of the criticisms lofted at it in large part because it’s not doing any of the things people seem to think it is. Recall that it’s given in a (fragment of a) dialogue, between the voice of the Christian and the voice of Natural Philosophy which says that it is impossible to know either way. In other words, it is specifically between a Christian and an agnostic. The Christian, arguing within the context of Pascal’s views on Nature and God as the Redeemer, says that simply by the fact of our being, we have to make a choice (Pascal the proto-existentialist!), and then presents his famous finite waged vs potentially infinite gain argument .

            I admit that even as an atheist I find it pretty powerful.

            And wow, it’s been so long since I had to defend Pascal around here that this is the first time without TvD hovering around.


            • Well yes, if I understand right it sets out as a premise:
              – that there is only a choice between belief in the Christian God and no belief in any god whatsoever – other religions aren’t worth considering
              – that Christians are right about what their God does to believers and non-believers upon their deaths (up to and including Lovecraftian scenarios)

              But I don’t think those premises are defensible, or at least not adequately defended. I realize I’m not the first to think of this – I think Diderot beat me to it by some time.


              • Yeah, you’re still not to Pascal yet. First, he’s not having a conversation with you, your doubt is too great. But more importantly, the infinite reward, no matter how improbable, and no matter how many potential alternatives, would in that calculus still make one choice more rational. Since the infinite reward is admitted to be uncertain under “Natural Lights,” with its uncertainty overcome by infinity, no amount of making it more uncertain will do. One would have to show other potentially infinite rewards (which would be tough, given the conception of God we’re working with which, though Christian, is a philosophical one, or show that the cost is infinitely greater than Pascal posits it to be, which would also be difficult without some heavy metaphysical lifting.


                • I readily acknowledge that my doubt is too great for Pascal to reach me – in fact, it’s not even doubt, I just don’t think it would be remotely possible for me to ever hold a genuine faith in an Abrahamic deity.

                  I don’t know it’s all that hard, I can come up with all manner of scenarios where an infinite punishment for believers is more likely than an infinite reward. Here are a couple:

                  There is one God, and he is right pissed at those Abrahamic weirdos for the slanders they’ve been writing about him for lo these many years. Therefore:
                  – Those who believe in the true conception of God are infinitely rewarded (the only people qualifying belonged to a small tribe of Neanderthals; their knowledge has not arisen again on Earth)
                  – Those who do not believe in God at all are judged on their actions alone
                  – Those who believe in a wrong God (i.e. everyone who currently believes in any God) are punished in accordance with how wrong they are, and the Abrahamic religions are among the worst

                  There are many gods, and we are delivered to whichever one we believed in
                  – Believers in the Abrahamic God are left to the mercy of a being that very much wanted us to believe in eternal damnation for everyone that doesn’t believe in it. Sounds fun!
                  – Believers in other Gods are confined to the eternal theocracies of those Gods.
                  – Atheists and agnostics are left to their own devices, and have freedom to migrate between various secular democratic afterlife countries.

                  Fundamentally, I’m with on this – any god that will make decisions about my immortal soul based on whether I believed in it is a petty vindictive little git, and unlikely in the extreme to be the only god (otherwise why the insecurity about follower counts?). Its ‘infinite reward’ is probably a lot like North Korea, and I’ll do without, thank you very much.


                • Short version:

                  One would have to show other potentially infinite rewards (which would be tough, given the conception of God we’re working with

                  Waddaya mean “we”? Pascal was working with a conception of God I don’t share. He can’t move me because I don’t accept that his lever has a fulcrum – all he can do is poke me with a stick.


    • This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.


      • I went to give 5 points to Gryffindor but the ledger read “+5 points to the Black House that has no name around which the disembodied voices sob without end” and I tore out and burned that page of the leger. Sorry Chris.


    • I’ve always thought that if we are to take Pascal’s wager seriously, we’re probably better off believing in something along the lines of a Lovcraftian god. Those are the types of gods you don’t want to be on the wrong side of. Why believe in kind, fatherly god “just in case” while risking pissing off something way scarier?


  6. Damon:
    I’ve never given much thought to god.As one religious person said, it’s about faith.Well, I ain’t never had it, but I’ll damn well respect those who do, assuming they aren’t just phoning it in.In general, I have tried to live a life that was filled with morality and honor.I’ve not always succeeded, but, should god exist, and I’m to be judged, so be it.I’ll not shirk from that.

    Why would you respect faith? I think faith is epistemological madness that has corrupted any religion that requires it. I cannot logically prove that there does not exist a god that requires faith. I can say that if such a god exists he can kiss my a–.


    • Because if someone has a true, honest, real faith in a higher being, and is living their life according to that faith, I will respect them for taking that path. I may disagree with it, but I will not belittle their faith or their actions. Now, if I find out the are a hypocrite, that’s another story.

      All people are due a certain level of respect, until they earn the loss of it.


        • Depends on how this person goes about it.
          If he’s “Smite the infidel at the point of the sword” then you resist them with force and word.
          If he’s “Smite the infidel with intricately crafted arguments” then you rebut him with words and reason alone.
          If he’s “Smite the infidel with relentless pamphlets and earnest sermons” then you turn off the lights and pretend you’re not home while rolling your eyes.


        • Is this scenario in the US or outside of it? “Cause if it’s outside of it, I really don’t give a damn. Other countries are free to order their society however they so choose.

          If it’s here, I’m really not seeing people being forced into certain religious organizations against their will.


          • The question isn’t is someone being forced into faith. The question isn’t even about respecting a persons right to faith. The question is is honest faith in itself worthy of respect.

            I say faith is epistemological madness that will degrade anything that it attaches to. I would also defend a persons right to their faith.


            • I’d say honest genuine faith is worthy of a certain base level of respect. You can respect a persons’ faith while doing absolutely everything you morally can to prevent it from spreading and to try and roll it back. Hell, my personal experience says you’ll be much effective at fighting it if you do so.


              • Faith is, for the lack of a better word, evil. I can treat a person of faith with respect simply because they are human. I’m certainly not going to follow them around heckling their epistemological choices. But the respect they get is disconnected from the fact of their faith. It gets them no extra cookies.


                  • It isn’t a point of faith so much as an aesthetic choice partly rooted in utilitarianism and partly rooted in a desire to know truth. Faith corrupts and destabilizes anything it touches.

                    As I said above I cannot disprove the existence of a god that requires our evidence free faith. I can say that if he exists I will oppose him as I would the devil.


                • – I have similar feelings about faith. But I have a question for you. Do you believe in free will? If so, is that based on anything other than faith? IF so, what?


                  • I don’t believe in belief. I would rather talk about evidence. The problem with free will is that it isn’t even defined well enough for there to be any evidence. There is no proposed mechanism nor any way to measure free will assuming it exists. Is the universe deterministic? No but it isn’t clear how that helps. Is free will compatible with determinism? I would say no and suggest attempts to make it so is a silly word game.

                    The central mystery isn’t free will anyway. The central mystery is the fact of experience itself.


                    • Fair enough. The reason i asked is many who point to faith as a mark against religion (which includes almost every agnostic or atheist I know) seem to give it a pass as they declare their belief in free will. When challenged, they quickly like to change the subject, as their belief in free will is somehow out of bounds. I don’t know the answer either, but I do like to point out that particular inconsistency, if for no other reason that its a great way to get someone who claims to have no faith to accept that maybe they do.


                      • My experience is that atheists are far more likely to deny free will. I don’t do that either. Until a testable well defined question is asked the question isn’t ripe.

                        I also don’t use the word “agnostic” although technically I am one. But I’m agnostic about santa clause in the same way that I am agnostic about god. Technically you cannot know anything with absolute certainty but at some point you stop sweating the details.


        • It may very well…but as I said above, “Other people, of course, are free to live how they like. How they choose to do so is none of my concern, unless it impacts mine.”


  7. I have long thought the Greeks had it right with their Olympian pantheon. The world is run by a committee, and its members are working at cross-purposes.


  8. Jon isn’t alone in his difficulty.

    There actually is wide ranging debate within the non-fundamentalist Christian world about the universality of belief and the ability of us to grasp it or make sense of it. Specifically the Pew poll showing the decline of mainline religions has prompted a lot of soul searching and debate.

    I’m taking religion classes currently, and one of the people we have been discussing is Phyllis Tickle who has advanced an idea that every 500 years or so there is a major upheaval in the Christian religious world leading to a schism and realignment and that we are witnessing it now.

    Richard Rohr has done a lot of amazing writing about nonlinear Christian theology, and Diana Butler Bass has written about spirituality without religion, specifically about the younger generations who don’t have an attraction to formal religion but feel a desire for transcendence.

    Tickle especially has been very pointed, challenging the Christian religions by asserting that they can’t really offer a coherent set of thoughts about their own religion- they can’t convincingly explain what a person is, what a soul is, or what Jesus was atoning for or how it worked.

    One of the ideas that all of these people have put forward is that science has both challenged and confirmed certain religious ideas.
    While the old understanding of the physical universe was demolished by Newtonian physics, modern quantum physics has shown the world to be a radically stranger and non-linear lace than imagined. The Trinitarian idea that things can be and not be simultaneously may very well be true for example.

    I don’t have it all sorted out myself, but there is definitely something going on, where more than a few people are wrestling with these thoughts.


    • The whole Jesus sacrifice simply sounds like a pathetic loophole to me.

      Either is justice to turn me over to eternal torment (or whatever. Christianity has an internal debate going on here) or it isn’t.

      Putting an aspect of yourself (or a third party) through 3 days of the torment doesn’t change that.

      If you want to offer someone mercy/grace you can just do it. Punishing an innocent person before accepting a person’s sincere repentence is monstrous.

      I have been expecting no after-life for decades now. Doesn’t make life meaningless to me.

      It certainly doesn’t take anything from the joy I feel while watching my son giggle and smile.


  9. “the Bible teaches that a giant Giraffe temps man in the Book of Genesis,”

    Man, even back in the day management was chipping away at workers’ rights.


  10. Chris:
    Yeah, you’re still not to Pascal yet. First, he’s not having a conversation with you, your doubt is too great.

    This is interesting (to me, anyway). So could one say that Pascal’s wager is intended for those who already believe? As in, “Ok, so you’ve decided that you believe in God. Now, which god is it that you believe in?”


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