Why religious people are rational, too

Be it hubris or imprecise reflection, one of the most common fallacies of the “new atheists” is the belief that religious people fail to apply reason to their positions. A large collection of atheists gathered this weekend at the inaugural Reason Rally. After hearing some of the speeches and some of the sound bites captured by a ReasonTV reporter, I came away a little afraid.

The gentlemen selected for their positions on religion were almost cartoonish in their hostility and/or submissiveness. Naturally, there were plenty of pictures of the worst thing to ever happen to religious freedom, the Wesboro Baptist Church zombies. But, taken together, the implicit message seems to be a complete marginalization of anyone who is religious.

The message is: religious people don’t think, but we do.

Now, let me be clear. I’m an atheist. I’ve arrived at my position through a long process of consideration of the beliefs I’ve held and their individual impact on the entire syllogism framing my world view. Since the time when I first questioned the likelihood that fossils were part of an orchestrated plot by the devil, I watched, over time, the individual points supporting a theistic world view fall away. I was following Thoreau’s advice and living an examined life, applying logic as best I could as new evidence was factored into the overall argument.

The young who now embrace atheism seem to think that all religious people take a different approach toward their journey for truth. For some, especially the aggressive evangelicals who evoke the concept of liberty to protect their school prayers and then discard it readily to deny same-sex couples equal protection under the law, I would agree. But this is merely the most sensational of the bunch.

Jefferson was moved by the watch argument, which might explain why — as Hitchens pointed out in his essay “The Private Jefferson” — deism was the next evolution (ironically) that Jefferson and many of his peers could take from theism. But Jefferson was, in fact, using reason to arrive at his deistic position. He was deducing, via a teleological argument, that observation of design suggests a designer.

His methodology was completely based in reason. But his syllogism was flawed because, as we learned many years later through Darwin, this apparent design wasn’t necessarily designed at all. There was a new option, supported by new evidence. The apparent design that we see (and Jefferson saw) was, in fact, a condition of nature that had changed dramatically over massive periods of time, from the elemental and simple into the increasingly complex.

A creationist argues that evolution is “just” a theory (I’ll avoid getting into the whole scientific meaning of “theory”). OK, sure. This is true in the sense that evolution is an assertion supported by new observations – evidence that Jefferson did not have during his lifetime. If he did, it might not be unreasonable to suspect that Jefferson might leapfrog from theism over deism directly into atheism.

Even today, most religious people do exercise reason. They sit in the same chairs that women who are ovulating sit. They don’t murder non believers (again, most religious people). And they don’t hurl stones upon people who eat stone crab. (I wish I was making this stuff up.) The explanation as to why most modern religious folk (at least in the U.S.) don’t follow the letter of biblical law is because they exercise rational judgement.

The problem that religious people face today is not that they’re irrational. It’s that many simply refuse to apply this same rational examination to other areas of their beliefs. They won’t look at or listen to new evidence. Many will not apply the same standards of critical thought that they apply to Red Lobster as they do to say, evolution, because it would completely collapse their metaphysical world view.

What we atheists (or agnostic-atheists, for those not ready to make the semantic leap) must do, then, is show religious people how a rejection of theism won’t cause McDonald’s to start serving McBaby burgers. Natural rights, and the subsequent ethical code that follows, require no supernatural origin. They are, as the Founders suggested, “self evident.” (More on that to come.)

Perhaps a little of the religious’ own wisdom might help a believer you know slow down and consider the evidence that you have.

Jeremiah 5:21 – “Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; who have eyes, and see not; who have ears, and hear not…”

After all, even us rational people can be foolish sometimes, too.


About SWIRLosopher

The SWIRLosopher is Sean Trapani, a professor emeritus of advertising who - despite a degree in philosophy - has abandoned all reason and is trying to make a living in the wine business.

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