Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Criticizing Religion's Critics: Rationality as Faith

On the heels of a recent issue raised by an atheist blogger, here's a timely essay by Abbas Razza of 3quarksdaily. It is a response to common criticisms against those who criticize religious belief.

What i'm particularly interested in is the author's response to the charge that rationality itself is just another form of religion, therefore, it should not claim any sort of superiority as compared to other faiths. As i understand it, the author explains that while it is true that, at bottom, rationality itself is based on a certain kind of faith, it is still valid to criticize religion on this basis. This is because rationality is sufficiently commonplace that it is able to provide a shared understanding which individuals of varying degrees of belief and unbelief can take advantage of in their communication with each other. It is a common benchmark that can be used to assess the quality of one's beliefs as demonstrated by the author in the following example:

"It is perfectly legitimate of Harris or Dawkins or Dennett to make an argument of the following sort to a religious person, 'Since you agree that sodium and chlorine combine to produce salt, and you agree that X, and you agree that Y, and you agree that Z, ... and you agree that such and such is a good method of deciding these things, and this thing, and that thing, and... then you should also agree that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old.'"

Of course if you take away this shared rationality, then the basis for such communication disappears.


Jawaharlal Al-Zawahiri said...

I've also seen atheism as just another religion, but I agree: rationality itself should serve as benchmark; otherwise, what is there left to discuss? Everything will be both valid and invalid.

cvj said...

Hi JZ, thanks for the visit and the link! This is why i feel that the subject matters of epistemology, ontology and philosophy of science are very important. Compared to the evangelicals, I think the Catholic Church has not done that badly in accommodating its belief system to scientific developments. What i'm curious to find out is what would happen if it turns out that 'Intelligent Design' is indeed true, but our 'designers' (aka creators) turn out to be just a more advanced alien species (with their own biology, but not in any way made of spirit) and that Jesus is one of their number. Will the Catholic Church then be constrained to declare/accept that we should worship him/them?

Jego said...

Although I dont think atheism is a religion per se, I do believe atheism has a theology summarized as "There is no god and here's why..." They seem to be seeking a patent on the word 'rational.' 'Rational' should be applied to atheism alone and theists and deists dont have a right to use it to describe themselves.

Good question on the aliens, cvj. My guess is the Church would revise their teaching to say that the aliens are our brothers who are also created by God and God used them to create us.

lateralus said...

It's not really a religion per se, but more a philosophy. I get your point thought though that atheism is still a paradigm.

Thanks for the link.

Jawaharlal Al-Zawahiri said...

OMG, aliens! Don't get me started. I don't want to think about the possibility just yet.

Jego, that's a nice point - atheism monopolizing the concept of rationality

cvj said...

Jego, i suppose before making a declaration one way or the other, the Catholic Church would have to consult our alien creators on whether they believe in evolution or in intelligent design.

I agree with lateralus characterizing atheism as a philosophy, which i suppose, makes theology a subset of philosophy.

Jego's point about atheism monopolizing the concept of rationality reminds this classic exchange between biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist John Barrow:

"Dawkins also challenged the faith of physicist John Barrow, an Anglican. Like several other speakers, Barrow emphasized how extraordinarily "fine-tuned" the universe is for our existence. Why not just accept that fine-tuning as a fact of nature? Dawkins asked. Why do you want to explain it with God? "For the same reason you don't want to," Barrow responded drily. Everyone laughed except Dawkins, who protested, "That's not an answer!""

I believe Barrow made his point, but i also believe that atheists (and all believers who are rationalists) should, where applicable, concede the irrationality of particular religious beliefs (and practices). We just have to accept that in many areas, faith and reason are incommensurate and build our normative standards from there.

Jego said...

... but i also believe that atheists (and all believers who are rationalists) should, where applicable, concede the irrationality of particular religious beliefs (and practices).

I do that all the time. :-D Although I prefer 'non-rational' to 'irrational'. 'Irrational' makes it sound like it's loony. It's kind of like art. It's non-rational but not irrational.

cvj said...

Jego, fair enough:-) I take your point.

sparks said...

No, rationality itself cannot serve as a benchmark because 'rationality' is itself a construct.

No one can be rational because it presupposes that we as SUBJECTS are separate from reality, that is, we can see reality OBJECTIVELY.

We are not separate from our observable environment, rather we are shaped by it. So we all have different realities. Nobody can observe phenomena objectively. To pretend to do so, and then insist that you're version of reality is universal, is oppressive and oppressing.

I've also posed some questions to benj in this post.

Jawaharlal Al-Zawahiri said...

sparks, correct me if i'm wrong, but isn't that baudrillardian? or or some other frenchman? derrida? barthes? or just a takeoff from einstein's relativity?

cvj said...

Sparks, i guess what you're saying is that there are different (and therefore incommensurate) rationalities? i totally agree with your third paragraph, the biggest implication of which is that everyone has a blind spot. However, i don't think your second paragraph (i.e. no one can be rational...) necessarily follows.

Resty, apart from the references that Sparks may give you, you can look up autopoiesis & structural coupling which i first read from Winograd & Flores book Understanding Computers and Cognition. You can also look up the works of Niklas Luhman. Here's a short introduction of his life's work.

Jawaharlal Al-Zawahiri said...

thanks. oh no, another required reading. too bad, work is getting in the way of blogging.

Jawaharlal Al-Zawahiri said...
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