Why Should Someone Else’s Faith Trump My Reason?

Why Should Someone Else’s Faith Trump My Reason? July 27, 2009

An excellent case for anti-theism from a Daily Dish reader:

Though I would like to believe that I am a tolerant, open-minded person, it seems likely that I fall into the “anti-theist” category of atheists. I would not choose that label for myself, but it describes my attitude more or less. My strong feelings on this matter come from two main observations:

Just because something is possible does not make it probable. I believe that it’s possible advanced aliens exist somewhere in the universe, but I don’t base my policy recommendations on that. I base them on observable evidence from the world, on my limited ability to reason, and on my hope that discussion with others will help refine and ameliorate my ideas. I guess what really rankles is being called virulent and strident when my only crime is not believing that another person’s faith should trump my reason.

1) All the philosophical/theological work on god’s existence or non-existence that I’ve seen doesn’t actually prove very much. Pace Plantinga‘s sleight of hand with modal logic (the premises of which I tend to think are meaningless in a way that eviscerates the coherence of the argument), all the “proofs” I’ve been exposed to end up concluding that it is possible that some god-like force or being exists. Even Plantinga’s modal work merely concludes that some sort of maximally excellent being must exist–but makes no specific assertions about what this being would actually be like in any concrete way.

2) Most of my day-to-day contacts with religious believers, in the context of policy debates and family dinners, center pretty closely on concrete suggestions that religious people make for my life and the policy of this nation. They base their certainty on the contention that their religious persuasion is undoubtedly correct in these matters.

This has been said by other readers, but I hope to add to the conversation mainly by pointing out the gap between what is proven in point 1 and what is asserted at point 2. When I assert that there is no just reason for gay people not to be allowed to marry, or for a woman to be forbidden from aborting her pregnancy regardless of circumstance, I am answered by people who say “it is forbidden because it says so in the bible,” not people who say, “it is possible that a maximally excellent being exists.”

This entire argument is excellent.  And I would only flesh out a couple of the things at work here left unstated.  One is that for too many people the defensible abstract philosophical reasons for concluding that there is justification for talking about some metaphysical principle of “maximally perfect being” or “ground of all being” becomes a license to jump from this vague metaphysical abstraction to a belief in the dogmas of positive religious traditions.  Put simply, coming up with plausible reasons to consider for positing a metaphysical principle does not give you any warrant to posit a divinely intervening personal God who specially reveals himself and secrets of a supernatural realm to ancient desert peoples.  There is simply too great a chasm between defending the “god of the philosophers” on metaphysical grounds well enough to be justified in holding such a position on the one hand and on the other hand believing in the absurdities of allegedly special revelation (or even just believing that those books necessarily contain the right myths about all of ethics and divinity even if they are not literally true).  This is a great chasm treated like it can be lept with a quick and easy hop by those with a vested interest in continued participation in their faith communities.

The second aspect of this transition from metaphysical abstraction to the authority of alleged “special revelation” in the Bible to moral prohibition in the end is the implicit commitment to divine command theory which it betrays.  The perfect being has the right to make anything moral or immoral because of his ultimate power, independent of any objective reasons concerning its harm or benefit to us.  The view of authority is that we cannot figure anything out for ourselves or that we can be corrected by simple “thou shalt’s” and “thou shalt not’s” even where we might be in error.  The idea is either of a God who is not subject to standards of justice independent of himself or of a God who has not adequately equipped us to discern the good without his special book—delivered to only a portion of humanity.

Finally, the point about others’ faith trumping one’s own reason is the reason that a Rawlsean atheism is fair.  We atheists do not ask religious people to accept anything without publically accessible, belief-transcending reasons and we especially do not call for any laws or moral injunctions which would affect them which do not make appeals to the reasons they can share with us.  It is the religious (or at least a politically active segment of them) who want the right to assert things about the world and implement laws and moral rules without appeal to reasons theoretically acceptable even to those outside their faith—a faith that, by definition, that even they realize is not wholly justified rationally!

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