Response to Kevin Vallier: Um, no, Christian belief is not reasonable
I am a huge fan of the website Bleeding Heart Libertarians. It’s one of the few blogs I read that is genuinely intelligent and intellectual, and while that’s probably because I don’t read too many philosophy blogs, it also makes it one of the most enjoyable. Unfortunately, every so often you get a dud. And, even more rarely, you get what can only be described as a rotten egg.
Earlier this week, public reason liberal anarchist Kevin Vallier posted Christian Belief is Reasonable, So Respect It. His basic thesis is that atheists and other irreligious folk need to give a ton of more respect to Christiansand the Christian religion.
I’m a big believer in reasonable pluralism, the notion that there are deep, pervasive disagreements about morality, politics and religion that are the unavoidable result of practical reasoning in a free society. That means I think there are non-culpable rational disagreements about all sorts of things that really matter.
But since I’m planning a series of religion posts in 2014, I thought it worthwhile to defend one of the applications of belief in reasonable pluralism that will be critical to those posts.
I believe that a reasonable, rational and well-informed person can believe in a revealed religion. That is, she not only affirms a scheme of transcendent values and a complex natural theology, but belief in a divinely inspired set of social practices and sacred texts. I am fairly confident that one can be a reasonable Confucian, Buddhist, Muslim or Jew. Due to my familiarity with Christianity, I am extremely confident that one can be a reasonable Christian.
This means that many atheists, in particular New Atheists and Objectivists, should treat the beliefs of people of faith with far more respect than they presently do.
In the above selection, the italicized parts are Vallier’s own emphasis, while the bolded fragment is my own emphasis. I intend to draw attention to the word “reasonable,” because it is upon this the crux of this argument is being made. Now, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, reasonable (in addition to the meanings of “fair, moderate no extreme or excessive”) means “being in accordance with reason.” What is reason? George H. Smith, in his seminal book Atheism: The Case Against God, identifies reason as:
“Reason,” to quote Ayn Rand, “is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.” It is by abstracting the immediately given concretes of his experience into concepts, and integrating these into still wider concepts, that man acquires knowledge and surpasses the ability of lower life forms.
To qualify as knowledge (i.e., as a correct identification of reality), a belief must be justified; it must warrant acceptance by rational standards. If a belief meets the requirements of these standards, it is a rational belief; if a belief cannot meet the requirements–but is adopted nonetheless–it is an irrational belief.
Specifying criteria for knowledge is a complex and controversial task, and one which we shall discuss in more detail in the following chapter. For the present discussion, we may indicate three minimum requirements that must be fulfilled before any belief can claim the status of knowledge: (a) a belief must be based on evidence; (b)a belief must be internally consistent (i.e., not self-contradictory); (c)a belief cannot contradict previously validated knowledge with which it is to be integrated. If a belief fails to meet any or all of these criteria, it cannot properly be designated as knowledge.
Knowledge, of course, is basically reason’s raison d’etre. So here we have a pretty good foundation for what is reason, and thus, what is reasonable.
Vallier has three central points he addresses. His first point is theism:
The first foundational belief of the Christian is theism. It is simply obvious that theism is reasonable to anyone who is acquainted with contemporary philosophy of religion. Nearly all atheists in the literature acknowledge that theistic belief is at least sometimes epistemically justified.
Wha-ha? “[T]heistic belief is at least sometimes epistemically justified”? And this is acknowledged by “nearly all atheists in the literature”? Perhaps I have not read enough atheist literature, but this seems to me to be a rather spurious claim. Who are these atheists? When and where did they write these things? Vallier does not provide these names, so already his argument is looking weak. (Remember, evidence.)
His other point, that theism is “reasonable to anyone who is acquainted with contemporary philosophy of religion” also strikes me as rather weak. Theism is the belief that there is a god or gods who exist. Now, on the surface, this to anyone sounds like a valid claim, even if untrue. (Note that I’m not really using the word “valid” as expressed in logic.) But here comes the problem: what is (a) god?
Most people I’ve asked this question either start laughing (as in, “How can you be so stupid you don’t know what god is?”), or given me stares and/or start sputtering. (One answer was “God is god” with a nervous chuckle, as if the person saying it knew the tautology involved and it had started to crack their faith.) But the question is an important one: what, exactly, is god? As George H. Smith notes, if someone started claiming that an “unie” exists, the first thing you would do is not say “Prove it,” you would say, “Just what the hell is an ‘unie’?” As such, we need to know what, exactly, is entailed by the word “god”.
Alas, this has been a search that has been undergoing since the beginning of human civilization. You can ask innumerable people what god is, and come away with innumerable answers. This is one reason why there are so many monotheistic religions, but also within these religions so many sects, denominations, and divisions. This is not like libertarianism, where we have differences over what is the best way to achieve liberty, and what liberty in practice would mean; no, this is far deeper. At it’s core it’s that we really have no definition of god to begin with.
Many have gone through the argument that there is no coherent definition of god; George H. Smith goes into it in such depth in the first part of his book that I think it really should have been titled Igtheism: The Case Against God.. I will not reproduce Smith’s work here, but suffice to say there is a great deal of doubt as to what, if anything, the word “god” really refers to. One point is the idea that “god” is incomprehensible, lying beyond our reason. If that is the case, then by definition, belief is unreasonable. Another point, then, is to give “god” “unlimited attributes”, such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence. But these don’t make any sense whatsoever. How could you have these unlimited attributes, when an attribute in and of itself consists of a limitation, of a definite quality? How can there be existence without limitations when existence is defined by limitations?
So theism is not reasonable. By entailing a belief in something that is inherently unknowable, incomprehensible, and defies reason itself, it is unreasonable. You wouldn’t start believing me if I told you that we were all seeds from a celestial kumquat that cracked itself upon the world to spread salvation. Why, really, should we then believe in the existence of a “god” or “gods”? At least we know what a kumquat is. We have no clue what a “god” is.
Of course, Vallier preempts any of this by saying:
Note that you needn’t think that theistic proofs are successful to think that at least one version of one of them can be rationally affirmed by an honest person. If so, then theistic belief is reasonable. Don’t dispute me here. I’m in good company with Leibniz and Aquinas.
Vallier does not tolerate your pathetic dissent. He just dismisses it entirely. Here’s his problem: as I pointed out above, by definition, theism isn’t nreasonable (and also isn’t rational) so while an honest person may affirm it, it would not actually be a rational decision.
Perhaps this is because I am not acquainted with the contemporary literature of the philosophy of religion. Maybe I just need to get a proper education in this topic. Or…maybe it’s because the philosophers of religion aren’t half as smart as they think they are. Just a thought.
Moving along to his second point, Vallier says:
The second foundational belief is that the Gospel reports of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are reliable. Many of you probably think the Gospels are not reliable sources of information about Jesus, given that they are full of miracles and were written long after Jesus’ death by unknown individuals. That’s fine. But is your view so ironclad that a reasonable, informed person couldn’t disagree?
I think there is significant doubt as to the veracity of the Gospels. First, even though Vallier says that the gospels were written within a generation of Jesus’ death, the earliest point around when they may have been written was 50 A.D.–twenty years after Jesus died. More reliable dating by historians point around after 70 A.D., forty years later. And these were most definitely not written by eyewitnesses, but loads and loads of heresay. Now how can these be accurate? The Associated Press frequently gets things wrong minutes after they occur in a society where we have advanced technology, education, and data verification systems. Imagine trying to get the truth of something decades after it occurred in a society where irrigation is considered a bloody miracle and you think the Earth is flat.
Is my view “so ironclad that a reasonable, informed person couldn’t disagree”? Again, this gets back to what is reasonable. Resurrection is just flat out unreasonable, and I would think any reasonable, informed person would agree on that. As for the life and death of Jesus, I am not one of those atheists who says that Jesus flat out did not exist. Rather, I think there was probably a man named Jesus who did some things, was probably a social reformer and agitator, and was executed by the Romans (and backed by corrupt Jewish authorities) for his trouble. Out of his life story, without modern inventions like video and rigorous journalism and historical documentation, a tale of a divine man emerged. Mixed with previous religions who had similar resurrection stories for their divine heroes, Jesus became the son of “god” (again, whatever that is) and a new religion was born. Indeed, the most prolific promoter of Christian, Paul of Tarsus, didn’t really start proselytizing until long after Jesus was dead and the truth was in doubt.
And so what if the Gospels were written within the generation of Jesus’ death? Eyewitness testimony is notorious for being of dubious value, and that’s before we get to the truly weird stuff. If someone was saying they just saw people abducted by aliens, you would either think they’re talking about the Mexican drug cartels or were just crazy. That would be the reasonable response, at least at first.
Lastly, Vallier addresses the Trinity. This is one of the most problematic components of Christian theology, for even though Christians stridently advocate there is only one god, they worship at least three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the Trinity–that’s a journey best undertaken by people who have the time, energy, and willpower to do so–but a good summary is that the Trinity is a doctrine riddled with contradictions, holes, and much philosophical jury-rigging to get it to fit with everything else. To believe in this would also be unreasonable, as nothing is clear nor consistent, requirements for reason.
In summary, then, no, the Christian belief is not actually reasonable. Theism itself is rather unreasonable, being as it is a belief system centered around one or more supernatural entities that are undefinable. In addition, neither the Bible nor the Trinity can save Christian belief from unreasonableness; indeed, if anything, they only doom it further.
This is most emphatically not to say that we should disrespect individual Christians, whether in public or in private. To paraphrase a popular Christian saying, “Hate the belief, love the believer.” I have made it known on this blog where I stand with regards to the antics of such organizations as American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well as all those local atheist groups who vandalize or do really dumb things regarding Nativity scenes. I do not believe in taking a combative approach, especially not in public. But if you’re in a private, or at least less public setting, and someone is telling you that they’ve made a decision based on (or worse, that you have to do something because of) something that a magical being that we cannot know told them, you would obligated to say, with a straight face, “Kevin, that is absurd.”
That is different from disrespecting the individual. You are pointing out that their point is ridiculous. Pointing out the ridiculous is not disrespect, but if it be disrespect, then make the most of it. We do not suffer outrageous statements and beliefs. We tolerate them for a time with children, but gradually help them grow out of it. We tend to regard anyone who seriously believes in fairies or unicorns as being either in jest or somewhat unstable. The same goes for libertarians who have discovered a bona fide socialist in this day and age.
Yet perhaps the very fact that theism is unreasonable is why it still lives. Perhaps Marx was right about the masses needing their opium. Is there a psychological or–dare I say it–spiritual need for a belief in the unbelievable? Do people need something in their hearts that exists beyond the realm of existence itself in order to give them some grounding, something to help them survive this existence? I think that’s probably the case. Just as fiction fulfills the role of “catharsis,” or release, so too does religion. (Now watch as some atheist wanders in here and says “Well duh, religion is fiction…”) So that is all well and good. The point of theism is that it is unreasonable, and humans need a dose of the unreasonable to get them through life. But that does nothing to make the belief itself reasonable or rational.
This is also, of course, before we get to some of the truly dark things about Christianity, especially those derived from its Judaic ancestry. Disobedient children are to be put to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), while those who mock a bald man are to be ripped apart by bears (2 Kings 2:23-24). How about killing women who are being raped who don’t scream hard enough? (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) Or subjecting wives to their husbands unconditionally? (Ephesians 5:22-24) Or how about cutting off your hands and feet that may give you temptation? (Mark 9:43-48) And let’s not even get started on Abraham almost murdering his son Isaac, because a voice in his head told him so. Against all reason, he takes his son up the mountain and gets ready to kill him there as an offering.
These are not only unreasonable, they are morally repugnant.
Of course, modern Christianity does not generally follow these points, yet they remain within the Bible and are not any less Christian for it. They are, of course, unreasonable, and that, more than anything, is why they are ignored.
Again, I want to reiterate that I do not advocate disrespecting individual Christians or being out and out assholes to them. But to argue that Christian belief is reasonable is a fool’s errand. It is built upon a foundation of irrationality and unreasonableness, and for many centuries openly attacked reason as being the Devil’s bride. For many people, that is the point.
I would suggest to anyone interested in reading books on atheism firstly the excellent Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith, with the warning that it is quite deep. Part 1 focuses on claims about the existence of god; part 2 is a massive, in-depth exploration of faith vs. reason; Part 3, which I haven’t gotten to yet, examine the positive arguments for god; Part 4 looks at practical consequences of belief in god. I would also recommend Richard Carrier’s Why I Am Not a Christian, an easier to read book that goes through four major reasons why Christianity does not work: god’s silence, god’s inert state, the wrong evidence for a supernatural being, and ultimately that we are just in the wrong universe for such an entity. (I understand Carrier is associated with the Atheist+ movement, which I reject, but his book is sound. His other book, Goodness without God is, to put it mildly, a bit boring. I only got through the preface.)
tl;dr: Um, no, Kevin, Christian belief is not reasonable, and I don’t really have any reason to respect it anymore than I have a reason to respect a genuine belief in fairies.
Update: Jason Brennan of BHL quotes a response to Vallier from another blogger, and underneath the quote makes this important statement:
I’m posting this because I saw similar types of responses in the commends to Kevin’s previous post. And I wonder if Richard [the other blogger] and Kevin are actually disagreeing here. I suspect–and I invite Kevin and Richard to correct me if I’m wrong–that Kevin is talking about reasonableness, but Richard is talking about epistemic justification or epistemic rationality.
Kevin claims that religious belief and theism, or at least certain instances of them, are reasonable. “Reasonable” is a technical term in public reason liberalism. Just what constitutes reasonableness is a big topic the PR liberals debate, but they all build into the concept of reasonable that reasonable beliefs are to be respected by liberalism. A reasonable objection has to be defeated; an unreasonable one doesn’t. A reasonable lifestyle has to be accommodated; an unreasonable one doesn’t. A reasonable claim has to be heard; an unreasonable one doesn’t. Etc.
In addition, PR liberals tend to hold that the category of the “reasonable” is broader than the category of the epistemically justified or the epistemically rational. Many beliefs that are not epistemically justified or that would be epistemically irrational to hold (because they are held in violation of the correct epistemic standards, whatever they are) are still reasonable. The standards of reasonableness are less demanding than the standards of epistemic justification.
Now I feel kinda dumb. I should have been the igtheist and asked just what Vallier meant by reasonable, but I figured I had a good sense of what reasonable is. Yet he’s not talking about reasonableness as reason at all; he’s talking about a technical term within the school of public reason liberalism. Moreover, this term isn’t even really defined; it seems to be a bit fuzzy. This is why asking for definitions and setting grounds for discussion are so important. Especially now that it looks like “reasonableness,” in this context, is functionally meaningless.