Reason and belief

faithreasonIn the March 2013 issue of Quadrant, “one of Australia’s leading intellectual magazines,” Michael Giffin made a plea for rationality in his article The Church, Its Enemies, and Child Abuse. He points out that “unfortunately (the media) reports (child abuse) in a way that, in the public mind, links it predominantly with the Catholic Church, as if that’s the principle institution with a case to answer.” Michael Giffin is a priest in the Anglican diocese of Sydney so one can assume that he is not a mindless defender of the Catholic Church. Instead, he is pointing out the dangers in a very complex and emotional discussion. “It’s hard not to feel danger looming, when listening to (ostensibly educated professionals involved in identifying and prosecuting child abuse) as they bounce back and forth between rationality and irrationality.”

The source of the danger

My friend Father Brendan Purcell is a respected professor of philosophy. He has examined the source of dangerous irrationality in an article on Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist. He uses another atheist’s own words to convict Dawkins of the very crime that he and the author accuse believers of. Richard Dawkins quotes Sam Harris, another atheist who wrote: “‘We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them “religious”; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad’, ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.'” [1] Father Purcell then uses three quotes from the distinguished modern philospher Wittgenstein to point toward the irrationality in Dawkins and Harris’s own position:

  • It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.
  • We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life remain completely untouched…
  • One keeps forgetting to go right down to the foundations. One doesn’t put the question marks deep enough down. [2]

Brendan points out that Dawkins is being at least inconsistent if not irrational in his position. “Would Harris or Dawkins find that there is ‘no rational justification’ for these experiences of Wittgenstein? If there is even a possibility that they might be valid, it does not make sense to call them delusions, with all that word’s connotations both of a serious lack of interest in intellectual inquiry and a fear that such experiences may not in fact be true at all.” [3] Why would educated, even brilliant professionals like Dawkins, or the others that Michael Giffin refers to, “bounce back and forth between rationality and irrationality”? I think my friend Brendan points directly at the source of the issue — “fear” of the consequences of following rational argument wherever it may lead. Dawkins is afraid that there may be a rational case for religious belief. The professionals that Michael Giffen refers to — lawyers, scientists, lobby groups and others engaged in the child abuse issue — are afraid that they might have to admit that as an institution the Catholic Church is no more guilty of child abuse that many other secular organisations.

The quest for authenticity and truth is the antidote for such fear

The basic stance of rationality is that a person should remain open to the implications of the evidence  of his/her experiences. The challenge is ‘remaining open,’ as well as recognising that one may have prejudices and biases like every other human being. Bernard Lonergan calls this situation ‘general bias.’ He writes, “To err is human and common sense is very human . . .Common sense is incapable of analyzing itself.” It takes rigourous self-discipline to examine one’s commonly held beliefs, and to arrive at one’s authentic beliefs. Lonergan describes the journey toward authentic belief as “always precarious, ever a withdrawal from inauthenticity, ever in danger of slipping back toward inauthenticity.” [4]

I think it is clear that authenticity is not a state easily obtained. All human beings must engage in a lifelong quest for truth, which they can genuinely and authentically “bet their life on.” I admire Father Purcell’s gentleness with Richard Dawkins, in surfacing what Dawkins may have great difficulty in admitting to himself — that a belief he has espoused his entire life may not stand the test of reason. Brendan is being a true pastor in his gentleness, encouraging Dawkins to “rethink” his position on God, to be open to a very different possibility and to “bet his life” on the truth of that.

Every Christian must engage in a quest for authenticity. Our beliefs can become ‘common sense,’ especially today when we are surrounded by a culture that holds materialism and success in such high regard. Why not go along with these secular beliefs, at least part way, and achieve a measure of comfort and worldly success? Doing this allows us to provide a safe, secure and comfortable life for ourselves and our family. That can’t be bad. Nonetheless, we must deal with the demands of being a Christian if we are going to be authentic. “Take up your cross and follow me” is a pretty clear invitation from Jesus. (It is no longer seems to be a clear demand of many Christian churches sadly.) Our quest for authenticity must include this aspect of the kingdom; else we have invented a pseudo-Christianity to make ourselves feel good. The quest for authenticity always involves suffering; how do we include that possibility in our lives? To me, the only answer lies in prayer — God forgive me for I am a sinner. Help me to see how to live according to your Holy Will.


 [1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, 149e; Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 62e. I owe the suggestion of these Wittgenstein references to Edward Oakes: ‘Edward T. Oakes and His Critics: An Exchange’, First Things 112, April 2001.

[3] Brendan Purcell, Dawkin’s Fear of Reason

[4] Bernard Lonergan, A Second Collection


One Reply to “Reason and belief”

  1. It’s good that you are identifying the basis of most arguments of an atheist is the fear of being wrong, that there is a rationality for religious belief.

    I get closer to understanding how you are developing a potential for discussion between atheism and religion, in terms of living a moral life. You’ve brought in an important aspect of atheism’s beliefs that those who carry the cross for Christ put themselves into a position where child abuse becomes more prevalent, it’s the Church’s fault, therefore atheism prevails.

    This is one of many types of arguments that are the supports for atheism even existing.

    As long as there is an understanding that this is what atheism is based upon, this is the type of individual we are addressing, then I am happy to follow you thoughts in not only trying to discuss issues with them but pray for them, too.

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