Thursday, December 02, 2004

Monotheism and Rationality

A couple different thoughts I had recently coalesced last night. I suspect these ideas are neither new nor original, but I have decided to bless you (you being no one, as I suspect no one is reading this blog) with my thoughts anyway.

I went to visit my grandfather for Thanksgiving this year. My uncle, now in his fifties, never moved out of my grandfather's house. At some point he became a hardcore Christian. (I hesitate to label him as fundamentalist or evangelical, because he has some odd differences in belief from either group, but his beliefs are along those lines, with the "If you don't accept Jesus as your personal savior you will go to Hell," "Evolution is wrong and Satanic," among them). Now, he is basically waiting to die so he can go be with Jesus.

Anticipating the inevitable attempts by my uncle to convert me, it occurred to me that I really shouldn't bother trying to have a rational discussion with him. You see, he pretends to want to have a rational discussion, as theists adhering to one of the religions of Abraham (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) tend to do. He presents the newest, dressed-up version of one of the old arguments, which he read in some book or magazine, claiming that the argument is rational and scientific and therefore I should believe it.

But, the other day, I realized that he is actually acting in bad faith from the very start of the discussion. He is presenting an argument that he claims is rational and therefore should be believed, as if we are going to be having the discussion in a rational framework where the rational has weight and the irrational must be dismissed.

But he's only pretending to inhabit that framework, because the argument he is presenting has no affect on his faith one way or the other. When I spot the logical error in his argument and the argument unravels, he neither questions his faith nor admits that his faith is irrational. His faith was never based on the argument he presented or on any other rational argument. He asserts that reason can lead one to God in an attempt to convert me, but reason did not lead him (or any other theist, I would contend) to God and cannot lead him away from God either.

As such, no rational argument I could possibly present would alter his beliefs. When faced with a rational argument he cannot counter, my uncle simply flees the realm of reason altogether and hides behind irrational claims like, "God works in mysterious ways" and "No one can know the mind of God."

Though I think having demonstrably irrational beliefs is foolish and dangerous, I have no right to tell my uncle he can't have such beliefs. But he is disingenuous when he agrees to play by rules he actually has no intention of respecting. You can't ask someone to play a game and then abandon the rules of the game when you don't like the way the game is going. Why would you play basketball with someone who only intends to honor the score if it is to his advantage, but otherwise intends to deny that baskets are the proper measure of victory? Agreeing to play by a set of rules when you have no intention of doing so is virtually the definition of bad faith.

So, it occurred to me that, before entering a discussion about God with a theist, I should ask the theist only to present to me arguments that are actually the foundation of their faith, and which, if disproven, could actually affect his or her faith and beliefs. If the theist is honest with him- or herself and with you, the theist should admit that there are no such arguments. His or her belief is based on faith and not reason. If not, and the theist presents an argument in bad faith anyway, the nontheist can save him- or herself the time of refuting yet another irrational argument for theism by ending the conversation right there by pointing out the theist's bad faith.

Coming at the same idea from a different angle, I began to wonder why discussions with theists are basically just an exercise in spotting logical flaws in the theist's irrational arguments rather than any sort of true debate. True debate only takes place when your opponent presents a sound argument, which theists never do. Why?

Then, I realized it stems from the same place as the bad faith issue. The problem is that the theist, having decided a priori that the concept of God is rational, attempts to present a rational argument for God's existence. But it is impossible to present a rational argument for an irrational premise. The various arguments used by theists all beg the question by assuming a rational definition of God when no rational definition has been presented or agreed upon.

Until the theist can present a rational definition of the term "God," rational discussion is moot. Since the definition of God loosely agreed upon by the followers of the religions of Abraham is internally inconsistent and inherently contradictory, I doubt that any definition a follower of one of those religions would recognize as "God" would prove rational. In fact, statements such as, "God works in mysterious ways" and "God is unknowable" are tacit admissions that the theist's concept of "God" is irrational and cannot be explained within the context of reason.

Since the classic concept of God in the tradition of Abraham is not rational, naturally the arguments used to prove "God's" existence are irrational as well.

Nontheists make a mistake by engaging in (supposedly) rational discussions with theists. We give theists the benefit of the doubt where theists have not earned it and, in fact, have proved themselves unworthy of benefit of the doubt over and over throughout history.

So sayeth Mark.


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