I was in a discussion with some Christians recently who assured me that their beliefs were based on reason. A few centuries ago, such an admission would have likely earned you 10 lashes or worse by the disciples of some of Christianity’s preeminent theologians, but that was before the Enlightenment and all the goodies it produced. Today, reason is seen a Good Thing™, and many religious strive to show how it’s in fact on their side.
I’ve previously argued in Reasonable or foolishness?, when it comes to Christianity at least, the theology denigrates reason (e.g., “man’s wisdom”), extolling faith instead, which proved itself extremely useful for defending any belief, no matter how crazy or unsubstantiated. Here I want to broaden my argument to explain why religions that preach retribution for non-belief cannot in fact lay claim to being reasonable.
To see why, consider the following thought experiment. Suppose I come up to you and claimed evolution is true. Perhaps you believe me right away, or perhaps you want to make up your own mind; after all, lots of people tell you things that don’t turn out to be true. Go ahead and do that, I tell you, but if you arrive at any other conclusion besides mine, I’m going to throw you in jail, where you’ll rot for the rest of your life.
Most people would immediately see the problem here. Have I in fact allowed you the luxury of reason to investigate and believe my claim? No, I haven’t, because I’ve really only one given you one choice, and that’s to simply accept the claim that evolution is true. Even providing you with what I consider rock-solid proof of evolution doesn’t alter the calculus in any way. When I threaten you, I automatically remove reason as an allowable means to accepting my claim. I’ve in effect determined your choice. If you were truly free to exercise reason, I would have to accept its outcome no matter what, even if I considered you gravely mistaken. Punishment for arriving at a wrong conclusion turns reason into a thought-crime.
So when believers like Christians or Muslims contend their faiths are based on reason, one may simply object that this can’t be so because their god in fact doesn’t allow it. Using reason to arrive at any other belief than the correct one will earn you an eternity in hell. Thus, reason is in reality an evil to be avoided, as Martin Luther concluded a long time ago. Blind, unquestioning, and unexamined belief is what the theist’s retributive god truly desires, not a belief grounded in reason. Some theologians have essentially acknowledged this, asserting that certain theological beliefs must simply be taken for granted, or presupposed.
In my next post, I’ll show why reason is explicitly excluded in religions like Christianity.