Adventures in Logic: Are believers more rational than non-believers?

The man on the street often insists that non-believers are more rational than believers, but is this a logical conclusion on the evidence?

The modern catnip that only what we can measure is real reduces man to just another evolved organism, with human lives having no more permanent (transcendent) value than other organisms. As just another smarter organism, human reasoning-logic is necessarily reduced in significance. For the modern non-believer, reasoning is merely a skill to be applied to practical problems, and not something that can reveal truth, because there’s no such thing as truth for everyone everywhere. For the believer, though reason isn’t the highest form of knowledge, rightly applied reason is highly valued as a means of informing man about himself, the world, the universe, even the Creator.

How seriously believers take human reasoning is demonstrated by Karol Wojtyla’s Faith and Reason. (He explained that he wished “to reflect upon this special activity of human reason” because “at the present time in particular, the search for ultimate truth seems often to be neglected.”) A modern non-believing philosopher could not produce such a masterwork of reasoning, not because the non-believer is dismissive of faith, not because of a deficit of intellect, but because the non-believing philosopher has consigned reason to just another culturally, socially, psychologically influenced skill.

As to asserting there is no Creator (atheism): to deny the existence of a Creator requires conclusive proof that the Creator doesn’t exist. As the universe is big, and as there are many things we don’t yet know about it, and as many of the things we once thought we knew are now known to be different than what we once thought, insisting there is no Creator is impossible to prove, thus, irrational.

As to accepting trusted testimony: believers readily admit that they accept on “faith” the testimony of people they deem credible, including prophets, apostles, evangelists, saints. Non-believers scoff at beliefs that can’t be physically or mathematically demonstrated, though they readily accept black holes, the retention of fundamental information at black hole event horizons, dark matter, string theory, things they don’t understand, meaning they can’t follow the mathematical proofs themselves. Thus, these “beliefs” become matters of trusted testimony rather than personal observation or comprehension. And even scientists and mathematicians who understand the physics and math concede they are far from a “unified law of everything”.

As to evolution: reasoning believers admit a long evolutionary process, though not a mechanistic process that occurs in the absence, or disinterest, of a Creator. The circular reasoning of non-believers goes something like this: Given enough time and external stimuli, any evolutionary development that doesn’t violate the laws of physics is possible. Therefore, if this or that adaptation or enhancement has occurred, there must have been enough time and/or stimuli. Circular reasoning is a defective argument, because the premise (Given enough time…) is as much in need of proof or evidence as the conclusion.

As to human utopias: believers believe that while human beings do good and heroic things, sin is a part of human nature, so while we should strive to produce just, peaceful, and prosperous societies, creating a utopia on Earth isn’t possible. Those convinced that man can and should “take charge”, that economic, environmental, social, political, technological utopias can be humanly produced produce hells on Earth.

As to living a virtuous life: for the non-believer, how can virtue be anything more than the opportunistic construct of an individual, society, or culture? So, why should right behavior be binding on me if I determine it isn’t in my interest to be virtuous? The best that can be said by the non-believer was said long ago by Epictetus, who taught that because virtue is a path to freedom, man ought to bridle desire. For believers, virtue leads to Earthly freedom and transcendent freedom.

As to the thorny problem of Islam in the modern world: believers can reconcile respect for individual Muslims with rejection of the Muslim socio-religious model, using a logic chain along these lines: since Muslim-majority nations treat non-Muslims as second class citizens or actively persecute them, and as I have no intention of converting to Islam, and as I don’t want to be a second class citizen or persecuted for my beliefs, therefore, I don’t want to live in a Muslim-majority country or Muslim-influenced society. Absent this rational frame of reference, non-believers have to sort through competing considerations: the morass of pseudo-intellectual bigotry, the irrelevance/equivalence of all religions, legal theories, social theories, you name it, leaving most in a muddle, when this question cries out for a clear-headed decision. See post-Christian Europe.

As to Christian sacraments: to the non-believer, sacraments are hocus-pocus, dazzlers to produce sheep-like dependency, a response to a psychological need. The believer subscribes to the “logic of radical dependency”; not just a matter of faith, but also the evidence of history, personal experience, even science. I read about a teacher who was challenged by a non-believing student, insisting the teacher’s faith was nothing but a crutch. To which the teacher replied: “I admit my faith is a crutch, and a very good one. What’s your crutch?” Believers and non-believers alike are dependent, in need of crutches. To many Christian believers, the sacraments are “crutches” par excellence for the sacraments do not just support us but heal and transform us.

As to the logic of C. S. Lewis: Christian believers are challenged by the whole Jesus of the New Testament, especially the Jesus that makes them uncomfortable. C. S. Lewis famously wrote: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” This rational argument shatters the “logic” of those who praise the good teacher Jesus, or the Jesus that agrees with them, but reject the Jesus who makes “outlandish” claims and requires heroic choices, with the subtlest of this selective-Jesus school using textual analysis to—presto—produce the Jesus they most admire, or most desire to disparage.

As to the logic of G. K. Chesterton: non-believers are right to criticize scoundrels within the ranks of believers, including believers in high places, as well as Church scandals and depravities, bringing to mind Chesterton’s scintillating words: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it’s been found difficult and left untried.” When it is tried, we get women and men like Mary of Nazareth, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, John Paul II, William Wilberforce, not weakness, but super-human strength combined with super-human mercy, signs of contradiction, countercultural and revolutionary in every age. This is the logic, the cause and effect, of the intentional Christianity Chesterton is alluding to.

As to the logic of Thomas Aquinas: never in the published arena has there been as ardent a champion of reason as this logician of logicians, who finally subordinated reason to higher things. Leaving his Summa Theologiae unfinished, Thomas is said to have said, “The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” And the pre-Christian Plato talks about knowledge that “does not admit, as the sciences in general do, of exposition. It is only after long association in the great business itself and a shared life that a light breaks out in the soul, kindled, so to say, by a leaping flame, and thereafter feeds itself.” To the non-believer, Thomas and Plato are merely primitive human beings with primitive beliefs, but for those who actually read them, listen to them, ponder their words, they are heralds of truth, piercers of the noise and nonsense that assails us moderns.

The fictional story that depicts logic—symbolic logic, scientifically applied logic, predictive logic—most dramatically and engagingly is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. As a boy, this was my favorite story, but, later, I grew troubled by the idea of a cadre of elites manipulating the rest “for their own good” to create a utopian civilization, using advanced logic not to inform man about himself, the universe, the Creator, but to bridle and manipulate man. Don’t we experience this kind of logic all-too-often today? When we use logic and language not to express truth but to disguise it, we lose the ability to think clearly, and we fall prey to the slavery of euphemism that George Orwell depicts so chillingly.

The dismissal of faith, and, sure to follow, suspicion of human reason, has another consequence, the decline of art in all its forms: visual, musical, literary, poetic. Though modern art may depict pathos, irony, or outrage, when art dare not speak to anything transcendent, it is necessarily diminished, smaller, cramped, and while there are still islands of transcendent art, the non-believing perspective has influenced, if not directed, artistic expression in recent generations, to our diminishment, believer and non-believer alike.

Modern non-believers view reason as a mere skill, with increasingly limited value, while believers see reason as a key that unlocks doors to knowledge and awareness. Believers need not cede the high ground of reason to unbelievers. Far from it, believers on this high ground are able to see further, and sometimes glimpse the highest ground of all.

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About Thomas M. Doran 57 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), and its 2018 sequel, The Lucifer Ego. He has worked on hundreds of environmental projects for four decades. He’s a Fellow of The Engineering Society of Detroit and was an adjunct professor of civil/environmental engineering at Lawrence Technological University.