“Rationalizing Christian”?


“Stephen” commented on my introductory post, Finally–A Blog For You!,

Maybe this website should be renamed “the rationalizing Christian”. That’s not the same as the “thinking” Christian, but the name seems to fit based my first impression. When we talk about “thinking” we generally consider that our thinking falls out on a spectrum between good and bad thinking. Certain values come into play to make that evaluation. One important one (my evaluation) is that we don’t rationalize. I’m using rationalizing to mean defend our beliefs. In science and philosophy, this is not “good” thinking. Unless our beliefs are honestly on the chopping block, we can only achieve rationalizing – confirmation bias – we are not really thinking or really learning. This is a tremendous challenge to religion, or the religious that think there can be something beyond faith, something called “thinking”. Why did the word “faith” emerge if it wasn’t to make noble, stuff that goes on in our head that does not qualify as “thinking” or “reason” or warranted assertion?

I’ve relocated his comment here with his permission.

Global Skepticism?

I didn’t get a chance to inquire how he acquired his first impression. His analysis of thinking is fine, except that I’m not at all sure that defense of beliefs is equivalent to rationalization. Scientists and philosophers defend their beliefs all the time, and do so legitimately, based on solid evidences and reasoning.

To place all of our beliefs on the chopping block is to practice global skepticism. Have I been alive more than five minutes? I think so; I don’t think I was created moments ago with the illusion of a past. But if I have to have all my beliefs on the chopping block, then I think that means all.

Some beliefs just don’t belong under the guillotine. We don’t need to doubt our existence, our humanness, our basic history as persons, certain moral facts, the value of knowledge, and much more. Consider whether this belief should ever be placed on the chopping block: no belief is immune from the chopping block.

I don’t think we need to be overly tentative as to whether the sun is an astronomical object that provides energy to the earth. We needn’t doubt that light travels faster than sound. We don’t need to wonder whether Napoleon or Washington lived in the early modern era.

Faith Is Belief Built Upon Knowledge

There are some, though, who place religious belief in a separate category, compartmentalized away from actual knowledge. There are some who consider faith to be what’s left over after knowledge comes to an end, or even that it’s “believing in something you know isn’t true.” If that were so, then Christianity could never really be thinking but only rationalizing, as Stephen seems to suggest is going on here.

But this is false. Faith is belief built upon knowledge, and credibly so. My preferred illustration is the faith I had in my wife when we married. I knew her, but not as a wife. My knowledge of her as a friend was real, but it was faith in her that led me to commit to her as her husband.

So it is with God: we have lots of information about him, from Scripture and from the world around us, and that’s what we build our faith upon. So of course thinking applies both to the generally available information and to the wisdom of going beyond it in faith. As it turns out, there’s little need to Jesus lived. The facts line up very, very strongly behind that.

And while there actually is room to question whether he performed acts his contemporaries regarded as miracles, that he was killed on a Roman cross, and that after his death his followers had experiences they took to be resurrection appearances, conservative and skeptical scholars alike tell us there is every good reason to think those things actually happened. Christians can think about these things without rationalizing.

The Confirmation Bias Problem

Stephen correctly points out that confirmation bias is a tremendous challenge to religion. He seems to imply, however, that it’s unique to religion, or perhaps that religion is at least somewhat more susceptible to it than science or philosophy.

It’s wiser, though, to think of it this way: whatever beliefs or opinions we hold to be at the core of our person, on those beliefs or opinion we are most subject to confirmation bias. Secular persons, skeptics, and atheists hold core beliefs (or opinions, if you prefer) just as much as Christians do. Rationalizing is just as possible in science as in religion.

So why did the word “faith” emerge? Because it fits the epistemic attitude of one who believes there is a God, that God is good, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, that God will do good for persons in the future, especially in eternity.

Why does Stephen think this is opposed to thinking? Why can’t I think about such things? Why can’t rationality be applied to them? (Why are so many atheists so <a href=”http://book.truereason.org/excerpt”>maladroit at reasoning</a>?)

I wonder whether Stephen is guilty of his own confirmation bias. I wonder whether he’s willing to place his beliefs about “faith” on the chopping block. I wonder if he’s rationalizing, if when he sees actual instances of Christian thinking he sets it aside as something else. I wonder whether certain values of his come into play to make that evaluation.

I wonder if he’s open to really thinking and learning on this topic.

What say you, Stephen?