Is There a Difference Between Theist and Atheist “Irrationality”?

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Defining “Irrationality”

It seems to me there’s a difference between theists’ and atheists’ ideas of “irrationality.”When Christian apologists speak of reason and rational thinking, more often than not they’re talking about the practice of moving from carefully evaluated evidences and premises through a valid process of logical reasoning to a sound conclusion. They’re talking about reasoning. Irrationality, for apologists, is typically definable as, applying unsound and/or fallacious reasoning.

In my experience with leading New Atheist authors and in online debates, more often than not their conception of reason and rational thinking is that rationality is defined by rejecting all knowledge that cannot be acquired through empirical methods, preferably scientific. Irrationality for them is often definable as, concluding that the supernatural exists when there is no empirical evidence for it.

I am not saying that atheists care nothing for logical validity, but rather that (in my experience) they tend in practice to make empiricism primary, and to subordinate the quality of reasoning processes to the acceptability of the reasoning outcome.

I’m also not saying that theists never commit the same error. I’m saying rather that the most prominent anti-theistic apologists do seem to do it much more than the leading theistic apologists. I say this with full recognition that I can’t demonstrate this through any quantitative analysis. In my reading, however, of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Coyne, Krauss, and others of their tribe, I have seen much more emphasis on “you must rely only on empirical results” than “you must exercise reason validly.”

Atheist Irrationality

Disclaimers made, there is folly in what I have observed as atheists’ outcome-centered way of assessing rationality: it encourages people to consider themselves rational if they deny the supernatural, regardless of how they reached that conclusion.

Here’s how I explained it in chapter five of True Reason.

Harris’s image of rationality needs a closer look, however. A complete analysis of the term is beyond the scope of this chapter, but clearly it cannot just be a matter of holding one set of beliefs and rejecting another. In fact, it cannot even be defined simply as holding true beliefs and rejecting false ones. Suppose George believes the earth is round. That’s true, but is it rational? We can’t answer the question until we know why George believes the earth is round. If he believes it (as most of us do) because trustworthy authorities agree on the matter, that’s rational. But maybe George believes it because he likes basketball, basketballs are round, and therefore the earth is round. That’s irrational.

Suppose on the other hand Antonius in 7th-century Italy believed that the earth was at the center of the universe. He was wrong, but was he irrational? I don’t think so. Based on the best evidence at hand, and the overwhelming consensus among authorities on the subject, he drew an appropriately rational conclusion. I do not mean that he came to the right conclusion, but that there is nothing to indicate a flaw in his reasoning processes. He simply lacked important evidence.

Current discussions here serve as an illustration of this effect, if I read them right. I’m naming names here, and I trust I’m being fair even if I’m also being forthright with my opinions. Knowing how my own cognitive biases could mislead me, I conclude this post with an invitation to be corrected if and where I’m wrong. It is an honest invitation and I ask you to read this with that in mind.

You can read the discussion for yourself in its original location, starting at comment 45, but I really advise you to refer to this shorter summary page where I’ve lifted out just the most relevant passages, with some commentary along the way. Here on this page I’m including the bare minimum to be able to identify what I’m talking about.

Circular Reasoning

The discussion there is still in progress, though I won’t be surprised if this part of it moves over here. Here’s where it stands, with respect to the portion I’m looking at.

Bob seems to be saying there are no supernatural explanations for anything. That’s a common enough opinion. The interesting question is, how does he get there? First, though, how do I conclude that that’s his position? He wrote in #87,

If substantial evidence pointed to a supernatural explanation and it became the scientific consensus, I’d have no option but to accept it as the best provisional explanation of the truth.

To require scientific consensus is equivalent to saying that they must be explanations in the natural realm, not the supernatural realm, since that is the only way they could achieve such consensus.

This is circular reasoning, as I wrote in #96 there. His defense? “I wasn’t talking about the supernatural explanation that wasn’t.” True. He wasn’t talking about supernatural explanations at all. He was defining them out of existence instead. He was announcing his conviction that the only evidence he would accept for supernatural explanations would be evidence that they were not supernatural explanations.

A Surprising Lack of Response

I find it fascinating that Bob hasn’t so far actually responded (at least not directly) to my charge of circularity. Unless I’ve missed it, he also hasn’t tried to identify any logical fallacies in our side of the argument. He seems to be satisfied with his conclusion, regardless of the logic that got him there, and he seems dissatisfied with ours, regardless of the validity of our logic.

His main objections seem to be, I’m not interested in that argument, which is hardly a response; I’ve written about the flaws in the Transcendental argument, which none of us has been arguing; and you have no empirical evidence for your position, which translates to, your evidence for your position doesn’t support my position so I don’t accept it.

(Again, please see the supporting summary page where I show how this seems to be the case, and note also my closing paragraph in this blog post.)

Further Into Fallacy: A Conclusion that Requires No Evidence

The implications of this go even further into fallacy.

Bob is saying that if there is evidence for supernatural explanations, it’s actually evidence for natural explanations instead. So if there is any evidence for any explanation, it is evidence for a natural explanation. By definition, there is no evidence for any supernatural explanation. Therefore Bob can conclude without even examining any evidence that there are no supernatural explanations. He seems unaware of the dangers of conclusions that can be reached without any evidence—though I’m quite sure that in other contexts that’s the charge he would bring against Christian theism!

See how this works out in action. If we bring him evidences for such explanations—as several commenters did in all the comments I skipped over—he can say, as he did in #58, “You can make that claim. I don’t find it compelling.” That was it: no further explanation, no reasoning, just “I don’t find it compelling.”

(He did make reference to something he had written elsewhere on the Transcendental Argument, which unfortunately had nothing whatever to do with the discussion we were having. See #58 and #59.)

By the apologists’ definition of rationality (see above), Bob is demonstrating irrationality at this point. He’s relying on circular reasoning and evidence-free conclusions.

Concluding Thoughts and Questions For Bob

Now at this point I need to back up and acknowledge I’ve done very little reading in Bob’s own blog. I don’t know if he has a definition of rationality there, and I don’t know whether, if asked, he would give a definition matching the “New Atheist” definition I gave above. I do know that he thinks we Christians are playing fast and loose with evidence; for example,

The problem, of course, is that no open-minded person interested in the truth comes at the question with a bias that they’re trying to support. Rather, they set their beliefs and assumptions aside and go where the facts lead. Whether they like the consequences of that conclusion or not is irrelevant. The solution is easy: go with the flow. Follow the facts where they point, and the problems answer themselves.

Christians, be honest with yourselves. If your worldview is nonnegotiable, admit it—to yourself at least. In this one area of life, you don’t much care what the evidence says. But since you didn’t come to faith by evidence, don’t expect that evidence to convince someone else.

It’s good advice for Christians; it’s also good advice for Bob Seidensticker. I think I’ve shown here that he has created the opportunity (at least) to deny the supernatural regardless of any evidence. I think I’ve also shown that he’s committing irrationality in the form of fallacious (circular) argumentation, and that he has persisted in it as if he is content with it, or as if he doesn’t recognize it for what it is.

I could be wrong. It’s certainly my opinion, and at this point I believe it’s accurate, but I’d prefer to treat this as a dialogue, not a pronouncement. What do you say about this, Bob? Do you see (or do you agree) that there is circularity and evidence-free conclusion-drawing in your comments here?

Update: Bob posted a comment answering the charge of circularity on the previous blog post. I responded here. I do not think he has escaped the charge.