God Fails a Simple Rationality Test

September 21, 2010

Religious believers try to rationalize God, but it never works.

Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us how religion takes advantage of deeply emotional and primitively cognitive centers of the human brain. But explaining how religion can get lodged in the mind is not the same thing as saying that people are reasonable to believe in a god.

Belief in a god fails any minimal standard of ordinary rationality. Like the kind of rationality we expect from eighth-graders. Only common sense sanity, of the sort we normally expect from adults and even teenagers, is sufficient to show why God-belief is irrational. Yes, religion often contradicts science and demands faith in things science could never approve. Even worse, where religion is concerned, our very capacity to be reasonable is at stake. You don't have to be crazy to be religious (though it helps), but you do have to set aside the ordinary rationality expected from you in all other areas of life. Why should religion deserve an exemption from reasonable standards of sanity?

Let’s look at the sort of common sense rationality we expect from sane adults (indeed, what we expect from even teenagers). Rationality is most carefully expressed in logic, but it isn't necessary to explain logic first. Everyone ought to be able to follow a few simple rules, and in fact they usually follow them in everyday life. If a parent's eighteen-year old borrows the car and returns home with the car's front bumper damaged and a headlight smashed out, that eighteen-year old had better have some sort of rational explanation. Imagine if the eighteen-year old said, "It's just a mystery, you, know, one of those mysterious kinds of accidents." Or he said, "The car just hit another car all by itself." These are not explanations. 

The common sense rationality we expect from each other in daily life could be expressed in a variety of ways. Let me suggest just SIX BASIC RULES of ordinary rationality that we apply to explanations. If an "explanation" violates one or more of these rules, it really isn't an explanation at all, but just a fraudulent and failed rationalization.

1.  Don’t accept mere mystery: Reject an “explanation” that consists simply of putting a label on something beyond human conceptualization or comprehension.

2.  Don’t accept contradiction: Reject an “explanation” that requires a logical contradiction, since that creates another mystery.

3.  Don’t accept repetition: Reject an “explanation” that requires the prior truth of the explanation, since that repeats the mystery.

4.  Don’t accept mysterious causes: Reject a “causal” relationship between two things that have absolutely nothing in common, since that creates another mystery.

5.  Don’t accept arbitrary justification: Reject an “explanation” where reasons given in its support can equally support rival explanations, since that leaves more mystery.

6.  Don’t permit unjustified exemptions: Reject an “explanation” that requires special exemption from a rational principle used to support the explanation, since that increases mystery.

To apply these rules to religion, consider religious believers who think that their belief in God is reasonable, because their God is needed to explain something or another. We hear these kinds of rationalizations from believers, but do they pass the rationality test?

We can't consider all the typical rationalizations for God in this essay, but an illustration gets us started. One favorite thing that believers say is that their God deals with all the vast mystery that surrounds us. Atheists get scolded for forgetting how little we actually know -- believers claim that there really is a God, out there beyond the reach of human knowledge! To show how to apply the SIX BASIC RULES of rationality to a religious rationalization, let's look at ways that this religious appeal to mystery violates reason.

The Mystery Argument for God

Supernaturalism proposes that a God really exists out there in the mysteries beyond human knowledge. The skeptical atheist points out that there probably is only more nature. Is it rational to believe in God?

a.  The supernaturalist cannot simply label the mystery as God (violating Rule 1).

b.  The supernaturalist cannot prove God exists instead of just more nature. No one can point to such deep mystery and then claim to know that God is out there in the mystery (violating Rule 2).

c.  The mystery itself cannot supply enough evidence to decide between supernaturalism and naturalism, so supernaturalism is a hasty conclusion (by Rule 5).

d.  Where science now falls short of full explanation of everything, proposing God as the needed supplemental explanation only adds mystery (violating Rule 1 again).

e.  Demanding that we accept God now rather than wait for more scientific explanation only assumes that science can never explain some things which religion can (violating Rule 6).

 Well, we could continue, but you can get the idea how to criticize the religious believer's admiration for mystery. Appeals to mystery get the religious believer nowhere -- nowhere rational, that is.

In future essays, other rationalizations for belief in God will be compared against the basic rules of ordinary sane rationality. Religious believers had better ask themselves, are you as rational as a teenager?