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?



#1 Olemanrunin (Guest) on Wednesday September 22, 2010 at 7:57am

Complexity, mystery.

Relationship, community.

Faith, belief.

Who said anything about knowing/knowledge?
Faith is experiential…a choice - not an argument.

God, an enduring presence? Wholism, whole brain?

Religion? Faith communities?

Rationalism, arrogance?  One sided, left brained?


Knowable? known and unknown…

#2 Dave (Guest) on Wednesday September 22, 2010 at 1:17pm

Great.  The one-line summary is great.  “If a God wants us to believe, that God demands irrationality.”  The only question, then, is whether that’s a problem or not.  rationality is good.  It serves a very huge purpose, and has lots of benefits.  But that doesn’t mean it applies universally - or that it needs to.

#3 Another atheist (Guest) on Wednesday September 22, 2010 at 6:46pm

Hawking’s book is still sitting on my nightstand, but I keep thinking “Big Bang Theory” reading this.

Earlier versions failed several of the enumerated points.

Yet we still believed.

(Thank goodness we’re open to revising our beliefs given new theory and data.)

#4 Alan Travis (Guest) on Saturday September 25, 2010 at 8:04pm

Sorry, but your pretentious brand of “rationalism” is terribly irrational.

First, you pretend that Christians must “prove” there is a God.  But atheists such as you never ever “prove” there IS no God.

You do not claim agnosticism, which is to say, you don’t KNOW.  In fact there MAY be a God.  There is much more reason to believe there IS than there definitively is NOT.  But this thought never occurs to atheists, ever.

In point of irrefutable fact, atheists’ starting points always BEGIN with God, the denial of.

Name one other militant belief group that starts out in such an illogical, irrational manner.

#5 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Sunday September 26, 2010 at 12:21pm

I suspect that most of the comments here are posted by christians.

1.  Faith is not rational; experience can be deceptive.  Hearing an unusual sound while camping is an experience; ascribing it to a spirit is an irrational explanation.

2.  The big bang, like any explanation of facts, is constantly revised depending on new facts or better explanations.  Science is not static; it is fluid. 

3.  This is my favorite: atheists don’t disprove god.  No one can disprove a god idea; god ideas are logically unverifiable.  They cannot be falsified.  That is why god ideas get tossed: if every logically unverifiable idea had to be entertained it would be limitless process.  For example, should I expect someone to put the time into an elaborate explanation of why undetectable purple aliens do not control human governments.  No.  I just point out that by definition this idea cannot be disproved; thus, it gets tossed.

To Alan, this is how secular knowledge works:

1.  Propose an idea.

2.  Confirm whether or not an idea can be disproved.  For example, with evolution, is there a condition that would disprove that the fossil record shows that a progression.  Yes, if a rabbit fossil were found in the pre-cambrian that would pretty well destroy the current theory of evolution.  If an idea cannot be disproved, like my undetectable purple martians, it cannot be tested, so it doesn’t go to the next step.

3.  The falsifiable idea then can be subjected to an experiment, based upon a hypothesis.  If the test repeatedly brings about the same conclusion, you probably have a good theory.


I know Dawkins thinks god ideas can be subjected to rational analysis, but I think he stretched it here.  God ideas are merely logically unverifiable ideas.  Best to just trash them.

Anyway, great article.

#6 Joshua Slocum on Sunday September 26, 2010 at 2:49pm

“Belief in a god fails any minimal standard of ordinary rationality. Like the kind of rationality we expect from eighth-graders.”

Well, yes. But then, John, how do you square that with:

1. “Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. “

2. “The “know-nothing” wing of the so-called New Atheism really lives up to that label. “

3. “Nonbelievers reveling in their ignorance are an embarrassing betrayal of the freethought legacy. “

These are all your own nasty slurs at the Huffington Post. Why did you malign us outspoken atheists so viciously there if you believe what you’ve written in this blog post?

#7 Mark Tiborsky (Guest) on Monday September 27, 2010 at 7:15am

John, this does seem to contradict your HuffPost article, in which you bemoaned the perceived lack of theological knowledge amongst atheists. Here, you give a compelling reason as to why atheists are quite justfied in rejecting the entire “religious enchilada”

Seriously- THIS is the sort of article we’d love to see published in HuffPost. Some boldly rationalist articles are much needed there, as an effective counter to their steady stream of quasi-religious/postmodernist fluff pieces.

#8 Robert Schneider on Monday September 27, 2010 at 7:44am

100% agreement with Josh Slocum here. 

How can the same mind have written this piece, which basically demands that believers play on our turf (rationality), be squared with the HuffPo piece that basically says “If atheists are to be taken seriously they need to be able to debate theology.”

This article is much closer to sensible, and the HuffPo piece is an abomination requiring a retraction, apology and some formal distancing from CFI.

#9 wbthacker on Monday September 27, 2010 at 3:02pm

To Alan Travis, who demands that “Name one other militant belief group that starts out in such an illogical, irrational manner.”

That would include:
  - the Asantists, who reject belief in Santa Claus even though that creature’s existence has not been scientifically disproved;
  - the Aspritists, who likewise begin with the assumption that the Tooth Fairy does not exist, yet lack proof of that.
  - You, who cannot prove that Zeus, Thor, Anubis, or Coyote do not exist, but nevertheless assume they do not.

Any of these could exist, Alan, and indeed, any if them are as likely to have created the universe as Jehovah.  Can you explain why you think Jehovah more likely to exist than Zeus?

To everyone else:

Just how many John Shooks are there working for CFI?  This is clearly not the same John Shook who wrote in Huffington Post that atheists ought to be studying theology and should stop being so ignorant.

Maybe that article was another example of identity theft…

#10 Carneades Thales Strato of Ga. [griggsy ] on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 5:44pm

At my posts and blogs, I show advanced theologians for the clowns that they are as they rank, despite any sophistication- and sophistry,  with Sylvia Brown[e] and John Edward. Pope Ratz and Rev. Billy Crackers make no more sense than any other scam artists.
  Prof. Irwin Corey make all them look like the morons that they are!
  As a gnu atheist, I find that woo is woo.Can one really think that Alvin Plantinga is first-rate with his solecistic, sophisticated sophistry- begging the question with that stupid warrant. And WLC ranks with any quack scientist.
    Ah, Ayn Rand - false rationalist!
    Google naturalist griggsy, rationalist griggsy or skeptic griggsy to find that supernaturalism is sophistry.
    http:// carneades.aimoo.com
    http:// skeptic griggsy. wordpress.com
    http:// Ignostic Morgan. wordpress.com
    http:// democritus. posterous.com

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