True Reason Book Cover

(Tom Gilson)

… The point is that there is a wide variety of rational errors in the New Atheist literature. Sometimes it’s misinformation with respect to the evidences for belief, and sometimes it’s appeals to emotion rather than to evidence and reason. Whatever form it takes, each example is one more piece of evidence that the New Atheists are not as rational as they claim to be.

Yet “reason” is stamped on virtually all of their products. Again we say, really?

Views of Reason

But perhaps we are viewing reason wrongly; and perhaps also at the same time we are thinking of faith in the wrong manner. Maybe the two really are opposed, as Sam Harris says in The End of Faith:

The truth is that religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern. . . . Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.

If Harris is right to say that faith can never be reasonable, then of course the discussion is over. That seems illegitimate as an argument, however: shall we define faith out of rational existence, or shall we make our decisions about faith on the basis of standards of evidence and logic? If the former, that’s both premature and terribly ironic, for it leads to a conclusion divorced from all evidence, which is exactly what the New Atheists complain that faith does (falsely; see the ninth and tenth chapters in this volume). But if we let ourselves be guided by proper standards of evidence and logic, then we are bound to look for objective signs of the truth or falsity of our views—both Christian and atheist—accepting Harris’s “constraints” of reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.

There is a hint here, at any rate, of how a leading New Atheist would define reason. Does he have more to say? One looks in vain for anything like a pithy and authoritative definition in The End of Faith, but that’s of little consequence; his views are not hard to discern. To be reasonable is to let your beliefs comport with evidence. He makes that case repeatedly, and in this he reflects what seems to be what the New Atheists mean by reasonability: to confine one’s beliefs to that which can be demonstrated by objective, empirical, preferably scientific evidence. This is the first part of what they mean by reason. It is fine as far as it goes, although it cuts too fine a line, as many thinkers have noted (see for example Sean McDowell’s work on faith and science in chapter eleven). If I take it to be true that I am only to believe what can be empirically demonstrated to be true, how can I demonstrate that that is true? Its truth can’t be empirically demonstrated. As a canon of reason, “only believe what can be demonstrated by objective, empirical, preferably scientific evidence” is appropriate for those matters for which it is appropriate, but clearly it does not fit all questions of truth.

There is a second dominant theme in New Atheists’ use of the word reason, which is to act reasonably. Sam Harris writes, for example,

The Nazis disparaged the “Jewish physics” of Einstein, and the communists rejected the “capitalist biology” of Mendel and Darwin. But these were not rational criticisms—as witnessed by the fact that these dissenting scientists were often imprisoned or killed.

I think all of us, atheist and believer alike, support acting reasonably, although just what that looks like to one will differ from how it looks to another. If there is a God, it is reasonable to worship and to obey him. If there is no God, then it’s unreasonable. Therefore the decision, “was that a reasonable thing to do?” is a lower-order decision compared to “what can reasonably be regarded as true?”

These two themes—first, confining belief to what can be supported empirically, and second, reasonability—are prominent among the New Atheists, in my observation at least. There is another aspect of reason that I do not hear them promoting. It is the skill and practice of what we might call reason proper: the appropriate use of reason and logic (along with evidences) in the forming of one’s conclusions. It is the ability to draw proper deductive inferences from premises, or proper inductive inferences from evidences, or properly credible explanations of observations and phenomena. It is the ability to proceed from evidences and/or premises to an appropriate conclusion. The lack of this ability (or the failure in its practice) is shown when one commits formal or informal logical fallacies, makes appeals to emotion rather than sound reasoning, or uses evidence selectively.

This reason proper is, as I said, prior to the other forms of reason; for unless one knows how to draw a valid conclusion from evidences or premises, one cannot know what beliefs to hold to in light of evidences—even scientific evidences. No one who is deficient in this level of reasoning can credibly claim to represent reason.

In my reading of New Atheist literature, there is very little said about reason proper. I will admit that though I have read widely, I have not read exhaustively, and it could well be that I have missed it. It could even be that I have missed a lot of it. Even if it were widely discussed among the New Atheists, though, there would remain a valid test of their reasoning on this level: how well do they practice it? The first few chapters of this book will offer evidence that some of their most highly respected leaders do it very poorly: poorly enough to cast serious doubt on their claim to reason as their brand and their watchword.

Reason, Really

Just to make that claim, however, would be an empty act of our own, no matter how well we demonstrated it. As Christians we are convinced that reason is from God. I do not mean that we would do as the New Atheists seem to do, and raise the flag of Reason over our troops as if it were our one main thing. We see life as more multi-dimensional than that. The greatest commandment, said Jesus Christ (Mk. 12:28-31), is to love the Lord our God with our whole selves: heart, soul, and strength, as well as mind. There is mystery in Christianity. There is worship. There is a lived-out life of action in Christ’s name. We embrace the imagination, the power of narrative, the importance of beauty and the arts, and the value of community. Still, wrapped up in all this there is a deep and essential reasonableness to the faith.

Christianity is a friend to reason. This claim, like the prior one that the New Atheism does not practice reason well, is bound to astonish some readers. Again, we only ask that you examine the evidence, some of which we offer for you in this book. Christianity has a tradition of strength in philosophy, the sciences, literature, and the arts, such as the New Atheists have ignored or swept aside.

Our heritage is not one of unbroken success. We have had our seasons of anti-intellectualism, and our moments (sometimes long ones) of embarrassment. We have representatives of our religion today who embarrass reason by their lack of skill in it. We do not defend that, even among ourselves. For purposes of this book, we want it to be noted that we are not looking at New Atheists’ weakest representatives, but its leaders, and specifically those who stand at the head of groups that claim reason in their titles. We could find atheists whose reasonability is even more obviously lacking, but it would be unfair to judge the New Atheism’s reasonability by anything other than its reasoning leadership. Likewise it would be unfair to judge Christianity by anything but its reasoning leadership.

Christianity far outstrips atheistic naturalism or materialism (roughly, the view that nothing exists but matter and energy and their interactions by law and by chance) as an explanation for our most deeply felt and intimate experiences as humans. To be human means to have meaning and purpose, to be able to make choices, to be conscious and aware of self and others, to have identity, and for our actions to have moral significance. All of these are so problematic in the materialist worldview that some thinkers conclude they are all illusions foisted on us by our natural evolutionary history. Rationality itself is difficult to explain, if materialism is true. Reason fits best in a world made by God.

Book Overview

This, then, is the argument of this book: the New Atheists’ ownership claim on the brand of reason is empty. It doesn’t fit their system of thought, and they don’t practice it at all well, either. Reason belongs to Christianity. We want to claim the word back where it rightfully belongs….