Belief Is Not Rational — Part I
Atheists often use the word “irrational” to describe belief in God. But what does the word “irrational” mean? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online, it means not rational, as
A: (1) not endowed with reason or understanding; (2) lacking usual or normal mental clarity or coherence
B: not governed by or according to reason (as in “irrational fears”)
The dictionary provides two additional definitions: one refers to poetry, the other to irrational numbers in mathematics. These additional definitions do not apply to our conversation here.
Throughout history, reason was a property of the mind. Rationality is a product of reason. Plato states that reason is independent of the information gathered by our senses.
Whenever a person strives . . . to start in pursuit of every reality by a simple process of reason, independent of all sensuous information – never flinching, until by an act of pure intelligence he has grasped the real nature of good – he arrives at the very end of the intellectual world.
Reason helps us pursue “every reality.” Reason aids us process the physical world. But reason reaches beyond. It helps us comprehend abstract ideas such as justice, love, and mercy. Reason strives to grasp hold of the good. In Philebus, Plato says the good is a mixture of Beauty, Symmetry, and Truth. By reason we seek to grasp hold of the good. Reason is a property of the mind.
Let’s look at a theory that is a bit more modern. About two thousand years later (in 1690) a philosopher named John Locke published his treatise. He tried to discover how our minds come to know and understand. Locke started with the senses. But this is not the end. Our mind takes these sensual ideas, abstracts them, and builds on them by degree. Reason grows and develops as the result.
The steps by which the mind attains several truths. The senses at first let in particular ideas, and furnish the yet empty cabinet, and the mind by degrees growing familiar with some of them, they are lodged in the memory, and names got to them. Afterwards, the mind proceeding further, abstracts them, and by degrees learns the use of general names. In this manner the mind comes to be furnished with ideas and language, the materials about which to exercise its discursive faculty. And the use of reason becomes daily more visible, as these materials that give it employment increase.—John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
Both Plato and Locke described reason as a part of our minds. Almost 100 years later, in 1781, Immanuel Kant went a step further. First, there are sensory experiences. They are processed by our reason.
But there also are kinds of understanding that are not related to the senses. There are categories of understanding that do not develop from our senses. For example, how can we understand the concepts of universal and infinite? We do not learn these terms from sense experience. How are we able to lump some things into categories and exclude those objects that are disjunctive? According to Kant,
A science of this kind, which should determine the origin, the extent, and the objective validity of such cognitions, must be called transcendental logic, because it has not, like general logic, to do with the laws of understanding and reason in relation to empirical as well as pure rational cognitions without distinction, but concerns itself with these only in an a priori relation to objects.—Kant, A Critique of Pure Reason
When I read those definitions I have no problem applying them to Christian belief. Considering all of my experiences, my faith in God, my confidence in the authority of the Bible, my Christian walk and growth, I believe these experiences to be confirmed and clarified through reason and understanding. These beliefs helped me achieve greater mental clarity. And they are endowed with wisdom from God. My belief is very rational.
What “Irrational” Means to an Atheist
To understand how an atheist thinks, pretend that all reality is physical. There is no God. There is no spiritual realm. Emotions are not real. There are no absolutes. Our ideas and morality are only our opinions. Everything that exists is physical. Everything “real” is part of the material world.
These limitations apply to reason and rationality. Reason and rationality are the products of physical, sense experiences. Belief is not found in the physical world. Therefore, belief is irrational. Atheists enjoy saying this. They play games with this word – irrational. They say confidently, “Belief is irrational.” But they define irrational within very narrow limits.
This new definition—these new limits—developed over time. Scientist Francis Bacon helped start the change in his treatise “The New Organon” published in 1620.
I – Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything. . . .
XXVI – Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.
There you have it. Reason and rationality are tied to Nature. According to Bacon, we can understand only the physical world. We are incapable of knowing anything beyond the physical world.
Two hundred years later, in 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach published “The Essence of Christianity.” Feuerbach stated that the world’s existence and its essence are physical. In other words, this world is self-contained. There is no spirit who is separate from the world. There is no realm for common ideas, principles, or morals. This physical world is all there is.
If . . . I abide by reason, I can only derive the world from its essence, its idea, i.e., one mode of its existence from another mode; in other words, I can derive the world only from itself. The world has its basis in itself, as has everything in the world winch has a claim to the name of species.
Belief is irrational because it is beyond the physical world. The physical world lies at the tips of our fingers. We can measure it, taste it, weigh it. It makes sense to our senses. Reason can deal only with things it knows. Reason knows only the physical world. Rational thought, according to this theory, can understand only what reason can process. Atheists say reason can understand only the physical world.
Belief is none of these things. It’s full of mysteries. Such as, God becomes a man. He dies for the sins of the world. If I believe in Him, my sins will be forgiven. Just like that. Why? Because God loves me? There is no way the a person in the physical world can prove any of these things. They are taken by faith. That’s why atheist’s say belief is irrational. Belief “foolishly” tries to go beyond the physical world.
One of the conclusions I came to while studying atheism is this: Many atheists really do not understand the connection Christians have with the Father. They aren’t pretending not to understand. They really do not understand.
For example, they don’t understand why a person sacrifices him of herself for the cause of Christ. Why would any sane person leave a life of comfort to tell people in third world countries about Jesus Christ? Why would a doctor leave a growing practice to serve in a clinic in the inner city? Are they crazy? Do they think they are better than me? Are they trying to get points with God? Belief is irrational to atheists because the actions of believers make no sense within the confines of the physical world.
Atheists do not understand the transforming power of God through Jesus Christ. They do not know what it is to plug into a love that is beyond description. Why would a person leave everything to follow Jesus Christ? To them it is irrational. It makes no sense. Most Christians obey God and follow His leadership out of love.
What makes belief so powerful? Why do atheists work so hard to prove the irrationality of faith? Part II of this page examines some of their arguments that “prove” belief is irrational.
The definition for “irrational” is from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/irrational