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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Uthman Badar on religion (2)

Uthman Badar accepts that religious claims, like other truth-claims should be subjected to rational scrutiny. He and I are in furious agreement at this point. In a sense, I don't need to go further, because we are both expressing opposition to the idea that religious claims should somehow get a free pass, that it's somehow too impolite or uncivil to scrutinise their truth.

But he adds an interesting point. They should be subject to rational scrutiny, he says; but then he says: "Rationality in its true broad sense, not in the narrow self-serving sense all too common from atheist circles."

What can this possibly mean? Since he is answering my earlier piece, you'd think perhaps he was referring to something I wrote, but of course I said nothing about applying some narrow, self-serving standard of rationality. That said, religious thinkers (and even some secular philosophers) sometimes wish to employ standards of rationality that presuppose much that is controversial in the claims that they want to defend. I've sometimes seen moral philosophers, and other thinkers involved in policy and applied ethics, claim that such and such a course of action is required by reason, while using a standard of rationality that is already moralised. There is then a question as to why an opponent should accept that standard of rationality. Some theologians think it's okay to begin with espistemic principles that contain far more assumptions than secular people are likely to use, for example the principle that a certain holy book is inerrant.

So, I was on my guard when I saw Badar claiming that we should use some sort of "broad" rationality. Generally, though, that isn't the problem. His idea of rationality is not greatly different from mine. His complaint seems to be that atheists confine themselves to scientific arguments, while ignoring other arguments that are not, strictly speaking, scientific. To support this, he cites a definition of "atheism" used by the Atheist Foundation of Australia, though not by me (not in my piece on The Drum's site or anywhere else). This definition of atheism is as follows: "the acceptance that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural."

Personally, I am happy to work with a fairly loose conception of atheism. A person who has no belief in any deity is an atheist, at least as far as I'm concerned, especially if this lack of belief is an informed one - the person has actually deliberated on it at some point (unlike, say, a newborn baby). But we can use different definitions in different contexts as long as we make our meaning as clear as is needed for the context concerned.

Badar draws the conclusion that atheists use only scientific arguments when they should be open to using and discussing other kinds of arguments, such as deductive ones. This is actually a bit odd because science uses deductive arguments all the time. Perhaps one of the things that makes science distinctive is that it relies heavily on hypothetico-deductive reasoning, but scientists could not get by without using ordinary logical principles such as modus ponens. Intellectually-motivated atheists certainly do not adopt an approach that throws out ordinary deductive reasoning, and it's hard to see how trying to do so would be self-serving; what is there to be gained by trying to draw conclusions about the world without accepting, for example, the validity of arguments with the following format?

P1. If A then B.
P2. A
C. B

Atheists are just as likely as anyone else to employ ordinary deductive reasoning such as described in any first-year logic course. The idea that we'd contrive things by throwing out this kind of reasoning is, to be blunt, ridiculous.

Obviously we also accept reports where they are credible - but there can be interesting discussions of when a report is or is not credible - and we can use conceptual analysis, which is basically about trying to nail down what we really mean by certain concepts (perhaps by testing whether certain situations, physical things, events, and so on, intuitively fall within our concepts).

So, let me be clear. When I say that religious claims should be subjected to rational analysis I most certainly do mean that the analysis should involve the full range of tools that we have available to us when we conduct our rational investigations. I don't mean that I am going to accept a concept of reason that comes freighted with controversial assumptions, such as moral assumptions or the assumption that a particular holy book is truthful. The standard is a secular (i.e. worldly) one, but there is no reason why it should be especially narrow or why it should itself have any unfair assumptions built in.

All of this should really go without saying, and I doubt that Badar has actually confused many people - judging by the negativity of the comments he is getting. Still, it's worth making the point explicit. I am not claiming that the much-needed critique of religion should rely on some contrived, artificially narrowed conception of rationality, or one that is already freighted with legitimately controversial assumptions. I do, however, intend to help myself to scientific claims that are well-evidenced, as and when it's helpful to do so.

The suggestion that any serious atheists act in some other way is without merit. It could, potentially, create some confusion, though I doubt that it's actually done so much in this case. Before we go any further, at any rate, it's best to repudiate it in clear words.


Anonymous said...

I think that in framing any sort of syllogism regarding truth claims of a religious nature one should at least look at the presuppositions used to formulate such a syllogism.

When we start with "If A" then we had better have a pretty good idea that "A" indeed *is* A. And that is the problem with religious truth claims and rationality in my view. The Kalaam argument may have been all well and good when formulated without the knowledge that we have had since the 1920's that the universe is expanding, and therefor had to have had a beginning point, but I say it is rendered ineffective if it ignores the initial singularity we call the Big Bang.

When Badar uses that as his main example, I don't really accept that his religious views are based on rationality. Logic, perhaps, but logic without a reliable and objective presupposition.

Russell Blackford said...

I doubt that either premise in his argument is true. It's certainly most doubtful that both are, or that they'd lead to the conclusion he needs in any event.

Mike Haubrich said...

I hadn't meant to post anonymously, Russell.

Thanks for approving my comment and detailing the objections to Kalaam in your subsequent post.