Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Theism: Does its Irrationality Matter?

Theism is the belief that there is at least one supernatural god, a perfect (all-powerful, all-knowing) person who created the natural universe and who intervenes in that universe, particularly in human affairs. Theism is the philosophical content of religions which is almost never discussed in mainstream journalistic coverage of religions, whether on the radio or TV, in newspapers or magazines. In the West, addressing the philosophical merits of theism would inevitably call the monotheistic religions into question and alienate consumers of news, most of whom pretend to follow a traditional religion without actually doing so. In short, monotheistic religions are currently farcical.

The farce begins with the theist’s erroneous notion that theism can and should be rationally supported, as though theism were something like a scientific theory. The scientistic blunder here is monumental and often motivated by comically misplaced arrogance, as in the case of Catholic pomposity or the militant Islamist’s woefully perverse delusions of grandeur. A monotheist’s condescension towards a nontheist or an Eastern mystic is like an ant’s deeming itself to be taller than a giraffe. (I’ll speak of nontheism rather than atheism, because “atheism” has negative social connotations which are irrelevant to the core issue I mean to address.) However, the farce ends when we see that theism’s irrationality may not matter and that the theist may have the last laugh. The rational case against theism may itself rest on a category error. Indeed, the rational ideal that our philosophical beliefs be logical and attuned to the evidence conflicts with the more Humean reality confirmed by cognitive scientists, that humans are not as rational as we might prefer to think. I’ll provide an overview here of why theism is indeed irrational, but then I’ll turn to what I’ll call the existentialist’s nonrational case for theism. 

Mysticism and Literalism

First of all, we need to observe the split in all religions between their mystical and exoteric traditions. The mystic seeks transcendent experience of the divine, not a rational justification for intellectual beliefs. She understands that language and logic simplify and thus to some extent falsify reality as they map it, and that in any case those tools evolved to provide us with practical knowledge of how to get by in the natural world, not to contact anything that might lie beyond that world. The mystic prefers a direct, intuitive grasp of supernatural reality, but if she’s forced to speak of what she thereby grasps, she often resorts to myths and metaphors which she knows shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Mysticism is central to Eastern religions but marginalized in Western, monotheistic ones. What replaces mysticism at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a colossal misunderstanding, called literalism, which is the mistaking of exoteric knowledge for the esoteric, mystical kind. Literalists err in literalizing the mystic’s metaphors. So while a mystic may compare God, that which transcends nature, to a loving parent, the literalist falls in love not with God but with the image, succumbing to our primitive, tribal inclination to worship an idol. From the mystic’s viewpoint, the literalist’s ego gets the better of her; like Narcissus she’s captivated by her own reflection, in this case by an image poured out of a mystic’s mind to provide a sketchy map of what transcends our rational comprehension. So one of the initial mistakes made by Western theists, at least, is the elevation of their anti-mystical tradition. Thus, Christians persecuted their Gnostics and Muslim jurists have a strained relationship with Sufis. 

Indeed, when theism is reduced to literalistic idolatry, the contents of theistic beliefs become ridiculous. The images contradict each other or are otherwise preposterous, leading the indignant literalist into a web of falsehoods as she has to rationalize the absurdities that inevitably follow when she naturalizes and anthropomorphizes something that’s supposed to be supernatural. For example, how could God literally have thoughts and feelings with no physical brain or other substrate? If a substrate is needed for psychological states, who made God’s? Needless to say, if God evolved, he’s not the creator of everything. Literalists have traveled far, looking for Eden or Noah’s ark, always ready with a spurious explanation when they fail to find any archeological evidence for the biblical tale’s historicity. And literalistic theology becomes the proverbial tennis match played without a net. So-called systematic theology tomes are written to map every nuance of theistic imagery, arriving at creeds that purportedly specify God’s attributes--including, no doubt, what God had for breakfast the other day.

Divine Revelation

To return to my narrative, though, the mystic’s metaphors are eventually written down, and literalists come to write their own teachings in response or to misinterpret the mystic’s texts. Thus we have the spectacle of so-called divine revelation, as though that which begat the universe would write a book or create more or less free creatures and then turn some of them into puppets, “inspiring” them to read God’s mind and translate his commandments for everyone else’s benefit. Why wouldn’t God inspire everyone at once and for all time? That would interfere with our freedom and God cherishes humans above everything else in Creation. Why then would God still inspire a handful of prophets? Because God has a soft spot for the odd human sacrifice. That’s just one out of a million contradictions in literalistic theology.

At any rate, we’re then faced with the impossible task of correctly interpreting Holy Scripture. This is the hermeneutic problem that besets all religions, because the symbols in natural languages are ambiguous: the words have multiple meanings and this ambiguity ramifies when the text is translated into other languages. The ambiguity is ramified even further, since there are multiple scriptures, leading to many sects and religions, and the adherents of each monotheistic group claim exclusive divine authorship for their religious texts. So which meaning or text is the divinely intended one? We must all be ignorant of God’s intentions or else God wouldn’t have stooped to writing out his manifesto for us in the first place, but God leaves us to squabble over how to interpret our preferred manifesto and over which manifesto is the genuine article. Inevitably, interpretation of religious texts becomes an exercise in cherry-picking: we ignore some passages and highlight others, usually to suit our own preconceptions.

As for which religion we adopt, despite the competing religions available, that’s decided in almost every case simply by where we happen to be born and by the religion of our parents. For evolutionary reasons, children are highly gullible, having to learn quickly in their formative years, so when parents fill their child’s head full of nonsense, as was done to them by their own parents, the child's theistically prejudiced for life and the religion recycles itself through the ages. Of course, the theist who regards her religion as exclusively correct needs to explain why God would create people who are so influenced by their parents and their geographical location and time period, that most would thus be innocently misled to adopt a different, false religion, and why God would then punish those people, in effect, for being born to the wrong parents or in the wrong place or time.

Incidentally, another fact that should unsettle a theist is that our brain is adapted to read each other’s mind, giving us an instinctive grasp of human motivations. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett argues in Breaking the Spell, we often overuse this capacity for mind-reading, viewing just about any pattern in the world as susceptible of a psychological interpretation, and so we anthropomorphize everything from clouds to automobiles to what we suppose must be the ultimate reality. Here’s why this sort of evolutionary fact should worry the theist: it’s much more likely that we overuse our innate capacity for mind-reading and anthropomorphize the ultimate reality, arriving at theism, than that that reality is actually a person.

Now, in the case of Christian revelation, haughty Catholic priests come to the rescue, alleging that they’ve been given the authority by God to provide Christians with the orthodox interpretation of the Bible and with infallible guidance on moral matters. Indeed, Christianity is the most literalistic, and thus the most absurd, of all the major religions. Official Christianity started in the fourth century CE as a gambit by the Roman Emperor Constantine to unite the far-flung and religiously-divided regions of his collapsing empire. Whereas in earlier years the Roman military achieved that goal by quashing rebellions, the fading empire could no longer employ that blunt instrument, so Constantine turned to a subtler approach. What better way to unite than to temper Roman polytheism with at least the appearance of monotheism? Were there only one God, there’d be only one correct way to live (assuming God doesn’t have multiple personalities and chooses to issue logically consistent commandments). So the Romans adopted Judaism as the basic ingredient in their recipe. Of course, Judaism would hardly suffice since Jews are famously antisocial, distinguishing themselves from everyone else with their peculiar observances and ceremonies, including circumcision and arbitrary restrictions on diet.

So the Romans opted for an offshoot of Judaism, for a literalistic Jewish cult that promised to combine Jewish monotheism with Roman polytheism, yielding the best of both worlds. That cult became Christianity, and so the one immaterial Jewish god, Yahweh, became a Trinity which included--of all things--a man named Jesus who served as the equivalent of a Roman demigod. And whereas Jews were more interested in how humans can live well by following God’s orders, than in speculating on how God might otherwise be acting throughout the world, Christianity doubles down on the literalistic confusion, adding that God, the Holy Spirit, not only speaks through the odd prophet, but passes its power through the greatest prophet, Jesus--just don’t say so to a Muslim--to Peter, the first Pope, thus adding the Catholic institution to the list of Christian idols.

Secular Christianity

Ironically, a secular critic of Christianity who points to these historical facts should feel a little guilty. Being first and foremost a secular ploy to preserve the Roman Empire, institutional Christianity has greatly served the purposes of secularization, furthering what Max Weber called the disenchantment of nature. By bringing God so far within nature, actually identifying a single man as equal to the universe’s creator, Christianity degrades God, preparing the way for nontheism when scientists explain more and more of nature, leaving nowhere for the literalized God to hide. In this way, Judaism’s relation to Christianity is like that between the philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Plato posited abstract, immaterial Forms or Ideals which account for natural categories. Aristotle brought these Forms down to earth, identifying them with material processes. Just as Aristotle naturalized Platonism, Christians naturalize monotheism--and do so only sometimes unwittingly.

Christianity’s covert disservice to theism is seen most strikingly in the way most Americans can pretend to be followers of Jesus even though their behaviour attests to their worship of money and worldly pleasure. Mind you, all these Christian consumers do is substitute one idol (Jesus) for another (Mammon). From a mystical viewpoint, there’s surely a slippery slope here: once you initially mistake a symbol for the terrain which the symbol imperfectly maps, you’re led further into carnality, egoism, and rationally conceptualized nature, and away from the mystic’s experience of the world’s transcendent unity. Thus, an American can identify herself to a pollster as a Christian, implying that she wants to be like Jesus who was, roughly speaking, a hippie pacifist and communist who cared nothing for worldly conventions, and then hang up the phone in her mansion and drive her kids to school in her Mercedes--all without feeling guilt for any hypocrisy or fear that perhaps a spiritual life is antithetical to a comfortable secular one. The point is that this materialistic Christian isn’t really so hypocritical; she goes where the Roman handlers of Christianity wanted the religion to go. Coincidentally, this utterly compromised Christianity is practiced in a country whose founders explicitly took themselves to be re-instituting a Roman social order. (See, for example, the Roman style architecture of Washington’s government buildings.)

Theistic Proofs

How about the philosophical arguments for theism? As Kierkegaard said, none turns a nontheist into a theist. Take the First Cause Argument, which is that everything in the universe has a natural cause, and since there can’t be an infinite series of natural causes and the first natural cause can’t cause itself, the first cause of everything has to be supernatural. But who says there can’t be such an infinite series? Also, things in nature are organically rather than mechanically connected, and so rather than being separate from its effects, the first natural cause, that is, the Big Bang singularity or quantum fluctuation, is more like the whole of nature in seed form that evolves into more and more complex forms. And if God can be an exception to this principle about what can or can’t cause itself, why can’t that singularity somehow be another exception that causes itself, in which case the supernatural cause would be superfluous?

As for the Design Argument, that the universe is like a human artifact, which implies that the universe was intelligently designed, this argument was more compelling prior to Darwin’s naturalistic explanation of biological design. Also, for everything in the universe to be comparable to human artifacts, everything would have to have a function. What’s the function of the moon, of an asteroid, or of dark matter? Certainly, we can imagine functions, but those would be what biologists call Just So Stories, meaning ad hoc speculations that may be more or less plausible but that are unsupported by independent pieces of evidence. The notion that the universe is God’s designed artifact makes sense only from an anthropocentric standpoint that’s long been rendered quaint, from Copernicus onward.

Then there’s Pascal’s Wager, according to which no one knows whether there’s a God or what God would be like, because by definition God is infinite and transcendent, but it’s prudent for the agnostic to gamble that a divine Judge exists, because a person making that bet has the most to gain (heaven) and the least to lose (the relatively little effort of going to Church, etc). This argument has many problems, one of which is that the chance that God would appreciate such a gamble and reward the gambler are surely very low. Indeed, who would want to worship such a utilitarian god? Moreover, if God is infinite and transcendent, as the argument assumes, the correct position would be the mystic’s, in which case the image of God as a casino operator who cares about our utilitarian calculations should be discarded as a gross oversimplification.

Next, there’s the Moral Argument, according to which morality is impossible on the assumption of nontheistic naturalism, and so the existence of morality requires the supernatural, which includes God. The shortest answer here is that there is a complete evolutionary explanation of morality, after all. As I’ve been saying in my other rants, though, any complete, scientific explanation of morality will commit the naturalistic fallacy. Science might explain how morality originated and how it works, but this explanation won’t justify any moral prescription, which is a philosophical matter. The better response to the Moral Argument is just to point out that the anthropomorphic notion of God that this argument presupposes is so parochial as to be a nonstarter. When the universe was believed to be a relatively small place, with Earth at its center and all the stars forming meaningful patterns for our benefit, it must have seemed obvious that God is like a human king or judge who attends to our behaviour and readies himself for the day when he’ll render his final verdict. This image is simply no longer credible to any scientifically-informed person. No such person can sanely suppose that the creator of black holes, dark matter, supernovas, and of all the galaxies, stars, planets, and probably other species thinks just like a human. That anthropomorphic image of God has been suspiciously self-serving for monarchs throughout history, who have used it to glorify themselves and pacify the masses. The image no longer has the same power and so it’s no longer sensible to thank God for human morality.

A recent and popular theistic argument goes by the name of Presuppositionalism, according to which not just morality but logic and even science presuppose theism. For example, scientists posit natural laws and thus they assume nature is intelligible, but only a mind could cause that intelligibility. (You can find this argument in Dinesh D’Souza’s book, What’s so Great about Christianity?) Again, there are many problems with this argument. First, natural laws are descriptions, not prescriptions, although early Western scientists muddied these waters with their deism. Second, cognitive scientists explain what human reason is, and they show that we’re not so rational, which is just what we’d expect if our cognitive faculties were products of natural selection. Third, who says nature is fundamentally intelligible? Quantum mechanics is paradoxical even to the few who’ve accomplished the superhuman feats of study to master the mathematics needed even to begin to describe what goes on at that level of reality.

Christians in particular like to say their religion is unique for its abundance of historical evidence in favour of their theistic claims. So there’s supposed to be adequate evidence, for example, that Jesus miraculously rose from the dead. This is simply not so, given standard inductive rules of evidence. In a court of law, of course, the historical evidence of the New Testament narratives couldn’t even be entered into the record as having any value, because the narratives are now hearsay; indeed, they’re hearsay not just because they’re one or two steps removed from the present, but because they’re hundreds of steps so removed. (The anonymous Gospel texts have been copied and recopied for centuries.) Would the earliest Christians have died for their religion if their belief that Jesus rose bodily from the dead wasn’t well-justified? Sure they could have, since people can be very deluded or desperate. Look at the radical Muslim terrorists who even today throw away their lives believing they’ll enjoy seventy-two virgins in heaven. If Jesus wasn’t raised, why was his tomb empty? Lots of possible reasons, each of which is more likely than that a violation of natural law occurred. Jesus might have been put in the wrong tomb or thrown into a lime pit to rot with other bodies, and in the panic caused by Rome’s unwanted attention to Jesus, his followers could have scattered and confabulated all sorts of stories to rationalize their loss. In fact, from where we stand with the limited evidence we have, it’s much more likely that there was no historical Jesus in the first place, and that the whole religion is the result of confusion and fraud than that Jesus rose miraculously from the dead.

Again, the Christian’s penchant for idolatry has served the cause of secularism well, since it’s drawn theism into the realm of inductive reasoning, which works entirely to that religion’s detriment. Thus, objective Bible scholars and archeologists have duly investigated the biblical claims and found them wanting in most instances. But after nearly eliminating the supernatural, by identifying what would be a transcendent entity, God, with a Jewish Middle Eastern guy and with a human institution or two, thus betraying perennial mystical traditions--for a Christian then to turn around and pretend that there’s a rational case for Christian supernaturalism takes some chutzpah. Christians need to sleep in the bed they’ve made: they’ve gone along with secular Rome’s subversion of Jewish anti-idolatry, so they have to live with the fact that, as mystics have always understood, secular reason works against belief in the supernatural. Christians can’t have it both ways. If God was actually a man and we want to know what we’re rationally entitled to believe about that man, standard inductive methods apply. As it happens, the scientific historian subscribes to methodological naturalism, which pragmatically assumes there are no miracles. So much for inductive reasons to be a Christian!

Finally, I’ll say something about the Problem of Evil, which has made theism dubious for millennia. The deductive problem isn’t as powerful as the probabilistic one. If you define God as being all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent, and you grant that there’s evil (unnecessary suffering) in the world, you have to give up one or more of those divine attributes. For example, God might have preferred that there be no such suffering but lacked the power to create a perfectly good world. This argument is weak, because the theist is free to modify the list of divine attributes. (Remember that theology is like a tennis match with no net.)

The real thrust of the problem comes from our having to face the question of which explanation of the apparent world is best, the theist’s or the nontheistic naturalist’s. Were life an accident of natural evolution, unnecessary suffering would be easily explained in terms of the impersonality of the forces that sustain life. But the odds seem low that the deity that most theists actually think about would create just the natural world that actually exists. In fact, monotheists concede as much, which is why they blame nature on our Fall from God’s grace and expect that the intended world of heaven or of God’s kingdom will eventually replace this imperfect world. This just pushes the problem back a step, since now the theist must consider the probability that God could be responsible for such a rigmarole. Sure, God could have an unknown reason why he allowed the Fall to happen or why he created Satan to tempt humankind into sin, thus somehow corrupting all of God’s creation. Again: tennis without a net. Likewise, an insane person, locked away in a mental institution, can explain away any piece of evidence that conflicts with her elaborate fantasy. But such a person will not be thinking properly. At some point, a decision has to be made about whether a certain explanation is the best available and is accepted for impersonal reasons or whether, instead, the explanation is an all-too comforting, ad hoc rationalization, protecting a tradition that’s cherished for its ability to unify a family or a society. After all, the root meaning of “religion” is “to bind.”

The Existential Argument against Nontheism

In summary, theism isn’t rational. Especially after the start of modern science, there’s just a wealth of reasons not to believe that a perfect person created the universe and works miraculously in our favour. In the first place, literalistic theism is a childish confusion next to mysticism. Literalistic theists hardly agree on the details of their religion, because of their insuperable problem of interpreting scriptures. The anthropocentric assumptions that historically have lent theism whatever rational credibility it may once had had have been thoroughly undermined by scientific discoveries of the universe’s inhuman scale. Scientific standards of explanation count against theism and are especially damaging to the historicity of the Christian narrative. None of the classic theistic proofs is rationally persuasive in itself, and none of the modern proofs improves significantly on the older ones. 

Luckily for the theist, none of this should matter. The notion that theism needs to be rational is a piece of scientism, which can be discredited. Humans may be the best thinkers around, but we’re still animals and few if any of our important decisions are rational. We choose our deepest beliefs not because we calculate the odds or look over a set of arguments, but because of our experiences, feelings, and character. Once that nonrational work is done, we look for reasons to add to the cognitive edifice, but even here we seldom exercise pure logic; instead, we incline to the many biases and fallacies that our genes have built into our brains, upholding, for example, confirmatory evidence and passing over evidence that counts against our assumptions.

With this in mind, I want to discuss what I think is the best argument against nontheism, which I call the Existential Argument because it focuses on the nonrational nature of our major decisions. I begin by describing the typical nontheist’s attitude towards theism. Most nontheists are highly interested not just in the content of modern scientific theories, but in the scientific method of inquiry, which is currently the Western paradigm of objectivity. Religious people fail, therefore, not just because their supernaturalism is incompatible with scientific ontology, but because they elevate faith above reason. The nontheist assumes that metaphysical and empirical questions should both be addressed from an impersonal, objective frame of mind, using rigorous modes of reasoning, avoiding fallacies wherever possible, and paying careful attention to the data. From that frame of mind, nontheism becomes the only viable option. Presumably, theists have roughly the same capacity to reason as the average nontheist, so the nontheist goes on to diagnose the theist as suffering from delusion, brainwashing, superstition, wishful thinking, dogmatism, social pressure, or a mind virus. At any rate, some such nonrational power overcomes the theist’s capacity to reason, while the nontheist is liberated from such forces, seeing the situation clearly and going where pure reason takes her, to the rejection of theistic beliefs.

This may all well be so as far as it goes, but the nontheist has to face the question of whether she deems herself to be so rational with regard to all issues of such personal importance as whether there’s a god who will take care of us when we die and whether the universe is fundamentally good. The nontheist often boasts that he or she deals with the theistic issue in a rational fashion, discarding theism for reasons like the ones I give above. Is the nontheist hyper-rational, though? Does the nontheist consistently side with reason rather than with some nonrational factor, like feeling, intuition, or institutional power?

Take, for example, the issue of sexual relations, which is just as personally important to almost everyone as the question of whether to be a theist or a nontheist. Should the nontheist find a mate and have an intimate relationship, and if so, with whom? Most nontheists do have intimate relationships. But note that were they to adopt the same attitude towards intimacy as they do towards nontheism, their efforts in dealing with the former would surely end in abject failure. Unless you’re living on planet Vulcan, you can’t expect to attract a mate and have a successful intimate relationship if you scrutinize every detail of the partner with cold, hard logic and adjust your behaviour based strictly on impersonal observation of the evidence. To take a commonplace example, many people form bonds of intimacy by dancing, which is a ritual that tests a person’s ability to let go of reason and to literally go with the flow of the music. In addition, dancing is often a prelude to the sexual act itself, the whole point of which clearly is to bond emotionally with the partner rather than to overanalyze the situation or conduct anything like a scientific experiment.

To put the upshot as bluntly as I can, I ask you to compare the nontheist’s image of the theist in the grip of her delusion or mind virus, loudly protesting that God does exist and making a fool of herself in the process, to the image from, say, a hidden camera, of the nontheist in the throes of passionate sex with his or her life partner. Reason clearly has little to do with ensuring the success of either way of dealing with a personally crucial decision. The nontheist puts reason aside when bonding with a significant other, submitting to a cocktail of sex hormones. And the theist puts reason aside both in that situation and when confronting the big philosophical questions of whether there’s anything beyond nature and whether that transcendent reality is personal. Why trust science and logic to deal with one decisive personal issue but not with another? Does the nontheist’s failure to be hyper-rational, to decide all personal matters using pure reason, undermine nontheism, making the rejection of theism a case of special pleading? If the wisest course is to put our best foot forward when searching for a mate, for example, doing what’s practically necessary to be as happy as possible, why not be equally as pragmatic in our choice of what to think about God?

Note that the existentialist’s point here isn’t quite the same as Pascal’s. Pascal advocates a cynical calculation, whereas the existentialist says we should go with our gut: if our temperament and experience happen to direct us towards nontheism, then nontheism will make us happy, and the existentialist concludes that such people have an ethical or aesthetic obligation to be nontheists. Most people, though, clearly find theism more palatable than nontheism. Now, Richard Dawkins likes to emphasize the perfectly logical point that something isn’t true just because we want it to be so: even were theism ethically or otherwise practically preferable to nontheism--for most people, at least--that fact wouldn’t indicate that God actually exists. But this is just to repeat the category mistake. Granting that theism isn’t rational, should everyone reject theism purely for that reason? If you can’t bear to live without assuming that you’ll see your loved ones again in heaven after you physically die, is the wisest option nevertheless to side with reason and science, to condemn yourself to angst? Again, the nontheist surely agrees we should adopt a less-than-fully-rational attitude with respect to our love life, since rigorous analysis and skepticism are counterproductive in that endeavour. So why doesn’t the ethical goal of happiness trump the dictates of reason and science in answering transcendent philosophical questions? The point isn’t that emotion or character logically or scientifically proves anything; instead, the question is whether ethical standards should override rational ones in dealing with matters of existential importance. 

For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that nontheism is indeed in some trouble here. What conclusion should be drawn? Not, of course, that theism is rationally justified. What we need are nonrational criteria, such as ethical or aesthetic ones, for evaluating both how people fall in love, including the partner they choose for themselves and their subsequent behaviour, and their decision to be a theist or a nontheist. Which life decision in either context is superior in terms of character development and the quality of life experience? I leave this question for my fellow nontheists to ponder.


  1. Very interesting post, thank you.

    I see your point and it is something I (a nontheist - your point re. the term atheist is all too true!) have been thinking about for a while. Rationality is very powerful in the natural world, but is as far as I can tell a product of human experience and may not necessarily apply to a deity. I tend to state at the outset of any discussion with theists that we assume the laws of logic apply to the deity, or we're playing tennis with no net, or racquets, or umpire...

    Regarding your analogy to choice of sexual partner, my jet-lagged brain's first response (and this is not fully thought-out, so I apologise if it's half-baked!) is that the two are fundamentally different. If a theist makes an assertion about their deity, there is necessarily a truth claim: this deity does exist, it does have traits X, Y and Z, and so on.

    In choosing a partner, for life or for the night, there is not necessarily a truth claim. Of course, some people claim the existence of soul mates, or an otherwise true or correct partner for them, but this is not inherent in the sexual or romantic relationship. I love my partner dearly, and I hope we spend our lives together, but I make no claim that this is the optimum choice, or the correct choice. There's no truth claim, and hence no need to apply the tools of rationality.

    (On a personal note, I find critical assessment of one's partner tends to lead to objectification and failure of the relationship.)

    My rather rambling point is that in choosing a partner one makes no statements about reality or metaphysics other than, "I want this person," or the like. Choosing a deity inherently makes statements along the lines of, "This deity exists," and "This deity is the correct deity to worship," and so on. This is where your analogy fails for me.

    Your thoughts would be most welcome. Again, I apologise for my poor editing; I am experiencing my first ever bout of jet lag and am rather exhausted.

    1. Thanks for reading the article/rant. I don’t see why the theist needs to say that God is bound by logic. What’s bound by logic is our reasoning about God, but by definition God would transcend nature and our power of reasoning. Likewise, if our universe came from a soup of quantum fluctuations in a multiverse, the soup needn’t be subject to the natural laws that operate in our universe. Just as the fluctuations in the vacuum produces different universes, each with their own randomly generated set of natural laws, so too if we replace that quantum set-up with God, God might choose to create different universes with different natural, metaphysical, and logical laws.

      The deeper question here is whether the laws of logic are descriptive or prescriptive, or whether they apply to things regardless of how they’re thought of or only to how we’re bound to think of things. We can be realists or Kantians about logic, but if we’re realists, logic had better be derivable from physics or from some other science, which seems paradoxical, since scientists presuppose logic. If logic is part of commonsense, how can we be sure that everything is bound by logic, such as the Big Bang singularity? After all, our commonsense evolved on a pragmatic basis, to help us survive in a tiny corner of reality. Indeed, the superposition of subatomic particles violates some basic logical assumptions, although physicists apply laws of probability rather than classical logic to understand that level of reality. This leads to the point that there’s a multiplicity of logical systems, depending on which assumptions are added to certain axioms.

      Regarding the existential argument against nontheism, it’s quite arguable that religion begins with some grade of mystical experience, just as love begins with a rush of hormones to the head. The arguments and reasons come afterward to explain, justify, or rationalize either experience. When you fall in love, as you say, you’re bound to screw things up if you overanalyze what’s happening. I actually make this point in the article. This is why hyper-rationalism, a sort of style that many New Atheists pretend to adopt, is fishy to me. The fact is that most atheists aren’t rational about what they most value, such as their family members. Indeed, the theologian Paul Tillich defines religious faith as our attitude towards what we most value, or to what we’d die for.

      Are truth claims irrelevant to a New Atheist’s attitude towards his child? I think not. The attitude begins with the rush of hormones that floods the atheist’s brain when he first sets eyes on his newborn infant. But there are all kinds of beliefs entailed by the parent’s behaviour. For example, the mother believes she’d die for her baby and that that sacrifice would be justified because her baby is supremely valuable. But is any human so valuable or indeed at all valuable? Does something become valuable just because of some feelings toward the thing? Doesn’t the notion of subjective value commit the naturalistic fallacy? Just what is subjective value? I address these questions in my Dec 2011 blog article, “Should we Procreate to Honour our Ancestors?” and in Aug 2011, “Oligarchy: Nature’s Inhumanity to Humans.”

  2. Hey Ben,
    interesting article. It's the first time I've seen the issue framed in this iconoclastic way (I can definitely hear some heads exploding) and it's a wonder no one has left any angry messages. Justifications for theistic belief is not what the current atheist movement wants on the side of the plate of its political agenda. BTW, nice going at the end; you could have easily slipped into a massive "tu quoque".

    I'm currently translating the article and I mean to post it on Easter Sunday (it will appear at this link).

    On a sidenote. You write: "Christianity doubles down on the literalistic confusion, adding that God ... passes its power through ... Jesus to Peter, the first Pope, thus adding the Catholic institution to the list of Christian idols."

    While this doesn't really undermine that segment, it should be pointed out that the papal supremacy was not a part of the fledgling christian doctrine as settled in Nicaea. In fact it failed to gain any serious traction until the 8th c., when Constantinople was getting weakened by muslim raids and Charlemagne grabbed the opportunity and backed up the Pope with his secular authority. The papal supremacy certainly benefited the Holy Roman Empire and weakened the Byzantine Empire, but it was definitely not what Constantine had in mind four centuries earlier.

    It should be stressed that the "Roman Catholic Church" and the "Catholic Church" institutionalized by Constantine are not the same entity. I see this honest error often from North America based writers. Out of curiosity, isn't the Great Schism of 1054 and its serious repercussions taught in Medieval History over there?

    1. Thanks for translating, Evan. This is one of the first articles I wrote on this blog. It hints at the existential perspective I'd develop in later articles.

      I'm not a historian, and while I was aware that the process of making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire took centuries, I wasn't aware of your point about Charlemagne. Still, the article doesn't say that Constantine introduced the doctrine of papal supremacy. It says just that the religion of Christianity added that doctrine as part of the literalistic confusion.

    2. It was in the paragraph about the Roman selection of a new paradigm for their religious unification, so I suspected you might have fallen in the same trap. As I said, it's a minor detail; it just bugged me :P

    3. Yes, but the paragraph before that one focuses on Constantine and the paragraph in question goes from talking about the Romans to the transformation of the cult into the religion of Christianity. That is, the paragraph becomes more general and thus is consistent with your point that some of these doctrines were added centuries later. Again, I'm not claiming to have known all of the details when I wrote the article. I'm just observing that as I read it, there's no factual error there. Then again, I'm hardly a neutral reader.

      Anyway, as I recall, what I had in mind is Matt 16:18-19, which says Jesus built his church on the rock of Peter and handed him the keys of heaven.