In a recent online group discussion, an atheist friend of mine accused “religion” of being irrational. I made an attempt to explain that while world religions may not be consistently rational, there are religious individuals and denominations who value reason and science.
A Muslim friend responded with a link to an article Mehdi Hasan, a political journalist, wrote after interviewing Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and author of the book The God Delusion (among other books that promote science and debunk religion).
I’m not personally interested in what others believe, as much as I’m interested in why they believe in what they believe, and how they argue for it. Mehdi Hasan’s article is a clear case of confirmation bias and an attempt to defend one’s beliefs regardless of the soundness of one’s arguments. Things go horribly wrong when we value beliefs over truth and defend faith against facts.
I would like to analyze Mehdi’s article and clearly demonstrate where it falls apart. This is an exercise in critical thinking and my personal contribution to tackling common misconceptions about reason, science and religion.
Mehdi Hasan’s article: Dawkins Is Wrong – Religion Is Rational (you can see what inspired the title of this post)
The interview with Dawkins, which I will occasionally reference: Dawkins On Religion
I urge you to read Mehdi Hasan’s short article before reading this analysis, and the 50 minute interview is a joy to watch.
The Title – “Religion Is Rational”
The question “is religion a force for good or evil?” is so ridiculous that I’m surprised it’s still being asked and answered. It leads religious individuals to become defensive and nonreligious individuals to become aggressive, while each is attempting to make an assertion one way or the other.
Mehdi Hasan made a wild claim in the title of his article – that religion is rational – in response to such simplistic questions. The claim is, of course, false. Religion refers to contradictory beliefs, values, rituals and behaviors that we cannot make such sweeping assertions. Unless we redefine the meanings of religion and rationality.
When it comes to tackling a complex concept such as religion, it’s important that we deconstruct it and address the different factors that make it up. Religious individuals do not understand or experience religion in the same way that nonreligious individuals do. While the nonreligious may point out the flaws in religion from the outside looking in, the religious would hold up the benefits they experience on the inside, looking out.
Even individuals living within the same religious community can have different experiences of “religion”. The same aspect can be viewed in completely opposite ways. The sense of community that religion offers can be positive in offering social support, or negative in cultivating conformity. This leads to the need for a “second-order” deconstruction of the concept of “community” within the broader concept of “religion”.
Many arguments over religion are completely fruitless because they don’t employ deconstruction and the two sides end up arguing about completely different concepts.
To his credit, Dawkins constantly tried to deconstruct aspects of religion throughout the interview with Mehdi Hasan. He made several distinctions: between religion and faith, different kinds of god, religion and religious individuals, different religious beliefs, etc. Recognizing different beliefs, interpretations and values within religion helps gain a better understanding of the subject.
When the answer is either: religion is rational or irrational, then it’s no surprise how the religious (and nonreligious) would answer the question.
My point is: the question is wrong, and so are both answers to it.
Religion is not rational, as there are no guarantees for rationality from all religions. But there are rational streaks within religious communities, and some religions (or religious denominations) advocate the use of reason. We cannot dump dogmatists and rationalists in the same category of irrationality, even if the latter is not consistently rational.
We must also make the distinction between rationality based on human knowledge and experience (i.e. a belief compatible with reality as we know it) and rationality that uses a religious worldview as a benchmark (i.e. logical consistency within a religious belief system). Dawkins would dismiss the belief that “Muhammad went to heaven on a winged horse” because there is no evidence to support the possibility of such a remarkable feat, whereas Mehdi Hasan would see it as a break in the natural order of the universe, which God has created (and maintains) in the first place.
The point isn’t simply whether religious beliefs are consistent with each other, but whether they are rational, given the benchmark of human observation. This is a crucial point religious individuals need to address and the nonreligious are justified in demanding.
Put another way: we experience life and the universe in a very different way to what is described in religious scripture. We do not witness miracles, angels or jinn in the real world, so what makes us convinced that they do exist?
This brings us to the issue of faith…
Mehdi Hasan doesn’t define what faith is, but gives his opinion on what it isn’t:
Faith, in the disdainful eyes of the atheist, is irredeemably irrational; to have faith, as Dawkins put it to me, is to have “belief in something without evidence”. This, however, is sheer nonsense.
He deconstructs the concept of faith by making the distinction between evidence and proof, without defining those either:
In trying to disparage ‘faith’, Dawkins and his allies constantly confuse ‘evidence’ with ‘proof’; those of us who believe in God do so without proof but not without evidence.
The only attempt at a definition he offers is a quote:
Alister McGrath has observed: “Our beliefs may be shown to be justifiable, without thereby demonstrating that they are proven.”
This doesn’t seem to support the point he is making. In fact, it offers strong support to the position Dawkins took during the interview, where he accepted the possibility of the multiverse hypothesis, while dismissing the belief in God, when both lack observable evidence to support them: the multiverse hypothesis is justifiable, given what we know about the universe, but it is not proven to be true. It remains a hypothesis, and not an established scientific theory.
Mehdi Hasan isn’t simply arguing that God’s existence is justifiable, but that there’s evidence to support it, and that belief in God is not based on faith, as Dawkins defined it.
However, it’s important to acknowledge the merit of how Dawkins defined faith:
Dawkins never claimed that all religious individuals believe in God on faith. In fact, he seems to find the deistic belief in God reasonable (i.e. the belief in a creator arrived at with reason, not through revelation). But Mehdi Hasan cannot claim that “those of us who believe in God” all do so based on evidence, and not blind faith. Some religions praise “belief without evidence” (faith, according to Dawkins) as a mark of piety and trust in God. This is a religious attitude that springs up in the adherents of all the world religions, no matter how much its scripture praises reason, science and independent thought.
I once approached a Muslim student at a British university after hearing him lead a Koran study circle. He talked about the story of the “people of the cave” mentioned in the Koran, who are said to have slept for over 300 years. I said that the Koran mentions the position of the sun as it passed the cave. “Could this be referring to the relationship between space and time, which would explain why time may have been ‘suspended’ for them, to have lived for so long?” I asked, making a desperate (and genuine) attempt to bridge the gap between scripture and science.
He smiled and said:
“It could be. But the best form of eman [belief, faith or conviction] is one that’s not based on evidence.”
Again, to claim that religious individuals are all rational is false, and a simplistic answer to a simplistic question.
Mehdi Hasan presents three arguments to support the idea that religion is rational. But before we look at them, it’s worth noting how atheists and Dawkins are implicitly represented in the article and the assumptions Mehdi makes about their intentions. He says: “in the disdainful eyes of the atheist”… “trying to disparage ‘faith'”… “atheists who harangue us theists”…
All these expressions imply hostility and dismiss the possibility that atheists are genuine in their pursuit of truth, and don’t simply intend to refute theistic claims. While there is a great deal of hostility expressed by atheists towards the religious (you have only to read some of the comments on the article and interview to see this), there are many instances where a request for evidence is interpreted as hostile, simply because the religious have to defend their beliefs. But this defense isn’t against aggression. It’s the support needed to rationally justify a belief in public.
Mehdi also asks:
Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?
During the interview Dawkins made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t pass any judgment on the intelligence of the thinkers who believe in God.
From the interview (18:53-19:21):
Mehdi Hasan: Are all people who hold beliefs in god and in miracles and the supernatural: Do you regard them all as intellectually inferior to you?
Richard Dawkins: I regard those beliefs as intellectual nonsense. I don’t regard the individuals as intellectually inferior to me because many of them palpably are not. If you go back in history, then all bets are off. Because… it’s not at all surprising that, before Darwin, people believed in all kinds of things, which they wouldn’t believe in now.
Therefore, Mehdi isn’t expected to believe – and nobody accused – the philosophers mentioned to be unthinking, irrational idiots. Mehdi made an appeal to the authority of these figures in making a point, as well as misrepresented Dawkins’ point of view.
The arguments presented by Mehdi Hasan are:
1) Absence Of Evidence
First, it may be a tired cliché but it is nonetheless correct: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.
This is a bizarre argument. It becomes even more problematic when it’s sprinkled with terms like “prove” and “faith” when Mehdi has failed to define what they mean to him from the outset. If he can’t prove God’s existence, then what’s the point he’s trying to make in the article? If the only “non-faith-based” position is being agnostic, does his belief in God rest on faith? Then how can religion be rational, as he claims?
The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but where is the evidence? It seems odd to say: “I believe in God because there is no evidence to suggest He doesn’t exist.” Evidence is needed to prove a thing exists. No evidence is required to prove its absence. Mehdi has made the assertion that God exists. Atheists don’t need to present any evidence that He doesn’t.
Rather than presenting an argument in support of his belief, Mehdi Hasan dodged the question with this line of reasoning.
Let’s move on to the next argument…
2) Not Everything Can Be Proven
Second, there are plenty of things that cannot be scientifically tested or proven but that we believe to be true, reasonable, obvious even. Which of these four pretty uncontroversial statements is scientifically testable? 1) Your spouse loves you. 2) The Taj Mahal is beautiful. 3) There are conscious minds other than your own. 4) The Nazis were evil.
This isn’t just about metaphysics, aesthetics or ethics…
Yet another attempt to dodge the question. Even if science is riddled with assertions that haven’t been tested or proven, this does not mean that it’s rational to believe in things that cannot be proven, or expect others to accept them as truth when no valid reason or evidence is presented.
It’s important to note that science has a scope. It doesn’t deal with the nature of reality (metaphysics), ethics or aesthetics. These fall into the scope of philosophy. Just because science has limits does not mean that it does not function well for the purpose it serves.
Science deals with the study of nature, which is why it makes no assertions in favor of the supernatural. In other words, science cannot (or at least hasn’t) proven the existence of the supernatural. What it has repeatedly demonstrated is that phenomena that used to be attributed to the supernatural have natural explanations. Therefore, science has a bias in favor of the natural, and resists supernatural explanations to fill the gaps in human knowledge.
This bias is understandable. It helps pave the way for further knowledge by admitting our present ignorance, rather than jump to conclusions to arrive at superficial certainties.
Old maps used to mark unchartered territories with “here be dragons” to compensate for their ignorance. Science favors the “we don’t know yet” label.
Science itself is permeated with unproven (and unprovable) theories. Take the so-called multiverse hypothesis.
Unproven, as well as unprovable theories, are part of the scientific method. But what’s great about science is that it draws the distinction between established theories and questionable ones. It boils down to the evidence: the raw data in support of the theory and the existence of anomalies that may undermine the theory.
Theories are essential to making sense of data. They house a large number of observations and seek to explain the patterns and commonalities between them. Without theories there would be too much data and no way of organizing it. Therefore, theories (unproven or proven) are an integral part of the scientific method. The multiverse hypothesis is only a hypothesis. It’s an embryonic attempt at understanding the cosmos with natural explanations, without appealing to the supernatural for an answer.
3) Logical Arguments For God’s Existence
Third, there are plenty of good, rational and evidence-based arguments for God. You don’t have to agree with them, but it is intellectually dishonest to claim that they, too, like God, don’t exist.
This part of the article reads to me like a brain dump of all rationally-sounding arguments that attempt to prove God’s existence.
The first is the Kalam cosmological argument:
1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2) The universe began to exist.
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Whether you agree with it or not, it is a valid deductive argument, a genuine appeal to reason and logic.
Logical arguments depend on the consistency between the statements presented, as well as their factual truth. While there may not be any dispute over the first statement, the second is certainly questionable. Whether the universe began or not, and the nature of the universe as a whole are matters we’re still grappling with. We can’t observe the origin of the universe, and it’s quite difficult to simulate it in a lab.
What we’re certain of is that the universe exists. How (and if) it came to be we do not yet know. We cannot simply make the assumption that the universe must have a beginning. The impossibility of infinite regress back in time lends support to this assertion, but is it the only possible explanation to the origin of the universe?
And if it does successfully prove the existence of a creator, how does it fit in to the concept of God as explained by the world religions?
What’s more, if the universe must have a beginning, what prevents the same line of reasoning to apply to its creator?
Remember, the late Antony Flew, the atheist philosopher who embraced God in 2004, did so after coming to the conclusion that ‘there had to be “an intelligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical universe”.’ To pretend that Flew, of all people, arrived at such a belief blindly, without thinking it through, ‘without evidence’, is plain silly.
Again, nobody is accusing Antony Flew of blind belief, but you certainly have to weigh the evidence and arguments he presents to determine whether his approach is a rational one or not. Conversion stories, regardless of the convert’s qualifications, are not considered evidence on their own. I would be interested to know why Mehdi Hasan doesn’t embrace the Christian doctrine Flew concludes to be the most logical.
These days, the vast majority of my coreligionists see Darwin as the devil.
Yet this is a new phenomenon. Many of Islamic history’s greatest scholars and thinkers were evolutionists…
It’s not a new phenomenon in the least. Many Islamic scholars who are revered today were accused of blasphemy in their time. The problem is in the dogmatic attitude towards religion, which has always existed in every religious community, and continues to do so today.
There are many Muslims who live by the storyline that Islam and theism are under attack by ungodly heathens who seek to extinguish the light of faith. They see Darwin’s work as being part of this conspiracy, rather than a genuine attempt to understand the origin of life, given what we can understand from the evidence we have.
There is, indeed, nothing in the Quran that prevents Muslims from embracing evolution. In his recent book Reading the Quran, the Muslim commentator Ziauddin Sardar notes how creation is presented “as a dynamic, ongoing phenomenon that is constantly evolving and changing”. Sardar points to verse 14 of chapter 71, where we are specifically asked to reflect on the fact that “He has created you stage by stage”.
The creation story of Adam reduces the origin of man to an event, not a process. This conflicts with the theory of evolution, which is why many Muslims regard Darwin as the devil. The “stage by stage” verse could be in reference to the development of the fetus, and not the gradual development of the human race.
Rationally-inclined Muslims would not dismiss evolution because it conflicts with their religious beliefs. Instead, they would seek to reconcile the two. To dismiss evolution simply because it conflicts with one’s religious beliefs is dogmatism, not rationality.
Yet the theory of evolution, whether Muslims accept it or not, doesn’t explain the origins of the universe, the laws of science or our objective moral values. In short, most of us who believe in God do so not because we are irrational, incurious or immature but because He is the best answer to the question posed by Leibniz more than 300 years ago: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Nobody has made the claim that the theory of evolution explains the origin of the universe (which is beyond the scope of the theory), or offers moral guidance. In fact, Dawkins did make it clear during the Q&A session at the end of the interview that he doesn’t depend on the theory of evolution for morality (Interview segment: 41:57-42:08):
I’m a passionate Darwinian when it comes to explaining the way life is. I’m a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to organizing our lives.
The article ends without offering any real evidence in support of God’s existence, and makes loads of assumptions about evolution and how much the belief in God and religion can answer for. While a supernatural explanation for the origin of the universe can be put forward, it does not mean that it explains the laws of science or offers any valid moral values. If anything, immoral values and atrocious crimes have been justified in the name of religion and with the excuse: “because God says so.”
If we are honest with ourselves, “most of us who believe in God” do so because of a cultural default, followed by intellectual rationalizations to make our beliefs sound like universal truths.
For critical thinkers, the question isn’t whether you believe in God or not, but why do you believe in His existence? And would you be willing to change your beliefs and your entire belief system if the evidence proves your religious beliefs to be untrue?
We must always value truth over beliefs, and be willing to abandon the latter to arrive at the former.