So, it took a while, but I got in my first religious argument in a class, on an online forum. It started with me talking about Philip Pullman’s most recent book, “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,” and questioning whether we can be critical of stories while still being respectful to the people who “own” them (in this case the Christians). Throughout the discussion there had been mention of science and religion having “different ontological arguments,” or different “fundamental assumptions,” with the implicit undertone that the only difference between science and religion is that you start off with different basic assumptions, and that, from those basic assumptions, both are equally valid.
I have heard this brought up before (at Murphy’s while talking to the head of the Navigators after our last panel discussion, for example), but I had never been able to articulate why I find this notion problematic. But because it came up in class I have been doing some thinking on the topic, and here’s what I came up with.
We should start by talking about reason, since I think that there are some fundamental disagreements here when talking to religious people. One thing I have specifically heard on the class forum is, "The tendency these days is to crown reason king," but I don't think that is quite accurate. I think that the tendency has ALWAYS been to crown reason king, since the dawn of humanity. It is only now that we feel the need to bring it up, as more and more people are forgetting the fact. It is thanks to our reasoning ability that we are where we are today. Of course reason is king. Without reason we are nothing. How do we decide on fight or flight? Whether to get up or not in the morning to go to work? Whether to go to drive or walk to the store? To ask someone to marry you? We use our reasoning skills for all of these. And we don’t even think about it. We don’t need to.
All reason is is the idea that we should only believe something if we have sufficient evidence to believe that it is true. I believe that I should eat dinner because my stomach is telling me that I am hungry, and, in the past, that has been a pretty good indicator that I am, in fact, hungry. This is what has worked for hundreds and thousands of years and put us where we are today. Reason isn't anything special. It's just a part of who we are. It's hardwired in our brains.
I would say that the definition of "faith" is to believe something even if there isn't sufficient evidence to. This is, in fact, in direct contrast to reason. It is saying we can ignore reason when convenient. When it comes to faith, there is no way to reasonably justify it; it actively opposes reason by its very definition. It’s not an assumption in the same way that reason is; it is just saying we can ignore the assumption of reason when we feel like it. So anything that stems from the underlying assumption of faith is therefore unreasonable. A belief that depends on faith lacks reason. There is no such thing as a rational argument for anything that has faith as a basic assumption.
The real question is, "Can we justify the existence of a God using reason as our basic assumption, NOT faith?" Can we come up with sufficient evidence for God that faith is unnecessary for belief? And many Christians believe that the answer to that is yes. But by bringing in anything that requires faith is already disregarding reason, making any arguments that stem from it invalid.
It is not correct to say that there is an ontological argument to believe in reason; ontological arguments themselves already require it. And the only way an ontological argument for God could be valid is if faith or belief is not an underlying assumption, since those require us to suspend reason.
So, when you talk to religious people or read books attempting to rationalize religious beliefs, always ask yourself what their underlying assumptions are. If you dig deep enough, you will almost always find that, somewhere buried deep down in their argument, is a belief unjustified by reason, regardless of how much reason they pile on top of it to cover it up. But it is not until you dig it up that truly useful dialog can occur.