Many atheists think it is better to be fully reasonable and scientific than cling to the false comfort of religious stories. A leading example of this perspective is Dr. Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke University.
In his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, he explains the purpose of his book, namely, that “this book aims to provide the correct answers to most of the persistent questions” (2). His methodology is equally clear: “we will take the best reason for atheism—science—and show what else it commits us atheists to believing” (3).
Why would he do it this way? Because in his view, “science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about” (7). What’s the payoff? “If we can work through the details, we’ll get something much better—a real understanding of life, the universe, everything, warts and all” (17).
These quotes are just the tip of the iceberg – throughout his book, Dr. Rosenberg makes it crystal-clear that he has the greatest respect for reason and science, but complete disdain for religion and stories. He has dedicated untold hours to writing, editing, publishing, and promoting a book that purports to give the correct and reasonable answers to the big questions of life. His words and actions demonstrate a profound commitment to the moral superiority of reason instead of religion.
Here’s my question: why, on atheism, is reason better than religious stories? This turns out to be quite a problem for Dr. Rosenberg. For instance, here’s some of what he says about moral value (emphasis added):
There is really one bit of bad news that remains to trouble scientism. We have to acknowledge (to ourselves, at least) that many questions we want the “right” answers to just don’t have any….it will turn out that all anyone can really find are the answers that they like. The same goes for those who disagree with them. Real moral disputes can be ended in lots of ways: by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of example that changes social mores. But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers. There are none (96).
Scientism shows us that letting our consciences be our guides enhances our fitness, but that doesn’t make us morally right, or morally wrong for that matter. Instead it shows that there is no such thing as either morally right or wrong (145).
Once science reveals the truths about human beings that may be combined with core morality, we can figure out what our morality does and does not requires of us. Of course, as nihilists, we have to remember that core morality’s requiring something of us does not make it right—or wrong. There is no such thing (288).
We may think we’ve got the relevant facts and so hold firmly the conclusions they support. But science is mostly fallible, and the science we need to guide particular moral judgments is not as certain as the second law of thermodynamics or even the theory of natural selection. We could be wrong, sometimes quite wrong, about what we think are the morally relevant facts that, together with core morality, dictate our moral judgments. Even though scientism allows us to hold quite extreme views, it also counsels us always to hold them lightly, not firmly (291).
Here’s the main problem: given atheism, if there is no difference between right and wrong, then it logically follows that it is no better to be reasonable than religious.
Here’s the secondary problem: given atheism, if science is the means of gaining knowledge about the world, but the science needed to guide particular moral judgments is so undeveloped that it could lead us to be “quite wrong,” then at best we can only be unsure or agnostic about whether it is morally better to be reasonable than religious. Or as Rosenberg puts it, “scientism counsels modesty about our own moral convictions” (291).
In other words, from both a logical and practical point of view, Dr. Rosenberg’s atheistic worldview cannot sustain the moral judgment that reason is better than religion. More broadly, if you are a nihilist or a moral relativist, you cannot consistently advocate for preferring reason instead of religion.
Of course, you may decide to do so anyways, but if you do so in spite of knowing about the logical and practical inconsistency between atheism and the value judgment that reason is good, you are then irrationally committed to valuing reason.
That’s pretty ironic.
But what if, contrary to all expectation, religion provides a coherent intellectual basis for loving reason?
For instance, if you believe that Jesus is God, and his greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with…all your mind” then religious devotion to Christ should be connected to cherishing reason (Matthew 22:37). Christians have a moral duty, obligation, commitment, requirement – however you want to put it – to be reasonable.
In that case, placing your faith in God would be to start a process that brings fulfillment of human intellectual, volitional, and affective capacity, as you embrace God’s purpose for your life. Then, as you grow into a loving relationship with your Creator, growing in faith, your relationship with God will renew your ability to love, to think, and to navigate life with wisdom. As Jesus’s #1 and greatest commandment makes clear, Christians are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
(This is part of the reason why Christianity is a religion of “good news”).
So whenever Christians, atheists, or anyone else denigrates the role of reason within religion – at least the Christian religion – they are attacking a sickly, straw man version of true Christianity. That is, there’s a logical connection between thinking Christianity is true and recognizing your moral responsibility to be reasonable. Further, because Christians believe that God is a God of love, on a practical level, we are encouraged to know that God is eager to help us fulfill His commandments, including the obligation to be reasonable (see 1 John 4-5).
But unfortunately, in Dr. Rosenberg’s case, his reasoned attack on religion is coming from an atheistic perspective that is logically and practically unable to explain the moral superiority of reason itself. If atheism leads to nihilism, as Dr. Rosenberg so cogently argues in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, then atheism cannot coherently support the importance of being rational.