With Reason on Our Side: Rational Belief Meets the 'New Atheism'

By Peterson, Gregory R. | Science & Spirit, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

With Reason on Our Side: Rational Belief Meets the 'New Atheism'


Peterson, Gregory R., Science & Spirit


It has become difficult to walk into a bookstore without viewing yet another offering of what some are calling the "new atheism," Works by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others have made their way onto bestseller lists, and the authors have achieved minor celebrity status. Clearly, the new atheism has tapped into a vein of discontent with religion, likely spurred by a reaction to the growing ant] sometimes violent influence of religious fundamentalism.

Central to the new atheism is the claim that religious belief is utterly and hopelessly irrational. There are weak parts to this argument but on occasion a few strong points as well. Why would people hold irrational beliefs? Harris chalks it up primarily to human credulity. Dennett and Dawkins, in turn, offer a scientific argument: Evolution and biology have shaped our minds to fall prey to religious beliefs. Religion results, they claim, when our normally functioning brain systems run into situations they were not adapted Fog producing false beliefs and impressions. Almost inevitably, on this account, religion is a psycho logical mistake.

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Even if these psychological factors are real, they do not touch the question of human rationality. Just because someone has a psychological motive for a belief, For instance, this says nothing about whether that belief is true or whether it is rational to hold a certain belief. We arrive at two key questions. Is it ever rational to hold religious beliefs? And, could there be a scientific account of such religious rationality?

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At first blush, that question moves us into the philosophy of religion and the traditional "rational" arguments for and against the existence of God. The new atheists have taken up these topics but still end up giving belief a drubbing. One of the most famous arguments for holding belief is "Pascal's wager," developed by the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. He argued that we can't know whether or not God exists, but if we are forced to place a wager, we would clearly choose to believe in God. The reasoning is straightforward:

If God exists, we would be rewarded with eternal life if we believe and eternal damnation if we don't. But if God doesn't exist, we would have, at worst, "wasted" only the small effort of belief. Clearly, concludes Pascal, it is in our own self-interest--and thus rational--to believe.

The new atheists give short shrift to Pascal. They evoke a standard criticism that belief is not something we choose, let alone "wager." In this view, belief that the moon is green cheese could have a benefit, but still, no one can justify willfully holding such a silly belief. Furthermore, Pascal's argument assumes there to be only two choices. But the new atheists are keen to point out what we all now know: There are many religious options, many conceptions of God, gods, and the transcendent.

Despite these objections, Pascal's approach continues to hold promise. It remains useful in explaining why people believe as they do. It also offers a legitimate basis for such belief. One step in the right direction is clarifying what the word belief means. Dawkins, for example, lumps it in with scientific analysis, as if a scientific hypothesis. A little reflection, however, shows the drawbacks of Dawkins' approach. A hallmark of scientific theorizing is that it is disinterested. For physicists, nothing hangs on whether or not string theory is true. Either way, they will go on living their lives as they did before. But, of course, religion is different. The cardinal feature of religious belief is that everything is seen to depend on it, and whether one believes or not has profound implications for life.

Looking at it another way, religious belief is not so much about "belief" as it is about commitment. Faith and hope, words prominent in the theological lexicon, don't really fit the new atheism's pigeonhole of "irrational belief. …

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