Whose Reason Anyway?

“Yes, there are intelligent people who believe in God. But has any one of them ever given an intelligent reason for belief?” So spoke (well, tweeted – but it sounds less dramatic) Professor Richard Dawkins. Of course, of all the tweets I might have chosen to begin a critical piece on Dawkins (or, more generally, the “New Atheism”) this isn’t at all the most problematic, wrong or even offensive. But I think Owen Jones and Nesrine Malik have both provided ample reprisal to Dawkins’ latest salvo towards the Muslim community. I want to concentrate on a different, related issue.

What is “an intelligent reason for belief?” An intelligent reason is, presumably, a good reason; and a good reason is deemed to be good by someone. But Dawkins et al would rather call it an intelligent reason because – as the juvenile wisdom goes – “it takes one to know one”. The implication in all this is that Dawkins knows what an intelligent reason is because he’s… intelligent. Not only that, he’s more intelligent than the intelligent people he credits with having a belief in God because, whilst Dawkins is able to discriminate between their intelligent reasoning and their stupid theistic reasoning, they’re unable to do this. It’s all terribly patronising.

I know these initial remarks aren’t a particularly good defence of theism and I don’t mean them to be (I’m a committed atheist). What I do mean them to be is an attack on the rhetoric of New Atheism. Using language in this – irritating – way implies at the outset that Dawkins et al have a monopoly on what counts as reasonable. Of course the counter-cry from the New Atheists is that they do have a monopoly on what counts as reasonable, well, when compared to religious people who, according to them, see faith as legitimation for all kinds of unreasonable wacky ideas. Organisations like the humbly titled “Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science” see themselves as the antidote to this wacky – and dangerous! – thinking.

But the secular “reason” to which the New Atheists and their self-aggrandising institutions subscribe isn’t the only game in town. In fact, it’s striking just how naïve their understanding of “reason” and “rationality” is. They’ve got empiricism and positivism down pat, but it’s like the centuries between and after the 17th and 19th don’t exist. In fact, at core, their romantic Liberal view of “man as rational mammal” hasn’t really moved on from Descarte. I’m certainly no expert in the history of ideas, but what about Marx, Freud, The Frankfurt School, Phenomenology, Continental Feminism etc.?

I don’t think it’s necessary to subscribe to these schools of thought; they’re just the ones that jump immediately to my mind in trying to point out that the idea of “human as rational animal” is pretty outdated. Indeed, I’ve questioned how rational our motives are, especially in politics, here.

From the liberal social-democrat, Jurgen Habermas, and his distinction between purposive and communicative rationality, to the revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s distinction between ‘higher’ dialectical thought, and ‘lower’ formalist thought, social theorists have recognised that rationality isn’t some unitary, universal procedure for knowing things. We should instead be talking about rationalities in the plural (in case you’re wondering, Trotsky would’ve – ironically – put Dawkins in the “lower” category…).

This isn’t to lapse into relativism and say that some ways of thinking about a problem aren’t better than others – in fact, I’d argue that the New Atheist version of rationality is actually a hopeless way of understanding the world (I’m coming to that). It is, however, to acknowledge that the thing the New Atheists hold dear is remarkably underspecified.

Let’s take a simple and crude example from contemporary politics: if your aim in proposing solutions to the current economic crisis is to protect the poorest and most vulnerable in society, the solutions proposed by the Tory-led government are totally irrational. If your aim is to maximise, to the greatest possible extent, private profits, then they’re perfectly rational. What’s rational depends on your point of view and the aims you’re pursuing. Of course, we can argue about the rationality of those aims and even if the aims I’ve attributed to the government are fair, but the point stands: rationality isn’t something one side of the argument possesses whilst the other side doesn’t. What’s deemed to be rational is at stake in the argument: that is, in this context, rationality is political and it’s ideological. This is well known to Feminism (many feminists have argued that far from ‘hysteria’ being a psychological category – an abandonment of reason – it’s one that has historically been used to silence women politically).

If you see rationality in the sense that Dawkins et al seem to, then the big barrier to human progress is that humans just aren’t rational enough. Indeed, this is why Dawkins has identified religion, especially Islam, as one of the greatest evils in the world today. But this is nonsense. A friend of mine succinctly tweets: ‘Dawkins and co want to divide the world into believers vs atheists, instead of the 1% vs 99%, which is humanity’s most important fault-line’.

I totally agree. Is it really the case that one of the greatest sources of human conflict is that people just aren’t thinking straight; that there’s a conflict in Palestine because the Arabs and the Israelis are being unreasonable; that the Irish troubles basically boiled down to a 16th century schism in Christian theology; that Islamic terrorism exists because “the world is a dangerous place” populated by unreasonable people? Of course not – in all those conflicts, it’s not simply ideas that are at stake (although they are too), but political and material advantage. Isn’t saying we side with the more “rational” party simply to say that we ascribe to a certain political perspective?

Blaming the ills of the world on irrationality at a time when the globe is plunged into economic and social crisis is at best bizarre and at worst a distraction from the real issues. At a time like this, the truly scary thought is not that human beings are irrational, but that figures like Dawkins can make any claim to reasonableness when they attack communities of people that already face persecution in the media, scapegoating by the political establishment, and physical assault by fascists and the far-right.

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Some thoughts on religion, politics and the New Atheism

It’s a judge’s job to interpret the law. In America, the appointment of judges is an incredibly political act. It can change the ruling on hugely important issues like a woman’s right to control her own body, the death penalty and the legal constitution of the entire state. Rightly, judges are seen as political actors – they fit into the political spectrum and are labelled “Liberal” or “Conservative” according to the interpretation of the law they endorse (notably, there are no “socialist” high court judges…). Zizek has argued that when we talk about the law, the most important thing to examine is not necessarily the laws themselves, but how those laws are interpreted and the ways in which people relate to them. Law is one arena in which political battles are fought.

The parallels between law and religion are striking. Within the religious community, there are conservative, liberal and – indeed – socialist interpretations of scripture. Both the legal statutes and religious scriptures provide the terrain for what are effectively political battles. Although rhetorically theological, religious debates are in substance political. Theology is the ideological expression of politics within the domain of religion, just as legality is the ideological expression of politics within the judiciary.

It is for this reason that the New Atheism’s attacks on religion are simplistic. They label religion – or the faith-based argument – as inherently reactionary. It is religion that is at fault for persecuting gay men and women and for the subjugation of women throughout history. But to see religion in this way is to ignore the fundamentally political nature of religious institutions. It is to ignore the living, breathing dynamism of theological ideologies and resort to arid, abstract formalisms of the type “Leviticus says…”, or “this Hadith says…”. In short, it is to substitute for reality – that is, how religions are actually practiced by the plurality of their followers – for scholarly abstraction – that is, how the New Atheist believes the scripture should be interpreted.

Therein is the perversity in the New Atheist’s argument. It is an analytical contradiction. On the one hand they condemn the reactionary content of some scripture, whilst on the other condemning those who “cherry-pick” only its liberal or socialist interpretations (or those who ignore that section of scripture completely, believing them not to be the voice of God for whatever reason). Religious conservatives are taken to task for their doctrinarism, whereas the liberals and socialists are taken to task for not being doctrinaire enough.

If all interpretations of scripture are deficient, whatever their political motivation, then, to the New Atheists (like all good liberals…) it is the process by which these interpretations are reached that must be at fault. Faith is, to them, the key problem. But could anyone with any intellectual honesty say that they came to a particular set of values or beliefs rationally, in the sense of reasoning inductively or deductively?

Che Guevara once said that it is great love which motivates the revolutionary. It is passion – “the optimism of the will” balancing “the pessimism of the intellect” as Antonio Gramsci formulated it – which drives many secular progressives (like myself) to dedicate the time and energy to political activity. Before anyone ever read Capital – Marx’s rational, reasoned analysis of the inevitable decline of capitalism – some had faith that the world could change for the better.

Given the centrality of secular faith and emotion to the everyday experience of political life of the progressive activist, how could any of us criticise the deep well of religious faith motivating the political actions of believers? To say that faith is the problem is to say that the civil rights activists were mistaken; that the liberation theologians of Latin America were mistaken; that the Irish republicans were mistaken; and that the Palestinian resistance is mistaken in drawing strength and conviction from faith (to name only a few liberation movements). It is to ignore their concrete political achievements, and fetishise their psychological motivations.

In all this, it’s not the motivation that matters, but the politics – for what, concretely, do believers stand and whose interests do they articulate?

In his famous statement containing the immortal words ‘religion is the opium of the people’, Marx also wrote that ‘to call on [the oppressed] to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions’. Paradoxically, it may be that to reach the point at which faith is surplus to ideological requirement requires the faith of some of us who fight to get us there.