Anniversary Post: Cult of Reason

Temple of Reason - Cult of ReasonOn this day in 1793, the Cult of Reason was proclaimed by the French National Convention. The idea was to get rid of the Catholic Church and replace it with the idea of perfecting humanity through the use of human reason. I applaud that goal. But this was the idea at the very being of the Reign of Terror. So all this business of being driven by reason and the search for truth and liberty didn’t work out that well.

I don’t bring this up to put down reason. I love reason. But reason is just as likely to turn into dogma as religion is. Far too many atheists think that if we just got rid of religion, then the world would be peaceful. This is even more fantastic a notion than that when we die we go to heaven where we live in paradise until the end of time.

The biggest problem with people who fetishize reason (and many people do just that) is that they think that other people aren’t being rational in their own way. I discussed this in an article earlier this year, Pascal’s Wager in Modern America. Religious people think they are being rational. I find their thinking simplistic, but I also find most atheists’ thinking simplistic.

Being “guided by reason and evidence” is a sham. People don’t do that. They are deluded. I’m not saying that the Reign of Terror was caused by the Cult of Reason. I’m just saying that they weren’t inconsistent. When people tell me they are guided only by evidence and reason, I always think of people who claim that they aren’t racists and that they treat everyone the same. Such people are either ignorant or lying. The most dangerous thing in the world is to believe that you possess the truth. Both Evangelicals because of their belief in the One True God™ and Sam Harris who believes in Reason and Evidence™ both conclude that we should torture Muslims.

Rationality is a tool that can be helpful in creating a more humane and just society. But it can also be used to create the Reign of Terror or the Third Reich. It isn’t something that automatically leads to utopia.

15 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Cult of Reason

  1. Being guided by evidence and reason is a continuum, and various aspects of life just aren’t properly judged by rationality or otherwise.

    I’d like to remind you again that Harris is not necessarily representative of those who see something good about the New Atheism. His support of torture is irrational for a number of reasons. Basically, the empirical evidence is that torture does not get information – it’s always a form of extra-judicial punishment in practice. Also not supported by the evidence – his ugly view that Muslims are blood-thirsty savages who hate Jews for no damned reason.

    • I agree with this. I’ve even written some nice things about the New Atheists. But the problem is not just Harris. I think I have an article coming out soon that deals with Daniel Dennett and he believes some very silly things too. It’s much more important to me that people become interested and excited in science than that they do or don’t believe in God. What I like about the New Atheism is that it has made it easier for none believers to be open about it. But I think it is time to turn from that toward humanism.

  2. I possess the truth! The truth is that I would like a pizza for lunch.

    What I find odd is that other people think they are being rational for believing in God. I don’t think that. I know, since I cannot prove the existence of God (and that is kind of the point), that my belief is probably irrational. I don’t care though. I believe and that is good enough for me. YMMV otherwise as the kids these days say. Then again, I am a bad theist because I don’t try to get others to be a theist.

    And no one is guided always by reason and evidence. Most of the time maybe but everyone has some thing they are completely irrational on. Like being married.

    • Some day I will have to lay out everything I think. But it is certainly true that a theist can say, “I have faith in the existence of God.” And there is nothing wrong with that statement. I have faith that when I go to the bank, my money will be available. I have reasons for believing that it will be. But I’m sure you have reasons for believing in God. In fact, I think the argument for God isn’t that bad. The argument for most forms of God are terrible. But I’m all for negative theology. Just the same, I don’t see the need for God in even the broadest terms. I’m not even sure it makes sense to think of the universe as existing in the way we usually think. It is all just a way that our consciousness makes sense of existence. Did the universe (multiverse) always exist? I think that’s a misunderstanding of the notion of time. But too many atheists seems to think that evolution is the totality of existence. Sad.

      • It requires that they spend a great deal of time learning more information then they really want to and thinking about the information when thinking is pretty difficult. And possibly fear that they may change their minds about God.

        • A big question for me is what people mean by “belief in God.” I think the atheist community could use a course on negative theology. Too many of them have conceptions of God that are as primitive as those of Biblical literalists. When Terry Eagleton was writing his take-down of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books (he refers to them as “Ditchkins”), his main point was that the books were nothing more than attacks on the most pathetic, literalist believers. And sure, we can pile on them, but to think that this is a serious discussion of religion is wrong. Atheists like to trot out this or that fallacy when making their arguments. But it is also a fallacy to argue against the most simplistic form of argument. And this is what I mostly see. Few people want to argue with serious religious scholars because the subject is really hard. Much easier to make fun of the people who think the universe was created in six literal days.

          • I dunno, I have met Sylvia Allen, she totally deserves being mocked.

            I see your point though. It is like the people who are like “Jesus never existed because XYZ didn’t talk about him! And there were no records!” Uh, so? There were gazillions of itinerant preachers running around in that time, most of the stuff written about the man was written decades later, we don’t have any of the originals and it was solely due to politics that we have the books of the Bible that we have. Why does it matter if we don’t have this or that person’s viewpoint? Christianity was never supposed to be solely about Jesus anyway if you pay any attention to the first four books of the New Testament.

            • Well, I just lost a rather long response. Main thing: an attack on Sylvia Allen is no an attack on Christianity, much less God.

              • Well damn, I like reading your long responses, I learn stuff.

                No, attacking her is at best attacking a small subset of Christianity for all the noise they make. And it is easy to do since she probably knows about as much about history as she does the teachings of Christ-it is much harder to attack someone who has spent their life studying carefully the oldest manuscripts we have and can explain the responses to the questions raised.

                • My longer comment was about Robert Price’s essay “Jesus at the Vanishing Point.” It is in the excellent book, The Historical Jesus: Five Views. His argument is that we really can’t say anything about the historical Jesus. If he existed, he’s been so papered over with folklore that we can’t find the historical figure. I’m not against people trying to tweeze out who he is. Personally, I want to see him as the guy in Matthew 5-7 — which not only presents a philosophy that I find compelling, but is some of the most poetic writing in the Bible. But if people want to, they can find a really angry Jesus in the Bible. Ultimately, I think religion is about what it says about us. I have a great fondness for hippy Christians. And I have a great dread of conservative and literalist Christians. And this is part of my complaints with atheists, because Christians aren’t monolithic. In fact, I’d love to join a Unitarian church. But that’s mostly for the pot lucks!

                  • Free food is always great.

                    Religion, regardless of which one, always seems to develop into something that you can pick and choose what you want to believe. I put the book into my wishlist and see who will get it for me for Christmas.

                    • Actually, I’m more into the cooking and having people gush about how great I am. I’m not proud of it.

                      So is that like Ben Carson finding a $10 bill?!

    • I’ve come to believe that we are all very dangerous when we take ourselves too seriously. Not that I’m going to make a dogma out of that… :-)

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