Is Christianity Rational?

Is Christianity Rational?

Irrationality, Justin E H Smith, Princeton.

Stop Being Reasonable, Eleanor Gordon-Smith, Newsouth.

Is Christianity rational? Reasonable? There is a tradition of natural theology that suggests the world points to a Creator, and for centuries it was those rare atheists who seemed the irrational ones. Saint Paul argues with legal logic in many of his letters, yet at the same time he writes that those who take pride in their superiority of thought (the Greeks) will see the idea of a crucified messiah as a load of nonsense.

In recent times, cheerleaders of the Enlightenment such as Steven Pinker have tried to reintroduce the idea that the Enlightenment finally exposed the irrationality of religion, but for Justin E H Smith, the story is much more complicated. The Enlightenment itself is an example of how by using reason individuals can come to wildly differing conclusions. Some Enlightenment thinkers promoted the idea of progress, some questioned it, some promoted deism, some atheism, some emphasised the individual, some the collective. One thing they did agree on was that reason and emotion are not opposed, against the modern caricature of hard-headed science versus soft-hearted sentiment. They knew that matters of the heart and the imagination are not illogical.

It makes no sense to speak of coldly analysing the properties of the ones we fall in love with. And sport, art and even scientific paradigm-shifts rely on moments of inspiration and emotion. Conversely, the Enlightenment had its own moments of irrationality, the French temples of reason, for one, says Smith. When reason becomes too narrow it can become irrationally prejudiced and even cult-like. And one could argue that the development of the atom bomb was not particularly rational, neither is our continuing frenetic use of fossil fuels.

Smith’s book covers much, from whether animals are rational to smoking to Silicon Valley IT executives, but is partly prompted, if you hadn’t already guessed, by Americans’ election of Trump. Rational premises can lead to some rather irrational choices. It is not irrational to fear strangers, but of course much of Trump’s rhetoric, which profits from this natural prejudice, is simply wrong, as well as being fanned by the craziness of the internet, which, rather than an informational utopia, has descended into a forum for unreasonable, hate-filled tribalism.

Smith sees Creationism as another example of making erroneous connections, as an example of taking a reasonable premise – that the Bible is the Word of God – down unreasonable paths. He argues that Creationists mistake the mystery of religion for the rationality of science, though he is wrong when he says that Creationists deep-down don’t really believe in a six-day creation but rather make a show of it because they feel their faith implies no other position. Rather, Creationists, like Darwinists, begin with an unshakeable premise and fit the evidence to that premise, despite the apparent improbabilities.

If we are interested in dissuading people from views we think are wrong, rather than angrily denouncing their views as stupidity, we might begin by pointing out the weak links in the chain of reasoning, as well as recognising that we all hold to theories emotionally and don’t give them up easily. This goes for the political situation as well. There is a logic to not giving up our opinions at the drop of a hat.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith, also a philosopher of the irrational, has a more casual, pop-vox style, and she takes her fluffy microphone and voice recorder to the streets in order to understand why dissuading people of illogical ideas is so difficult. Memorably, she talks to men who whistle at and proposition women in King’s Cross against the evidence that such behaviour is rewarding. In the process she suggests that the very notion of evidence is somewhat fuzzy, and that it is impossible to analyse a situation from a completely unbiased position. Our minds are entangled with our bodies, contra Descartes (‘I think therefore I am’). Not that this means we should mistrust our emotions.

In one of her (what might in a more academic publication be termed) case studies she talks to a former member of a religious cult, and discusses the way religious cults not only ask their members to disregard their senses when they contradict what we are told to believe, but also ask them to suppress their emotions if they are favourably disposed to someone ostracised by the cult. In these cases, the suppression of the intellect and emotions can allow what should be a developed moral capacity to turn a blind eye to immorality. 

As Justin Smith points out, religion can seem irrational but be morally right. (Jewish rabbis took this to extremes and argued that the most irrational of the Mosaic laws must be followed simply because God says so.) Jesus asks that we sell all our possessions and give to the poor, that we give our shirts as well as our coats to those that ask, and that we turn the other cheek. But reason suggests that we fight our enemies, horde riches for ourselves and our family, or at the widest our country, and that we concentrate on what enriches our lives during our lifetimes and not think about what will affect our descendants when we are long gone, which all suggests that, immoral as Trump may be, there may be some logic to his behaviour.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at


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