on “God” and reason

Comments on Clay Burell’s “sermon” got me thinking:

One could hold a belief in “God” yet remain adequately critical. If one does not claim to “know God” or use “God” to explain phenomena, then the belief on its own poses no difficulties. However, it’s clear that most don’t tread with reservation. Most speculate. The instant any speculation as to the nature of “God” occurs, the speculator rejects reason. Unfortunately, most people who believe in “God” speculate. Whether abstractly (e.g. “God’s will” or “God watches” or “Designer”) or more concretely (e.g. “God had a Son who He sent”), conjecture is common. Such unsubstantiated conjecture is self-gratification often cloaked in piety.

Theists should stop speculating while atheists are best not debating the existence of “God” at all. To keep theists in check, we all (theists especially) should question the absurd claims often uttered from the supposition. After all, it’s the absurdities that stir mischief, not an indescribable belief.

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17 Responses to “on “God” and reason”

  1. Mark Says:

    What’s wrong with self-gratification?

  2. Peter Rock Says:

    That’s what chocolate cake is for, not religion.

  3. Eric Hoefler Says:

    OK, I’ll bite …

    You said: “The instant any speculation as to the nature of “God” occurs, the speculator rejects reason.”

    I’m confused by your definition of speculation, particularly as this sentence seems to contradict your first two.

    But to go further, prohibiting speculation is a dangerous thing, as it effectively censors thought. If you knew and could prove that [god] categorically does not exist, then perhaps your claim would be justified.

    So, this rewording might work: The instant any [serious] speculation as to the nature of [that which has been proven nonexistent] occurs, the speculator rejects reason.

    But consider this rewording: The instant any [serious] speculation as to the nature of [that which is currently unknown and/or unproven] occurs, the speculator rejects reason. Or even: The instant any [serious] speculation as to the nature of [that which is ultimately unkowable in its entirety] occurs, the speculator rejects reason.

    If the last two versions were true, how should we ever make advancements? How would science exist?

    The manner in which we speculate may be irrational, but to declare as irrational the act of speculation itself, conducted in any manner, on the subject of [god], is to declare that we should not even ask the [god] question. Reworded: we should not question the unknown or potentially unkowable. And by extension: someone knows and has declared what is unknown and unknowable, and to question that claim is irrational. That’s only a few steps from fascism.

    I’ll grant you that, in practice, speculation about the nature of [god] is often without reason, but not of necessity. One can speculate rationally or irrationally.

    A key issue here is the definition of [god] that you intend.

    To do some speculating of my own: to me, all serious, reasonable [god] speculation is merely speculation on the nature of ultimate reality. Speculation about the nature of ultimate reality is traditionally called “philosophy” (or one of its branches, depending on the focus). Furthermore, the nature of ultimate reality is also the chief concern of science.

    Therefore, I think we can be free to speculate about [god] provided:
    1) our speculations are governed by reason and constrained by what we already understand about the nature of reality;
    2) our speculations are understood to be speculations, not proclamations;
    3) we recognize that many of the constraints we place on our speculations in #1 are, in themselves, speculations (lest we become stuck in errors building upon errors).

    In other words, speculation is what we do based on the evidence available to us. The tentativeness of our speculation is (or should be) based on the preponderance of evidence, or lack thereof.

    Speculation should be constrained by reason, but not outlawed by it.

    I anticipate that one of your rejoinders might be: “We have no evidence of [god], therefore speculation about [god] is irrational.” To which I would reply: should we then call speculation about “dark matter” and “string theory” irrational, as well?

    My concern is that we will limit our thinking based on the surety of our present knowledge, rather than recognize the limits of our present knowledge and the possibilities those limitations open for our thinking.

  4. Peter Rock Says:

    Let me see if I can simplify this.

    I ask two theists, “So, can you tell me about God?” One says, “Yes, God is X, Y, Z, did X, Y, Z, and does X, Y, Z.” The other says, “No, I don’t know anything about God, I just believe.”

    While the second theist’s belief doesn’t make sense to me, I respect the humility in acknowledging the slippery slope of speculation. Unfortunately, most theists tend to engage in belief stacking. Clearly, the more we stack the more we delude ourselves. Pretty soon we’re using “God” to justify our view on almost everything…on abortion, capital punishment, sexuality, war, etc.

  5. Eric Hoefler Says:

    I don’t like either of your theists: the first is far too certain, the second believes for no reason.

    I don’t see how either of them addresses the points I raised in my earlier comment.

  6. Peter Rock Says:

    Case in point.

  7. Peter Rock Says:

    Neither of them believe for a reason. I’m simply saying that the second one isn’t going to project a world view (which affects others) drawn from their supposition. After all, if they don’t speculate, they can’t. That’s a good thing…relative to the one who engages in belief stacking.

  8. Tobias Says:

    I understand what you’re saying about one kind of believer being more harmful or deluded than another kind but realistically, is there anyone who actually believes in God yet doesn’t speculate?

  9. Peter Rock Says:

    Tobias, I don’t know. Though if I was a believer, I might give it a shot. And if I found I couldn’t resist stacking, then perhaps I might learn something about myself from that very fact.

  10. Adrienne Says:

    I have to agree with Eric here. Your two theists are too definitive. Honestly, I don’t know any believers who don’t speculate (agreeing with Tobias). And lots of them are not “belief stackers”. Heck, many of them have more questions than beliefs, and some of them don’t believe every day, or every year, or at every moment. I’m starting to think maybe you need to widen the scope of the believers you talk to. Not all of them “stack” their beliefs. Some just let the beliefs sit… or float… or disappear / reappear periodically. There are varying shades of gray when it comes to belief.

    You’ve said “However, it’s clear that most don’t tread with reservation.” Where is this clear? how? I respectfully but wholly disagree with this statement, as I disagree that speculation resists reason. Some of the strongest believers out there speculate with logic and reason — and some of them are even spiritual leaders. In fact, I might even argue that the reason they are leaders is because of their reasonable and logical speculation. Have you read any autobiographical work or interviews of people like the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa? Each of these individuals has speculated, without conjecture, about God’s existence. And, I would probably guess that the Dalai Lama still does from time to time.

  11. Peter Rock Says:

    [Peter you've said], “However, it’s clear that most don’t tread with reservation.” Where is this clear?

    Adrienne, you said it yourself:

    Honestly, I don’t know any believers who don’t speculate

    Some of the strongest believers out there speculate with logic and reason

    What does reason and logic have to do with describing the particulars of a belief? If I take for granted my unsubstantiated belief, how is it that I am engaging reason and logic when describing its details? If I believe that the earth is flat I may *sound* logical and reasonable when I describe to you how you will fall off when you reach the edge…

  12. Peter Rock Says:

    By the way Adrienne, I’m not disputing that some beliefs come and go and that there are varying shades of gray among the speculations made by the believers. But if you are arguing that post-belief speculation is healthy and serves a useful purpose because some famous “spiritual leaders” do it, then I question that.

  13. Tobias Says:

    @Adrienne

    While I don’t know a believer who doesn’t speculate I agree with Peter that the idea of not speculating is intriguing. I also think that saying, “So and so who is a spiritual leader speculates and they are a leader because they do” doesn’t mean anything.

  14. Tobias Says:

    Also, if I’m understanding Peter correctly, any speculation around the “taken for granted” belief is “belief stacking” because the a priori belief hasn’t got a leg to stand on in the first place.

    The only suggestion I have is not to use the word “speculate”. I see what Peter means but if he’s going to call it “belief stacking” then just use the word belief to describe the thoughts that describe the original belief in god.

  15. Peter Rock Says:

    This is getting more complex than need be.

    If you have a belief in “God” and then *seriously* attempt to define/propose/consider/speculate/believe (whatever word you want to use) what that God is or does, you’re abandoning reason…it matters not if you’re the Dalai Lama, the Pope, or Pat Robertson.

    If someone wishes to explain otherwise, please do.

  16. An Atheist Says:

    “One could hold a belief in “God” yet remain adequately critical.”

    BULL.

  17. Eric Hoefler Says:

    If you’re saying that speculation post belief is irrational, then I agree. Your initial statement, however, implied that any speculation on the matter, even from a critical position, is irrational.

    This may be semantics. When you say speculation, I think “hypothesis.” That’s the only issue I was addressing. I haven’t been addressing the question of belief.

    To address belief briefly: I think you mean “belief” in the sense of “faith.” Here again, if this is the case, I agree with you.

    We can, however, believe things in the sense of “strong suspicion that it is so, though lacking evidence to verify it” without being irrational. This is called, again, a “hypothesis.” If we claim our belief/suspicion to be true without the evidence, though, then we tip over into irrationality. If we persist in our hypothesis without critically trying to prove or disprove it, then we are intellectually lazy. If we persist in our hypothesis after a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, then we’re insane or stupidly stubborn.

    Finally, to quote myself from earlier, this is my focus: My concern is that we will limit our thinking based on the surety of our present knowledge, rather than recognize the limits of our present knowledge and the possibilities those limitations open for our thinking.

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