Is Religion Irrational?

15 Sep
September 15, 2014

In Why Tolerate Religion?, the book that provided the theme for my Veritas Forum conversation with Brian Leiter last week, Brian defines religion (which is notoriously difficult to define for the purposes of the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom) as consisting of 1) categorical demands on a believer; 2) insulation from the evidence of science and common sense; and 3) a source of existential consolation.  The first and third components strike me as accurate; the second doesn’t.

Defining religious belief as irrational seems to suggest that materialists—those who believe that the physical, material world is the only reality—reach their conclusions about the nature of our existence based on an assessment of evidence, whereas religious believers simply make a leap of faith. In reality, each of us weighs the best evidence we can find about the nature of our existence, and we draw our conclusions based on good but incomplete information.  Materialists and Christians weigh evidence differently– Christians find the evidence of Jesus’s resurrection compelling, for instance, whereas materialists do not– but both weigh evidence and draw the best conclusions they can.

In describing religious belief as insulated from evidence, I think Brian may be thinking about religious doctrine, rather than religious belief. Religious doctrine may have components that are not based on ordinary evidence, or cannot be assessed based on ordinary evidence.  But when a religious believer concludes (either initially, or after a period of doubt) that a set of beliefs is true, he or she is assessing evidence, just as a materialist is.

Brian’s book is quite provocative (and frustrating at times for a Christian reader) but well worth reading. In our conversation, we concluded that we actually agreed on the underlying legal issues 84% of the time.