Friday, July 15, 2011

The God Debate and An Appeal to Common Reason

I should start this blog by explaining what I mean by 'Pragmatic Atheism', but first I must cover a little bit of background. The claims of science and the claims of religion are seen as incommensurable and the debate between adherents of the two camps has been over which one is right. This debate has been structured as if these are the only two choices and that one is true and one is false, and both sides, from their respective standpoint, seek to prove the falsity of the other and the truth of their own. Either God exists (theism) or he doesn't (scientific, materialist atheism). The scientific atheist claims that science is the most fundamental, and really only, approach to reason and rationality. Further, on this view, science renders belief in God obsolete, without rational ground, and therefore clearly false. The theist claims, on the other hand, either that belief in God actually is rational, based on a variety of arguments that purport to be derived from a rational approach, or that rationality is not a requirement for belief, or at least not for belief in God. And thusly the two sides have gone round and round for at least the past two hundred years since belief in God generally began to be acceptably questioned. And honestly the debate has changed very little in that time, despite misleading terms such as 'New Atheism'. This 'New Atheism' is only really new in the sense that it has gained a certain popularity and acceptability previously unknown to the stance of atheism at least in most of Western Europe and North America, and it has reached a level of fervor that atheism had not achieved before in history. This is a good thing, and I support almost everything that the 'New Atheism' has done and achieved for the purpose of spreading well reasoned and critical thinking into the western, perhaps global, culture. I want to take this project of spreading atheism a step further, and I have a very simple way to do it.

As I already pointed out, New Atheism, as well as Old Atheism, rest on a structure that essentially sets up a war of opposing sides between science, on the one hand, and religion on the other. I personally do not think this bipolar system is the most beneficial or helpful way to frame the issue of God's existence and the societal/cultural impact of belief or lack of belief in God. I believe there is a third, much more useful, approach to this debate. Namely there is also a sense that every person has of what we may call 'common reason' or even 'basic human reason'. We know all kinds of things with just simple human experience and the inferences we make from that experience. The thing to note here, at the onset, is that this way of reasoning is NOT scientific at all. Sometimes people talk about science as if it is just making observations and then doing a bit of reasoning from those observations and then drawing some conclusions to form a belief set, as if everybody could do it and does indeed do it all of the time. This is not the case at all. Science is, first and foremost, a very specific and focused occupation that, as it turns out, the majority of people in the world do not engage in as their profession. Most people go their whole lives never doing science or even thinking scientifically except maybe in their high school science class or perhaps a couple of classes in college. Does this mean that most people are walking around without the 'light of reason' at all and that most of their beliefs are completely false and misguided without the help of scientific illumination? I do not think so. Further, it seems that the average person might even feel a bit alienated from the core issue of belief or lack of belief in God, thinking that perhaps they need to be a scientist or a theologian, very rare and specialized fields, to even participate in the debate. Everyone can and should be participating in and thinking about issues of the existence of God and truth in general, and common, everyday reasoning skills are all the tools anyone really needs to successfully engage with these issues. If we are going to succeed in spreading the 'good news' of reason into the public sphere, I think that we are going to have to begin to appeal to basic human reason that is possessed by all people regardless of their profession or status in life. To this end I propose the notion of 'Pragmatic Atheism', and in this blog I will seek to flesh out what Pragmatic Atheism is, and how it can help foster a sense of reasonable thought and belief formation for everyone.


  1. I think this discussion is very much needed and I like how you want to bring everyone into the fold of the discussion and not limit it to just people specializing in the fields of science and theology. The feeling of alienation to this subject is all too familiar with me. I find myself often wishing I had gone to church so that I knew the Bible better so that it could aid in my debates with people. I am much more familiar, and therefore comfortable, with the science end of things. It was always one of my favorite subjects in school, but of course, I'm hardly what one would call specialized in it. But there's always been a lingering feeling of knowing there is "something else" out there...but the idea of an omnipotent God never really felt right to it's always been a bit of a tug o war between purely logical reasoning and a faith of sorts of "some other kind of godly energy".
    Thanks for starting this blog! Looking forward to your future posts. :)

  2. Thanks for the kind words Heidi. I have a blog about that notion of 'godly energy' working in my head for a future time. I have to cover a few other things first, but I'll get to it, and hopefully it'll clear things up a bit. But yeah, I don't think you have to know a lot of details about science or theology to get to the core of these issues and start thinking them through. Anybody can do it, even a kid (see my next blog) and the issues of God and religion and reason are politically/culturally important enough that we should all be thinking about them, and then even doing things about them.

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  4. Good post. The appeal to common sense is good ammunition, used brilliantly by the likes of Ingersoll and Hitchens,as it's much more understandable to even the uneducated. And we all know about the correlation between religiosity and education....:p
    It is worth reminding ourselves that science IS strangling religion, the gaps for god to hide in shrink annually. I would also like to see reasoning used more often in the population as a whole, seeing nonsense like superstition, healing crystals and astrology ridiculed and buried in the graveyard of human mistakes

  5. I agree that 'science IS strangling religion', but I think those gaps are being filled (or acceptably left empty), in even greater and more important ways, by non-scientific approaches too such as just good ole common sense and basic human reasoning. Saying 'yea' to critical thinking in general is also saying 'yea' to the betterment of humanity.