Religion Within the Limits of Reason
By Alec Rawls © 1999. (1900 words) Originally published in The Thinker, 10/3/99.

The United States of is the only first world nation (unless one includes tiny Israel) where a large percentage of the population takes religion seriously. At the same time, in no other first world nation is antipathy to religious belief so widespread. This is a serious and threatening divide.

Those who believe in a religious doctrine and accept it as the source of moral guidance in this world believe as a corollary that those who are without religion must be without moral guidance. On the other hand, many non-believers, including many of those for whom spirituality is a matter of private uncertainty, regard belief as a species of unreason, a claim to know the unknowable: that certain inherently fallible human reports, handed down from pre-modern times, are true. Neither is this unreason mitigated by maintaining a distinction between faith and belief because the moral error is the discounting of possibilities that cannot be discounted&emdash;the possibility that one does not possess the word of god&emdash;and faith dismisses this crucial possibility the same as belief does. Organized religion appears then as an organized end run around the first duty of citizenship: to be reasonable, engaging and giving proper credit to other people's reasons.

We see this divide in the abortion debate. On the one side religious anti-abortion forces, believing that the soul inhabits the body at conception, regard a clump of undifferentiated cells as the moral equivalent of a fully developed human being and therefore recognize no time frame during which a woman's liberty interests can outweigh society's interest in protecting the life of the unborn. On the other side, half of American women don't care what kind of big government illiberalism they vote for as long as they retain the right to kill their unborn babies, even when hundreds of thousands of couples are waiting to adopt a newborn infant.

The perverse results of our national schizophrenia over religious belief climax with our system of socialized education, the primary purpose of which is to wage war on religious unreason. Any parents who want to educate their children in a religious environment are forced to pay twice. In the name of liberalism we grotesquely violate the separation of church and state. We have taken a central sphere of private life which at the time the Constitution was written had been deeply entwined with religion&emdash;the education of children&emdash;and we have turned it into a government monopoly with all religion systematically extirpated from it.

Instead of a system of freedom where schools compete on the basis of success, leading to the same continual advances as occur in any other industry, we have a mordant system of indoctrination run by government commissars. The non-believers gladly accept the horrendous cost&emdash;the non-education of their own children&emdash;as the price that must be paid to hold the barbarian believers at bay.

It is ironic that this most destructive divide should turn on the concept of belief, because moral science has a shock in store for both sides: the moral significance of the possibility of a God is independent of whether or not God exists.

The fundamental principle of moral reason is to fully account all value as best as one can see how. All discoveries about what there is to value in the world are to be accounted henceforth wherever they are at stake, again, to the best of one's ability. Evidence of value is to be followed according to its propitiousness. One is to be a miner tracking ore. Follow the green, follow the gold. For this kind of miner, the possibility of a God is a pickax, an assay. It is dynamite.

If there is an omniscient God who created the world and watches over it then we are judged by a being that comprehends the worth of everything. The idea of being witnessed and judged by God impels one to see through God's eyes, as best one can&emdash;to see the value outside of oneself and in oneself and to fully account it wherever it is at stake. If there is a God then unseen regard for others is not unseen but is appreciated for its net value. Right and good, where we can understand them, are gratefully embraced. The idea of a God is a powerful device for opening one's eyes to value.

A key feature of moral reason is that is does not matter what has brought one to a particular discovery of value. Full accounting of value will account it henceforth. It may be that the idea of a God opens our eyes to value because there is a God who touches our hearts, or maybe it opens our eyes purely by the way it directs our contemplation. Either way moral reason simply demands that value be conserved as best one can see how.

No problematic questions of value to whom are involved here. This is one's own discoveries of worth, full accounting of which is just a matter of rationality: of memory and clear thinking, of preference for more informed judgment. Seeing through the eyes of God, looking for what He would see to value, is a way to discover what oneself can see to appreciate in others.

Since we lack direct revelation of God's existence all we have is the idea of God's existence, and this is the same whether or not God actually exists. Similarly, we lack the grounds to deny the existence of God, so the possibility that there is a God is a relevant contemplation for everyone, believers and non-believers. And because contemplation of the possibility of a God is a tremendous engine for the discovery of value, the fundamental principle of moral reason urges us all to embrace it.

Thus moral reason (the principles of rationality as they apply to the discovery and pursuit of value) points the way to bridging the terrible divide over religion in this country. The rational person will reject belief in God as an unjustified assertion of certainty, but such attention to the requirements of probabilistic reason calls for similar integrity regarding the moral implications of the possibility that God does exist. It changes you, and you should see through those eyes.

Religion is not the only way to open one's eyes to value wherever it may lie. One can simply follow the requirements of moral reason and husband all evidence of value, learning how to follow it. But most people are not moral scientists. The possibility of a God is for them a much more accessible and powerful aid to the discovery of value. This device is by no means superfluous for moral scientists either, but is one of the miracles of the field.

Thus the typical member of the political majority in this country&emdash;alarmed by religious belief and on that basis ambivalent towards religion&emdash;should be embracing greater religious contemplation (and I do mean should). Rather than antipathy to religion, religious contemplation should be a significant part of everyone's life. Moral science says so.

At the same time, moral science demands that the believers do their part to close the gap from their side as well. The possibility that there is not a God must also be embraced, along with the fallibility of any human report, including one's own experience and introspection.

Several years ago my ongoing cordiality to a schizophrenic man induced him to confide in me his conclusion that he had the right to do harm to those who were putting commands into his head from afar. He wanted to be moral but felt he had the right to defend himself from his tormentors. I insisted that he must account the possibility that these voices were not coming from outside but were coming from a part of his own brain which he was not in full contact with. We discussed how this could happen&emdash;how it was a real possibility&emdash;and how it changed the moral calculus. I believe that helped him down from the particular high wire he had gotten himself onto. We reached at least for a moment an understanding of how to think straight about what he was struggling with and maybe that gave him the means to keep some control over his fractured mind.

The situation of some religious believers is not entirely dissimilar. In place of torment they experience enthusiasm, but the willingness to ignore what may be the truth can do the same kind of harm no matter what guise it comes under. Whenever we ignore relevant possibilities we are prone to do any amount of harm for as little as no benefit because we aren't paying attention there. When you are not looking you can walk off a cliff, or bump someone else off, and presuming that one has the word of God when one may well not is exactly this kind of mistake. Even seeming internal verification of belief&emdash;a natural interpretation of the gain in moral insight from taking a religious view, or from following the wisdom of a particular religion&emdash;cannot be taken as proof that one has the word of God.

Religion within the limits of reason can still embrace religious texts and doctrines. Human reports can be worthy guides to truth and value and any source that has once been found by a person to offer wisdom is a sensible place to return to, so long as one does not take religious doctrine as a grounds for failing to acknowledge or account all that one could see to value. When religion blinkers one's eyes instead of opening them it violates morality. Clearly it is a boon when the moral wisdom of religous texts is studied and understood but moral reason requires that all discoveries of value be husbanded.

Many of our organized religions have a long history of dismissing the requirements of rationality, or trying to dodge them by making the irrelevant distinction faith and belief. I would suggest as an alternative to faith that one can take the possibility that there is a God to heart without violating the requirements of probabalistic reason. One can recognize it as something to embrace and dedicate oneself to, so long as one does not discount other possibilities where they are critical.

Moral science both urges a religious viewpoint and demands that religion abide by the requirements of moral reason. Thus it offers a common ground on religion where all people should be able to meet. The non-religious can and should gladly entertain religious comtemplation at least to the point of appreciating why some people choose to stay there. The religous can and should recognize that the power of religion is not dependent on believing they have the word of God but on the contrary is dependent on accepting the requirements of honest reason. Refusing to think straight can only injure our efforts to conserve value.

Anyone with any sense recognizes that our luckiest fate is if there is a God. What are the alternatives? A cold end to the universe or a "big crunch"? My own gauge theory of the universe is that it must be moral: there must be a way to conserve our progress in some important degree. If there will be a big crunch then there must be a way to send something through it, or leave something out of it, and this gauge can tell us how to pick between competing theories. Should this guidance prove useful it will raise a very interesting question, for where could a moral gauge come from except from a moral force?

(Alec Rawls's is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics)


Sidebar: Christ and Antichrist


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