I recently attended a joint discussion event between the Secular Society and Christian Union at Uni, the topic: Is faith rational? I will give an overview of the event and a critique of the arguments put forward by both sides of the debate.
The forum involved a speaker representing the views of each of the societies giving a 15 minute talk on the matter, after which they each had the opportunity to spend a short time rebutting the other’s arguments. This was followed by a less formal question and answer session with the two speakers, in which attendees could ask of the speakers any questions they they felt relevant. Speaking for the Secular Society was Ian Robinson, president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, while Danny Saunders from Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College spoke for the Christian Union.
Ian began his talk by providing some definitions of both faith and rationality, claiming that faith is the belief in something that has no base in proof and that something is rational if it agrees with the laws of logic. He made it clear that he was disagreeing with the rationality of Christian faith in particular, as he had inferred from the nature of the groups participating that this was to be the main issue of contention. He went on to differentiate between faith in a particular deity over others, which had existed in the Christian sense for around 2,000 years, and faith in the existence of a deity at all, which is a far more recent; beginning in earnest in the 19th century (before which it was taken as a given that some deity existed). Suggesting that we need only prove the latter to be irrational, as the former relies on it, Ian argued that the premises on which Christian faith is based on did not fit the criteria of rationality he had initially set. He did not go into the specifics of why he believes the premises of Christianity are not rational, as he assumed that we, an audience of Christians and secularists would be familiar with these arguments. He rounded off by appealing to anyone who had found his arguments convincing to act on them by joining either the Secular Society or the Australian Rationalists.
Danny began by re-defining faith and rationality. His definition of faith was essentially the same as Ian’s, while he gave rationality a more probabilistic meaning (though he didn’t contradict Ian’s definition), claiming that it was rational to assume the most likely outcome. He gave the analogy of our thoughts when boarding an aeroplane (one that would resurface repeatedly during the question and answer session); when we board a plane, we make assumptions that the equipment is sound, the pilot qualified and that it will get us where we want to go. We are making a leap of faith, trusting the airline to have checked all these for us. In short, we are basing our our reasonable, rational predictions on the likely, though not completely certain, event that the plane trip will be a success. Having shown this kind of faith to be rational, he argued that rational faith extended to faith in Christianity. He cited many historical accounts that he considered to stack up and provide a greater probability that the events depicted in the bible were true than untrue, focusing specifically on the resurrection of Jesus. He rounded off by making the somewhat controversial statement that Christianity was not about being good, but recognising that you are bad. He invited anyone who wanted to participate in a discussion about why there is evil in the world if God could prevent it.
Ian’s rebuttal consisted largely of disagreeing with the validity of Danny’s historical sources. He claimed that neither rapid spread and longevity, nor personal accounts from the past were satisfactory as evidence for the truth of an idea. He concluded with the amusing, though not entirely relevant fact that if Jesus had begun his ascension from the Earth 2000 years ago and traveled at the speed of light, then he would not yet have cleared the milky way.
Danny’s Rebuttal was mostly a restatement of arguments form his original talk, though he also made claims about the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection in the form of questioning the reasons for the apostles’ commitment after Jesus’ death, particularly if as he seemed to think was being claimed, the apostles ‘made up’ the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Finally he made the claim that while science can deal objectively with the questions of the observable world, it is up to religion do deal with epistemological questions.
The question and answer time had a continuation of arguments for and against the validity of the claimed proof of Jesus’ resurrection. Questions addressed to Danny included how he took into account conflicting historical testaments such as the Koran, while Ian was questioned as to why the message of Christianity could have spread so quickly in its early years if the accounts of witnesses to the resurrection were false. At some stage the discussion turned from being strictly relevant to the debate to being a more general discussion about why the two speakers maintained their beliefs.
I found Ian’s talk to be sensible and logical. My main criticism of it is that he concentrated more closely on Christianity than faith in general terms, while the discussion topic did not specify Christian faith. I also feel that he could have given more time to detail some of the specific arguments for Christian doctrine not being rational, even one example would have proven that he was not assuming he was right before he began considering the logic. The assumption he made about our knowledge of the arguments would have been fine if he had been speaking to an all-secular audience, but because he was speaking to, and trying to persuade, Christians, he needed to understand that some of his audience would have different takes on the lack of evidence, so need to have his point of view demonstrated to them.
Danny’s talk began well for me, the first argument he constructed was well presented and thought out. It was the one argument in the discussion that I think really addressed the topic. I am referring to the argument about it being rational to accept something with overwhelming evidence, but never being able to say with certainty whether something is true or not. In this way, I agree with him that it is both rational and necessary to make some faith assumptions to get by in life. They protect us from absolute uncertainty, which, while philosophically justifiable does not make for a good strategy for getting along with your life when you are not being pedantically intellectual. This argument, however, is where our agreements end. I did not find any of his historical arguments compelling or believable and found his ignorance of rational philosophy as a tool of answering epistemological questions particularly annoying. How can religion be used to answer the questions “Is there a god?” or “Why is there a god?”?
So there you have it, my take on an interesting discussion between some interesting people. What do you think? Please critique the original speakers arguments, my own and add any new ones you feel are relevant.