The Reasonableness of Religious Belief

I have always been a believer. Among other reasons, that’s because I think rationality demands it.

When I talk about “belief” here, I mean it in a very broad sense, which is not synonymous with “Catholic” or even “Christian”; Sikhs, Hindus and Zoroastrians might all qualify, and I myself was raised in the LDS church and not (according to Rome’s decree) validly baptized until the age of 25. When I speak here of “believers,” I am distinguishing those who are prepared to believe in more than what eye can see, ear can hear or elaborate scientific machine can detect.

I wouldn’t mind if someone also wanted to refer to this group of believers as “non-materialists.” That would point us towards the same divide between those who seek to explain everything that exists or occurs reductively, as a complex interaction of quarks and atoms and firing neurons, and those who are prepared to consider explanations that refer to what lies beyond the merely physical.

Of course, the differences between believers themselves are vast and highly consequential, and I do not at all mean to trivialize them. Some believers commit themselves to deeply malignant forces, while others are so frivolous and inconsistent as to give real justification to those skeptics who take religion to be just a collection of just-so stories designed to comfort the weak-minded. In the very broad sense that I have just delineated, a person could even be a believer without committing himself to any specific metaphysical worldview. I myself was an “uncommitted believer” at one time. In one sense, then, it doesn’t take much to be a believer, and there have probably been whole epochs of history in which almost everyone alive would qualify.

 

Still, in this day and age, it isn’t nothing. Despite enormous differences, believers are natural allies in the midst of a gravely serious conflict. Although Catholics are today embattled from many sides, I myself believe that the most epic spiritual battle of our time is not with Muslims or Protestants or political liberals, but rather with the deadening spirit of secular materialism, which cloaks itself in the guise of reason and enlightenment, and ultimately consumes all its children into a black pit of nothingness.

This may sound hyperbolic. In the end, I do not really believe that it is, although in some contexts I would moderate my language for the sake of respectful discussion. The disciples of secular materialism pride themselves on their capacity for critical examination and rational thought. In reality they are not so much extraordinary logical as extraordinary limited, but penetrating the logic of limitation requires prudence and discernment. Drunk on Occam’s Razor and malnourished by evidentialist epistemology, materialists have adopted the prejudice of thinking it vastly better to refuse to believe in something that exists, than to believe in something that does not. They make a project of shrinking their metaphysical commitments as much as they possibly can, taking enormous pride and comfort in the idea that they will never be “taken in” by folk tales and fabrications (the like of which they assume to be responsible for most of the human race’s ills).

Over the course of my philosophical education, I received extensive instruction in the logic of unbelief. In the world of academic philosophy today, believers are few and far between. So I learned about the philosophy of mind, which today is mostly an exploration of the question: how is it that machines of meat (that is, humans) can do such amazing things? I learned about contemporary meta-ethics, which involves endless puzzling over whether and how we can speak of “right” and “wrong” given the manifest silliness of believing in, say, divine laws, or an objective final good for man. I studied contemporary metaphysics, in which the main game was “material constitution,” which has been cleverly nicknamed “the philosophy of piles.” Here the goal is to determine how the mere act of sticking together a lot of small things (such as grains of sand) can give us a categorically different thing (a pile). Of course metaphysicians of all stripes must ask questions like these since it is their task to determine what it means to be. But, as I came to appreciate, it is especially difficult to make progress on such questions if you are committed to the idea that everything that exists really is no more than a collection of tiny things all stuck together.

Unbelievers can be intelligent, or even brilliant. Having dwelt for awhile in their temples (that is, the Academy) I can say this at least: their leading figures are fairly well aware of the limitations of metaphysical minimalism, far more than most believers seem to suppose. Analytic philosophers are distinctly different from swaggering braggarts like Richard Dawkins, who make a hash of basic theistic arguments even while repeatedly trumpeting their superior mental acumen. They do realize, to a great extent, that they are trying to prepare a fine French meal in a kitchen with limited equipment, and that their only available ingredient is a weak gruel. That might partly explain why, more than many disciplines, philosophers are willing to tolerate the occasional theist in their midst, like a rare, exotic beast that can remind them of a happier philosophical age.

Unbelievers are more likely to be “turned” by a life-changing experience (falling in love, becoming a parent, losing a beloved person) than by argument.

Obviously, this is intentionally provocative, but I absolutely believe it to be true. It is not reason that urges us to consign ourselves to the emptiest and most limited worldview we can stand.

In any case, I was never converted to unbelief. Anxious parents and pastors (hoping to protect the soul of some other young person ensconced within the Academy) occasionally ask me to explain how that happened, and from the distance of a few years (and realizing now how rare it is), I myself find it a bit puzzling. To me it never seemed like much of a struggle; despite many years of being surrounded by secular materialists, their world view never held much allure. No doubt I was blessed with many graces and positive human influences, but from a subjective point of view, I believe I would always have said that belief seemed more rational to me because it was so self-evident that the universe is full, not only of matter, but also of meaning.

I believe in beauty. It isn’t in the eye of the beholder; the world doesn’t just seem, but actually is, beautiful. I believe in love. I don’t accept for a moment that love comes down to brain chemistry, or an evolutionary mechanism that helps to perpetuate my species. I believe in virtue, or, to put the point another way, I believe that humans are capable of far more than the “critical thinking” that the disciples of secular humanism love to champion. Virtue requires a much higher standard of objective goodness than the meta-ethicists will ever be able to justify.

Belief is more rational because the world is manifestly better than the materialist is prepared to believe. If you want a fine French meal (and who doesn’t?), you should stock your kitchen with the proper ingredients, and this is what belief enables us to do. I realize that this truth is hard, but I would urge materialists nevertheless to grin and bear it. The universe is far, far better than they ever supposed.

Rachel Lu

By

Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

MENU