The Poverty of Human Reason and Apologetics, and My Dualistic View of Human Reason (Personal Reflection)

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Why are so many religious (and irreligious) people ignorant of the reasons they believe what they do? How many people in the church, if asked for the reasons why they hold to a set of beliefs, could appeal to empirical, historical, or philosophical arguments and evidences to back it up? If my experience is anything to go on then I imagine this would amount to a rather small number of people who could provide epistemic warrant for their beliefs. I thus wish to present in this personal reflection what I have termed the “poverty of apologetics” and the “poverty of human reason,” both of which I will explain in some detail. I will further use these definitions as a means to flesh out my dualistic concept of human reason.

Religious and Christian Apologetics

My questions touch very close to the home turf of religious apologetics, a domain in which one expects to find an exercising of reason and critical thinking. I use apologetics as one piece of the puzzle in my conception of the poverty of reason because I am well familiar with it, and it is a phenomenon under analysis within my thesis paper. Apologetics (from the Greek ἀπολογία, meaning “speaking in defense”) can be loosely defined as constituting a rational defense of a worldview. By logical deduction this would entail the defendant of a worldview knowing the reasons why she believes in a given worldview and not in another. However, in his probing analysis of Ancient and Modern Christian Apologetics (1931), Giorgio La Piana (1879-1971) explains that apologetics is but a small branch of theology, and is one few religious people are ever in need of,

“The great mass of believers have little need of philosophical or historical apologetics: to the rank and file, mostly simple souls, unsophisticated by any considerable degree of theological nature, Christianity is the traditional and cherished religion of family and environment, a religion that teaches them righteousness on earth and promises eternal happiness in the life beyond” (1).

Apologetic reasoning, he notes, is mostly used by theologians (those who wish to defend a certain theological interpretation within a religious tradition) and leaders within the church such as pastors, priests, and teachers who have people under their care, and to whom doctrinal traditions are entrusted. Sometimes these leaders need to convince themselves of a tradition or a belief before imparting such conviction to others. However, the process is usually biased from the outset which casts doubt on exactly how objective the reason employed actually is. La Piana says that where religious theologians and apologists use reason it is always “afterwards to justify and systematize” religious belief. As such, the Islamic theologian will consider the purported evidences for Christianity or atheism, but he will never, despite what reason reveals, accept either as true. The Christian theologian and apologist can consider polytheism, but she will never come to the conclusion that more than one absolute creator God exists. Unlike other methodologies, theology is biased and skewed from the outset, and this is why I view it as inferior to metaphysics. At least where metaphysics is concerned, the metaphysician can entertain the same meta-theological questions the theologians do but need not feel compelled to act within rigid boundaries set by specific religious tradition.

But independent of how objective the reason employed in apologetics is, apologetics, La Piana notes, has always played a distant second to other features of religious disposition such as faith, feelings, passions, and instincts (2). This explains the passionate sermons, the raised hands, and cacophony of voices during church worship sessions, as well as the lack of evidential and apologetic knowledge within the minds of these same worshipers. As such, apologetics and theology have never been the driving force behind religion. They have indeed been forces for the preservation of religious traditions but never the effective power behind religion itself.

Although La Piana penned his analysis nearly a century ago little has changed. There has been rise in Christian apologetics in western zones because of standardized secularism, the separation of church and state, and the plurality of ideologies (many of which are growing) in ideological conflict with purported Christian truths. However, despite no statistics on the breadth of apologetics to speak of, it almost certainly remains a minority interest in the context of the wider population. In fact, evidence shows theological departments in universities shrinking and in some cases being closed down altogether.

Arguably time and place constitutes the most powerful influencer concerning what a person comes to believe and see as reasonable. The British theologian and philosopher of religion John Hicks (1922-2012) was right to note that that a person’s religious preferences are significantly influenced by his or her parents,

“If someone is born to a Muslim parents in Egypt or Pakistan, that person is very likely to be a Muslim; if to Buddhist parents In Sri Lanke or Burma, that person is very likely to be a Buddhist; if to Hindu parents in India, that person is very likely to be a Hindu; if to Christian parents In Europe or the Americas, that person is very likely to be a Christian” (3).

Equally, preference is influenced depending on the location where one is born,

“in the great majority of cases, the religion in which a person believes and to which he adheres depends upon where he was born… Whether one is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a Hindu— or, for that matter, a Marxist or a Maoist— depends nearly always on the part of the world in which one happens to have been born” (4).

In all such cases reason seems to play second fiddle to the emotions, passions, and the dictates of time and place. I am singling out religion, theology, and apologetics here but I do not pretend that these are the only phenomena where reason more often than not plays a backseat role. The emotions, passions, and the dictates of time and place are just as prominent in the political realm, and perhaps even in lesser important things such as what sport, food, or beverage one prefers.

The Poverty of Apologetics and Human Reason

I define this as the “poverty” of apologetics and human reason. The poverty of apologetics is that most religious folk just don’t care enough about evidential warrant for belief, and most will end up believing what their hearts desire, or they have some other driving, motivating factor over and above reason. Reason is like the poor man begging on the sidewalk, hoping for attention, but receiving little, and when he does receive attention its from the politician using the poor man’s plight to service his campaign for votes. And when reason does come into the fold it is to justify other driving factors.

As the disappointed rationalist, I feel compelled to say that should one wish to bring in the maximum number of people to a religious faith, worldview, tradition, or perspective, one would do far better to dress up the religious phenomena as a means to make it attractive. Don’t slap “20 Reasons Why God Exists” or “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview” on your book cover – those are boring; instead slap a photoshopped portrait of your face, glistening white teeth and all, alongside the apt title “Your Best Life Now” or “Think Better, Live Better.” That’s sure to guarantee sales. Although I feel compelled to suggest this I wouldn’t because it will likely result in some heresy or some alien religious belief departing from orthodoxy as people begin attracting numbers by appealing to the cultural zeitgeist.

However, before moving onto the poverty of human reason I wish to propose several caveats. I don’t purport the poverty of reason within the religious to to be the case for every single religious person because that would being making a claim to knowledge that a person who lacks omniscience, such as myself, cannot make, and therefore cannot possibly defend. Although I think it accounts for most religious people I can’t say it does for all. In fact, one finds examples of people claiming reason to be at the forefront of a worldview transition: Dan Barker’s transition from a self-described fundamentalist evangelical preacher to an atheist activist (of whom I would consider equally as fundamentalist) or Alister McGrath’s transition from convinced atheist to Christ follower might satisfy this. However, not only are such testimonies rare and few and far between, but one cannot exactly know just how much reason played a role in the worldview transition of these individuals and others like them.

The Poverty of Human Reason and a Dualistic View of Reason

I refer to a poverty of human reason because reason, when it is used, is primarily in the physical, empirical domain, and seldom extends to the metaphysical, and leaves the metaphysical underdeveloped. What do I mean by this?

To explain this, I must note my dualistic conception of human reason where I intend to divide it into two categories: metaphysical (abstract) reason and natural reason.

Natural reason is the reason hardwired into human consciousness as a means to fulfill our primal drives fashioned by nature. Natural selection fashioned cognition (and by consequence reason) as a means to provide the homo sapien with survival advantage. Natural reason is intrinsically connected to human biological primal drives evolutionary psychologists identify as fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fornicating. Reason of this sort serves only within these confines.

Metaphysical reason denotes human reason and logic beyond the natural. It is not confined to the primal drives of natural reason, but extends beyond, and allows human beings to contemplate and develop abstract thought. These thoughts give rise to philosophies and theologies (and apologetics), which deal with metaphysical, abstract topics. As such, non-empirical phenomena such as interpretation of material fact into a coherent worldview which might include God, gods, deities, superhuman entities, philosophical conjecture (such as Platonic Forms or transcendental idealism), and philosophical conviction (the physical world is all that exists and all things can be reduced to physical properties, i.e. physicalist convictions) are possible, and distinct from natural reason.

My contention is that natural reason as it has been fashioned by natural selection assumes a superior role to metaphysical reason. This I believe is explained in hindsight of its purpose being to ensure the survival and reproduction of organisms over the period of millions of years, or in the case of the homo sapien (modern human) the last three hundred or so thousand years since speciation from descendants of the homo erectus. As a process with the purpose of ensuring survival and reproduction, natural reason immediately occupies a privileged position in consciousness given its intrinsic practicality, which renders it unlike metaphysical reason. The homo sapien likely did not find it to his survival advantage to consider the proposed philosophical arguments for substance dualism while attempting to flee the perilous tusks of a wooly mammoth on a botched hunting mission. No, natural reason occupies his consciousness as he flees, and decides later to hunt again to avoid hunger. Natural reason is practical.

What is the significance of this? Its significance, I believe, lies in the fact that it explains why most human beings do not entertain metaphysical reason often, or leave it woefully underdeveloped. How many people know whether or not they are objective realists, substance dualists, physicalists, naturalists, or theists? Most likely haven’t entertained such things or even heard these terms. Further, it explains why the human being of low intelligence (or limited knowledge) in the metaphysical category can live a fulfilled life. If she can show competence in the natural category of reason, in that she keeps herself well fed, avoids peril, and reproduces, then she can live a satisfactory life, possibly become wealthy or materialistically comfortable. Metaphysical reason and knowledge is not needed for these things unless one chooses to teach in the humanities. However, she will, simply by virtue of being the human being who possesses an advanced cognitive faculty compared to the lower animals, find herself wandering into metaphysics, contemplating value, morality, meaning, the afterlife, and existence of the gods. She is not only homo sapien, but she is too homo religiousus.

But for most this metaphysical wandering will be shortly and briefly entertained, or little more than a passing interest before one privileges the natural reason while assuming metaphysical truths without thinking them through. And in such practice is visible the poverty of human reason. 



  1. Maybe this world is just a net in which God catches souls for hell? At least that appears to be the corner into which revealed religions box themselves when they emphasize specific things one must believe, like the particular name of their God, what one must believe about that God’s story, what sacraments and prayers one must practice, etc. Most of the world doesn’t believe in one’s revealed religion either, no matter what it happens to be. And even those who profess belief are often lapsed or lukewarm about their revealed religion and its practices.

    (Many revealed religions also box themselves into the dilemma of declaring salvation as the ultimate goal, and reassuring members that dead babies are saved, but they also oppose abortion, vehemently in some cases, and would sooner see the baby risk growing up and failing to attain the ultimate goal. But isn’t being aborted a far more welcome temporary punishment, and one merely of the body, than winding up damned body and soul forever?)

    You mentioned Barker and McGrath, which brought to mind that conversions from Christianity to atheism or vice versa are so radical as to be rarer than say, conversions toward entertaining more questions within one’s present belief system, or adopting a more inclusive version of one’s present belief system. It is after all easier to rearrange the furniture inside one’s worldview, than to move out of that house entirely and into another completely different worldview.

    Also, most people don’t even have a worldview, nothing very coherent anyway. They may be open to any number of weird ideas or proposals, mixed and matched. Of course it was not always so. A generation or two back people in the U.S. were heavily encouraged/coerced to marry within the same Christian denomination in which they were raised. Today, inter-marriages with people of other denominations or even other completely different religions and races, is more acceptable. (Though my uncle disowned his Christian daughter when she married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism.)

    You may be interested in Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith & Others Abandon Religion by Bob Altemeyer & Bruce Hunsberger:

    ‘This groundbreaking study uncovers fascinating new data on sudden shifts in religious and nonreligious belief. Amazing Conversions explores, for the first time ever, the reasons why converts join, and apostates go. The focus of this absorbing study is on some amazing people, with unique stories to tell those who join a religious group in spite of being raised in nonreligious (or even antireligious) families, and those who, at great personal cost, choose to leave religion in spite of having a deeply religious background. Why would an atheist’s son become a Christian fundamentalist? Why would a “good Catholic girl” decide that she really is an atheist?The authors of Amazing Conversions, both social psychologists, surveyed thousands of young adults to find that small number who were “amazing believers” or “amazing apostates.” These rare individuals tell their stories, which are supplemented by their responses to a detailed questionnaire. The resulting picture shows that amazing believers and amazing apostates are dramatically different groups of people, in spite of the fact that their lives now stand in opposition to previous (non)religious training. You, too, can complete the same questionnaire to learn more about yourself and your beliefs. Have you experienced an amazing conversion?’

  2. I had a lot to say about conversions in my chapter on “The Uniqueness of the Christian Experience” over at The Secular Web. There I mentioned that Christians sometime switch major denominations like Calvinist to Catholic or Evangelical to Orthodox, or any number of other conversions within Christianity. And they write about that inter-denominational change of view like a marvelous and highly profound conversion experience in and of itself.

    • Edward, I am interested to know what your personal religious or irreligious views are? Some of your FB posts appear open to theism but yet you’ve written for Secular Web. Could you explain?

  3. Is there an unbridgeable gap or absolute distinction between natural and metaphysical reasoning?

    Logic seems to begin with the senses plus memory/cognition factors involved in recognizing when things are the same or different, greater or smaller, in nature. Logic is also so simplistic it’s axiomatic. A is A, B is B, A is not B. Some of the earliest computers were performing long strings of symbolic logic equations, more complex than any human could easily handle, in seconds. What’s far more difficult is programming a computer to sense and recognize things that exist in nature. What’s difficult is programming a computer to walk. Logic is easy.

    As for the evolution of brain-minds, there is nothing necessarily supernatural about minds. Mind can be a higher order emergent process. Christian monists agree. Rev. Dr John Polkinghorne, considered by some to be “one of the greatest living writers and thinkers on science and religion” is a Christian who believes mind is an emergent property. He employs the nothing buttery phrase coined by D. M. MacKay, a brain physiologist and yet another Christian who argues in favor of brain-mind monism & emergence rather than dualism. Also see, Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Religion, Ed., Michael L. Peterson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2004), produced by members of the Society of Christian Philosophers, featuring the question “Should a Christian Be A Mind-Body Dualist?” in which

    Dr. Lynne Rudder Baker (Univ. of Mass.) argues that Christians should reject mind-body dualism.
    Her contributions and arguments in that Christian debate also appear online: ‘Should a Christian Be a Mind-Body Dualist?—NO’
    Reply to Zimmermanʼs ‘Should a Christian Be a Mind/Body Dualist?—YES.’

    Malcolm Jeeves is another Christian professor with an online article (published in Science & Christian Belief) in which he rejects dualism and argues for brain-mind monism. See How Free is Free? Reflections on the Neuropsychology of Thought and Action.

    Aside from the above scientists there are also theologians who argue that “mind-body” dualism as unbiblical and theologically unacceptable. Man “is” a living soul, he doesn’t “have” a soul. And God can recreate people as He sees fit, in some new matrix with nothing forgotten or left out from the original, because well, He’s God. See the book, Whatever Happened to the Soul?: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998). The bookʼs editors include: Warren S. Brown, Professor of Psychology at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology and Adjunct Professor at UCLAʼs School of Medicine; Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller; and, H. Newton Malony, Senior Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Fuller. That reminds me, a Christian student told me in the college library a few years ago that he was transferring to a Presbyterian university in Great Britain, somewhere in Scotland I believe, where the Christian professors were apparently all anti-dualists. That student was enthusiastic about D. M. MacKayʼs writings. I do wish Iʼd remembered the name of the institution he mentioned.

    Also, speaking of “metaphysical reason,” the concept of unchanging Platonic archtypes doesn’t tell us anything about living things which are constantly moving and changing. Imagine a movie showing the cosmos over its billions of years from the synthesis of the periodic table of elements inside stellar furnaces (and via stellar explosions), to atoms joining to form molecules, to replicating molecules, to cells and multi-cellular animals and branching trees of speciation, there is no singular unchanging archetype, there is continual change over time. Also if there is a P
latonic archetype for couch and chair then at what exact point does a couch that is shrinking in length suddenly become a chair, or vice versa? At what exact point does a human become a chimp, if you remove one DNA base-pair in every celll of the human genome and replaced it with what appears in the chimp’s genome?

    As for the evolution of the brain-mind, there are brainless single-celled amoeba that are capable of hunting, detecting, pursuing and trapping single-celled prey. If a single-celled organism like an amoeba can do all that without a brain, it doesn’t take much imagination to think about the far advanced capabilities possible when you have a multitude of single-cells interacting via 100 trillion electro-chemical pathways as in the human brain which is also connected to sensory organs far superior to the ameobas and that take in wide vistas of sights, sounds, touch, smell, taste.

    And then there’s our evolutionary cousins. Mammals and birds feel emotions, have good memories, can calculate different outcomes, and even engage in what we would consider courageous self-giving behavior (Washoe once saved a fellow chimp from drowning by clambering over a fence, grabbing some long grass by the shoreline and reaching out a hand to save them. Animals have rushed to rescue humans as well. One monkey revived another that had been electrocuted.)

    They also apparently think in their own ways about things like

    justice (“the cucumber or grape for the same token” experiment with monkeys–one monkey tossing away the piece of cucumber and the token, since he apparently thought it unfair that the other monkey got a luscious grape, rather than a bland piece of cucumber, for the same token),

    morality (forgiveness existed in animals long before metaphysics or Christianity),

    even mortality (Koko the sign-ing gorilla, when asked, “Where do gorillas go when they die?” answered, “comfortable hole bye.” Elephants handle the bony remains of their dead. Crows hold a sort of wake for their dead friends. Australian parrots send out scouts before invading a human farmer’s corn field, then the rest of the parrots are called forth, and if one parrot is shot by the farmer they raise an enormous commotion, flying over their dead comrade again and again.)

  4. So-called wise men can go on and on and on spouting their perceived wisdom when it comes to religion and the purpose of mankind.
    Let’s make this simple so anyone can understand. In the beginning there was only God, a God that is total love and light. He can create anything, which He did.
    However, although total and complete Love, He had no one with which to share that immense love. He could have created man and then commanded him to love Him back, but that returned “love” wouldn’t be love freely given. It would only be love that He had commanded.
    Imagine this, a man sees a woman and falls in love with her. That’s half of the equation. However, if the woman doesn’t love him back it is only a one-way love. For a man and woman to become one they must love each other without an order to do so from the other. That would be an incomplete bonding. It can only become a loving marriage if they truly love each other unconditionally – hence a bride and groom.
    That’s the reason God, the groom, created man and gave him complete instruction (the Bible) on how to live his life. The fundamental conclusion was to give man the freedom to become part of the marriage supper of the Lamb, or not. Man makes this choice, not God.
    So, the purpose of life is simple: Those who truly love God will be in the marriage supper clothed in royal garments. They will be the bride spoken of in the Word. Everything else will pass away. (Study the second law of thermodynamics)
    In the end there will be God (the Groom) and those of us who believe (the bride). And God’s plan has worked out perfect. He started alone as an all-loving God but in the end has a bride that will truly love him forever. Simple but absolutely perfect!

  5. James Bishop,

    You have written an interesting post and I mostly agree with you .
    I would like to know your answer to edwardtbabinski’s question, “Is there an unbridgeable gap or absolute distinction between natural and metaphysical reasoning? A is A, B is B, A is not B.”

    I myself think that as the law of non contradiction is the absolute which is the base of all correct reasoning, so metaphysical reasoning is simply an advance on the so called the physical, empirical domain. I think that if some one honestly thinks about an empirical subject like physics, for example, he will have to advance in to metaphysical thinking. Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’
    is an example.
    You wrote, ” But for most this metaphysical wandering will be shortly and briefly entertained, or little more than a passing interest before one privileges the natural reason while assuming metaphysical truths without thinking them through. And in such practice is visible the poverty of human reason. ”

    I have found the same in my discussions with even some very intelligent and learned people including scientists and religious leaders. It is makes me so sad. No wonder humanity is caught up in contradictions and conflicts.

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