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.