by Brenda Watson
from Signs of the Times No. 65 - Apr 2017

The January 2017 issue of Signs of the Times raised the question of the role of Modern Church.

One of its greatest strengths, it seems to me, lies in its rigorous openness to intellectual challenge, and I think this should be shared much more on the two fronts implied in its title: the modern world and the Church. On the one hand, there is a need for a decisive informed religious voice in the modern world, academically and regarding general thinking as a whole. On the other hand, it is important to dialogue more with conservative-minded Christians who, whether inclined to ‘orthodoxy’ or evangelicalism, tend to be over-comfortable with tradition and not sufficiently open to reasoning. I think Modern Church can perform a valuable service for both by exposing a widespread and damaging myth about reason.

Suspicion of religion has had a field-day in the West, further encouraged by the notion of the secular state. Originally this may have been indeed for religious reasons, to enable people of different religious persuasions to live amicably together instead of fighting each other. It has however produced a situation of practical atheism. To hide religious belief from the public square is unavoidably to prioritise atheism because, in its negative form, atheism simply never mentions God. Supported by an increasing number of intellectuals since the Enlightenment, atheism, intellectual and practical, has become the default position.

In academia and in education generally it has been, for many decades now, counter-cultural, to admit to being a Christian. This readily creates a sense of fear and unwillingness to think deeply about faith when such reasoning is so closely associated with unbelief. Moreover, Christians have often imbibed from the modern age, as well as from some traditions, a desire for absolute certainty. This can provide fertile ground for fundamentalism to flourish, for it gives little encouragement to religious believers to critique their faith responsibly.

Behind this scenario lies the myth of the all-pervasive power of reason understood in a narrow sense. The West has tended to see reason in terms of just logic and scientific/empirical investigation, leading to presumed objective knowledge. Anything beyond this is presumed to be subjective, unreliable, dependent on anecdotal hear-say and open to an ‘anything goes’ criticism because there are no definite ways of testing it; it becomes mere opinion. This fact /opinion has had baleful consequences. It has been responsible for priorities in education, treating the arts as peripheral, giving encouragement to moral relativism which endangers society as a whole, creating a rift between cognitive and emotional capacities and a corresponding presumed rift between reason and religion, favouring atheism on the grounds that religion is irrational.

Yet this view of reason is false. A recent book by the humanist philosopher Julian Baggini on The Edge of Reason (Yale University Press 2016) powerfully debunks this misunderstanding of reason. He discusses four myths regarding reason, the first on which the others depend being ‘the notion that reason is purely objective and needs no subjective judgement’.

He writes as an agnostic or atheist, so he doesn't bring out effectively the weakness of the actual link between atheism and reason, but he does concede that reason cannot rationally dismiss religious faith.

However, Modern Church can be crystal clear on the non-rationality of atheism. The argument, for example, that God does not exist because there is no scientific proof rests on a logical fallacy. For it assumes that scientific evidence is necessary to establish the existence of God. Yet God, if existent, is the creator of the world discoverable by science, not a part of that world to be discovered. It is arguing in a circle to presume at the beginning of an argument what purports to be its conclusion. I would like to see such arguments presented in a wide variety of forms, both academically and in journalistic style, and in educational material for schools and churches.

Exposing this faulty line-up between atheism and reason may encourage those tempted towards fundamentalist forms of faith to take tentative steps out into the open. It would also highlight the need for the political elites in the West to take religion much more seriously and to re-think the presumed necessity for privatising religion.