Religion Can Be Rational 2 September 2015

RationalDaniel Ansted considers whether religion can be rational.

Almost everyone has a metaphysical system– a preformed understanding of how the world operates. If you believe in ghosts or a soul, you have a metaphysical system that is supernatural. If you believe that everything in the knowable world is physical or explainable through natural/physical laws, you have a materialistic metaphysical system. A very vocal portion of contemporary society would have you believe that supernatural metaphysical systems are necessarily irrational or illogical, whereas materialist ones are necessarily rational and logical.

But religious metaphysical systems are not automatically less rational or logical than materialist ones. There are familiar arguments: materialistic metaphysical systems are not provable by science and thus require ‘faith’; it’s rational and logical to believe in God as the author of natural law on which scientific explanation rests,etc. – but these arguments are old and tired. If we are to have a genuine appreciation of logic, rationality, and reason, then we should celebrate them in all forms, including their religious forms.

For this article, I have chosen three religious examples of rationality and logic that are examples of religious logical systems: St. Anselm’s emphasis on (and use of) logic and reason to demonstrate God’s existence, arguments in the Jewish Talmud, and ancient Buddhist logic.

Medieval theologians were deeply trained in the cutting edge logic of their time. The theologian, St. Anselm, was no exception; he emphasised logic and reason almost as much as certain atheists and humanists do today.

He begins his Monologion by stating that certain qualities and the existence of God are knowable through reason and logical demonstration alone. The Monologion features an ontological argument (an argument that starts with the conception/definition of God) to demonstrate God’s existence: first, something is deemed good because it shares in the common property of goodness. If there was not a single good, then the word would not mean anything. This great good can only be good through itself and this is a supremely good being (God).

Granted, with hindsight, we can view several versions of ontological arguments, like one can look at a gallery of impressionistic paintings. But Anselm was clearly one of the masters. Theologians, philosophers, and historians still read him to this day, both to study the past and to gain insight into the world and theology of the present.

Meanwhile Jewish legal systems, at least in their execution, are paradigmatic examples of logic. An atheist or a critic of Judaism might claim that the Torah, as source material, is flawed to the point where no amount of rational thinking or logic could save it. However, the analyses of the Torah in the Talmud, quite likely the only Holy Text with the purpose of recording all the relevant disagreements, is beautiful in its logical detail, even on the most common of subjects.

Consider this short passage dealing with a disagreement over when it is permissible to move a ladder from dovecote to dovecote: “Hanan bar Ammi said: Both schools differ only when it is done in public ground: According to Beth Shammai one who will see him carrying a ladder may think he is going to repair his roof; but Beth Hillel do not care for that, for they say the dovecote will show the man’s purpose of carrying the ladder. But if this is done in private ground (where there is no person to see his act), all agree that this is permissible,” (Tract Betzah, Yom Tob; chapter 1).

On such a mundane topic the Talmud records two famous Jewish scholars, Hillel and Shammai, as they leave no logical stone unturned on such a quotidian matter. All of this is preserved in one of the most important books of the Jewish faith. In the Jewish tradition, reading, understanding, and arguing about the Torah are still evidence that you have the proper reverence towards G-d and this requires erudition and logic.

My last example is Buddhist logic, which was formulated nearly at the same time as Aristotelian logic. Where Aristotelian logic emphasizes the law of the excluded middle (properly formulated statements are either true or false, with no middle ground), Buddhist logic does the opposite. In Buddhist logic, a statement can be true, false, both, or neither. Paradoxes, such as ‘This sentence is a lie,’ are both true and false. Predictions about the future are neither true nor false.

These possibilities, expounded on by Nagarjuna, are the oldest portion of Buddhist logic and collectively known as the catuskoti (four corners). Nagarjuna also added that some propositions like the afterlife of an enlightened person are ineffable. To argue something is ineffable means that you have to talk about it, but in talking about its ineffability you make it effable creating another paradox, being both true and false.

All of this is directly related to the Buddhist metaphysical idea that everything is empty or relational—devoid of any distinct individual existence – or stated in such a way that would probably be considered a paradox in Western thought: the only intrinsic nature is that there is no intrinsic nature. You can translate each of these ideas into one or another Western based logic system if you wish, but if you do, remember that this system has a different origin, so the translation must be done carefully.

One might argue that all of these systems are fundamentally flawed. But again, that is not the point; the point is the appreciation of rationality in multiple forms. Besides, if you say that they are wrong, then you should also condemn Newton’s metaphysical system that supported his alchemy of perfecting the soul. His base system is very likely less rational/logical than Anselm’s ontological argument, arguments in the Talmud, or Nagarjuna’s logic.

 This article was taken from Issue 11 of On Religion. Subscribe for just £4.75 an edition, released once every three months.

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About Daniel Ansted

Daniel has an M.A in Philosophy, History and Philosophy of Science, and Religious Studies. As a religion critic, his main objective is to experience examples of religion first hand and to make judgments of these examples based on his experience. You can view his blog or @areligioncritic on Twitter.

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