The Newsletter of the Philosophical Discussion Group
Of British Mensa

Number 97 : June 1999

5th June 1999 : Theo Todman


What follows is a brief paper on the subject "is it rational to be religious", which was presented at the "Mensa at Braziers" conference on 8th May 1999. It has been expanded slightly from the 6-page bullet-pointed hand-out delivered on the day, but is still only a sketch. It will doubtless lead to much debate and further opportunity to expand on obscure points and to develop themes. I have intended to be clear, so that blunders and oversights are obvious. Please point them out.

Motivation : Many highly intelligent and rational people have been religious, indeed, some of the greatest minds who have ever lived have been so. But religion amongst the rational is not a thing of the past, for even these days many rational people are religious. However, a question we must ask ourselves is are they being rational when they are being religious ?

Thereís also a current penchant for using religious language in popular science. Stephen Hawking is much to blame for re-introducing the term "the mind of God" into the (popular-) scientific arena with his choice of closing sentence in A Brief History of Time, with the baton being taken on by Paul Davies in his book of that name.

There is also an apparent rapprochement between science & religion as exemplified by the distinguished scientific participants in Sir John Templetonís Foundation for Humility Theology. John Polkinghorne, a former quantum mechanicist and former Cambridge Professor of Theoretical Physics is a prime example, but John D. Barrow, R.J. Berry, Freeman Dyson & Russell Stannard will be known to many. Incidentally, the aims of humility theology, as stated in the JTFís newsletter Progress in Theology, are as follows :-

The Theology of Humility recognises the inadequacy of our senses and our intellect to fully comprehend the Creator who is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, and infinite. Therefore, it encourages thinking which is open-minded and conclusions which are tentative, and encourages diversity as we build on the strengths of the past with new insights from the physical and human sciences.

Does such a project make sense ? How, from such a humble and temperate-sounding stance can we know that such a Creator exists ? We leave this on one side for the moment and return to our original question. But before we can address this question we need to define our terms. So what does it mean :-

a). to be rational ?
b). to be religious ?

Definitions can be either from the (philosophical) dictionary or be home-grown. Mine are primarily the latter; as Iím the author of this paper, itís what I mean by my terms that counts, provided the terms are not used idiosyncratically. Let my readers be the judges, for here goes :-


The rational individual, when he / she acts rationally :-

  1. Adopts beliefs on the basis of appropriate reasons, rather than on the basis of faith, emotion, authority or arbitrary choice. Weíll come to what reasons are "appropriate" later, but let it be known that the four options just listed are not they !
  2. Seeks to understand.
  3. Seeks a consistent & sufficient world-picture.
  4. Seeks out and follows the evidence.
  5. Believes whatís most likely to be true, not what we wish to be the case, nor what we can just about justify in an argument by subtle advocacy.
  6. Seeks out a formal proof where possible or relevant
  7. Is consistent. Ie. is not happy compartmentalising beliefs into mutually conflicting sectors that are never allowed to interact.
  8. Is realistic; suspending judgement where necessary & being willing to say "I donít know" if the question is too hard.

Are we in agreement on this - has anyone other ideas on what constitutes rationality ?


When we come to religion we are on trickier ground. "Religious" is a very wide term and even atheists can be religious, it is said (eg. certain forms of Buddhism constitute a religion with no divine being, it is said). In what follows, I have tried to avoid too much focus on Christianity, especially on evangelical Christianity. The reason for the choice of the wider scope of "religious" rather than (say) "Christian" is that our popular science writers, when they use theological terms to spice up their writings, are not thinking of historic Christianity but something more nebulous.

For your information, so you can spot my biases, my own background is Christian, both Roman Catholic (Mystical - I was briefly a Carthusian monk) & Protestant (Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Dispensational). This may not mean much to you. Enough to say that Christainity was the main focus of my life for a decade or so. Iím also well aware that "religion falsely so called" is a bogey of the Evangelicals. My knowledge of other religions is somewhat meagre, and having seen outsidersí misrepresentations of Christianity, suggest that a proper understanding of them can only be had from the inside, from the perspective of belief and practise, which is impossible for many as such things cannot be turned on or adopted at will.

Because religions differ so much, and because of my professed near-universal ignorance, I have to call in the cavalry in the form of Ninian Smart, Professor of Religious Studies, University of California at Santa Barbara, who divides religion into seven dimensions, each of which is differently expressed & emphasised in the various religions. These dimensions are given as :-

  1. Practical and Ritual
  2. Experiential and Emotional
  3. Narrative or Mythic
  4. Doctrinal and Philosophical
  5. Ethical and Legal
  6. Social and Institutional
  7. Material

Iím not sure where the three key Christian gifts of faith, hope & love fit in here ! Maybe into an amalgam of items 2, 4 & 5.

At the Braziers conference, I asked the question How many people present would count themselves religious, whether confidently or shamefacedly ? There was quite a positive response in that many did count themselves as religious, and fairly confidently so too. The "confidence" aspect was interesting, and has to do partly with the acceptance of "package deals" and partly to do with the division of apologetic labour. If oneís primary concern is with the truth or falsity of oneís position, one is bound to feel under pressure if one feels called upon to defend all of a religion (including those parts of which one has little knowledge or little belief) and if one thinks that it is for the individual to give the reason, not the bloke in the pulpit or the theologian in the university. Most believers, in my experience, would feel no greater compulsion to feel guilty about an inability intellectually to defend the minutiae of Christianity than they would the technicalities of quantum mechanics; thatís for the experts. What they are called on to do is "witness". Where I part company is that I know that quantum mechanics is a difficult subject that requires experts; and I know that the experts are expert, because Iíve read them and been taught by them. Iím not convinced the same is true of religious subject-matter and its underlying philosophy. The priesthood has been de-frocked. Some, of course, think the same of what they term the scientific priesthood, but more of that later.

Returning to the subject, a religious attitude includes the holistic approach of rational thought, which is the area that makes this discussion interesting and of value, but is obviously not just this, nor, for most people, is it primarily so, nor, for some people, is it at all so. We might say that a religion is both or either of an attitude to life (a life-stance) or an explanatory system.

Finally, as an explanatory system, religion divides into :-

As we will see, my view is that I would be comfortable with the former, were not all fundamentalisms false, whereas I donít think the latter is a valuable approach at all.

What think ye so far ?

Some thoughts & fundamental beliefs

  1. Rationality is not necessarily the highest virtue, but an enabling attitude if we want our statements to be true and our practise to be well guided.
  2. It is important that our beliefs be true.
  3. Rationality & religion are not necessarily antagonistic by their respective natures. However, I think that the temptation to believe what gives hope, comfort or a sense of belonging and purpose often leads the religious into irrationality. Experiential religion often partakes of the bizarre.
  4. "Rationality" is not equivalent to "science". Itís a continual temptation (for me, at least) to assume it is, and to reduce this question to a "science vs religion" argument. But in any case, both science and religion are in principle open to the world as it is. In practice, though, religion is more bound by its traditions than science, however conservative science may seem at times.
  5. Even in science, weíre sometimes stuck with partial theories. For example, Quantum Mechanics & General Relativity are inconsistent, Iím told.
  6. Life is short and experimental :-
  7. We should avoid "any port in a storm".
  8. We should beware of empty speculation.
  9. We should avoid "explanations" that are "not even wrong".
  10. We cannot plump for Pascalís wager, as it doesnít pay up.
  11. There are so many mutually contradictory beliefs that might be true. Hence, we need strong evidence to hold any particular belief.
  12. The truth is out there !

What is an "Explanation" ?

Failures to be Rational

Splits into two parts :-

  1. Irrationality
  2. Non-rationality

In what ways does or could a religious approach help ?

In my view, a religious perspective would be valuable based on the truth & clarity of its underlying assertions and the scope of its perspective.

Unfortunately, I think where religious assertions could be helpful, in being clear, concrete & open to disproof, they are in fact false.

We should note that people are profoundly irrational in all their beliefs, not just their religious ones. Hence there's no particular war between rationality and religion, any more than between science and religion, but between rationality & irrationality.

In what ways does a religious approach to explanation hinder ?

  1. In the confusion of ethics and religion. Ethical questions are often thought to be the exclusive preserve of religion, and an ethical stance meaningless without some theistic underpinning.
  2. In the confusion of terms. For instance, the use of the term "God" as explanation, when it is an extremely obscure and ambiguous term, loaded with different meanings in different cultures. Also, using "God" as explanation is attempting to explain the simpler in terms of the allegedly more complex.
  3. In the use of other confusing metaphors. Because people differ in the meaning they attribute to religious terms, their introduction does not add clarity.

The Rationality of the religious dimensions

We need to distinguish between the elements that, by their nature, cause adherents to act irrationally, and those in which many people in practise do so, whereas they might do otherwise if they were better informed. Clearly, the analysis would vary from religion to religion.

How could we know a religious explanation to be true ?

I would suggest that we could arrive at such knowledge only by observing divine intervention in the world, and analysing Godís public actions in history and daily life. The hand of God must be unmistakable for this to be relevant, or must at least be the best explanation. We must be able to recognise the acts of God. This is not a plea for miracles, but a desire to avoid ambiguity, or "explanations" that raise more questions than they "answer".

Philosophical "proofs" - such as appeals to a "first cause" are sterile, and in any case unsound. At best they demonstrate some "prime mover" with the name "God" but not with the attributes of the god of a religious tradition with which it may be confused; for example, with the paternal attributes of the Christian God.

The key point has to do with whether we care whether our religion is true or not, rather than "does it work or make me feel good ?".


We ought to adopt a faith stance, when we do, based on evidence, maybe arrived at by induction. For example, we should have faith that the world is explicable, if we do, because of success hitherto in explaining phenomena, rather than because it would be nice if it was. Similarly, we should believe weíre going to heaven when we die, if we do, because we have evidence that there is such a place & we have the key to get in, not because the alternatives are unpalatable.

We all need fundamental beliefs, and these canít in general be proved beyond all contradiction. However, rational faith is never a leap in the dark.

Theo Todman

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