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Rugged Rationalism and the Church’s Alternative Story

Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax
2014 4 Nov

A common thought in our secular age is that religious explanations of the world, however appealing they may be, are inadequate. Religious faith is nothing more than a coping mechanism for a harsh world, a futile attempt to find meaning and sense in the suffering and mystery of human experience.

Those who leave their religious faith and adopt a purely materialist view of the world often give credit to science for their “deconversion.” They see science as the arbiter of truth, and so they trade belief in the “Rock of Ages” for the rock-solid proof of scientific discovery. There are no mysteries in our world, only puzzles still unresolved by scientists. The rationalist perspective may not be as beautiful or appealing as the idea that all wrongs will eventually be made right or that death is not the end. But it’s the truth. It’s solid. There is “proof.”

Does Evidence Make Atheists?

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor examines this narrative of “conversion to unbelief,” and he concludes that it is based less on scientific proof than the convert thinks. In other words, what is really going on is not that the convert has suddenly discovered proof that God does not exist or that religion must be false. Instead, the convert has already entered another story, one in which the rationalist picture seems more plausible than religion’s appeal to mystery and transcendence. Still, the convert attributes his conversion to “scientific proof.”

But Taylor wonders: what if the subconscious reason for his abandonment of faith is that he is attracted to the rugged appeal of rationalism – the fierce facing of reality, however stark the picture may be? He writes: 

What made [atheism] more believable was not our “scientific” proofs; it is rather that one whole package: science, plus a picture of our epistemic-moral predicament in which science represents a mature facing of hard reality, beats out another package: religion, plus a rival picture of our epistemic-moral predicament in which religion, say, represents a true humility, and many of the claims of science unwarranted arrogance. But the decisive consideration here was the reading of the moral predicament proposed by “science”, which struck home as true to the convert’s experience (of a faith which was still childish – and whose faith is not, to one or another degree?), rather than the actual findings of science. (366)

In other words, the person who abandons their “childhood faith” may attribute their conversion to scientific evidence when, in fact, it’s the appeal of leaving behind “childhood” and grasping for maturity, in this case the cold, hard realities of a fierce and lonely world. The freedom of being without God is that we are able to fashion reality as we please, to order our lives and our vision of the world however we think best.

At its heart, then, this journey away from faith is driven by ethics more than evidence. Those who reject faith as “childish” see themselves as growing beyond silly superstitions, choosing instead to accept scientific evidence no matter what conclusions it leads them to.

The Rugged Rationalist

Believers may have a hard time understanding why anyone would make this switch. It seems like such a poorer story, one that robs our fragile humanity and temporal lives of any eternal or lasting significance. But Taylor describes why this rugged rationalism is attractive:

We are alone in the universe, and this is frightening; but it can also be exhilarating. There is a certain joy in solitude… The thrill at being alone is part sense of freedom, part of the intense poignancy of this fragile moment… All meaning is here, in this small speck. (367)

This type of “rugged rationalism” is on full display in the opening lines of Richard Dawkins’Unweaving the Rainbow, a passage often read at humanist funerals:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

Taylor argues that the decisive factor in a conversion from faith to unbelief is the trading of one story for another. Only then does evidence enter the picture and confirm the person’s slide toward unbelief. He writes:

What happens is that people are convinced that there is something more mature, more courageous, readier to face unvarnished reality in the scientific stance. The superiority is an ethical one… If I become convinced that the ancient faith reflects a more immature outlook on things, in comparison to modern science, then I will indeed see myself as abandoning the first to cleave to the second. (365-66) 

So, what proves decisive is not the latest piece of science but the story science tells, as well as the desired self-image of being mature and rational.

The Church as Community Apologetic

What might this truth mean for our engaging of people who are in the process of abandoning the faith they inherited as children? Commenting on Taylor’s view, James K. A. Smith writes:

If Taylor is right, it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith. The goal of such witness would not be the minimal establishment of some vague theism but the invitation to historic, sacramental Christianity.” (77)

The classical approach of apologetics is to present rational proofs for God’s existence, and then from this point to argue for the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and His resurrection. Classical apologetics is beneficial in the effort to show that Christianity is true, but if Taylor is right, then one is already likely to accept or reject reasons for belief before they ever hear them because the greater story is already conditioning them to accept or reject “proofs” of God’s existence and the truth of Christianity.

Perhaps this is why one of the best ways to engage an unbeliever is simply to invite them to church. Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the people of God as a “community apologetic.” It’s not that the church replaces other, rational strategies and arguments for belief in God. It’s that the church becomes the atmosphere, the teller of a better story, a story whose truth begins to work on the heart of a non-religious person, conditioning them for the moment when the classical apologetics “proofs” are then used by the Holy Spirit to confirm the belief He has already initiated in them.

Christians today should make use of the various tools we have at our disposal in order to persuade people to follow Jesus. But let’s not leave out the world where God’s good news comes alive – the people of God who corporately witness to a kingdom that has no end. It may be that the best apologetic for a secular age is a people who are in this world but not of it, who counter the rugged rationalist with the true story of new world which began on a Sunday morning outside Jerusalem.