I’m a big believer in reasonable pluralism, the notion that there are deep, pervasive disagreements about morality, politics and religion that are the unavoidable result of practical reasoning in a free society. That means I think there are non-culpable rational disagreements about all sorts of things that really matter.
But since I’m planning a series of religion posts in 2014, I thought it worthwhile to defend one of the applications of belief in reasonable pluralism that will be critical to those posts.
I believe that a reasonable, rational and well-informed person can believe in a revealed religion. That is, she not only affirms a scheme of transcendent values and a complex natural theology, but belief in a divinely inspired set of social practices and sacred texts. I am fairly confident that one can be a reasonable Confucian, Buddhist, Muslim or Jew. Due to my familiarity with Christianity, I am extremely confident that one can be a reasonable Christian.
This means that many atheists, in particular New Atheists and Objectivists, should treat the beliefs of people of faith with far more respect than they presently do.
In this post, I focus on Christianity. I take a Christian to be anyone who affirms the traditional interpretations of the Apostles’ Creed. Here is the Book of Common Prayer’s version (which I find especially elegant):
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholick Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.
The first foundational belief of the Christian is theism. It is simply obvious that theism is reasonable to anyone who is acquainted with contemporary philosophy of religion. Nearly all atheists in the literature acknowledge that theistic belief is at least sometimes epistemically justified.
Note that you needn’t think that theistic proofs are successful to think that at least one version of one of them can be rationally affirmed by an honest person. If so, then theistic belief is reasonable. Don’t dispute me here. I’m in good company with Leibniz and Aquinas.
The second foundational belief is that the Gospel reports of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are reliable. Many of you probably think the Gospels are not reliable sources of information about Jesus, given that they are full of miracles and were written long after Jesus’ death by unknown individuals. That’s fine. But is your view so ironclad that a reasonable, informed person couldn’t disagree? There are tons of books on the topic (here’s a good one), many dating Matthew, Mark and Luke within a generation of Jesus’ death. And if you think theism is reasonable, you can’t regard all miracle claims as rationally unserious, since God can bring them about.
The third foundational belief concerns the Trinity. I suspect most of you will think this belief is the least reasonable. Isn’t the doctrine of the Trinity a series of ridiculous contradictions? Well, no. There is a huge amount of philosophical and theological writing explaining why the doctrine was formulated. I’m inclined to think that the vast majority of you who think the doctrine of the Trinity is unreasonable haven’t read, well, any of it. So if you think only an uninformed or self-deluded person could believe in the Trinity, go read Augustine’s De Trinitate and get back to me.
If a reasonable person can be a theist, affirm the basic historical reliability of the Gospels and belief in the Trinity, then that person can be a reasonable Christian.
Note that I nowhere appealed to an atheist’s understanding of faith as belief contrary to evidence or in the absence of evidence. Instead, I’ve implicitly understood faith as a form of trust in God and God’s promises, which is far more natural to Christianity.
Since a scientifically informed, theologically literate, contemporary Christian can without culpable rational error affirm all three beliefs, I think Christian belief (and Christians) should be treated with far more respect than it often receives from many thoughtful intellectuals, academics and autodidacts (including many of you).