Can You be Rational and Religious?

by frankbeswick

The pathways to religious belief are several and varied, and they are definitely not irrational.

There are several religions in the world, each of which has its own ways of justifying and explaining itself, and no single argument can cover each one of them. The claim that people believe in these religions on irrational grounds is a false one, and it is indeed stereotypical,for stereotypes are unjust, rationally incredible oversimplifications of complex phenomena. In this article I am going to argue the case not for any specific religion, but for religion in general,looking at the fundamental reasons behind the religious insight.

Picture courtesy of 10m15

Religion and Rationality.

C.S. Lewis once pointed out that if God does not exist, he is irrelevant, irrespective of whether any good is done by believing; but if God does exist he is utterly, infinitely relevant. We cannot sit idly by in a state of indifference to this question, so we must at least try to come to a wise and sincere decision on what to believe.We must ask whether or not there is a being that we might call God, in some form or the other, what we can say about him/her/whatever, and how we can know God. Only then can we make decisions about the impact of God in our lives. I will begin with the issue of rationality and belief. 

There is a common misconception doing the rounds that religions are always irrational belief systems. This is a stereotype that overlooks the fact that several religions have advanced philosophical and theological traditions. Hinduism has a philosophical tradition at least as old as Greek philosophy and probably older; Buddhism is essentially a philosophical belief system that relies on reasoning to justify its claims; Catholicism teaches a two fold system whereby the first stage of religious knowledge is through philosophical reasoning and the second stage or tier through revelation through prophets and Christ; no informed person would ever accuse the Jews of being irrational, such a well educated people given to deep discussion; and Islam at its best hosted a great philosophical tradition derived from Greek thought.  

At the root of this misconception there is a belief that there is only one system of reasoning possible, and that is  the system promoted at the European enlightenment of the eighteenth century. This system promoted materialism as the only rational philosophy and  denigrated its opponents as superstitious and irrational with teachings derived from the ignorant mediaeval period. It overlooked the vast edifice of mediaeval Catholic philosophical and theological thought that laid the foundations of European civilization. Hindus are offended by the imperious claims of this kind of thinking, as their philosophers have an ancient tradition older than Europe's that can well stand up for itself and works on its own assumptions about nature and rationality. John Gray, an English philosopher, writing in Gray's Anatomy, an anthology of his works, repudiates the view that there is only one form of rationality, and he is not religious. 

Rationality is not a set of beliefs, but a process of proceeding from evidence to conclusions. But every system of rationality has to have a starting point from which it works, and this starting point cannot be rationally derived. For example, you can start from materialism,which thinks that the fundamental reality is matter, or idealism, which begins from the starting point that the fundamental reality is mind, which Keith Ward [The Evidence for God] points out is historically the position taken by most philosophers. Your starting point must take a position on  what you count as experience, whether or not you accept that religious experiences are valid. Roger Scruton and Keith Ward concur that there is no neutral place from which our thinking starts, there is neither a view from nowhere nor a view from everywhere.

Ward, the emeritus regius professor of  Divinity at Oxford and a philosopher of religion,   points out that no belief system has been comprehensively proved, but there are several that can make credible claims. But he advocates a view in which mind is the ultimate reality and in which there is a spiritual dimension to experience, a dimension which permeates the whole of reality. In this view, that realizes that there is more than matter in the world,  religion is perfectly rational, for the existence of  a great and ultimate mind becomes credible.

Belief, Agnosticism and Atheism

Our views fall into three broad classes:some kind of belief in God, agnosticism and atheism. Belief in God can be theism, the belief that God exists and is active in the world; deism,  the belief that there is a God who does not intervene; and pantheism, the idea that the world is God. There is a range of positions intermediate between these three simple ones. There is also great disagreement about whether God is impersonal or personal, and indeed as to the identity of the deity. Is the deity the God of Jesus and Israel; is it Vishnu or Shiva; is it the Goddess or one of a range of other figures. The whole edifice of religion is built around the answers to these questions.  

Agnosticism is quite a strong case, for the agnostic declares that he/she has insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion on the existence or otherwise of God. Agnosticism is more common than we might think, for Newburg, writing in How God Changes Your Brain, states that most young atheists he interviewed in his researches  were not fully certain of their atheism, while we must admit that religious believers sometimes feel doubts that increase and diminish at stages in their lives. I have found agnostics to be a very open-minded group of people, not prone to hostility to religion, though they may dislike specific faiths, but their case is that while credible claims for the existence of  God can be made, they are not completely convincing and that  credible atheist claims can also be made. 

The agnostic case is that philosophy has only gone so far in its addressing the existence of God, not far enough to reach a conclusion, and I agree, but both atheists and believers adventure beyond the limits of philosophy to draw a conclusion about the existence of God. To be completely convinced in one's atheism you have to confidently say, "I know all the beings that there are in this world  and all possible worlds, and not one of them corresponds to the idea of God." This is a wide and confident claim, and no one can legitimately make it. So atheism is a venture beyond the evidence and the argument  to draw not a certain conclusion, but an inference and is therefore a case that can never be justified. However, a stronger atheist case can be made by saying "I have never felt any divine influence in my life." You cannot argue with that one, but it is an incomplete case, for it begs the answer, "But I have."

But to be fair to atheists, religion is also a venture across the limits of philosophy that makes some powerful, and startling, not fully justifiable claims. 

Religious believers might rest their case on the claim that while there is insufficient philosophical knowledge of God, and that there is a massive chasm between humans and God that we cannot cross, God has crossed the gap to reveal himself to humans The way in which the gap is crossed is by revelation, God's self disclosure in religious and mystical experience, which is a mode of experience undergone by many human beings. For the philosopher Kierkegaard the move to faith is a leap in the dark, but this is misunderstood, for Kierkegaard was not proposing blind faith, as the Fideists advocated, but a way of transcending the limitations of reason by venturing a response to the call of the Lord, the Word that speaks from the darkness of mystery. 

So while both atheists and believers venture beyond the safe space of agnosticism, believers at least can claim that there is a mode of experience by which they encounter the ultimate reality. Atheists have no such advantage.  Being religious is therefore intellectually courageous and justifiable.Religion is certainly an intellectually credible,rational position to take.

Religious Experience

If God has reached across the chasm of knowledge that divides us from the ultimate reality, then we must have some means of knowing him.Some people believe that we can encounter the divine through religious experience, whereas others believe it is though faith, though the two are not distinct processes.

There are different opinions and understandings of faith, far too many to go into here. But I believe that faith is a sense that one has been touched by something higher, that a higher being has encountered you in some way. 

Here is where we reach a crossroads, for there are assumptions about experience that define your starting point for your rational quest. Do you believe that experience is restricted to material objects accessed through the five senses, for if so you will  discount religious experience, or do you believe that there are other modes of experience, such as the religious mode? If so you will  be open to what Buber, a well-respected Jewish philosopher, writing in I and Thou, describes as the presence-power of the divine in your consciousness.

If the latter, you are in good company, for you will be in accord with Rudolph Otto, whose seminal work on religious experience, The Idea of the Holy, was the first to treat religious experience philosophically. You will be open to William James, whose pioneering work, The Varieties of Religious  Experience, was the first to treat the subject scientifically. This line was continued by Sir Alistair Hardy, a Nobel prize winning biologist, who founded the Religious Experience Research Unit, then at Manchester College, Oxford, who regarded religious experience as definitely non-hallucinatory and having positive effects in the lives of recipients. You will be in agreement with Roger Scruton, one of Britain's leading philosophers, writing in The Soul of the World, who locates religious belief in a response to the experience of the sacred; and you will be in keeping with the many mystics and ordinary people who have undergone a sense that they were guided, inspired and saved by a presence power that makes occasional manifestations in their lives, and which some feel is a constant background presence in their existences.  

If you take the path of openness to the influence of  God in your life, you will not have solved all your problems. Genuine faith is a stimulus to thought, not a lock on it. For me, my faith is not primarily a body of ideas, but it is a sense that I am influenced by something greater than myself. I find that membership of the church,  community of belief, provides me with the conceptual language to think out my commitment. In effect, the formal beliefs, doctrines, are not faith itself, but the ways in which I express and think it out. But as I implied above, faith is a journey, the simplistic understanding of God gained in my Catholic childhood has evolved. I have not rejected, but deepened it. I have never seen God as a "Bronze Age beardy" as one atheist, who probably gained the bulk of his understanding of God from cartoons, described Him, but I now go along with the mystics who  regard God as profound mystery, but very real.  There is still some way to go.


The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James, Trinity Press

Evidence for God, Keith Ward, Dartman, Longman and Todd

The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Laurence. Project Gutenberg

The Soul of the World, Roger Scruton, Princeton University Press

The Idea of the Holy, Rudolph Otto, Galaxy Books

The Divine Flame, Sir Alistair Hardy, Religious Experience Research Unit, Manchester College Oxford

I and Thou, Martin Buber,Charles Scribner and Sons 


The Religious Experience Research Unit has now transferred to the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's

Updated: 01/23/2016, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 04/03/2023

The Greek influence came not from Pharaonic Egypt but much later from the Byzantine Greek culture of the Eastern Roman Empire. Both
Plato and Aristotle were influential, but the most significant philosopher to be introduced to the west by the Arabs was Aristotle, who was barely known in the west.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/03/2023

The second paragraph under the first subheading, Religion and Rationality, concludes that "Islam at its best hosted a great philosophical tradition derived from Greek thought."

Would that Greek influence have passed by way of pharaonic Egypt? Which Greek philosopher would have achieved the lastingest influence?

frankbeswick on 02/04/2016

The whole history of theology is implied in your response, so much in fact that it would take a series of theological books to respond to all of these points, and so I can but respond to some of them.

On the issue of the concepts Son of Man and Son of God, you might be interested in my article "Who was Jesus?" which touches upon some of these points.

The papacy developed and evolved over many generations as the needs of the church evolved

blackspanielgallery on 02/04/2016

Philosophy includes logic, so my approach is consistent with your article, or I believe it to be. Notice one interruption of the transitive chain would alter the results.
I approach religion through logic, and have long ago asked several question which have led me to my present beliefs. First, does God exist? Then did God choose his people and reveal more of Himself to them? Then, is Christ God? Then, did God establish his Church through Christ? Then would man be allowed to change that Church, or did God set the precedent of directly making change if He wanted change? Since I did not see man as having sufficient authority I did not delve into different denominations, but others would have to ask even more. The difficult question comes when Rome fell, and the question of who was the real Pope, the Bishop f the City of Rome or the Bishop of the Roman Empire?
So, I used transitivity, and a logical approach.
I respect the idea that not everyone will answer the questions I have asked the same.
One thing I had not understood is how did Jesus Christ claim to be the God by calling himself the son of man, important to a belief in the Trinity. It was answered in a Christology class by a theologian. There are two books that the Jews did not include in what we call the Old Testament, but appear to have been written with the same inspiration. So, they were left out of the Bible. They were forbidden reading to the people, but the religious leaders were required to read them. Therein is the Trinity made known and is how those questioning Jesus concluded the term son of man to mean God. Hence, the greater a person's knowledge the better one can proceed. Certainly knowledge is a key in a proper understanding of complex questions.
Hope I did not get too far from the topic.

frankbeswick on 01/22/2016

Thank you, for your response was the result that I wanted from the article.

Veronica on 01/22/2016

This is really good as I feel equipped by now by JP's and your comments to answer criticisms aimed at me .

Thank you very much

frankbeswick on 01/21/2016

Quite right. You have hit the nail on the head when you say that many atheists can tell you much about the God they don't believe in; and often I don't believe in that God either. Too many reject a childish view of God, but do not realize that there are mature, sophisticated views of the deity. Very often people reject a defective image of God, often for good reasons, but throw out the baby with the bath water, to reject God completely.

jptanabe on 01/21/2016

I certainly hope we can be rational and religious! My father was agnostic, and I always respected his view that there was no way to know for sure if God exists or not. I was an atheist for a while, having decided the world was better off without the kinds of gods people told me about (I'm sure all atheists can tell you a lot about the God they don't believe in!) But it does seem to be as much an act of faith to believe in no God as to believe in God. Certainly it's a choice of starting point as you say, not whether or not rational thought is used to develop the system.

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