I have been receiving a lot of religiously centered emails lately. I try to respond to each of them and I hope they keep coming; they are truly interesting. If I continue to receive them regularly, I may start a reoccurring segment: Questions from Theists. Anyway, in response to a question I recently received, I have written a terse exposition defending my position. Here is a grammatically improved upon version of the question:
As an atheist, why do you write about religion? Why not leave it to theologians and philosophers that are religious? They are experts because they understand where the questions are coming from? It is impossible for an atheist to understand God.
Religious Inquiries – A Philosophical Problem
“It is, indeed, the common fate of human reason in speculation, to finish the imposing edifice of thought as rapidly as possible, and then for the first time to begin to examine whether the foundation is a solid one or no. Arrived at this point, all sorts of excuses are sought after, in order to console us for its want of stability, or rather indeed, to enable us to dispense altogether with so late and dangerous an investigation.”
– Immanuel Kant[i]
Religious inquiries are invariably infused with uncertainty. Occupying domains of human curiosity that transcend human experience, these inquiries regularly utilize a posteriori knowledge to support a priori inferences. Now, this approach to acquiring knowledge absent sensory experience is not fundamentally facile; on the contrary, certain judgments are regularly attained in this way. The difference, however, between a priori judgments that produce definite results, and religious inquiries that attempt to use a priori reasoning similarly, is the distinction between general ideas and multifarious ideas. A number, for instance, is a general idea because it is necessary and consistent in all possible contexts; and, moreover, succeeding numbers can be attained by the employment of antecedent experiences.[ii] Conversely, ideas such as gods, are multifarious. The idea itself lacks universality because humanity is absent the sensory experience necessary to extract a definitive concept. That is, a universal concept for God, or a perfect being, does not exist because it is purely abstract and varies between individuals. Thus, the most appropriate discipline to examine religious inquiries is philosophy; for philosophy does not aim at certainty, rather, its desires are realized by the questions themselves.[iii]
To exemplify this uncertainty and thereby illustrate the necessity for such topics to remain within the sphere of philosophical inquiry, one simply needs to examine a religious argument. Proponents of the cosmological argument, for instance, invoke the assistance of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). This principle was derived from perfectly reasonable observations and its verity is almost universally accepted. It benefits, furthermore, from our exiguous experience by appearing congruous with a posteriori knowledge. That is, it would appear that everything in existence is predicated by an antecedent cause, insofar as sensory experience has demonstrated.
Let us assume for a moment that this is universally true – every witnessed event has been the result of a previous cause. Nothing, conversely, has ever been witnessed to be an uncaused event. Our first inquiry should then focus on the nature of these causes. Upon doing so, one shall find that the explanation behind the cause is always natural. In other words, we have never witnessed a supernatural cause. This is true without exception, and deserves further contemplation for the uncertainty it elicits.
More importantly, however, by the nature of using such a principle – the PSR – the proponent must discard certainty altogether, for this principle employs inductive reasoning. Since inductive reasoning is incapable of providing certainties, the proponent must acknowledge that probabilities are all that remain. Therefore, his inference has the potential to be fallacious, which may be demonstrated by future experience.
There are, admittedly, scientific disciplines that operate chiefly by inductive reasoning; in fact, most do. These, however, have the distinction of being falsifiable, and none of them procure a priori inferences from multifarious ideas; only religious arguments do. To reduce such topics to supposed experts – theologians and religious thinkers – would therefore be wholly inapt, for how can one be an expert in uncertainty? Uncertainty governs religious thought. To be certain, in either direction, is to be a fool. But that is not to say that particular questions cannot be answered with reasonable confidence, for probabilities can sensibly be discerned; and philosophy appears to be the most appropriate tool for such discernments. Unlike the empirical sciences, philosophy resides amongst history’s greatest unanswerable inquiries. Were an answer to be discovered, it would birth a new science. Thus, philosophy is fated to contemplate the inexplicable, impenetrable fascinations of pompous apes. To exclude a perfectly apt discipline from participating in such inquiries would therefore be wholly unreasonable, and deserving of our condemnation.
[i] Kant, Immanuel, and J. M. D. Meiklejohn. Critique of Pure Reason,. New York: Colonial, 1899. 6. Print.
[ii] Ibid., pg. 1-10.
[iii] Russell, Bertrand. “The Value of Philosophy.” The Problems of Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 161. Print.