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Theism 101: Is Theism Irrational?

What does it mean to be rational or irrational?

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When it comes right down to it, theism itself doesn't inherently mean very much. Fundamentally, theism itself isn't anything more than believing in the existence of at least one god. Why or how one might have such a belief is no more relevant to the definition of theism than why or how one might lack belief in gods is relevant to the definition of atheism.

This has important implications for the question of whether theism is rational or irrational. So, the answer to the question "is theism irrational?" is: it depends. What does it depend upon? It depends upon the theist in question. Both theism and atheism can be arrived at or held rationally or irrationally. You can't simply assume that either is necessarily the case; in order to make such a judgment, you actually have to do some work to understand how and why a person holds to their theism or atheism.

It is important to understand that "rational" does not mean "correct" any more than "irrational" means "incorrect." Saying that a person can arrive at or hold to theism rationally does not entail the conclusion that their theism is therefore correct and that their god exists. It is quite possible for a rational belief to be very, very wrong. At the same time, saying that a belief is irrational also does not entail the conclusion that it is incorrect - an irrational belief can be very, very right.

What is meant by saying that someone can arrive at or hold to their theism rationally? It means that, given the person's circumstances, he has done a fair and reasonable job in evaluating what he thinks he knows, he has pieced together his ideas in a coherent manner, and that his conclusions follow justifiably from this premises and inferences. He may have made errors in his reasoning process, but being rational doesn't not require absolutely flawless reasoning - otherwise, we're all irrational about everything because none of us is perfect.

What many people fail to understand about this process is that the rationality of a position is not bound to the content of the position itself. Notice in the above that the conclusion that a person's belief is rational depends nowhere on what the specific conclusion is. This means that it isn't possible to assert that some particular belief or idea is necessarily rational or that some other belief or idea is necessarily irrational.

The rationality of a position is instead bound to the manner in which a person arrived at it and continues to hold it. In other words, evaluating the rationality of a belief requires evaluating the methodology of that belief rather than the specifics of the belief itself. Knowing that a person is a theist doesn't justify assuming that their theism is irrational anymore than knowing that a person is an atheist justifies assuming that their atheism is rational.

Another common error here is that many people assume that if they arrived at or hold their position rationally, then someone who arrives at or holds an opposing position must have done so irrationally. The concept of "rational," however, does not entail any sense of exclusivity. It is possible for two people with the same starting information to rationally arrive at two divergent conclusions. Just become one's belief is rational doesn't mean that someone else's belief must be irrational. This is what is meant by the idea that reasonable people can disagree on something.

Moreover, the likelihood that two people can rationally arrive at opposing conclusions is increased when we take into account the fact that they are probably not starting with the exact same information. The more their initial data and personal background experiences differ, the more likely that final positions may differ as well. This is an important point to keep in mind, because if a person begins with very faulty information, they can engage in an absolutely flawless reasoning process and arrive at a conclusion which has absolutely no relationship to reality.

We may be tempted to call such a conclusion irrational, but we'd be wrong. If we want to critique such a conclusion, it would be counterproductive to focus upon a reasoning process which is just fine - and we would only look foolish to the person who knows that his reasoning was fine. Instead, we have to focus upon the real problem: the initial data.

There are still many atheists who assume without question that theism is inherently irrational and atheism is inherently rational. Such an assumption is understandable when we consider that all of the theistic belief systems they have encountered have probably been genuinely irrational - but being understandable is not the same as being correct.

At most, such experiences would only validate the assumption that any actual (but not yet examined and evaluated) theism is probably irrational, not that it is actually irrational. It is sadly ironic that in generalizing about theism far beyond what reality allows for, such atheists are adopting a position which is itself irrational - the very "sin" they are so quick to accuse theists of committing.

The situation is even worse when such atheists make that generalization and then conclude that, because theists hold an irrational belief, theists as people are irrational. Why? Because they are focusing on theists in particular while failing to acknowledge that, if their principle is valid, it would apply equally to atheists (because all atheists probably hold some belief that is irrational). This means that they are exhibiting a "strong partiality" to their own group and intolerance to another. And that's the definition of bigotry.

It may be comforting to assume that one is necessarily more rational than others by virtue of the position one has adopted - whether that position is atheism over theism, Protestantism over Catholicism, or liberalism over conservatism. The truth of the matter is, however, that none of us are superior over others by dint of some magically rational belief. We all have irrational beliefs and we all have our flaws. A little honesty and humility about that would go along way towards increased understanding and tolerance - not to mention causing one to be a bit more rational as well.


Varieties of Theism
One of the ways in which mere theism is transformed in religion is in the nature of the theism itself. In addition to the obvious addition of beliefs like what the gods want and where the gods come from, theism itself can be focused upon a single god (monotheism), many gods (polytheism), and so on. Understanding the differences between these types of theism is necessary not only for understanding the religious systems in which they appear, but also for understanding the variety and diversity which exists for theism itself.

•  Classical / Philosophical Theism
•  What is Monotheism?
•  What is Pantheism?

Arguing About the Existence of God
Does God exist? If so, what type of God exists and what does God want? Are any religions valid? If so, which one(s) and why? These are the sorts of questions debated by visitors to this site - learn more about these questions, the terms involved, and how the debates proceed.

•  What is God?
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