The Gospel of Rationalism

This is a kind of postscript to my earlier blog posts on atheism as a religion. Going through a secondhand bookshop recently, I came across a book that very much took the view that certain forms of atheism – in this case, rationalism – were indeed religious. It was entitled The Gospel of Rationalism, and had been published in the ‘Thinker’s Library’ imprint of rationalist, Humanist, agnostic and atheist texts, published by Watts and Co in the 30s and 40s. Flicking through the text, it was clear that the author really did view rationalism as a religion, as he referred to it as a ‘gospel’ and a ‘religion’. Now this doesn’t prove that atheism is a religion per se, but it does show that some atheists saw their particular form of atheism as a religion, in line with Dewey’s view that there were religious attitudes that stood outside the religions.

 As for the ‘Thinker’s Library’, some of their editions would now be looked on with some disapproval now because of their very dated, and morally dubious, scientific views. One of the books they published was Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe. Haeckel was a militantly pantheistic evolutionary biologist with a particular hatred of Christianity, although his philosophy was widely interpreted as atheist. He believed firmly that the Aryan peoples, particularly the Germans, were biologically superior to all others and was firmly behind the eugenics programme. He wasn’t a Nazi, and indeed there was a museum to him at his home in Jena in the former East Germany. Nevertheless, under Ostrander the Monistenbund – the Monist League he founded to support his philosophy – was one of the precursors of the scientific racism of the Nazis. There was considerable opposition to him in Germany at the time, not just from the churches but also from a Sceptics’ organisation, the Keplerbund – Kepler League- named after the great 17th century German pioneer astronomer, Johannes Kepler. Despite his strong influence in the introduction of Darwinism into Germany and his own personal influence in the history of evolutionary biology, his ideas are very much out of favour and I can’t imagine many atheist organisations wishing to promote them today. The majority of the writers published in the ‘Thinker’s Library’ weren’t that politically dubious, however.

Tags: , ,

24 Responses to “The Gospel of Rationalism”

  1. Feyd Says:

    Nice one beast. The great Historian Nial Fergusson touches on your themes in his very readable “The War of the World” .

    With detailed examples from around the world he shows how the extraordinary rise in race consciousness from around the world resulted largely from pseudo rational ideas like social Darwinism. He then went on to contend that race was a key reason why the 20th century was by far the bloodiest period the world has ever seen, even in relative terms and even allowing for technological advances.

    Rational thought and evidence based thinking – not all they are cracked up to be.

    As the rational age was first dawning in Greece, Sophocles clearly showed the terrible consequences that logical thought can lead to with his Oedipus the King .

    Our very finest thinkers like Goethe have echoed this message.

    Some of the inherent limitations in logical thinking have bee rigorously proved by mathematicians like Gödel.

    We’ve discussed in some of your earlier blogs about the tragic consequences of over applying rational methods to modern life – for examples the body count performance targets that caused troops to deliberately shoot civilians to meet their quotas.

    The Gospel of rationalism isn’t looking too credible these days.
    A new age of faith is dawning. 🙂

  2. JOR Says:

    “We’ve discussed in some of your earlier blogs about the tragic consequences of over applying rational methods to modern life – for examples the body count performance targets that caused troops to deliberately shoot civilians to meet their quotas.”

    You’re right. In the Age of Faith they would have just killed em’ all as a matter of principle. That’s much better.

  3. JOR Says:

    As Wittgenstein says, showing anything like ‘the limit of logical thinking’ is impossible. What Gödel accomplished was to show us that any formalism or model must either be incomplete or false. But formalisms and models are not ‘logic’, but something we do with logic.

    And for all that you pose a false dilemma anyway.

  4. Feyd Says:

    “You’re right. In the Age of Faith they would have just killed em’ all as a matter of principle. That’s much better.”

    LOL! A statistical treatment easily shows that violent oppression and murder was far more prevalent once psuedo rational atheist doctrines like Marxism were allowed to hold sway.

    Rationalism has had its chances, with any luck it wont get another!

  5. Feyd Says:

    “As Wittgenstein says, showing anything like ‘the limit of logical thinking’ is impossible.”

    Thanks JOR, I didn’t express myself with precision in that post.

    With all respect to Wittgenstein, even his Tractatus doesn’t match the Rigor of Goedel’s “On Formally Undecidable Propositions” , which in any event Wittgenstein didn’t argue against.

    The Tractatus ended by saying ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

    Wittgenstein was later to exspand by adding ‘My Tractatus consisted of two parts – the part of which I put into word and the part I did not. That second part [the mystical] was by far the most important’

    Im not sure if you’re an atheist JOR but it always makes be laff when atheists try and use Wittgenstein to support their case. Properly understand his work is profoundly mystical in character. Wittgenstein was a Christian almost all his life – he briefly flirted with atheism but rejected it.

    “ What Gödel accomplished was to show us that any formalism or model must either be incomplete or false.”

    A consequence of his result is that there can be no totally comprehensive, consistent and valid logical system.

  6. JOR Says:

    “LOL! A statistical treatment easily shows that violent oppression and murder was far more prevalent once psuedo rational atheist doctrines like Marxism were allowed to hold sway.”

    So now it’s pseudo-rational! But I thought the problem with Marxists et al. was that they were too rational?

    “Im not sure if you’re an atheist JOR but it always makes be laff when atheists try and use Wittgenstein to support their case. Properly understand his work is profoundly mystical in character. Wittgenstein was a Christian almost all his life – he briefly flirted with atheism but rejected it.”

    Firstly, I’m not an atheist. At least, I would reject that label without a fair amount of qualification. Second, it misdescribes Wittgenstein’s work to say it is ‘mystical’ unless this category also includes scholastic thinkers all the way back to Socrates – that is, if we’re using the word mystical to mean a certain kind of robust rationalism. Third, I know quite well that Wittgenstein was a Christian – but even if I was using him to support atheism (I wasn’t) that wouldn’t matter.

    JOR : “What Gödel accomplished was to show us that any formalism or model must either be incomplete or false.”

    Freyd: “A consequence of his result is that there can be no totally comprehensive, consistent and valid logical system.”

    And Wittgenstein’s conclusion is that logic itself is not a system. If you want to say that, properly understood – their findings are mutually reinforcing, then sure. I agree. But the problem with Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment thought is not that it is excessively rational. It’s that it is not completely rational. And I select the term ‘complete’ here carefully and deliberately. Confusing particular models for reason itself is exactly the problem with one-dimensional social theories like Marxism, and exactly the problem Gödel should be taken to warn against.

  7. Feyd Says:

    Thanks for the excellent reply JOR. I take your point that rational thought need not limit itself to one system.

    Wittgenstein’s work was robustly rational in the sense that it provided tools for casting away poor reasoning; for showing why certain conclusions don’t necessarily follow from the premises. For that reason it helped inspire even the logical positivists.

    Much post enlightenment thought , including Marxism , erred in making conclusions that the facts didn’t really justify – in that sense I agree it wasn’t completely rational. But its proponents would sometimes speak as though their ideas had been proved with scientific certainty. They gained a false confidence that lent their ideas the power to help justify atrocities.

    Your position seems to be that if we improve the quality of our logical thinking we can avoid the mistakes made by the architect of Marxism or National socialism. The problem is we risk throwing out the baby with the bath water. Complete rationalism may not make mistakes but that’s because its so limited and cautious – it therefore also lacks the power to create positive and inspiring visions. And it can cant affirm moral values, a theme Beast has been exploring in several of his recent blogs. G E Moore made this very clearly in his Principia Ethics.

    In practical terms , the limited power of ‘complete rationalism’ leaves the field open for money values to dominate society. And this is whats happened especially post WWII. Very nice for those in the top 1% who don’t have much of a social conciounce. But in terms of the general happiness , scientific studies have shown us that the happiness of the average Britain is lower now than in 1960, despite the considerable increase in prosperity.

    But happily we don’t need to choose between pseudo rationalism and complete rationalism.

    By embracing faith, we gain access to inspiring and positive visions. We open ourselves to God, the best and only source of perfect love and wisdom.

    Humans are made for love, not logic.

    Faith JOR – its all that matters!

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the appreciation, Feyd, and the fascinating comments from you and JOR. I’m sorry to say I wasn’t aware that Wittgenstein was a Christian. I’d assumed he was either an atheist, due to his association with the Logical Positivists, or that he was Jewish because of the way he and his brother, the great pianist Paul, had been forced to leave Austria because of their Jewish identity when the Nazis took over.

    Regarding indiscriminate massacre in warfare before the Enlightenment, yeah notoriously and odiously it went on, and was bitterly lamented at the time. That does not mean it was approved of or conformed to the religious doctrines of the time. Christian theologians like St. Augustine had discussed the nature of the ‘just war’, and Islam and Sikhism both incorporate in their doctrines specific prohibitions against harming women, children and non-combatants. That these prohibitions have too often been ignored is true. However, Islamic terrorists like al-Qaeda had to use some very tortured logic to justify their attacks on civilians. Their stance is that the nature of modern society means that the military is so intimately connected to civilian industry and culture that the two are inseparable. Thus, there are, by this logic, no civilians and so the Jihadists responsible for 9/11 felt that they could kill thousands of civilians without violating the provisions of the Qu’ran. Not true.

  9. Ilíon Says:

    JOR:… But the problem with Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment thought is not that it is excessively rational. It’s that it is not completely rational. And I select the term ‘complete’ here carefully and deliberately. Confusing particular models for reason itself is exactly the problem with one-dimensional social theories like Marxism, and exactly the problem Gödel should be taken to warn against.

    I quite agree. (Does that shock you?) I’ve read — rolling my eyes — some of Feyd’s posts denigrating reason. But, I have only so much time … and in these few posts in this thread you’ve responded much better than I think I could have.

  10. Ilíon Says:

    However, Islamic terrorists like al-Qaeda had to use some very tortured logic to justify their attacks on civilians.

    Not really. In Islam, no non-Muslim is “innocent” or “off-limits.” When Muslims use words like “innocent” and “justice,” they don’t at all mean what me mean.

    Consider the Islamic word/concept ‘shirk‘ (i.e. shirk: “Islamic mortal sin, death-worthy crime, consisting in ascribing any partner to Allah but even atheism is shirk …”) (i.e. shirk: “… In the Qur’an shirk and the related word (plural Stem IV active participle) mushrikun (مشركون) “those who commit shirk and plot against Islam” often clearly refers to the enemies of Islam (as in verse 9.1-15) but sometimes it also refers to erring Muslims.”) (i.e. shirk: “associating partners with Allah; disbelieving in the unity and oneness of Allah and believing that someone else shares authority with Allah or has the same attributes or characteristics as Allah. This is major shirk and it will not be forgiven.”) … by “Allah” or by his slaves.

    By definition, all Christians are guilty of ‘shirk,’ as are ‘atheists,’ as are pagans/polytheists (in fact, according to Muslims, Christians are “polytheists”), and fully deserving of death anytime any Muslim wants to kill them.

    Singing “kumbayah” doesn’t cut it; the truth is the truth: “radical” Islam *is* Islam.

  11. JOR Says:

    Beast,

    “That does not mean it was approved of or conformed to the religious doctrines of the time.”

    It was rejected by some (many) religious intellectuals, absolutely. But then they weren’t exactly irrationalists, either. My ‘Age of Faith’ comment was intended as a double-irony. The ‘kinder, gentler age’, so far as it really was so, was as much an era of reason as our own.

  12. JOR Says:

    Freyd,

    “Your position seems to be that if we improve the quality of our logical thinking we can avoid the mistakes made by the architect of Marxism or National socialism. The problem is we risk throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

    Er, what? You’re the one saying we should throw something out, not me. I’m fully content to admit that faith, imagination, value, and all the rest of it is part of our humanity. I just don’t confuse ‘reason itself’ with any particular model or discipline which (perhaps legitimately) excludes these factors. Reason itself just is our whole humanity.

  13. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the reply, JOR. I’m afraid I missed the double-irony in your comment, but I certainly concur with you that the Middle Ages were no less an age of a reason than our own. The British astronomer, John Barrow, says the same in his book Theories of Everything .

    Regarding reason and human nature, I think reason is an important aspect of human nature, and integral to notions of humanity. I don’t think it’s the whole of our humanity, however. Pascal’s statement that ‘the heart has its reasons, reason knows nothing of’ is a truism. I’d also believe that human rationality depends on assumptions that cannot be proved rationally, like the intelligibility of the world, but which are nevertheless true.

    As for the relationship between faith and reason, I think the best view I’ve come across of this was actually in an episode of Babylon 5. In an episode right at the end of the fourth season, one of the characters, a monk in a post-Holocaust Earth, explained the relationship between the two to a younger fellow. He stated that faith and reason were like your feet: you got further using both than you did with just one, which I think is a very good attitude. Incidentally, that episode seemed to owe something to the SF novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz in that it portrayed the monastic organisation as leading the revival in scientific knowledge that would culminate in humanity once more returning to civilisation and the stars. Babylon 5 certainly wasn’t a Christian programme, but it did have a high respect for Christian institutions. One of the heroes was educated by the Jesuits, and after the break with Earth following the rise of the dictatorship of President Clarke, the station was the home of an order of Christian monks who also supplied needed labour to the station. It also dealt with explicitly moral religious themes, such as the revenge killing of a monk, who had been received into the order as part of his punishment for a string of murders, in the episode Passing through Gethsemane . As the great Russian cineaste and director of the original Solaris , Andrei Tarkovsky, once said ‘we don’t have religious films anymore. We just have Science Fiction.

  14. Ilíon Says:

    Islam and “innocence”

  15. Rich Says:

    Isn’t the strength of rationalism that it doesn’t use some archaic, immutable truth claims but is subject constant testing and revision?

  16. Ilíon Says:

    Rich:Isn’t the strength of rationalism that it doesn’t use some archaic, immutable truth claims but is subject constant testing and revision?

    You folk are so amusing!

    First, you tip your hand with your silly (and irrational) swipe at “archaic, immutable truth claims” … as though *actual* truth has a shelf-life or as though *actual* truth can turn into non-truth.

    Secondly, you reveal that you don’t even begin to understand reason itself. For, as truth would have it, the “rules” by which we reason and by which we evaluate our own and others’ reasoning are “archaic, immutable truth claims.”

    And, as for the purported “strength of rationalism” and the supposed “constant testing and revision” to which is is averred that ‘rationalism’ is subjected, perhaps you have a point. ‘Rationalists’ seem to never *learn* anything … which no doubt explains why ‘rationalism’ seems always to result in mountains of corpses and oceans of blood: the ‘rationalists’ are but “constant[ly] testing” whether their Goddess really does require human sacrifice.

  17. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Ilion – thanks to the link to the piece on British muslims demanding death for unbelievers. Unfortunately there are all too many of them, and they’ve been in the news a lot recently. A few months ago Channel 4 screened the documentary, Undercover Mosque , where they secretly filmed some of the sermons in mosques up and down Britain, including the mosque in Birmingham, which is the largest in the UK. It was frightening stuff, as the mullahs speaking there delivered very bloodthirsty sermons demanding warfare between muslims and the rest of the British population, and in particular advocating the murder of Jews and homosexuals. Unfortunately the reactions to the programme, instead of taking notice of what was being said, were attacks on the programme itself. The Committee for Racial Equality denounced it as ‘racist’ and there were similar comments from the police. It was a classical example of ‘kill the messenger’.

    Now a lot of British muslims don’t like the fanatics preaching hate in the mosques. There have been demonstrations by muslims against these pious bigots, though you tend not to hear about them. The people who first tried alerting the British authorities against the terrorist activities being conducted at Finchley Mosque were themselves muslims, who found their warnings ignored or denied by the British authorities. Some of the bigots preaching hate had, unfortunately, been given political asylum in this country because they had fought against the Russians in Afghanistan. Generally the attitude of the British government, until 9/11 and 7/7, was to turn a blind eye to what was being preached and organised, so long as it wasn’t against Britain. More fool us.

  18. beastrabban Says:

    Rich, I don’t see that the claim that science has any innate superiority to religious belief because it is subject to testing and revision has any force. Firstly, religion and science are separate phenomena, although they do overlap. In the case of Christianity, the testing for the truth claims is through philosophy and history, rather than science. The scientific method simply isn’t applicable.

    Also, testing and revision themselves do not necessarily constitute truth. They may mean that the paradigm is more closely approaching truth, but clearly if they ever arrive at a true picture of the cosmos, then testing and revision will effectively stop. Thus if testing and revision are taken as indicators of the truth of a worldview, if science ever does produce an absolutely true view of the world, then science would presumably cease to be true as it would no longer be revised.

    I also agree with Ilion in that the fundamentals of logic, on which science is based, are themselves ancient, and so if antiquity is considered to indicate that a worldview is wrong, then much of the process of rational argument is therefore wrong. Clearly, this is not the case.

  19. Rich Says:

    Although logic is old, its actually seen revolutions and different forms. You can keep going back to the well.

    “religion and science are separate phenomena, although they do overlap”

    So they are mutually exclusive, with overlap. Can I gets me a Venn diagram?

  20. beastrabban Says:

    Although logic is old, its actually seen revolutions and different forms. You can keep going back to the well.

    Yes, a lot of it was formulated in the 19th century by Gottlob Frege. However, it has its roots in Aristotle, and so you’re still faced with the same problem.

    So they are mutually exclusive, with overlap. Can I gets me a Venn diagram?

    I said they were separate and overlapped. I did not say they were exclusive. I don’t know why you find the concept so difficult to understand. It occurs in many other areas. For example, history and science are also separate human endeavours. The methodology of science is different from that of history, yet clearly there are areas in which they overlap, such as, for example, the history of science. This does not mean, however, that one is reducible to the other or necessarily has priority over the other.

  21. Rich Says:

    Without getting into wordplay too much, if A and B are seperate, A u B = 0, A n B = 0.

  22. Rich Says:

    Ooops, A u B = 0 clearly isn’t right! =-P

  23. beastrabban Says:

    No, Rich – for the reasons I outlined. Clearly there are subjects that are separate, but overlap, so your logic simply does not hold.

  24. Rich Says:

    If they are seperate, aren’t they joined at he overlap?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: