Politics & Policy

Rational Questions

Religious issues.

Let’s conduct a little thought experiment.

Imagine that scientists in a lab have engineered a perfectly rational robot. This robot appears human in every way: He speaks articulately and spontaneously, is capable of advanced learning, and can pass for human in all social commerce.

The only difference between the robot and human beings is that the robot is perfectly rational. “Rationality” is here defined as the refusal to form beliefs without having sufficient reason to think they are true. It is the nature of reasons that they are capable of clear expression. To believe something rationally is to be able to say why you believe it — and to say so in such a way that an intelligent listener would understand how the “why” supports the belief.

Now imagine yourself trying to persuade our perfectly rational robot that the following statement is true:

Everything was created by an all-powerful and all-knowing being who exists outside of space and time. This being impregnated a human woman through non-physical means and was born as her offspring. Within space and time, the being was executed as a criminal and spent three days in a tomb. But then it came back to life and went up to a place called Heaven, which we cannot detect or observe. We eat this being’s body once a week. By doing this — and sundry other things, such as getting sprinkled with water by a man in a robe who utters an incantation, or telling the man in the robe all the bad things we do — by doing this, we too can go to Heaven after our own bodies come up out of their graves.

What will you tell the robot? Can you marshal empirical evidence demonstrating that these claims are true? Can you show their truth by logic alone?

Think about that for a moment; and then ask yourself whether you would be willing to vote for a Catholic.

Of course, I could just as easily have written a mainline Protestant or an evangelical version of the statement above. We could tell the robot we believe the Bible in toto, Noah and his ark, Jonah and his fish, bears eating boys because they called a man bald, the whole thing. But could we explain what reason we have to think that the Bible is true? Alternatively, we could tell the robot that much of the Bible is metaphor and myth, but that the big things are true: There really is a God, and a Resurrection, and a Heaven for our Immortal Souls, and all that. But will we have an answer when the robot asks: “How do you know which parts of the Bible are true and which aren’t?”

We can’t say, “Because we feel in our heart that certain things are true.” That isn’t a reason: It doesn’t allow the robot — or anyone else, including us — to understand how whatever it is we feel counts as evidence for whatever it is we believe. And we can’t get off the hook by saying, “Look, I believe in lots of things I can’t demonstrate to you. Atoms, for example.” We may not be able to persuade our robot that atoms exist, but we can call in quantum physicists to do the job, and their explanation will be clear and rational. Has anyone in the history of the world explained clearly and rationally how a virgin birth works?

Let’s keep things simple and stick with god, lower-case. I invite any reader to e-mail me what he would say to convince the robot that there exists a god of any sort. Aspirants should consult the efforts of, among others, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant before improving on them. (“Improving”: There is a depressing philosophical consensus that those guys failed. You can disagree — but the robot will make you say why.)


Try to keep the robot in mind as you hear commentary on Mitt Romney and Mormonism. Lots of people take it as a given that Mormonism is nuts; the tolerant ones just think this shouldn’t keep Mitt out of the White House. Many who hold the “Mormonism is nuts” position are religious themselves — and they’re the ones I find hardest to understand. I suspect that, almost to a man, they are (1) incapable of rationally defending their own beliefs and (2) completely unaware of how deeply irrational — in the sense of “rationality” given above — those beliefs are.

Which of the following ideas requires the bigger leap of faith: that a resurrected Christ appeared to ancient inhabitants of the Americas, or that the dead can come forth from their tombs at all? That the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, or that there was a Garden of Eden? Why do so many people scoff at the notion that an angel spoke to Joseph Smith, but accept without question that angels spoke to men and women in the Bible? (And since when is it rational to believe in angels?)

Shall we put the history of Mormonism on trial, too? Do we have a hard time voting for Mitt because his church practiced polygamy a hundred years ago, or withheld its priesthood from black men until 1978? Yes? A politician whose church has burned heretics at the stake, on the other hand . . .

You get the idea. People look on Mormonism with skepticism and contempt not because its doctrines are uniquely irrational, but because it is young and obscure. Miracles are easier to accept when viewed from the safe distance of two or three millennia; they have no business in James Monroe’s America. And familiarity with hoary old concepts — God, Resurrection, Heaven — desensitizes us to just how philosophically radical they are.

My intent is not to disparage anyone’s religion. But if you are religious, and you don’t see how an intelligent person could believe what Mitt Romney does, I suggest you think long and hard about the extent to which your own beliefs can be justified by reason. Then try to remember what Jesus said about motes and beams.


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