John Loftus on Faith and Reason (Why I became an Atheist Review) Part 1

I want to do some chapter reviews of John Loftus’ book Why I became an Atheist. It seems as though the book hasn’t received a great deal of attention from apologists, probably because atheist activists like Loftus have been eclipsed by the four big ones in New Atheist writing. Yet, Loftus’ work seems to have been fairly popular and he is more knowledgeable than other New Atheists about Christian apologetics. So I think his work needs an answer. The first chapter in Loftus’ book is devoted to his personal story of deconversion and does not really contain arguments for atheism, which is why I won’t deal with it. The second chapter deals, appropriately enough, with the question of the relationship between faith and reason. Loftus responds to a number of ways of thinking about it. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, the most important bits are in bold.

Christianity vs. Reason?

Firstly, Loftus quotes a number of Christian figures to prove that Christianity has a negative relationship to reason.[i] Among them is Colossians 2:8 which talks about “hollow and deceptive philosophy”. Saying that there is “hollow and deceptive philosophy” is not the same as saying “all philosophy is hollow and deceptive”. Next he quotes Luke 10:21 where Jesus says, ”I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children…” This is actually one of my favourite verses in the New Testament. It is analogous to the contempt the New Testament often expresses for the rich. These verses do not mean that wealth or learning are in themselves bad, but they very often give those who have them a great big ego that makes it difficult for them to submit to anything greater than themselves. This is in keeping with a theme in Jesus’ teaching: “the first shall be last and the last first”. In many cultures, “the wise and learned” are seen as the repositories of moral and metaphysical knowledge and are revered. Jesus is saying that this is not the way it is with God. God will not favour someone because they have a PhD or a high IQ, even though the world favours them for these reasons. On the contrary, these people must take heed that they do not get a big head as a result of their gifts, because then they will not see the truth at all. 1 Cor. 1:18-25 can be understood in a similar way. Paul is specifically speaking of the “wisdom and learning” of those for whom the Cross is foolishness. It is speaking of “wisdom” that is in competition with Christianity and God, not “learning and wisdom” that is practiced in honour of and in submission to God.

Hard Rationalism

Loftus continues by putting forward his way of conceiving  of the relationship between faith and reason.[ii] This position is “hard rationalism” encapsulated in W.K. Clifford’s famous quote “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” This is typical. Pretty much every atheist you will meet, and especially every New Atheist you will meet, will believe in hard rationalism. First, we should note that the position of hard rationalism, or that reason should be our guide to everything, is self-refuting. If hard rationalism is true, then everything you believe must be justifiable through reason. But what then about your belief in the truth of reason? You can’t justify that by reason, because then you would need to justify reason by reason, which is circular. The only way you could justify reason rationally is if you assume reason in order to justify it. This means you cannot rationally justify hard rationalism. Therefore, hard rationalism is self-refuting because it cannot meet its own criterion. Using anything other than reason to justify hard rationalism would implicitly deny the truth of hard rationalism. So the claim that rationality must be our guide in everything, could not itself be rationally justified, which makes it self-defeating. You might say that reason is self-evident and therefore does not require justification, but this very reasoning would then constitute a rational justification for your belief in the truth of reason. But Clifford’s formulation of hard rationalism focussed on the concept of evidence. Clifford’s own statement that nothing should be believed on insufficient evidence does not have any evidence, because once again, to give evidence for the claim that everything must be justified by evidence requires assuming the claim to justify it, which is circular. And the claim itself therefore does not have any evidence, which makes it false according to its own standard.

You might say that it is not belief in reason but belief in hard rationalism that is being justified rationally, which are two different beliefs. However, in order to justify rationality as the highest arbiter of truth, you have to use rationality to justify rationality. You have to say that rationality clearly gives us truth and that this is evidence that it should be the highest arbiter of truth. So the only way you can say that rationality gives us truth is by using rationality, which is circular. You are pointing to evidence as something which justifies the claim that giving evidence to justify a claim is right. Thus, hard rationalism couldn’t have any rational justification, which makes it false by it’s own standard.

This idea that hard rationalism is self-refuting becomes important later on, because if you bear it in mind you will notice how often Loftus makes claims about what we must do to be most reasonable, without justifying it rationally. For example, he says that “It is always right to question all that we believe.”[iii] He doesn’t give evidence for this pretty sweeping claim. He also says, “There is a great danger to society here, not just in believing the wrong ideas, but also in losing the habit of testing ideas. The risk is that we’ll sink back into savagery by becoming a credulous society.”[iv] So the argument here is that the survival or the good of society justifies belief in hard rationalism. What about if the use of reason would not benefit society or what if it would even negatively effect society? Clifford’s argument is meaningless precisely for this reason. You can devise examples which would make it so that the use of reason is detrimental rather than beneficial. But even if it could not be detrimental, Loftus’ comments here ironically undermines hard rationalism by affirming the ministerial use of reason (as opposed to hard rationalism), because it implies that rationality is actually in a ministerial position to the good of society. ( If rationality and the good of society conflicts, then the good of society must trump rationality).

In addition, there is a great deal in life that is uncertain and we are often expected to make decisions based on insufficient information. To demand “sufficient evidence” before any belief or action, would often mean that we would spend our lives in a state of “analysis paralysis.” This is especially the case in metaphysical questions. There are always more objections and counter-objections. Someone who is perfectly rational would never make a decision. There is also the problem of having to determine, in every instance, what exactly would count as “sufficient evidence” which is very unclear in many circumstances.

More posts to come on this topic!


[i] Loftus J. (2012) Why I Became An Atheist, Kindle Edition, pg. 39

[ii] Ibid., 40

[iii] Ibid., 40

[iv] Ibid., 40

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