When I was at university Rationalist House was just down the street, but I never crossed its threshold. The building looked archaic, and I imagined old men inside, perhaps bitter atheists. Much like people must conceive of old churches. I’ve been thinking about *how* I undertake my search, and wondering if my love of reason makes me a rationalist?
I thought, “If I’m going to call myself a rationalist, I’d better understand what that means.” In the library, I picked up a book and began to read 1.
Surprised? I was. I definitely want reasonable beliefs, but not a rationalism which by definition excludes spirituality. However the following section in the book makes it clear that an atheist-leaning agnosticism is the ‘rational’ presumption. Oh well.
A noble idea. I mustn’t forget the postmodernism of the end of last century attacks the idea that one can create a grand narrative.
The writer makes a good deal of noise about ethics, at times there was a moralistic do-gooder sense about his writing. I wonder if that’s the defensiveness of an atheism which was accused of leading to amorality by outsiders?
He quotes Chillingworth, an “eminent Christian writer” of the time who says
Reason gives us knowledge; while faith only gives us belief, which is a part of knowledge, and is, therefore, inferior to it … it is by reason alone that we can distinguish truth from falsehood.
Also one Bishop Butler who says, “Reason is the only faculty we have wherewith to judge concerning anything, even revelation itself.”
That whole belief and reason thing interests me a lot, and I intend to write more about it some time. I was also concerned rationalism might ignore our emotions.
On the contrary, it fosters and regulates the emotions. There is no denying that some of the noblest thoughts born of human genius have emanated from the impulse of emotion, but it was that emotion was controlled by reason.
Controlled? I’m not sure if I deprecate emotion to that level.
I wondered if being a rationalist would turn me into one of those rabid hater-type atheists I see on twitter and in other places on the intarwebz. I very much appreciated these comments:
“Gentleness is one of the greatest of virtues, and to promulgate our opinions in what is conventionally … termed a gentlemanly manner…[is wise]”
“Of course, destructive work must be done [of error]; but a man need not put himself into a passion in doing it.”
“While some rely entirely upon faith as their rule of life, others seem to attach too much importance to the lack of it. The latter contend that belief cannot save mankind, but they ignore the fact that neither can mere unbelief.”
I heartily agree.
Since researching this, I’ve been doing some more thinking and reading. I do think it’s important to figure out the best method to search for truth. Yes, I’m still committed to reason and experience… but perhaps not to the extent of calling myself a rationalist. In my next post, I write about the reasons.
Agree or disagree? How does this rationalist approach to finding reality make you feel?
1. All quotes are from Charles Watts The Meaning of Rationalism (1905) in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism (Prometheus, ed Gordon Stein, 1980)