Are you ready for the "Reason Rally"? It's being billed as "The Largest Gathering of the Secular Movement in World History." With atheist extraordinaire Richard Dawkins as the headline speaker, it's planned for March 24, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
I'm trying to imagine how one conducts a rally for Reason.
"Three cheers for Reason! Hip! Hip! True Major Premise! Hip! Hip! True Minor Premise! Hip! Hip! Valid inference to a sound conclusion! Now everybody go give your all for objectively and dispassionately examining evidences, and reasoning through appropriate logic rather than being led by emotion! Let's go, Go, GO!!"
Something tells me that's not what they mean by a Reason Rally.
From their website and promotions, though, it is undoubtedly a rally that they have in mind. Where then does reason fit in?
The New Atheists have staked a claim on reason as their brand. (I'll come back later and define further what is meant by New Atheist. Suffice it to say for now that the label generally includes today's best-selling atheist authors.) Sam Harris is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason. Richard Dawkins heads a Foundation for Reason and Science. The atheistic Center for Inquiry claims its mission is to "foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values."
What then do they mean by "reason"? Having spent many hours studying these New Atheists' books, article, speeches, and debates, I believe their view of reason could be fairly summarized in this way: Reason requires that we never believe anything without sufficient evidence, and this evidence must be based in empirical observation, preferably through the natural sciences.
Where this leads, or so they think, is to disbelief in God, for there just isn't enough evidence to support religious belief. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," they say, and the existence of God is, for them, an extraordinary claim. (Personally I find that claim quite extraordinary, but that's a topic for another day.) The evidence for God doesn't stack up to their requirements; therefore, they say a reasoning person rejects belief in God.
Besides this, they point to clearly unreasonable acts perpetrated in the name of religion. From Islamic terrorists to Westboro Baptist bigots, religion "poisons everything," as the late Christopher Hitchens put it. There's nothing quite so dangerous as faith, for it can justify any horrendous act. For the New Atheists, religion is not only unreasoning (based on inadequate evidence) but unreasonable (capable of leading its adherents to unreasonable acts).
So it's safe to predict that the Reason Rally will be a rally against religion and against faith-based decision-making, especially in public policy. That still leaves me wondering in what sense it is a Reason rally.
I have further reasons motivating that question. One of them is that the New Atheists' view of reason has seemed to me to be truncated and inadequate. To be reasonable is not just to spurn inadequately supported beliefs or to reject erratic acts of violence. It also means to reason well. To do that means that one commits to form one's beliefs based on reliable axioms, justifiable premises, and objectively considered evidences, all being processed through well-established (virtually mathematical, in many cases) rules of logical inference. True reason rejects emotionally based argument. Reason stands guard against formal and informal fallacies.
It seems to me that these things belong in any definition of being committed to reason. They are what one ought to be able to expect on a strong, consistent basis from the co-founder of Project Reason or the head of a Foundation for Reason and Science. Now perhaps it takes some technical skill to learn the language of formal logic and valid reasoning, so maybe we can't expect it from every atheist. That would be unreasonable and unfair. Certainly, though, we can expect it from their leaders, their most committed and vocal champions of Reason.
In my view, however, their record on this is weak. Now at this point I need to clarify this term New Atheist, because what I am describing here need not apply to all atheists. I am not saying that all unbelievers reject proper reasoning processes. I have the New Atheists specifically in mind.
Gary Wolf, writing in Wired magazine, was probably the first writer to use the term. He described the New Atheists as those who are calling the world to "to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith." He went on to say,
They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking.
Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.
Later, the late Christopher Hitchens joined the list of leaders to create what many have called "The Four Horsemen" of the New Atheism. These four have been rallying followers since long before the Reason Rally. It is a crusade, an angry one. Wolf writes,
Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.
Dawkins has said more than once that raising children to believe in God is child abuse—not just "like" child abuse, but actual mistreatment of children that ought not be permitted.
The New Atheists are frightened of religion, too. It is, they say, the motivating impetus behind much of the violence in the world. In this they are of course exactly right. Violent religion exists, and it is not merely frightening but positively dangerous. On the other hand, however, the New Atheists blame "religion" and "faith" for this violence quite indiscriminately, with little regard for the differences among religions, or the content of different faiths.
So if there is one religion whose founder was a warrior who led dozens of battles and raids, a religion whose geographical spread has been primarily through the sword, whose written scriptures include the active and unabrogated command to kill the infidel; and if there is another religion whose founder was a Man of Peace, for whom there was never any conflict except over the understanding of Truth, who taught love for one's enemies, who willingly submitted to violence without retaliation, whose followers have covered the globe primarily by means of good works and education; if there are two such religions, their differences matter not: They are equally dangerous to world peace, for even though they differ in so many ways, both of them believe in God and eternal life. That's all that's necessary for them to be deadly dangerous. So say the New Atheists.
I do not think that is reason being practiced responsibly.
The New Atheists point to embarrassments and atrocities in Christian Church history. They forget that any decent Church history textbook used in any Christian Bible college or seminary admits these things just as openly. And they ignore massive evidences for the good that Christianity has done for global civilization through the centuries, with respect to education, technology, science, medicine, care for the poor and needy, elevating the status of women, freeing slaves, laying the groundwork for modern democracy, and much more.
Such selective attention to evidence, focusing only on what is convenient to the atheist’s position, is not a good example of being reasonable.
I have written elsewhere of New Atheists relying on appeals to emotion in response to logical argument, and of a hypocritical willingness to ignore science that does not support their position. This is no sign of a strong commitment to reason and science. Much more of the same could be said, and has been.
How ought Christians respond to an atheistic "Reason Rally"? It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate the grace and truth of Jesus Christ (see John 1:14,18) while making a stand for true reason and reasonability. A coalition of leaders has come together to equip Christians with rally-specific materials, training, and even gifts to distribute at the Reason Rally. We’re committed to a presence of quiet visibility there, not raising our voices, not pressing ourselves on those who don’t want to be pressed upon, certainly not disrupting their program, but sharing in love with whomever wants to talk with us.
The atheists want to claim Reason as their own. We disagree; we know that Christianity is both good and reasonable in all senses of the word. We invite you to join us in sharing that message reasonably in Washington on March 24. For more information, please visit www.truereason.org.
Tom Gilson is a Campus Crusade for Christ/Cru writer and strategist currently on assignment to BreakPoint. He blogs at ThinkingChristian.net.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.