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19. September 2010

The irrationality of rationalism, part 2: the direction of rationality

It’s no secret that most of the secular public enjoys labeling Christians (serious Christians, anyway) as irrational, backward, and dangerous.  Ever since the Enlightenment, humanity has increasingly become its own god, replacing the West’s foundational religion, Christianity, with reason.  Supposedly, this transfer of sanctity is supposed to beget a golden age of unprecedented civility and creativity, unhindered by the archaic bondage of religion, progressing our species into a liberated utopia in which every man would be his own king.  But secular rationalists–meaning, those who rely on mankind’s rationality as the sole source of morality and social advancement–are not being fair: under their own standards of humanist evolution, even the process of secular rationality fails to achieve its own goals.

Supposedly, the purpose of rationality is to either make a correct decision or come as close as possible to one, all through the onward march of trial and error.  And to be sure, rationality serves this purpose well, especially when engineering a machine or navigating the countryside with a compass.  Consider that if a man were to build a machine, his imagination would chart the course of construction and seek an end product which served a particular, defined function.  Perhaps he might make some mistakes and correct them, and perhaps he might come across some new information which might solve some mechanical problems.  But ultimately, the man built upon his original plan for a product so that it could fit a particular use, and function a particular way.

In the same way, rationalism theoretically functions in the creation of morality, creating moral truths according to man’s past knowledge and creative capacity.  But what rationalists forget is that any progressive rational movement requires both a destination for the movement to take us, and a scale by which to judge the movement’s progress.  Like in the machine’s case, this movement would need a blueprint (the destination), and success would have to be measured according to how closely this social machine completed its intended function.  After all, if humanity is progressing according to a blind watchmaker scenario, in which the evolution of the human race is directed by natural (though unconscious) forces, then rationality can’t necessarily be the cause of progression, because we don’t know where we’re going and we don’t know why that place is better.  So if rationality is to be a progressive movement, we not only have to know exactly where rationality is taking us, but we also need a standard by which to judge its superiority over past models of social engineering.

And this is precisely how any secular rationalist movement gets into serious trouble.  If rationalists recognize an absolute scale by which they judge the progress of mankind, then they have to declare an objective standard which exists apart from both the human race and our process of rationality.   If they refuse this objective standard, then “progress” can’t really be progress, and becomes a mere preference which collides with other people’s (valid?) rational preferences.  Eventually, without an objective goal, preference becomes a game of dominance, with opinions forcefully trumping other opinions and squelching unpopular beliefs which the rationalist believes to be irrational or contrary to the progress of reason (and as you might have already guessed, that’s contrary to rationalism’s predicate, cognitive liberty).  The alternative to opinionated domination, of course, is to accept that both objective standards and the God which established them exist, which limits the role of rationality in the engineering of the human morality.  Secular rationalists don’t like this second option, so much.

So how does the rationalist determine the direction in which society should progress?  First, we all know that rationalists are not so keen on abandoning all ideals, since the pursuit of rationalism is an ideal in itself.  So when secular rationalists do attempt an “objective” non-theistic social goal, they usually do so by assigning a sacred value to a particular social ideal such as liberty, equality, or tolerance, after which they seek to move society toward that goal, although never with any clear boundaries for the ideals themselves.  These ideals serve as the aforementioned blueprints for our behaviors, and serve as the first necessity for progressive rationalism. Without the ideal, rationalism loses all moral value, as it loses all direction.

But why do we exalt these concepts in the first place?  Because we feel they’re good?  Because we know–without a doubt–that they’re taking us somewhere we want to be?  Because we’ve experienced the end goal itself?  If we exalt the concept because we feel that it’s good, our decision is not necessarily rational; and we can’t claim to know how the exact destination will make us feel or exactly how it will work, because we haven’t been there or seen it ourselves.

This should lead rationalists to wonder, is this human tendency towards idealism necessarily rational, or is it rooted in human nature’s emotional fantasy?  Can we ever take any social concept such as liberty or equality to an extreme, and craft every law and behavior around it without serious problems?  And if the stated goal–this liberty, equality, and/or tolerance–is called into question in any particular circumstance, can it really be a supremely moral destination?  In other words, if you have to choose between liberty and equality in a particular circumstance, is the value of either ideal negated when it succumbs to the other?  In this light, it seems that this inability to objectively and rationally calibrate the importance social concepts leads the atheist toward radical, lopsided, emotionally based doctrines (perhaps this is the reason for secular America’s split into radical libertarianism and neo-communist social justice advocates, but–I’ve digressed).

Of course, humanity knows that ideals such as liberty and equality and tolerance aren’t intrinsically wrong, but any one of them can’t be considered the pinnacle of human progress without purposely discarding the other values.  And we know, deep within the human soul, that discarding all other ideals in exchange for one irrationally worshiped ideal isn’t right.  Regardless of which ones we claim to value most highly, the human being has a profound and basic need for every single one of these ideals, and our natural inclination is to enforce them unequally through social contracts and behavioral norms.  And that enforcement, of course, relies heavily upon peoples’ own definitions of what justice and liberty and equality really mean.

Another problem related to the issue of idealism is that morality is never found in the end result of an action, but in the process of getting to the result.  Even in pursuit of an ideal, a man stealing medicine for his dying wife is still stealing, regardless of whether he steals for a good cause; and a man who kills an abusive husband is still a murderer, even if he stops the abuse.  In both of these situations, the moral values of the offenders–be they for the purpose of peace, tolerance, harmony, liberty, equality, human rights, or even the cry of justice–are not necessarily moral.  As such, we have to recognize that idealism in itself cannot be the answer to humanity’s moral problems, as it doesn’t necessarily provide us with a roadmap toward institutionalization of the ideals themselves.  Rather, we have to accept that any functional code of morality values certain concepts in certain cases and other concepts in others, and we have to accept that rationality cannot by itself properly determine when, where, and how these values can be applied.  Simply put, the ideals and their proper applications must be fixed in order for rationality to serve any moral purpose at all.

Consider how sharply this secular confusion contrasts with a fixed and inalienable Judeo-Christian system of law.  I urge the reader: please, consider how carefully this system is balanced for the optimum function and harmony of the human race (for a more complete explanation of Biblical economic justice, see this article).  And consider that at the time these laws were given, surrounding nations were still sacrificing their children to Moloch and living in near total anarchy.

-God knew that men will always want to infringe upon human rights, so he placed them under a constitutional government, instead of instituting rule by tyrants (Deuteronomy 5:32, Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

-God knows that property rights are necessary for liberty and justice, but that without trust busting and limited land reform, a capitalistic monopoly on resources would end in tyranny (Deut 5:21, Leviticus 25:8-54).  Because of this, He gave each family/tribe their own property and allowed them to do whatever they wanted to it: even if they sell it or lose it through hardship, it returns to them every 50 years.  Also, citizens’ debts were to be released every seven years to keep the lower classes from perpetual slavery and to keep the economy moving (Deut 15:1-6).

-God knows that liberty is important, but that liberty cannot be total.  As such, He granted immense economic liberty to His people in order to foster economic success, while restricting behaviors which destroy families and greatly multiply economic instability and crime (it should be noted that these sexual restrictions were not practiced by Israel’s neighbors at the time they were introduced).

-God believes in an economic safety net for the poor, but opposes welfare states: His plan involved sustenance for which the poor could work, if they truly needed it (Deut 24:19-22).  The poor were also never to be charged interest (Exodus 22:25-27) .

-God believes in peace, but gives nations the right to engage in warfare for the protection of their citizens.  People who didn’t want to fight could opt out of battle, as could newlyweds and people who had just made large economic investments for their families (Deut 20:5-9).

-God believes in universal human equality, but opposes universal moral equivalency: all people within the state of Israel–rich and poor, native and foreigner–were to be treated as equals under the law, but held to the same moral standards regardless of culture (Deut 1:17, Deut 16:19, Leviticus 19:33-34, Numbers 15:15)

-God believes that true justice involves trial by jury, with jurors held to incredibly high standards.  If a juror fabricates false evidence, they get the penalty which they would have carried out against the defendant (Deut 19:15-21).

-God opposes unnecessary violence, but gives people the right to kill if someone breaks into their home (Exodus 22:2).

-God values human life, but doesn’t economically burden the population for the sake of murderers and rapists: capital punishment is carried out by the people, after a trial with witnesses (Deut 5:17, Exodus 21:12-16).  By God’s revelation, humanity was also given what may have been the first “eighth amendment,” limiting physical punishment to whatever the crime was (Leviticus 24:17-22).

-God believes that animal ownership, utilization, and consumption are allowable and moral, but that animals were to be treated kindly (Deut 25:4).

-God believes that a man or woman who pledges eternal faithfulness to their spouse should be held to their commitment (Leviticus 20:10).  This kind of justice has a profound appreciation for contract rights and honesty in general.

-God believes in justice, but limits payment for emotional damages and doesn’t believe in prisons.  If property is damaged, it must be restored to its original condition, plus an already determined percentage of the cost of the item (Exodus 22:2-4).  As mentioned before, people who commit serious crimes are to be killed.

The Bible clearly states that God’s law was to serve multiple purposes, giving Israel a glimpse into the loving character of God, promoting an optimal function and harmony of the human race within Israelite borders, and purifying society so Israel could live in God’s presence (Matthew 7:12, Deut 5:32-33, Deut 7:9-11).  Jesus even said that the law was love in legal form, and that those who taught others the law and kept it would be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 7:12, Matthew 5:17-19).  But an oftentimes overlooked function of His law system was evangelistic: because of the perfect balance between human necessities and rights, this code was to serve as a beacon of hope to the nations, proclaiming that Israel truly was led by the righteous and omniscient God of the universe (Deut. 4:5-8).

And considering the ambiguous, subjective, lopsided, and oftentimes illogical nature of secular humanist justice, doesn’t God’s law look good?

Editor’s note: part 1 of this series, which addresses the low probability of human rationality, can be found here.  


  1. I followed a link to your site from American Thinker. Very good article.

    Aren’t rationalists and moral relativists barking up the same tree? Your thoughts on this would interest me.

    After reading your article I’m reminded of what disturbs me about the supposed standard bearers of the Right in the media. That being Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Rush repeatedly states that he “lives in literalville” and that words have meaning, yet he’s on his third wife. I guess words have meaning except for the words “till death do us part” and “what God has joined let no man put asunder”. The same goes for Glenn Beck, on wife number two I believe, who has touted how his word is his bond and all these lawyers and contracts should be unnecessary.

    In the end, I think rationalism and moral relativism, as it works out for the general population, if not for the philosopher, is merely an excuse mechanism for weaseling out of something that is prohibited by God/Christianity, and still allows one to “feel good about yourself” and right with God.

    Comment by Paul — 26. December 2010 @ 15:16

  2. Paul: I would agree, 100%, that moral relativism and rationalism are the same philosophies. I used the term “rationalism” in these articles because secular philosophers believe that reason alone drives their ideological stances, when in fact reason–without proper theistic boundaries and axioms upon which to rest–is not rational at all, and can be used to “justify” just about anything.

    I find it funny that a self-described “conservative libertarian” has no concept of wives’ and husband’ contract rights, considering that libertarianism usually reduces government to patrolling borders and enforcing legally-binding contracts. Just another great example of why men need proper laws. Now, the questions is: do Beck and Limbaugh know what proper law is?

    Unfortunately, I don’t believe they do, and I don’t believe this country is on the right track. We can host a million “back to God rallies,” but without a proper acknowledgment of His legal standards, we’ve got jack squat.

    Comment by admin — 26. December 2010 @ 15:37

  3. Yes I also found this website from a link at AT. I have just read a half dozen or so of your essays and I am buzzing with new and wonderful avenues of inquiry.
    Thank you!
    Regarding Beck (who I love!) his divorce is a product of a former life which he is constantly trying to make amends for. He and I believe in redemption as I hope you do as well. No one is perfect and each can add something positive to our public discourse.

    Comment by Paul S — 22. January 2011 @ 15:44

  4. Paul S: thank you for the comment, and thanks for reading. I agree that redemption is the fundamental principle of Christianity, without which the Bible would lose meaning. If I told you half of what I’d done before meeting my Savior, and who I am now because of Him, I think you’d have more reason to love Him than ever before.

    In Christ,

    Comment by admin — 22. January 2011 @ 16:50

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