Posted by: N.S. Palmer | January 29, 2015

Reasonably Unreasonable Beliefs


By N. S. Palmer

Do you need to prove your religious beliefs?

If so, exactly how do you need to prove them? In terms of what?

Those questions animate many heated debates between the devoutly religious and the devoutly secular.

Dr. Solomon Schimmel, one of our professors at Hebrew College, has written an excellent book about some of those issues. Called The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs, it examines how the devoutly orthodox try to justify their religious beliefs.

It’s worth noting that both the devoutly religious and the devoutly secular have beliefs that are true and provable in their own belief systems, but false and unprovable in terms of the other. The secular belief system — materialism, atheism, and uncritical worship of science — has the upper hand in contemporary society. In other times and places, various belief systems of revealed religion have been considered just as unshakable as today’s secularism.

The secular view is currently dominant because it works better in dealing with the physical world than the religious view. That is not surprising. The secular worldview focuses on the physical world and its laws.

If you want to deal successfully with the physical world, “secular” is the way to go. To design an airplane or investigate the historical causes of a political event, you don’t need to reference God, at least not directly. God might be the ultimate cause of everything, but the proximate cause is more likely to be, for example, a difference in air pressure between the top and bottom surfaces of an airplane’s wings.

Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a ground-breaking work not merely because of its scholarship (and Gibbon’s beautiful literary style) but because of its approach to history. Previous historical works had often included God, supernatural events, or eschatological assumptions in their narratives of historical events. Gibbon, on the other hand, deliberately looked only at earthly causes.

As a child of the Enlightenment, Gibbon had a very low opinion of revealed religion. He even blamed it for the fall of the Roman Empire. According to him, the stern Roman virtues of courage, logic, and “severitas” (moral seriousness) enabled Rome to become a world-spanning empire. The influence of Christianity, with its emphasis on love, universal brotherhood, and life after death eroded those Roman virtues and weakened the Romans’ ability to maintain their empire. In essence, he argued that you could be Caesar or you could be Jesus, but not both. You had to choose one or the other.

The typical challenge to religious beliefs in our time requires a similarly stark choice. It consists of secular people demanding that religious people justify their beliefs in secular terms.

Logically, it’s a mirror image of Biblical creationists demanding that secular scientists justify evolution in terms of the Book of Genesis. However, we don’t notice that parallel because the secular view is so dominant. We assume the secular worldview without thinking about it, as being so obviously true that it is beyond doubt by any sane person.

Thus, for most people, the debate is over before it even starts. They accept all the basic assumptions of the secular worldview and all of its basic conclusions. They want to know if a completely different worldview can justify itself in terms of secular assumptions and conclusions.

It can’t. In the nature of the case, it’s obvious that it never could. The match was fixed. The referees were paid off. You might as well just hand the prize money to the winner and move on to the next event.

That kind of outcome obscures an important point about worldviews and systems of belief.

Whether they are religious or secular, systems of belief are stories about our world that help us get through life. Such stories work well in some situations and poorly in others. How well they work depends on how well they accomplish their purpose. And you can’t know how well they accomplish their purpose unless you know what their purpose is.

The purpose of secular stories is typically to help us understand and control physical reality. The purpose of religious stories is typically to help us guide our conduct and find meaning in our lives. Each accomplishes its purpose in its own way. Neither type of story is very good at accomplishing the purpose of the other type.

Characters in a story, whether religious or secular, need to stay within the terms of the story. If they go beyond those terms, they cease to be characters in the story where they started. They have become characters in someone else’s story.

Moreover, if they acknowledge that they are in a story, then they destroy the story. Instead of a place they can live and a way to look at the world, their story becomes just a text that nobody takes very seriously.

That is what secular critics of religious faith want believers to do: Concede that their faith is just a story, step outside the story, and assess the story in terms of someone else’s story — a story that is explicitly hostile to their own. And believers in the secular story accept their own story with the same level of commitment as believers in the religious story: as being so obviously true that it is beyond doubt by any sane person.

That is why believers in, for example, the literal truth of the Book of Genesis fight tooth and claw against secular attempts to discredit their beliefs. The truth of Genesis is part of their story. Not only does it help them make sense of life, but it’s their story, and someone with an opposing story wants to take it away from them.

Individual beliefs always presuppose the story in which they play a part. For the beliefs to be reasonable means for them to fit into their own story, consistent with the assumptions of the story and the principles of proof that it assumes are legitimate. They might or might not be reasonable in the context of other stories, but that’s irrelevant.

Worldview stories themselves cannot be proven because proof presupposes a worldview and its assumptions. You can’t prove anything based on nothing. You must assume that certain things are true and certain principles of proof are valid. However, proving those assumptions is impossible because there’s nothing prior by which you could prove them. As far as logic goes, you simply have to take them or leave them.

Worldview stories either work for us or they don’t work. Most such stories work well in some contexts but not in others.

To demand that one worldview story justify itself in terms of an opposed story is to demand too much.

Copyright 2015 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. […] My friend and colleague Scott Palmer wrote a well-balanced piece on why debates on secular vs. religious belief systems are always doomed to fail. Read Reasonably Unreasonable Beliefs […]

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