Dialogue Between Religion & Reason

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 104, 2005 September)


Introduction

The dialogue between the priest Religio1, or the personification of religion, and Budhieman2, or the personification of reason, takes place on the imaginary island of Samkhya3 and has been written to highlight the weakness of theological dogma.

Although its outlook is rationalistic in nature, I have endeavored to portray Religio as an honest and sincere individual, rather than a harsh parody of those whose beliefs are different from my own. Whether I have succeeded or not is probably best left for others to judge.
 
 

Prologue

The carave14 Hope, having set sail upon the Sea of Storms in search of Terra Incognita5, was caught in the jaws of a fearsome tempest. For three days and three nights she was at the mercy of the raging elements, her sails shredded, her rudder fouled by cordage. Finally, the relentless winds drove her against Samkhya's rugged shore that splintered her timbers and sealed her doom.

Religio, the sole survivor of the hapless ship, dragged himself from the clutches of the pounding waves to the safety of the stony beach whereupon, with the passing of the storm, he was found by the inhabitants of the isle.

The priest, after having become conversant with the language of Samkhya, was rather shocked to learn that the civilization of his hosts was entirely free of supernaturalism, such beliefs having been abandoned hundreds of years ago.

After learning of this fact, Religio asked to speak to the island's most learned sage, for he desired to know why these people would abandon what for him were sublime truths.

His hosts advised him to seek Budhieman who, at this hour, was usually to be found sitting in the shade of a deodar tree in the Garden of Contemplation.
 
 

The Dialogue

RELIGIO: How can you doubt the existence of God? Look at this tree that gives us shade and the stone bench upon which we sit – they display order, do they not? If we came upon this bench in the jungle we would know that it was a product of intelligent design. The arabesques carved upon its surface are silent testimony that this is so, and the Universe, in a similar manner, displays order and complexity that can only be the product of an intelligent power mightier than our own.6

BUDHIEMAN: Nature does indeed display order. However, this fact does not prove the existence of an intelligent designer. Our inquiries into the nature of existence have shown that the Universe is governed by laws that are inherent within the very properties of matter, and are responsible for the unfolding of the Cosmos. This tree displays order and complexity, and yet it grew from a tiny seed without recourse to a supernatural artificer. Is this not so?

RELIGIO: True. However, nature itself must have had an origin, a beginning. There must be a prime cause, an uncreated being which is the foundation of reality and who, having set nature on her course, sustains it all.7

BUDHIEMAN: There is no reason why nature can't be an eternal and self-sustaining system. The Universe we see around us may be just one stage in an unending continuum of existence that passes through endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. There may be no distinct beginning or end. Each state might merge into the other over unimaginable ages of cosmic time.

RELIGIO: You can't be certain that this is so.

BUDHIEMAN: True. However, our naturalistic cosmogonies are based upon evidence, and make predictions that can be tested. By contrast, religion, although it sometimes makes use of argument, inevitably appeals to faith which is believing that something is so, not because of the evidence, but often in spite of it. For what is faith unless it is to believe in what you do not see? 8

RELIGIO: Surely it is better to believe, to have faith. Firstly, it gives men hope. Secondly it is better to err on the side of caution. If there is no God then men are free to believe as they please. However, if there is a God then their doubt may be their undoing.

BUDHIEMAN: In which God should I believe? In which religion? In the past my people had a multitude of conflicting gods and religions, each one of which had adherents who claimed that it alone was true, and I suspect that a similar situation still prevails in other parts of the world.

RELIGIO: What you say is true. However, some beliefs are closer to the truth than others. We must winnow the grain from the chaff by rejecting those religions that are absurd and degrading to the intellect, and by this process of elimination find the One True Faith.

BUDHIEMAN: I mean no offense, however, in my opinion all religions are absurd, for they require their adherents to place their faith in the intangible rather than the evidence of material facts. Moreover, if you would have me reject religions that are degrading to the intellect, then I must reject all religions, for to believe in any would require faith, and the way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.9 You said that religion gives men hope. However, it is false hope, for what is hope without certainty, and what is certainty without evidence?

RELIGIO: If you desire evidence then I offer you the testimony of miracles, which surely prove the existence of God, and the truth of my religion: The healing of the sick through prayer, and the visions of devout men have convinced many that this is so.

BUDHIEMAN: Miracles and visions of the gods are a common phenomenon in all religions, and are questionable evidence at best. What is more probable – that the immutable laws of nature can be suspended, or that credulous men have let their desire to believe overrule their senses? Experience teaches us that not all men are equally observant or truthful, especially in religious matters.

A miracle used to support religion is usually an event described by those to whom it was told by men who did not see it. 10 However, even if we could prove that an event described as miraculous occurred, we can't be certain that its cause is supernatural. For every event, no matter how strange, there is always a natural explanation that may account for it, and can at least be tested.

RELIGIO: That may be so. However, I maintain that some miracles defy natural explanations. How do you propose to account for them?

BUDHIEMAN: If we are unable to explain an event by reference to natural phenomena, then it is best to admit our ignorance and continue to search for an answer. The lack of a natural explanation does not guarantee that the supernatural alternative is correct. For example, my ancestors lacked a natural explanation for lightning – to them this phenomenon was caused by the God of Storms. Did a god of storms sink your ship?

RELIGIO: Most definitely not. It was an act of fate from which I was saved by the grace of God.

BUDHIEMAN: Why do you attribute your survival to God?

RELIGIO: I prayed. That is, I asked for God's divine intervention, and he answered my prayers.

BUDHIEMAN: I see, and your companions; did they pray also?

RELIGIO: Yes, and I for them.

BUDHIEMAN: And yet they drowned. Is this God of yours all-wise, all-powerful, and ethical?

RELIGIO: I see where your questions are beginning to lead. Our finite minds can't grasp the ways of God, we can't judge him by our standards.

BUDHIEMAN: Perhaps. Did you attempt to save your companions?

RELIGIO: I made every effort to save them. However, my strength was no match for the elemental fury of the sea.

BUDHIEMAN: Are your ethics and strength superior to God's?

RELIGIO: Certainly not. God is superior to man in all aspects of his being.

BUDHIEMAN: Yet if I choose not to save a drowning man when it is within my power, my inaction would be condemned. Even I, a being supposedly less than God, know that it is wrong to let a man drown. Therefore, I can only conclude that if God can save but will not, then he is unethical. If he is ethical but can't save, then he is not all-powerful. If he is ethical, all-powerful and tries to save but fails, then he is not all-wise for his plans do not succeed.

RELIGIO: I admit that I have no satisfactory explanation. However, I believe that our souls will be compensated in the afterlife for the suffering we experience in this world.

BUDHIEMAN: An interesting thought. However, what do you mean by "soul", and what proof have you that such a thing exists?

RELIGIO: By soul I mean the immortal essence of personality, intelligence and life that survives the death of the physical body, and returns to God.

BUDHIEMAN: What is the nature of the soul? Of what material is it composed?

RELIGIO: The soul is like God in that it is a spiritual entity. Spirit being defined as that which is not matter.

BUDHIEMAN: With all due respect, you have told me what spirit is not, and this is not the same as telling me what it is. For example, if I conceal an object in a chest and tell you that it is not a stone, not a leaf and not an insect, are you any wiser as to what it is?

RELIGIO: But many people believe that human beings possess a vital principal. Besides, how else do you account for life, intelligence, and personality?

BUDHIEMAN: That a belief is widespread is no guarantee of its veracity. As for life, intelligence and personality, these things are not substances or distinct entities in their own right. These phenomena are the result of physical processes occurring within the body, and when the body dies they cease. If we are to be compensated for our suffering in this world, then the compensation must be of this world.

RELIGIO: Why are you unwilling to believe, or at least to hope? For if what you say is true then suns may rise and set; we, when our short day has closed must sleep on during one perpetual night.11

BUDHIEMAN: Religion demands faith whereas reason demands evidence. If soul is spirit, then what is spirit; and what proof have you that it exists?

RELIGIO: I can't give you a better explanation other than what I have already said. Besides, the nature of the soul can't be fully grasped by the human mind, and therefore no proof is possible.

BUDHIEMAN: With all due respect, a belief may defy comprehension for one of two reasons: It is either so profound that only the most intelligent of men can grasp it, or it is just plain nonsense. Until you are able to clarify your concept and provide proof of the soul's existence, reason dictates that I withhold my belief.

RELIGIO: As you wish. It appears that we disagree on all matters, and I can't help feeling that if there is no God, no soul, no supernatural realm, then life becomes a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.12

BUDHIEMAN: Some may conclude that this is so. However, would a sunset be less beautiful if there were no God, or the love of one human being for another less meaningful? My people do not seek a purpose to life by bowing before idols that can neither see, nor hear, nor feel. Instead we concentrate on developing our philosophy of Jen,13 which is the ideal of cultivating humanity14 for it is by this process that mankind is ennobled.

RELIGIO: I have considered all that you have said. However, the celestial order and the beauty of the Universe compel me to admit that there is some excellent and eternal Being, who deserves the respect and homage of men,15 and as nothing further can be said, I shall take my leave.

BUDHIEMAN: May peace be with you then.

RELIGIO: And with you, also.
 
 

Epilogue

Time, like an endless river, sweeps all things down to the ocean of eternal night. Death claims Religio as it claims us all, and if there be no meeting past the grave, if all is darkness, silence, yet 'tis rest; be not afraid, ye waiting hearts that weep, if all we have to fear is endless sleep. 16
 
 

Bibliography

Bradlaugh, C. Humanity's Gain from Unbelief, Watts & Co., London, 1936
Chai, C. & Chai, W. The Story of Chinese Philosophy, Washington Square Press, Inc., New York, 1961.
Garratt, G. T. (Ed.). The Legacy of India, Oxford University Press, London, 1951.
Randall, J. H. & Buchler, J. Philosophy, An Introduction, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 1959.
The Home Book of Quotations: Classical & Modern, Dodd, Mead & Co. Inc., New York, 1967.
 
 

Notes

1. Latin for "reverence".
2. Hindi for "wise person".
3. An Indian school of philosophy attributed to the sage Kapila.
4. A small three-masted sailing ship.

5. Latin for "unknown land".
6. A version of the teleological argument.
7. A version of the cosmological argument.
8. St. Augustine: Joannis Evangelical Tract. Ch. 40, sect. 8.
9. Benjamin Franklin: Poor Richard.
10. Elbert Hubbard: Epigrams.
11. Catullus: Ode. Ode V, 1.4.
12. William Shakespear: Macbeth, act V, scene v.
13. "Human-heartedness": the central idea of Confucian philosophy.
14. C. Chai & W. Chai: The Story of Chinese Philosophy, page 24.
15. Cicero: De Divinatione. Book II, ch. 72, sect. 148.
16. Based on Browning's Funeral, a poem by Mrs Huxley. The original runs:

And if there be no meeting past the grave,
If all is darkness, silence, yet 'tis rest;
Be not afraid, ye waiting hearts that weep,
For God still "Giveth his beloved sleep",
And if an endless sleep He wills, so best.
 
 
The last three lines of this poem appear on Prof. Huxley's gravestone.


Skeptics vs Religion and the Paranormal:

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