Monday, June 13, 2016

Plain Reason

My post on Why Atheism? was a bit different than I intended. First of all, the tone was more anti-protestant than I wanted. Secondly, it ended up being longer that I expected. Rather than write a very long post I just stopped. So I appreciate the reaction. Good to know someone is reading. Still I thought I should keep going and maybe things will make more sense over time. 

One thread I see in common between many Protestants and many of the new atheists is the unusual relationship with tradition. By tradition I mean the role of some subculture in shaping thought. The particular school of thought you subscribe to. 

It is hard to define because both protestants and atheists tend to downplay and sometimes even deny the influence of tradition. Luther's notion of "plain reason" is very strong. They can see influence and bias in other people. They don't really see it in themselves. They tend to see their own thought as plain reason.

You get this a lot when you ask protestants why they are this kind of protestant rather than that kind of protestant. It is just obvious from plain reason that this is right and that is wrong. Yet equally reasonable people connected with the other tradition find the opposite just as obvious. This is so deeply ingrained that I find if I give an example then people can't get past that. They give their standard argument for that issue and keep repeating it like that somehow answers the question. If all you want is the answer to issue X I have that for you. 

Atheists do the same thing. They assume everything is just based on plain reason. The fact that most new atheists agree with Christian morality on most issues and disagree with it on the exact same issues is just a coincidence. There is nothing but plain reason in play. A principle like equal dignity for all human persons is just obvious. Why? You look at humans and they don't seem equal no matter how you measure them. Yet their equality is obvious? It has nothing to do with the Christian culture you were raised in? You can keep going. Why is it wrong to judge people? Why is humility a good thing? There is just this belief that everything comes from plain reason and nothing comes from your particular perspective as a western secular person.

The truth is that plain reason simply does not exist. Nobody starts reasoning with no premises and no assumptions and considers all perspectives equally regardless of what they have experienced or who they have learned from. Many professions recognise this. They demand people are mentored for a time in addition to book learning. They don't just give them the reasoning but realise they need to develop the right intuitions and experience. Often they want them to have several mentors to learn to think like a professional doctor or accountant or engineer or whatever.

Jesus did the same thing. He didn't just give people plain reason. He spent 3 years with 12 men. He didn't write anything. He taught them life to life. Sure His discourses were important but they needed to learn how He approached every kind of question and every kind of person. 

When we understand how drastically our subtle philosophical assumptions impact our final conclusions then we will look for something other than plain reason to guide us. The good news is that God has provided such a thing. It is called sacred tradition. Sure Jesus condemned the traditions of men. Yet the very phrase "traditions of men" hints that there might be a tradition that is not from men. At least one that is guided in some way by God. That is what sacred tradition is. 

Catholics admit to being biased and influenced like everyone else. We don't try and avoid all tradition because that would be inhuman. We try and think with the church. If we have to be influenced we want to be influenced by something holy. It is a choice. 

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