A Reason for Faith: Christianity on Trial
Objectivist philosopher Andrew Bernstein accused Christianity of rejecting reason in his recent debate with apologist Dinesh D'Souza.
February 14, 2013 - 7:00 am
Last Week’s article: 5 Common Accusations Leveled at Christianity
Christianity is profoundly bad. So argued philosophy professor Dr. Andrew Bernstein in a recent debate sponsored by The Objective Standard and the University of Texas Objectivism Society. Countering Bernstein was Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza. They discussed whether Christianity is “good or bad for mankind.”
They spent a majority of their time debating more fundamental philosophical questions. What is the nature of reality? Does God exist? What is the proper source of morality? While many attendees commenting during the livestream chat saw these questions as diversions from the advertised topic, they were actually the crux of the matter. In order to discern whether Christianity is good or bad for mankind, “good” must first be defined.
Bernstein primarily accused Christianity of being irrational. To be irrational is to be immoral according to Objectivism, a philosophy advocated by Bernstein and best articulated by Ayn Rand in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. As Rand saw it, a proper morality arises only from the application of reason. Rand saw any assertion of faith as a rejection of reason. By parsing through Bernstein’s points, we examine not only whether Christianity is a fool’s errand, but whether faith of any kind is profoundly bad.
We begin at the foundation by first asking what we know and how we know it. Those questions are answered in the branch of philosophy known as epistemology. Objectivism holds that reason is the only means toward acquiring knowledge. In her essay Philosophy: Who Needs It? Rand argues:
Reason is the faculty which… identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses. Reason integrates man’s perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man’s knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach. The method which reason employs in this process is logic—and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.
Objectivist author William R. Thomas explains further:
The basis of our knowledge is the awareness we have through our physical senses. We see reality, hear it, taste it, smell it, feel it through touch. As babies, we discover the world through our senses. As our mental abilities develop, we become able to recall memories and we can form images in our minds.
Strict adherence to this means of acquiring knowledge precludes entertaining the supernatural. Like all religion, Christianity is a faith-based belief system which Objectivism rejects as nonsense.
How may Christians answer this view of knowledge? If the object of philosophy is to understand reality and access the whole truth of existence, then objectivist epistemology has an obvious limitation. Surely, applying logic to our perceptions is a solid method for discerning what is true. However, the amount of truth we can know through that process is capped by our perception.
How does a man born blind conceptualize the color red? He lacks the sensory ability necessary to perceive color. He thus has no perception to apply logic to. He may accept on the authority of others that something called “red” exists. However, to him individually, the concept will only ever be what Rand called a “floating abstraction.” From Objectivism Wiki:
The fallacy of the “floating abstraction” is Ayn Rand’s term for concepts detached from existents, concepts that a person takes over from other men without knowing what specific units the concepts denote.
As we consider our hypothetical blind man, we recognize that a strict application of objectivist epistemology leaves him unable to claim that he knows there is a color red. Yet the color exists, not just as a concept but as a metaphysical reality. So we may conclude that reality, or that which exists, is not limited to that which can be perceived.
D’Souza made this point in his debate with Bernstein, noting that a person of the 5th century B.C. could only be aware of a fraction of the stars that we know of today. Our perception has been expanded by technology, increasing our range of knowledge. Yet all the stars exist whether we perceive them or not.
In fairness, Objectivism does not deny the existence of the unknown. It merely claims that knowing occurs through a rational process of applying logic to perception. Since the supernatural cannot be perceived, it cannot be known to exist. However, Objectivism does not stop at an agnostic skepticism. It claims to prove through logic that there is no god or supernatural realm of any kind. Bernstein spent the bulk of his speaking time on this point, offering up two fascinating arguments.
The first centered around the relationship between existence and consciousness. Bernstein reminded the UT audience that “existence exists,” which is the Aristotelian law of identity. A thing is what it is. He next evoked the law of causality, which says that a thing acts according to what it is. A glass of water behaves as a glass of water, and not as sulfuric acid. Bernstein then pointed out that consciousness is the faculty which perceives existence, and therefore is dependent upon existing. On the other hand, existence is independent of consciousness. A rock exists without knowing it.
Bernstein asserted that Christianity violates this basic principle known as the primacy of existence. Christianity starts with an all-knowing consciousness without existence, he claimed, pointing out that consciousness cannot create anything. “What does God create the universe from?” he asked. “If you start with nothing, you end with nothing? There is no God. There is no creation. The universe is eternal.”
This final statement, that the universe is eternal, has particular relevance to the discussion because it highlights a slim point of agreement. Eternity is real. There exists an infinite past and an infinite future. What distinguishes the concept of eternity in both worldviews is that which is thought of as eternal. Christianity sees eternity as a characteristic of the supernatural realm while Objectivism sees it as a characteristic of a “metaphysically given” universe. As Bernstein put it, the universe is not the product of creation or chance but of causal laws based in the nature of reality. Water behaves as water, not because it was designed that way, but simply because it is that way.
Here we bump up against the epistemological wall Objectivism builds around itself. While the concept of eternity is induced from our observation of cause and effect, Objectivism defaults to the only inductive conclusion it can make — that the universe is somehow eternal — because it is incapable of reaching beyond what a thing is to address how it got that way. Like a rat in a maze, we are meant to content ourselves with having cheese, and not question from whence it came. D’Souza put it another way. “Faith goes where evidence [and therefore Objectivism] can’t reach.”
In truth, Bernstein’s characterization of Christianity as violating the primacy of existence is a strawman. The Christian worldview does not regard God as a consciousness independent of existence. The Christian God has always existed and always will exist. His is the eternity which Objectivism ascribes to the universe. What’s more, the primacy of existence goes further to suggest that God does exists than to prove He does not.
There is another primacy to consider, the primacy of consciousness over information. It takes a mind to conceive of language. We behold language in every aspect of our world, from the biological blueprints of DNA to the mathematical precision of physics. To regard the vast amount of information contained in a pair of microscopic cells, adequate to direct the formation of a new human being, as nothing more than a “metaphysically given” is to regard the Library of Alexandria as a curious bit of rubble. As the ongoing Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) will attest, information from an alien source is a sure sign of an alien consciousness. Just as archeology properly regards an ancient text as evidence of an ancient people, the language written within us is evidence of a consciousness which conceived it.
To this point Bernstein would argue that we must account for who designed the Designer. That question proceeds from a false premise, that everything has a cause. In truth, only effects have causes. The First Cause is eternal. In any case, it seems odd for Bernstein to assert that the universe is eternal while insisting a creator god would require a cause.
Bernstein’s second fascinating argument was an answer to Pascal’s Wager. As readers may recall, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal posited that it was safer to bet that God exists than to assume He does not, because the eternal consequences of guessing wrong are infinitely disproportionate.
Bernstein argued that, if God exists, he clearly designed the world to accommodate a rational being. So God would appreciate those who use their rational minds to promote human life on earth. After all, if God designed reason, would he not expect us to use it? Bernstein posited that those who use faith to suppress reason are thus guilty of terrible sin and ought to burn in hell. Therefore, it is safer to wager on rational atheism, knowing that God would reward it if He existed.
Bernstein earns points for creativity. Indeed, despite the insincerity of the notion, his insight that God designed a world in which we live by taking rational action in support of our life and happiness is correct. That point will become a pillar upon which we build a bridge between Christianity and Objectivism in future articles. For the time being, suffice it to say the Author of Reason is hardly irrational.
What does all this have to do with morality? As it turns out, the existence or non-existence of God and the true nature of reality have everything to do with how we distinguish right from wrong. If there is a supernatural realm, its reality provides context within which our decisions are made. Likewise, if there is nothing beyond our objective universe, it stands alone as the context for our choices.
Consider the morality which Objectivism presents. In a context where this life on Earth is all there is, the standard of moral value is that life. We must be alive to conceive of and pursue values, and the values we obtain and keep serve to perpetuate and enhance our life. This is the objective good. Rand’s ideal man demonstrates virtue by acting upon his own judgment in pursuit of rationally conceived values which serve his life and long-term happiness.
Bernstein regards Christianity as antithetical to such objective morality, and thus profoundly bad for mankind. It’s easy to see why. First, there is the essence of Christianity as a faith-based worldview. Actions taken on faith cannot by definition be rationally conceived. Bernstein views Christianity as “subordinating reason to faith,” denying what is objectively true in favor of a fantasy. (This is untrue, but the refutation will have to be the subject of a later article.) Confined to an individual, such faith is distasteful to objectivists, but tolerable insomuch as it does not encroach upon the rights of others. Bernstein points out that Christians do not confine their faith to their own lives and use it as a basis for dictating how others should live.
On this point, Bernstein is unfortunately correct. Too many professing Christians, perhaps an overwhelming majority, believe their faith to be a sovereign consideration in civil law. For most of the past two thousand years, some form of “Christian” theocracy has reigned in some part of the world. However, the history of such institutions is more accurately called Christendom, and stands properly differentiated from biblical Christianity. While Christendom is guilty of the many atrocities frequently cited by critics – the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the burning of heretics and pagans at the stake, etc. – Christianity does not support them.
Consider the exchange between Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ which took place shortly before the crucifixion. From John 18:33-38:
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”
Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
Here Pilate contends with the same question debated by Bernstein and D’Souza. What is truth? While Pilate was certainly no objectivist, the worldview he brought to this exchange was limited to the objective universe. When he asks if Jesus is the king of the Jews, he is concerned with a claim to civil authority. Christ clarifies that his kingdom is not of this world. He emphasizes that if his kingdom were of this world, his disciples would have fought to protect him from those seeking his death.
Indeed, the Jews of Christ’s time were expecting a messiah to liberate them from Roman occupation and take up a crown in Jerusalem. Jesus’ own disciples, even those closest to him counted as apostles, expected an earthly reign. They were devastated when Christ was instead crucified. To their minds, their movement was ended. It was only upon Christ’s resurrection that they began to comprehend a kingdom not of this world, and it emboldened them to preach of that kingdom even in the face of persecution and death.
One need not be a Christian or believe in the historicity of the Gospel to perceive that true Christianity — as exemplified by the biblical Christ — does not advocate earthly tyranny. The Great Commission of Christianity was not to conduct the Spanish Inquisition, or engage in the Crusades, or burn heretics at the stake. Rather Christ instructed in Matthew 28:19-20:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Consent lies at the heart of the Christian life, consent to an offer of salvation through grace, and consent to obey God’s commandments. It is impossible to spread Christianity by the sword. To the extent men have tried, they have succeeded only in compelling false conversion and distorting what Christianity is.
Acknowledging the primacy of consent in the Christian life prepares us for the discovery that a world governed by objectivist principles is not only fully compatible with Christian living but as ideal an environment as possible this side of glory. We’ll explore how these seemingly irreconcilable worldviews may coexist in peace as we continue our review of the debate between Andrew Bernstein and Dinesh D’Souza in future articles.