What is Rationalism?

Rationalism grows out of a respected tradition of critical thinking that goes back to the ancient Greeks and which flourished as the Enlightenment, but is flexible enough to change in the light of new evidence and argument. It is an ideal worldview for the 21st century.

Rationalism is an intellectual, cultural, social and political movement that exists to promote the role of reason in approaching and finding solutions to the wide range of issues and problems that confront us in public life. 

Rationalism holds that our beliefs and conduct should be based on a combination of experience and reason. To a large degree it is the legacy of ideas and values that came together in the 18th-century Enlightenment, supplemented by the resulting progress in various sciences over the past two centuries.

The Four Pillars of Rationalism

  1. Reason

Rationalists are committed to utilising reason in their beliefs and in their behaviour. 

In forming beliefs, a Rationalist seeks to rely on empirical evidence, logic and thoughtful reflection, not on unquestioning obedience to authority, blind faith or emotional knee-jerk reaction. Rationalists believe public policies should be based on inquiry, evidence and reason, not on religious dogma or political ideology.

  1. Naturalism

Rationalists believe in naturalism, that is, the idea that the natural world is the only world there is and that the life we live in this natural world is the only life we have.

This means Rationalists do not believe in an after-life, or a life before birth, or in any supernatural or ‘other’ world.

It also means that as humans, we derive our values and ethics from the natural world – from our need to live together and to try to improve the well-being of all around us.

  1. Liberalism

Rationalists support the political philosophy of liberalism – that is, freedom of the individual, social progress and reform, and government by law with the consent of the governed.

We support absolute freedom of thought, conscience and belief. All humans should be free to choose and hold their own religious or non-religious worldviews, provided they do not attempt to coerce others into accepting their preferred worldviews.

We support the freedom to express one’s worldview and the freedom to associate with like-minded others, provided such actions do no harm.

We believe people are intrinsically equal in dignity and rights. There should be no negative discrimination on the basis of a person’s worldview, race, sex, sexuality or gender identity. 

We believe in our common humanity, and the humanistic values of personal integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence and fairness.

  1. Secularism

Rationalists support secularism in the political sense, meaning legal and substantive separation of religious institutions (church, temple, mosque, etc) from state institutions (parliament, the public service, the courts, etc). 

Secularism in this sense implies a pluralist democracy, where there is freedom to practise one’s worldview (as long as such practice does not harm others) or to change one’s worldview, and where there is no positive discrimination by governments that privileges any particular worldview. 

Secularism values both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, and seeks to balance all human rights in practice.

Check out our plan to ‘Reclaim Secular Australia’.

What Rationalism is not

It is important to distinguish Rationalism, in our sense of the word, from ‘economic rationalism’, a term most Rationalists would not see as rational at all. This term was applied by Michael Pusey of the Australian National University to characterise economic policies prominent in Canberra in the late 1980s and 1990s. Such policies focussed purely on monetary worth as a measure of value, without taking into account social and moral considerations, such as issues of fairness, justice or equality. Most Rationalists in our sense, believe that issues of fairness, justice and equality should be taken into account in designing economic policies.

In the history of philosophy, the term ‘rationalism’ has been applied to the theory of knowledge held by the so-called ‘rationalist philosophers’ – René Descartes (1596-1650), Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). Such philosophers held that the general nature of the world could be established a priori by non-empirical demonstrative reason. In other words, our concepts of the world are derived not from experience but from pure reasoning. Very few – if any – Rationalists in the contemporary sense would be rationalists in this historical sense.

Are you a Rationalist?

If you prefer reason to prejudice, science to superstition, and evidence to faith, while recognising the importance of democracy, free secular public education, free speech, freedom of information and basic human rights, then you can call yourself a Rationalist! So why not support us!

All the more reason.