What Rationalism means to me

Speech given to a Rationalist Society conference

by Professor John McCloskey

Michael Oakeshott, in his attack on rationalism in politics, characterises the Rationalist by observing that: “He [sic] stands for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of reason.”

… he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic; sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it or to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason’ (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action.

Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration, which is the ground and inspiration of argument”.

He believes … in the open mind, the mind free from prejudice and its relic, habit. He believes that the unhindered human ‘reason’ … is an infallible guide in political activity. Further, he believes in argument as the technique and operation of ‘reason’; the truth of an opinion and the ‘rational’ ground …. of an institution is all that matters to him.’

The conduct of affairs, for the rationalist, is a matter of solving problems, and in this no man can hope to be successful whose reason has become inflexible by surrender to habit or is clouded by the fumes of tradition.

Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, 1962

Had Oakeshott been concerned with rationalism in general, and not simply rationalism in politics, he would no doubt have hammered even harder the rationalist’s rejection of reliance on authority, and he would also have charged that the Rationalist has and can have no truck with faith and beliefs based on faith, and so too with other non-rational and allegedly irrational sources of belief.

Oakeshott’s accounts of rationalism and the Rationalist impress most of us as caricatures, clever caricatures, which contain important elements of the truth, but a distortion of the truth, and at best of part of the truth. Nonetheless it is worthwhile commencing our discussion of the nature of rationalism by considering what is true, and what is false, and what is lacking from such an account.

Is Reason enough?

Oakeshott is right in his claim that the Rationalist is sceptical, in the sense and only in the sense, that he [sic] regards no opinion, habit, belief as beyond questioning; he does believe that it is important that all that matters be subjected to rational scrutiny, where that is appropriate, and where his reason so informs him that it is appropriate.

What is not true is that the Rationalist is optimistic in the sense of never doubting the power of his reason to determine what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong. The Rationalist rationally assesses the powers and limitations of reason, and is confident or modest about the achievements to be expected from reason on the basis of this assessment. Some Rationalists such as John Stuart Mill and Plato have been very optimistic about the powers of reason to attain the truth, Plato’s optimism in this regard leading him to underestimate and in effect to abandon an essential prerequisite for the successful exercise of reason, namely the free society. Other Rationalists have been much less confident about the results of reliance on reason, and have been sceptical of many claims to knowledge.

The Rationalist rationally assesses the powers and limitations of reason.

John McCloskey

It is very important and relevant to note here that Rationalists are rationally critical of the very concept of reason, different Rationalists seeing reason differently, with different accounts being given of its powers. Thus two major disputes among Rationalists about the powers of reason are evident in the radically opposed views of Plato and Emmanuel Kant on the one hand and of philosophers such as David Hume on the other.

Plato and Kant (and I following them) believed that reason had the power to inform us of what is morally right and wrong, and further that it had the power to move us to moral action. For Plato, moral knowledge of the Forms, and finally the Form of the Good came only after an extremely rigorous, exacting fifty years of education during which the powers of reason were developed and employed to question all beliefs and to reject all that could not rationally be grounded. Moral knowledge, essential if Plato’s philosopher kings were to be competent to rule, came Plato believed, at the end of this process.

Is Reason enough for morality?

Kant, who also saw the employment of our reason as essential for the realization of moral knowledge, argued that the imperatives of morality, that we should respect persons as ends possessed of dignity and worth, be just, honest, and the like, are imperatives of reason, dictates of our practical reason. To be moral according to Kant is to align our will and the principles on which we act with those of reason. These are important claims about the power of reason to reveal moral truths.

Such claims are rejected by David Hume and many other notable philosophers who cannot plausibly be denied the title Rationalists. Hume argued that we acquire moral knowledge by attending to our natural, innate, common human feelings, not by reference to reason. Morality was seen by him to rest on human feelings not on human reason. And variations of this kind of claim, that morality is a matter of feeling, attitude, approvals, and not of reason and knowledge are widely canvassed in the English-speaking world of philosophy today.

This divergence of view is one about both the nature of morality – is it a matter of feeling or is it an object of knowledge and truth? – and of the powers of reason. With Kant the two claims are inextricably interwoven.

The other divergence of belief among Rationalists about reason in morals relates to the question of what motivates us to act morally. Plato and Kant both saw reason as the motivating force that moves us to do what we ought. In this I agree with them. Consider the situation of moral temptation where our strongest desires move us to do what we know to be gravely wrong. It is reason, based on our knowledge of right and wrong that gives us the power to resist the temptation. Kant here supports his contention with the following telling argument:

Suppose some one asserts his lustful appetite that, when the desired object and opportunity are present, it is quite irresistible. [ask him] – if a gallows were erected before the house where he finds this opportunity, in order that he should be hanged thereon immediately after the gratification of his lust, whether he could not then control his passion; we need not long be in doubt what he would reply. Ask him, however – if his sovereign ordered him, on pain of the same immediate execution, to bear false witness against an honorable man, whom the prince might wish to destroy under a plausible pretext, would he consider it possible in that case to overcome his love of life, however great it may be. He would perhaps not venture to affirm whether he would do so or not, but he must unhesitatingly admit that it is possible to do so. He judges, therefore, that he can do a certain thing because he is conscious that he ought, and he recognizes that he is free – a fact which but for the moral law he would never have known.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788

The opposed view, and this is an issue on which moral philosophy is split down the middle, is that of David Hume, that reason has no power whatsoever to move us to action, that it is desires and feelings that move us morally to act. Thus we find Hume arguing:

Nothing is more usual in philosophy, and even in common life, than to talk of the combat of passion and reason, to give the preference to reason, and to assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to its dictates . … In order to shew the fallacy of all this philosophy, I shall endeavour to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.

Since morals, therefore have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore are not conclusions of our reason.

‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. ‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ‘Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1738

It is not my purpose here to argue for the one set of views about the powers of reason and the relationship/lack of connection between reason and morality. That would be a very worthwhile topic for discussion before the Rationalist Society, however it is not the issue of our immediate concern. What is of concern to us is that it is not simply possible for Rationalists to disagree about the powers of reason, Rationalists do so disagree and this is in quite basic respects. If the Plato, Kant tradition is right, morality is very much a matter of reason. If Hume is right then reason has only a very minor role to play in this great area of human endeavour – it simply helps determine which feelings are the relevant feelings, and when and about what they are felt.

It is not simply possible for Rationalists to disagree about the powers of reason, Rationalists do so disagree.

John McCloskey

Rationalism, authority and faith

I have taken this important area of debate to illustrate the more general point, that rational disagreements about the powers of reason do occur, rationally occur, among Rationalists. There are also rational disputes about what is established by reason. What some see as established beyond serious question, is questioned and even rejected by others.

It is important therefore to reject claims of critics of rationalism such as Oakeshott that suggest that there is a unified, uncritical acceptance of one view of the powers of reason, where the view is one of overweening confidence in what can be achieved by reason. What is reason, what can be achieved by reason, are themselves matters for rational inquiry.

Two objections might very reasonably be raised at this point. The one objection is along the lines that miraculous powers seem to be here ascribed to reason, that of pulling itself up by its own boot straps – how, if we do not know the powers of reason, can we use reason to determine the powers and limits of reason? Or, if we know the powers and limits of reason, why do we need to examine and determine them? The other objection is the very common one, that in using reason to assess reason, the Rationalist is being no more critical than those he criticises; he is uncritically accepting the soundness of reason, or to put it more crudely, basing his trust in reason on faith.

These are important objections but I wish for the moment to put them aside and to return to them later, after I have completed my comments on Oakeshott’s characterization and criticism of rationalism.

Oakeshott asserts that the Rationalist is the enemy of authority, prejudice, the traditional, the habitual. And had he been writing of rationalism in general and not simply of rationalism in politics he might well have gone on to claim that the Rationalist is the enemy of faith – belief based on special access to knowledge such as religious experience, mystical experience and the like.

Obviously the Rationalist will not – any more than Oakeshott himself – accept authority as an ultimate source of knowledge. However the Rationalist does not absurdly reject all reference to authority. He looks to see whether the claims to authority, to greater knowledge, wisdom, experience, are well-founded. It would be irrational to reject all beliefs that can for most of us be grounded only on acceptance of the word of authorities. Consider medical knowledge, legal knowledge, knowledge of technology. We cannot master all spheres of knowledge. What we do if we are rational is consider how well claims to authority can be based, and to rely where we have no other real choice on the findings of the experts.

However, many claim to be authorities, experts, to have special access to knowledge, who can in no way sustain their claims. This is most evidently true in the sphere of religion. There, it is typically possible to show not simply do they not have the knowledge they claim, but that they base their claims on study of material that itself will not do. Consider authoritative utterances of clerics based on the Bible where the Bible is falsely claimed to have been written by persons other than those who wrote it, and at times other than those claimed.

Similarly with belief based on faith. The Rationalist does not dogmatically claim that all belief based on faith is irrationally held. Faith, if it is blind trust and based on no evidence direct or indirect, and contrary to strong evidence, is irrational. This is the case with the faith of Christianity. However faith in the integrity of a friend, whom we know to be a person of high character from a long intimate friendship, even in the face of testimony to the contrary, may well be rational. This is very different from the faith of Christians where the faith is claimed to be based on knowledge of the life and person of Christ, where the life of Christ morally is a far from an admirable one, and where his moral teachings and that central to Christianity – the doctrine of the Atonement – are morally a very mixed lot, some quite objectionable, and where the experience of Christ is not real personal experience but something metaphorically so characterised.

Faith, if it is blind trust and based on no evidence direct or indirect, and contrary to strong evidence, is irrational.


Similarly, the Rationalist does not rule out a priori knowledge by way of mystical experience or religious experience, by way of special revelation or miracles. Rather the Rationalist looks at what is claimed to have occurred, and at whether it is reasonable firstly to interpret what has occurred as an experience of something rather than as simply a feeling experience, and if so, whether it can reasonably be construed as an experience that is awareness of God. The Rationalist claims rightly that if such alleged experiences are subjected to the kind of rigorous scrutiny we apply to alleged perceptions of physical objects, and more evidently to extraordinary perceptions of extraordinary objects such as UFOs, (this is not to say that a case cannot or will not be made out for there being perceptions of UFOs, but that the case needs to be made out), we should not accept them as justifying the beliefs drawn from them. We have rigorous standards by reference to which mere illusions, hallucinations, and true perceptions are distinguished as such. The Rationalist applies the same rigour to claims that there are other kinds of experience that provide knowledge.

What is Reason?

What is reason? What constitutes reasoning? And is reliance on reason itself a kind of faith? And can reason really critically assess its own powers and achievements? Probably the most generally accepted characterisation of reason is that it is the mental faculty or capacity or power to gain knowledge. Many contemporary philosophers are more at ease talking about reasons for belief rather than of reason as something distinct from reasons. The core of reason, commonly understood as deductive reasoning or inference with its laws of thought, is reason’s power to apprehend self-contradictions.

Basic to all deductive inference is reason’s rejection of self-contradiction. However the power to apprehend self-contradiction is in turn dependent on more basic powers: the capacity to understand language, and more basically, to form concepts and thereby construct propositions. For deductive inference to provide knowledge, well-grounded premises are needed, as the conclusions of deductive inferences are as sound or unsound as those premises. If the premises are analytic and true by definition so too are the conclusions; and if analytic truths are vacuous so too are the conclusions derived from analytic premises.

How then do we gain knowledge of first premises which alone can give us informative, synthetic knowledge using deductive inference? Many have claimed that reason has direct insight into certain basic truths, that just as reason can directly apprehend the truth of analytic propositions such as that a three-sided closed plane figure has three angles, that 2 + 2 = 4 and the like, without argument and without apprehending wherein denial of their truth involves self-contradiction, so too reason can apprehend non-analytic basic truths.

Here moral truths, such as that pleasure is intrinsically good, pain intrinsically evil, that it is morally wrong unnecessarily to inflict suffering on an innocent person and the like, are pointed to. They are known without inference and provide the starting points for inferences. Other examples that have been claimed to be such are: that every event must have a cause; that minds occupy no physical space; that the same surface cannot be red and green all over. All candidates to be such rationally apprehended truths are rationally queried by critics, as is the whole claim that reason has the capacity rationally to apprehend truths in this way. Yet, unless there are well-grounded truths from which deductive inference may proceed, reason through its powers of deductive inference cannot provide new knowledge.

Scientific knowledge, and most day to day beliefs, although involving reliance on deductive inference, rest to a greater or lesser extent on what is known as inductive inference, inference from the known to the unknown, typically from the past to the present and the future, where the inferences proceed from observance of past uniformities to future uniformities.

Scientific knowledge, and most day to day beliefs, rest to a greater or lesser extent on inductive inference, inference from the known to the unknown.


Many philosophers today argue that our very knowledge of the external world, the very data of physical science, as well as the whole body of scientific knowledge, rest on inductive inference where reason provides us with the power to engage in inductive inference and its canons and methods. Many different theories, systems and methods of inductive logic have been developed, and none has been immune from criticism. Indeed, one of the most persistent, most basic problems of philosophy is the problem of inductive logic, of providing a justification for relying on inductive inference. Bertrand Russell explained this problem well when he asked: “With what better justifications do we rely on our inferences from past uniformities, than did the chicken which was fed daily for 364 days only wrongly to infer that it would again be fed the day its head was chopped off?”

Reliance on reason is not itself an act of faith; reason can critically assess itself.


That reliance on reason is not itself an act of faith, and that reason can really critically assess itself, are evident from the reasoning that goes on about such claims. It is also evident from the seriousness attached to the problem of induction and the many attempts to solve or dissolve it by locating good reasons for accepting inductive reasons, or for rejecting the demand on the grounds that our very concept of good reasons involves reference to inductive criteria. My own belief is that the problem remains a real one, and that most attempts to solve it are circular, proceeding by way of giving inductive justification for inductive methods. If I am right in this, a question arises as to what is a rational response to conclusions based on the use of inductive inferences.

An open and free society

Rationalism rests on a preparedness, indeed an insistence, that nothing be taken on trust, uncritically, without awareness of the adequacy of the grounds upon which it is accepted. It goes hand in hand with the view that all except analytic truths are subject to constant scrutiny and review, with a preparedness to reconsider and reassess. Even with what are claimed to be analytic truths there is a willingness to keep open for reconsideration their status as analytic truths. What holds of science – that beliefs are provisional and under continuous review – holds for the Rationalist of all beliefs. Of course, many beliefs and the grounds upon which they are held are such that it is unlikely they will come to be rejected.

What holds of science – that beliefs are provisional and under continuous review – holds for the Rationalist of all beliefs.


Earlier I spoke of Plato and J.S. Mill as Rationalists. They may be claimed to be such in that they subjected all beliefs to rational scrutiny. Neither took anything on trust. However today we are inclined to think of Mill as the real Rationalist, Plato as being somewhat suspect. This is because Plato, having arrived at his beliefs by the use of critical reason, opted for his ideal Republic as a closed society in which his rationally found beliefs are kept secure from opponents who may question them.

Plato had too great a confidence in reason – in his reason. He was unwilling to keep his beliefs under constant review. And because he did not fully acknowledge the possibility of error, human fallibility and frailty, he failed to see how vital it is that there be a free and open society in which all beliefs can come under rigorous rational scrutiny. It was J.S. Mill who stressed the importance of free, full, continuous and continuing discussion if we are to be rationally justified in the beliefs we hold. Mill wrote:

The whole strength and value, then, of human judgement depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand.

In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct.

The beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

Rationalism can flourish only in the context of a free, open society. There are always enemies of the open society. It is almost a truism that the open society can come to expect some of its former friends, once they gain power, to become enemies of the same open society. Rationalists who care for rationalism need continually to be vigilant to defend the open society. The Rationalist who comes to reject the open society and to seek to secure for what he believes to be rationally grounded beliefs, protection against criticism, scrutiny, reassessment, unless he has very compelling reasons for this, has gravely compromised his rationalism and is on the slipping slopes to irrationalism.

Rationalism can flourish only in the context of a free, open society. Rationalists who care for rationalism need continually to be vigilant to defend the open society.


This preparedness to treat beliefs as provisional, and as subject to continual review, does not make the Rationalist necessarily a skeptic. Different beliefs can be held with differing degrees of confidence, and whilst all are provisional, very many are such that we know it is unlikely they will even come to be rejected. This is true of moral beliefs such as the evilness of sadistic killing, of unjust discrimination between equals, equal in relevant respects, of the evilness of pain, and the goodness of pleasure, the rightness of treating persons with respect as persons, as with day to day beliefs about the existence of physical objects and of other persons. In all these cases what is likely to change with criticism and scrutiny is not the base belief but our understanding of the belief, its meaning, bases and scope.

Rationalism and skepticism

Here I do not wish to deny that rationalism – a serious thoughtful rationalism – cannot, indeed often does, go with a considerable degree of scepticism. The Rationalist questions beliefs and accepts them only if there are good rational grounds for accepting them. Very often it is a matter of rational disagreement as to what constitute rational grounds for any belief. The history of philosophy is the history of such disagreements. Consider the disagreements between the exponents of the so-called philosophical rationalist tradition – Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza – and those of the empiricist tradition – Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Mill. All were Rationalists in our sense of the term, they simply disagreed fundamentally about the ultimate sources of knowledge.

Consider the issue that dominates philosophical psychology, as to whether rational grounds are available for belief in a mind as distinct from the body, as a non-physical entity that holds our thoughts, perceptions, sensations. Is there nothing but the brain and central nervous system? Here a very great deal of the debate centres on what constitute good reasons for the one view or the other. Or consider the great issue of our belief in universal causation, with scholastic philosophers treating this as a self-evident a priori truth. Hume argues that it is essentially based on observation of past regularities, uniformities, constant conjunctions and hence essentially an empirical truth based on experience with all the qualifications that hold of such truths. Kant argues that it is a category of the mind which the mind imposes on the world it apprehends. Here, by and large, the basic facts are agreed upon; it is what conclusions can properly be drawn from them that is subject to dispute.

The point I now wish to make is that extreme scepticism is a very difficult position rationally to adopt. Consider the three areas of belief I have alluded to: our knowledge of the external world, the debate about mind versus body, and universal causation. Extreme scepticism about the first leads to solipsism, a position very difficult to defend; scepticism in respect to body/mind and causality can at best lead to agnosticism rather than sceptical disbelief; and the agnostic position in these areas as elsewhere is hard rationally to sustain, as once the balance of reasons point one way rather than the other, agnosticism itself comes not to be rationally justified.

Rationalism and religion

What I have had to say to date would seem to imply that a person could be a Rationalist and a theist, even a Rationalist and a Christian, provided he based his beliefs on reason, and accepted them as provisional and subject to continuing rational review. Is this so?

Let us consider the case of the Christian and Christianity. It is difficult to talk about Christianity briefly because Christianity means so many different things to different Christians. Some accept the divinity of Christ; others do not. Some believe in the historical death and resurrection; others do not. Some believe in the immaculate conception; others do not. Some believe in personal immorality; others do not. Of those who believe in personal immorality, some believe in the doctrines of heaven, hell and purgatory; many others do not. And if we look at the moral doctrines held by Christians, and the moral teachings ascribed to Christ we find a similar diversity of beliefs.

Let us concentrate on orthodox Christianity. Firstly, could a person be a rationalist Christian in the sense of seeing his beliefs as provisional, subject to review, or would such qualified belief be deemed inadequate by Christians? Secondly, could all the beliefs required of the Christian by orthodox Christianity be derived from reason? I suggest not. Acceptance of the vast majority of such beliefs depends on the acceptance of testimony of others, where the testimony cannot possibly stand up to the canons of historical authenticity. The historical evidence is threadbare. Without it, the burden of Christian belief must fail on a faith which goes against what reason gives us grounds for believing.

Could all the beliefs required of the Christian by orthodox Christianity be derived from reason? I suggest not.


If we look not at the factual claims, and the doctrines built around them, but at the moral beliefs basic to Christian belief, the problem of a rationalistic Christianity remain as great. Consider the doctrine of the Atonement, that Christ, a morally perfect person, died to pay the debt caused by the sin of mankind. However the details of this doctrine are spelt out – and there are very many accounts of the necessity and rationale of Christ’s death and resurrection – none is in any way morally rationally acceptable. To accept that it is just and morally proper for the supreme authority to accept the free sacrifice of an innocent person to pay for the sins of others, is to abandon our rationally based conceptions of justice.

A rationalistic theism is more promising. Theists have built up an impressive collection of arguments for the existence of God, most notably the cosmological or first cause arguments, the teleological argument, the ontological argument; they offer impressive replies to arguments against the existence of God, most notably those from evil. It would be the height of arrogance of the Rationalist to claim that, on the basis of such considerations, a person could not rationally come to hold a belief in God, the more so, as such a rationalist theist, like the rationalist atheist, would see his arguments as provisional and subject to continuing review and assessment. Whether or not there are such theists is another matter. However it does seem clear that a person could be a Rationalist and a theist, and would be such if he based his belief solely on such rational considerations.

Having said that, I now wish to note difficulties in the way of such a rationalistic theism. All the arguments make claims difficult to sustain. The cosmological argument, that there must be a first cause, and the teleological argument from the evidence of purpose or design in the universe, are arguments of an apodictic nature, dependent on the certainty of the universality of causality, not simply within but beyond the world we know. They both involve a jump from the being who is first cause/supreme designer to this being, a wholly perfect entity, where the premises seem in no way to sustain the jump, indeed the leap. The debate about the ontological argument centres on such issues as whether existence is an attribute of things, like shape, colour and size, and on whether the concept of a necessarily existent being is a meaningful, coherent one. The rationalist theist seems to be on stronger ground in rejecting the traditional argument from evil, that it is self-contradictory to assert that an all perfect God exists and evil exists in the world. Atheists need to supply the missing premise, and have not been able to offer anything better than: an all-perfect God would not permit unjustified evil.

Reliance on this premise forces the atheist to show that the evil that occurs is unjustified. This cannot be done with apodictic certainty. However it is possible for the atheist to bring out the improbability of the kinds and amounts of evil that occur as being justified, and the implausibility of theistic attempts to show how such evils might be shown to be justified.

In the past my own rationalistic atheism has been largely based on the argument from evil, combined with the inadequacy of the positive grounds for belief to create any sort of prima facie case for belief. I now believe that equally important considerations against a rationalistic theism and for a rational atheism are to be found in the incoherence of the concept of an all perfect God.

The paradoxes to which the various attributes and combinations of attributes give rise are well known, yet they tend to be accepted equally by critics and theists as of no real moment. Yet they seem not to be trivial. Can God be an entity if he is not substantial in some sense? Yet if he is substantial in some way, is he not limited? Can God be perfect if lacking personal traits of loving, caring, grieving for his own? Yet could an all perfect being have such attributes without being limited and imperfect – surely vulnerability to suffering is an imperfection; invulnerability to suffering is a defect in a person when it takes the form of insensitivity to others.

Can God be an entity if he is not substantial in some sense? Yet if he is substantial in some way, is he not limited? Can God be perfect if lacking personal traits of loving, caring, grieving for his own?

To be wholly good, God must be measured against a standard of goodness outside of himself, independently of himself. This means that moral standards are uncreated, co-eternal with him. How then can he be all-powerful? An all-powerful being, it is said, must be able to create the logically possible, not the logically impossible. What of moral standards? And what if those creations which would be self-limiting? A traditional view of God is of God as pure existence. If existence is not a property of things, nor a substance of some kind, then it is hard to see how such a view amounts to denying God existence. It arises out of the problems of ascribing substantial reality to God. I suggest therefore that a rationalistic theist would have a lot of work to do to make his concept of God coherent, intelligible and plausible even as a possible object of belief.

Rationalism as a modern worldview

Rationalists up to the present time have generally seen the relevance of rationalism to lie in its combating the irrationalism of religion and the pernicious beliefs and practices to which religions have given rise. With the decline of organized religion in the Western World, and the increasing acceptance by Christians of humanistic ethical beliefs and practices, Rationalists come often to wonder whether rationalism has accomplished its task. This is not so, for two reasons. Firstly, religion is alive and as dangerous as ever in the world at large. Secondly, as Rationalists have always realized, although religion has been the major enemy to be combatted, it is not the only enemy. Today other enemies of rationalism are a matter of ever increasing concern.

One of the most remarkable developments since World War II, and what could prove to be one of the greatest consequence to mankind has been the rebirth of Mohamedonism, with its inhumane, intolerant, sexist, anti-humanist morality. There is a tendency for humanists and rationalists in the Western World, as in Australia in particular, to underestimate the importance of this development, and equally the importance of combating it. Even with its limited intake of Moslem immigrants Australia is compromising its ethic of equal respect for all persons, male and female. And in heavily subsidizing religious schools, it is providing state aid to the inculcation of these religious and moral beliefs. Depending on future migration policies, this could become an issue of real importance in the future.

What could prove to be of the greatest consequence to mankind has been the rebirth of Mohamedonism, with its inhumane, intolerant, sexist, anti-humanist morality.

Orthodox Christianity is thought by many to be in disarray. Yet the Catholic Church remains an extremely powerful influential world organization. Its moral teachings, although softened by the influence of John XXIII, must remain a matter of concern. And there can be no ground for confidence that the Church will not revert to its former hard line positions in the future.

The Christian Churches – together with other religious organizations – have won a very great victory over the cause for a secular state with the political acceptance by all political parties of state aid for private – largely, religious  – schools. It is only the lack of ability of those in charge of these schools to realize the goals of religious schools, the inculcation of Christian belief and practice, that for the time being makes the development less intolerable than it might be. However we cannot be confident that this state of affairs will continue for ever. And given the very considerable advantages that come of attendance at private schools, in gaining access to the major professions and careers via access to university, and this whether or not it proves to be the case that comparable government school products perform as well or better at university, this development could in the future have the most serious consequences. Even many government schools have official chaplains – as do our universities – not as yet paid for by the state, but recognized by the schools and universities. Again, this is a major and dangerous erosion of the concept of the secular state for which Rationalists in the past fought so hard.

Religious organizations have won a great victory over the secular state with the acceptance by all political parties of state aid for private, religious schools.

In recent years, as Protestant Churches have lost their sense of direction, many lesser religious organizations, Christian and non Christian, have gained significant support, where typically these lesser religions lack the respect for and reliance on reason to which orthodox Christianity pays at the very least lip-service. The influence of various of these groups is often very undesirable. Complacency in the face of such developments is unwise, particularly given that the so-called great religions of the world started out as equally modest, little regarded groups.

My own belief is that we have moved far away from the ideal of the secular state which is the social context for the flourishing of rationalism, and have moved a long way towards the state showing respect for (all) religion, rather than one specially favoured religion. A curious context of this is the Australian Government’s great concern with respect for aboriginal sacred places, where the concept of the sacred, its meaning and importance, remain unanalysed. What we owe to the religious is respect to them as persons. We do not owe respect to their religions and religious practices. I recently heard a distinguished visitor from Ireland arguing that we should respect all religions equally – this would imply equal respect for religions such as the human sacrifice religion of the Aztecs, those of the Pacific Island cannibals of former times, Islam, and Christianity. It is this kind of thinking that seems to underlie and misinform so much government action today. Such an uncritical, insensitive stand is incompatible with rationalism. The Rationalist asks and demands an answer for: “Why should it be respected? Is it deserving of respect?”

We have moved far away from the ideal of the secular state towards the state showing respect for all religion, rather than one specially favoured religion.

There are many developments outside of religion about which Rationalists should be concerned. I shall simply mention two. One is contemporary environmentalism. An important, plausible environmentalist ethic can and needs to be built on the basis of a more thoughtful long term thinking out of an ethical humanism. And much of the environmentalist movement is so informed. However much of it as revealed in the writings of philosophical environmentalists, is quasi-religious, quasi-pantheist, concerned for reverence and respect for nature for its own sake, condemning desecration of natural phenomena (to use the words favoured by many such writers) and this at the expense, if need be, of human welfare, human happiness, and even of human life.

Much of the environmentalist movement is quasi-religious, quasi-pantheist.

The other development which gives me as a Rationalist great cause of concern is the attempt to curtail the free speech that is so vital to the open society and the flourishing of a rational society. In the past few years there have been strong moves to extend the restrictions of free speech under the laws relating to defamation, slander, libel, so that truth alone would not be a defence and such that one could defame even a dead person (up to 3 years after his death) by uttering true statements about him. There are strong moves afoot to restrict in important ways free speech under the characterisation of protecting privacy. And the Evans Human Rights Bill, and seemingly, if I understand it correctly, the present bill together with the powers to be given to the Human Rights Commission will seriously erode free speech in other ways.

Indeed, the whole idea of giving special status to certain beliefs as in a Bill of Rights, to make revision after public discussion and reassessment more difficult, impresses me as quite contrary to this spirit as well as the letter of rationalism, the more so given the scope, not merely for rational debate about what are our human rights, but as to whether or not we truly possess any human rights at all. Bentham is not alone among the great rationalistic moralists in dismissing talk about rights as ‘nonsense’. That such special status is accorded the UN and UNESCO Declarations and Covenants, given their internal inconsistency and incoherence and general indefensibility is a sad commentary on the state of rationalism in politics in Australia today.

The whole idea of giving special status to certain beliefs in a Bill of Rights, making revision after public discussion and reassessment more difficult, impresses me as contrary to the spirit as well as the letter of rationalism.

To conclude

Rationalism means to me rational reliance on reason, that is, reliance on the deliberations of reasons to the degree the considerations warrant. This is totally opposed to the idea of having blanket approval, blanket protection for any set of favoured beliefs.

All the more reason.