I say The Rationalist not because there is one such person in the world, but because the person I encountered is the quintessential rationalist. There is a lot I want to unpack here and get off my chest so this may take several posts; we’ll see. Before I get to what a rationalist is, I will briefly explain the encounter.

I was recently on the Unbelievable? Podcast with Justin Brierly, and had an enjoyable discussion about Uninvented with an atheist, Matthew Taylor. I found out he has his own podcast, Still Unbelievable! and joked with Matthew after Justin stopped the recording that I expected an invite to be on their podcast, and he said he would do that. Lo and behold he was as good as his word. I was on recently for two and a half hours! He warned me that his co-host was not as accommodating as he is, or some such words, but I assured him I could handle it. I did, but it was grueling being interrogated by a rationalist atheist for that long. I’m sure his listeners were gleeful that yet another clueless Christian proved the superiority of their worldview. But I’m convinced he could have on C.S. Lewis come back from the dead, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, and J. Warner Wallace all at the same time, and The Rationalist would still feel superior to we poor benighted Christians.

First, I’ll explain what a rationalist is for those not familiar with the term. In 17th century intellectual circles skepticism was on the rise. René Descartes (1596-1650), a Catholic and generally considered the founder of modern philosophy, decided he would address the challenge. He is famous, or infamous depending on one’s point of view, for defending the faith by doubting everything that could be doubted. His goal was absolute certainty because he felt that was needed to counter the skeptics. He was convinced such certainty was possible and developed detailed rules for how to attain it. The first step was finding if there was anything he could not doubt.

He eventually concluded the only thing he could not doubt was his own thinking, thus concluding cogito ergo sum, or I think therefore I am. There is certainly something to that, but it is a very thin reed upon which to hang one’s epistemology, or how we come to know what we know. My interlocutor on the podcast seems to believe that reed is a mighty oak that encompasses the entire universe. In that I’m not exaggerating because reason for him is all you got. Rationalism, along with empiricism, that true knowledge is only available via the empirical method, rounded out the Enlightenment project of the scope of man’s possible knowledge. Eventually, metaphysics was completely rejected. With these tools it was assumed mankind could figure out the true nature of reality, and unlock all the mysteries of the universe. Good luck!

Although Enlightenment intellectuals allowed God along for the ride for a century or two, they eventually kicked Him off the bus and left Him on the side of the road to fend for Himself. They could do well enough on their own. Which gets me to my interlocutor. Both he and Matthew once embraced the Christian faith, and then rejected it. We call that nowadays a “deconversion.” Many who take this path find a kind of agnosticism because they realize having absolute certainty about the ultimate nature of things isn’t really possible, so they decide to live in the space of unknowing, or agnosticism. The Rationalist, on the other hand, believes in absolute certainty, and he is absolutely certain in his certainty! It’s amazing to see this displayed in another human being. The lack of humility and what I perceived as arrogance was unpleasant to endure. If it was just a conversation over a pint I would have quickly changed the subject to the trivial like sports or the weather and I’m sure he would have been a fine person to interact with, but being a guest on their podcast, I was kind of stuck.

And while I’m targeting rationalists in this post, don’t think they’re the only ones capable of the absolute certainty delusion. It’s a sinful human trait, and plenty of Christians are guilty of it too, and people of every other religious stripe as well. It’s terribly unattractive in whatever form it’s expressed on whatever issue. I often quote the Apostle Paul: “The one who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” And I always follow with, this doesn’t call for skepticism, that we can’t know, but for epistemological humility. We can in fact know, have true knowledge, but we must realize, especially as we get older, that we don’t now a whole lot more than we do. Wisdom says, I know what I don’t know.

The reason rationalists, and I mean the true believers, are often unpleasant is because of arrogance. If you disagree with them you are wrong, full stop. They are likely not like this in the rest of their lives, but when it comes to God and Christianity, they give no quarter. The weapon of choice for The Rationalist is reason in the form of logic in the form of accusations of logical fallacies. While I am superficially referring to the gentleman I engaged in this conversation, he sounded exactly like other very intelligent atheists I’ve encountered over the years. And with such a weapon no wonder there are so few atheists in the world. Saying that I would be accused, as I was, of the popular fantasy, or some such thing. Just because something is popular doesn’t make it true. To which I replied, duh! This brings up several other fallacies he accused me of, including the straw man and red herring several times. As I thought back on the encounter, I realized he was committing the exact same fallacies he accused me of, numerous times. After I said something, he would tell me what I thought, the straw man, then chop it down.

It was impossible on the fly to challenge it effectively because first, he knows more about a lot of things than I do, and I’m not a professional apologist or debater. I’m a businessman, a sales guy, who dabbles in apologetics. In fact, and I told them this, I hate debates, never watch or listen to them. But The Rationalist seemed to think we were in a debate, and he clearly won, while proving absolutely nothing about the veracity of his worldview. In fact, I thought his arguments were for the most parts terrible, but I’m not quick enough, or knowledgeable or experienced enough to effectively have challenged him. The main problem with The Rationalist, and other rationalists I’ve encountered, is that they come off as condescending. It’s just not appealing. I agree with something Dennis Prager often says. I would rather seek clarity than agreement. I can’t convince anybody of anything, and I gave up even wanting to do that a long time ago. I’d rather have a conversation of mutual respect and understanding, try to the best of my ability to see where the other person is coming from, and let God do what God does. And that’s in any encounter with any human being in any context.

I will continue with some further thoughts about the encounter in my next post. Stay tuned.

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