Reason and Religion: Irremediably Incompatible Bedfellows?

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Willard V. O. Quine (1969) points out that in natural language we can get closest to a Göödelian undecidable sentence with something I have simplified for the sake of the present argument as: ‘‘Is an inconsistent sentence’ is an inconsistent sentence’. The phrase inside the inner quotes is a mirror image of the sentence outside the inner quotes; the first phrase acts as the subject half of the sentence and the second phrase is the predicate half. The problem is that subject and predicate are identical. Now we might say that time enters the picture once again. We read the first phrase. Then, upon reading the same phrase again, our sense of the first phrase undergoes an alteration. Gertrude Stein’s ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’ suggests that it is not only a matter of a rose by some other name being either different or the same. It is also a matter of time. Saying ‘A rose’ and then saying it again alters the context of the first saying and the second saying and it alters the combination of both sayings such that meaning is also altered.


This might all appear fine and dandy. However, the previous couple of paragraphs deal chiefly with logically formulated sentences and genuine paradoxes. What we usually tend to call contradictions are only pseudo-contradictions. For example, assume Charlton Heston, once President of the National Rifle Association, were to declare, ‘The question of our right to bear arms is not negotiable’. Then he is asked: ‘Do you mean to say, Sir, that you are absolutely unwilling to discuss the issue?’ To this he replies: ‘Of course not. I will discuss the issue until I am blue in the face. The fact remains, however, that our right to bear arms is not negotiable’. Then: ‘But with all due respect, are you not contradicting yourself?’ The disgruntled reply: ‘It seems a contradiction, but it is not. I cannot refuse an offer to discuss this problem, but my mind is settled on the topic’.


Marxist intellectuals often adopt some version of Hegel’s view according to which the Principle of Non-Contradiction is not valid. Yet they do not in fact accept two statements that contradict each other as both true in all respects. In a well-known essay, Mao Ze-Dong distinguished two types of contradictions. There are contradictions that exist among the people———right-minded comrades, that is. These are benign contradictions, and hence ‘nonantagonistic’. There are also contradictions between what the people believe and what the enemy believes. These are malignant, antagonistic contradictions, and must be eradicated at all cost, even by disappearing the enemy if there is no other way. Neither type of contradiction is considered inconsistent with the Principle of Non-Contradiction. On the contrary. In either case, two contradictory positions cannot both be true. Ultimately, there must be a choice of either one pole or the other of the contradictory premises. As far as Mao is concerned, both types of contradictions must be solved. The difference is that one type must be solved by war, and the other type can perhaps be solved by going to the discussion table (in Schurmann 1968: 55).

Where is all this taking us anyway? What does it have to do with our learning from life, from living? The implication of this section, I would suggest, has a bearing on traditional notions of reasonable and logical knowing and how it is that we can acquire this knowing.

Whose logic?, What kind of logic?
To begin, if we are not content with what conventionally goes as rational argumentation, then why should we flee from whatever our convention tells us is contradictory with the fear that if we do not free ourselves of the contradiction we will surely remain in the dark back alley of ignorance? Yet, should we not reject as irrational any body of knowledge that can rest content with a few contradictions lying around here and there?

If one’s knowledge can include contradictions, then is not the whole of that body of knowledge flawed? Is it perhaps not even nonsensical and virtually unintelligible? On the other hand, if we are satisfied with nothing less than clear and distinct, and consistent and complete, accounts of the world and ourselves and of our knowledge of those accounts, will we not ultimately become like Buridan’s proverbial ass that, suffering from hunger and thirst, couldn’t decide whether to turn left to the water or right to the food that was offered him, and finally dropped dead right there in the same spot? Will we be able to decide at all? Will we not eventually suffer from cognitive combustion and burn out?

Our Eurocentric prejudice has customarily had it that the West is rational, while many other cultures engage in mushy, irrational thinking, and somewhat childish behavior. Actually, if we toss Western biases to the winds and look at the West and the rest somewhat more dispassionately, we find a complex situation. The West, it is now well known, does not have a monopoly on science, even Western science. Joseph Needham’s massive Science and Civilization in China (1954) was one of the first thoroughgoing studies to address this problem. It is becoming increasingly evident that the West is split between what is considered the rational tradition, mathematics and science, and the irrational tradition, that is, the tradition based on faith rather than reason, culture-laden ethics rather than logic, and gratuitous aesthetics rather than purposeful rhetoric. Take religion, for example. Witness the controversy surrounding feminist movements, abortion, prayer in the schools, gay and lesbian rights, Aids and stem-cell research, and especially, evolutionary theory and creationism. There is in the Christian West a season and an irreason for all things. Maintain a critical and even skeptical demeanor during the week, but be sure you are willing to espouse the most irrational brand of blind faith in the incomprehensible on Sunday, at least while in church.

Westerners tend to approach Eastern philosophy as a religion, hence more often than not the assumption has it that they are dealing with blind faith and irrationality. However, this comfortable notion by means of which we can decry the East and revel in our science and technology is the other side of the Eastern coin, which enables them to critique Western materialism and consumerism. The West takes reason as the way to go about life in the physical world and leave subjective, intuitive, contemplative concerns to the spirit. The East cannot steer clear of subjective, intuitive, contemplative concerns, and embraces them along with spiritual life and everyday life in the physical world of joy and pain and pushes and pulls. Which is to say that the East maintains a critical, rational posture regarding everyday as well as religious life, while the West tends to maintain a shrift between the two, relegating religious to the irrational while coveting objective, empirical, and rational life to the maximum. In this sense at least, one can justifiably assert that the West is irrational, as a result of the split, while he East wishes to exercise rationalism with respect to unified life’s experiences.

What are the implications of the West’s chasm between religion and faith on the one hand and science and reason on the other with respect to the East’s union of everyday affairs with religious affairs? They are far-reaching. The West has generally confined reason to the study of the natural sciences and the human sciences, with the assumption that the two areas of scientific endeavor belong to distinct modes of theory making and methods of research———although that assumption has changed in some circles since the turn of the last century. To a limited degree, scientific concerns were at times extended into philosophy, especially during the heyday of logical positivism. But the applications were severely restricted, and so it did not much benefit the humanities at large. The human soul was considered the subject of religion, in that hazy area where irrationalism and faith rather than tough-minded reason and hard evidence were embraced without qualms. The sciences did not touch a person’s soul or the subjective side of her mind, and when they made the attempt, more often than not they used a ‘pseudo-positivistic’ methodology resulting from an impoverished notion of what the natural sciences were imagined to do.

The idea that linguistics is an area of rational investigation, for example, is a relatively recent discovery in Western civilization. The concept was pioneered by Ferdinand de Saussure and brought to a screaming pitch with Noam Chomsky’s transformational and generative grammar. Linguistics as a positivist or rational area of inquiry, however, has seen its better days. In fact, over the past three decades the study of languages has been in the process of taking a softer ‘cultural-political turn’, as witnessed explicitly through George Lakoff’s studies (for example, 1987, 2004, Lakoff and Johnson 1980), and implicitly in Chomsky’s seething critiques of U.S. policies (for example, 1988, 2002, 2006).

The notion that religion and mysticism can and should be explored rationally has been tried and found lacking. During the glory days of logical positivism, attempts by philosophers and theologians to ape positivist methods in religious studies made little headway. A skeptical jury of scientists still heatedly debates forays into scientific studies of paranormal experience. The assumption amongst one group of true believers in the paranormal and supernatural, outside wild-eyed New Age and religious cults, is that the irrational is as real as what usually goes by the name of reason. If this is so, then the apparently most irrational, most extraordinary, and least accessible manifestations of the soul——its mystical properties——must be amenable to rational analysis. ‘Foul!’ cries another group of true believers. The view that religion and mysticism are irrational, they claim, is a myth. This myth has stifled the progress of our understanding, and it should be abandoned, modified, or at least scrutinized. In order to see clearly to what extent this is possible, it is instructive to look more closely at its historical background, and contrast it with other approaches (Mansfield 1995, Wilber 1982, 1983).

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