IN PRAISE OF RATIONALISM

Inaugural address of the 2nd International Rationalist Conference
17-21 January, 2000 –Trivandrum, India

Paul Kurtz

Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, State University of New York at Buffalo;
Chairman, Council for Secular Humanism;
Chairman, Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

I

I am pleased to open the International Rationalist Congress and to celebrate with you the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian Rationalist Association. I bring greetings from humanists, rationalists, and secularist colleagues in North America.

Your association is the best-known of the various Indian humanist, secularist, and rationalist groups, in North America at least. The reason for this is because your exposing of Sai Baba, statues that drink milk, and other questionable claims of god-men, has had substantial coverage in the New York Times and the national television / radio media in the United States. And so we appreciate your great contributions. This is especially significant for us because for over a century Indian soothsayers and gurus have come to the West, claiming to have special mystical and paranormal powers, and it is important that their claims be critically exposed.

We realize that there are a diverse number of organizations in India, with different agendas and different political viewpoints. We wish to cooperate with all of them. We are especially delighted to work with the rationalists of India, and so it is an honor to be here.

II

I come to praise rationalism, to point out the great power it has had in human history, and to suggest for you an agenda for the future. It is useful to begin with defining "rationalism". I submit that "rationalism refers to an epistemological criterion that seeks to test claims to truth by reference to reason and experience". Rationalists have looked to the scientific method as the best exemplification of this criterion. In science, all hypotheses and theories, in principle at least, are to be verified by reference to experimental evidence and validated by rational principles of consistency and coherence. This may be broadly characterized as "critical thinking"; here we seek to test beliefs and hypotheses by the process of reflective inquiry. This methodology is not subjective or private; for the reason and evidence brought to support a hypothesis or theory should be open to examination by all qualified investigators, who can replicate the results. Rationalism is objective, though its hypotheses and theories are related to human interest. If a claim lacks sufficient evidence and reason to support it, say the rationalists, then we ought to either reject it or suspend judgment. Rationalism thus goes hand in hand with skepticism: that which you cannot validate or verify you ought not accept. Using this powerful method, humankind has extended the frontiers of scientific knowledge in the past four centuries.

The rationalist criterion is truly radical, even revolutionary; but it lays down a criterion that many people find very difficult to live by. In fact, the bulk of humanity at one time or another has considered rationalists most dangerous, for by questioning the cherished beliefs they have threatened the sacred cows of society. That is why many of the defenders of rationalism - Socrates, Bruno, Galileo, M.N.Roy, Sakharov - have been exiled, jailed, excommunicated, or executed. Regrettably many of the belief systems that have been handed down from generation to generation - the great religions, for example, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism - have little or no basis in empirical fact. They may have served a function when they originated, but have since lost that. A good case in point of the persistence of traditional ideas and the difficulty in overturning them is astrology. Its basic premises have been totally refuted by modern astronomy: that the time and place of a person’s birth influences his future destiny has never been confirmed by the evidence; yet countless millions of people still believe in its prophecies.

Rationalism has deep roots in human civilization. Its first use appeared with the growth of philosophy in classical Greece and Rome, with the Charvaka materialists of ancient India, and the Confucians of China. The rediscovery of philosophy among Islamic thinkers (such as Averroes) and Western philosophers (Descartes, Spinoza, Kant. etc.), led to the development of a new methodology of science.It was soon recognized that speculative reason by itself is insufficient to establish a truth claim; and that ideas must be tested by their relationship to observation (Bacon, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume). Concept and percept, reason and experience, each play a role in testing ideas.

In the modern world rationalism has made major strides for it was related to pragmatism, i.e., theories have consequences and may be tested by their applied results. This led to the rapid development of technology, especially during the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the Information Revolution of the twentieth century. This has increasingly expanded the powers of humans over nature. It has led to the tremendous benefits to humankind: improving nutrition and health, reducing poverty, enhancing education and literacy, contributing to human happiness. Indeed, I would argue that the rationalist outlook has made the most important contribution to human well-being and progress. In enabling us to shed the chains of mystification it puts us in cognitive touch with reality.

III

The challenging question to be raised at the dawn of the twenty-first century is, How far can rationalism be extended? Can it be applied to religion, ethics, political and social policies? Modern rationalists, of course, do indeed wish to extend the methods of science and reason to these areas of human concern. Here we run into profound obstacles, for people are willing to use rational criteria only so far, but when it endangers their cherished beliefs, it is viewed as downright wicked or dangerous.

We have encountered enormous obstacles to applying rationalism to religion. The origins of the ancient religions are buried by the sands of time, and they have been transmitted from generation to generation because of custom and tradition, authority, emotion and faith.

Three recent dramatic religious events illustrate the perennial power of religious faith in human culture. The first is the huge annual assembly of Islamic pilgrims drawn to Mecca every year. Photographs of the estimated three million devotees who were in Mecca in recent pilgrimages show that they have come from all walks of life and from all classes. The second impressive annual event are the millions of Hindus in India who congregate at the Ganges River in accordance with ancient religious rituals. At the most recent event, an estimated ten million people appeared at the Kumbha Mela festival in the small city of Haridwar for prayer and purification. And the third is the re-exhibition at the cathedral of Turin of the shroud that Jesus was allegedly wrapped in and buried. A huge throng of visitors have come from all over the world to view the Shroud of Turin.

Skeptical doubts can surely be raised about the claim that the pilgrimage to Mecca will guarantee Muslim believers entrance to heaven and/or that bathing in the Ganges River will bestow special spiritual benefits. These are sheer acts of faith drawing upon ancient traditions that scientific rationalists have maintained have little basis in empirical fact. There is no evidence that the performance of ritualistic acts of spiritual contrition, either by visiting the Kaaba in Mecca and encircling it three times, or by bathing in the water of the Ganges, will achieve a blessed state of Paradise for Muslims or Atman for Hindus. To point out to the devout disciples of these two ancient religions that the recommended rites are contradictory or have no basis in fact generally fall on deaf ears.

Similarly for the Shroud of Turin, which, according to the best available scientific evidence, was a forgery made in Lirey, France, in the fourteenth century. Interestingly, it was condemned as such at that time by the bishop in the area, for it was used to deceive thousands of pilgrims seeking cures for their illnesses. Moreover, portions of the Shroud were carbon-14 dated by three independent laboratories, all of whom reported that it was not nineteen hundred years old, but probably fabricated approximately 700 years ago. These reports were published in the scientific literature and received widespread attention in the press; and skeptical scientists applauded the forensic evidence, which clearly stated that the image on the Shroud was not due to a miracle, but could be given a naturalistic causal explanation. Yet, much to the surprise of rationalists, who thought that they had decisively refuted the proponents of the faith, the Shroud industry has returned with full force and vigor again proclaiming that the Shroud was the burial garment of Jesus Christ.

IV

One reason why it is so difficult to question ancient religious beliefs is because of their relationship to deep-seated institutional practices, and often they are justified because of the moral structures they support. A whole way of life of a culture often presupposes religious foundation. Some religionists claim that there are two magisteria, faith and reason, and that science cannot deal with ethics, only religion can. A rational critique of supernaturalism is truncated unless it provides at the same time an alternative ethics. I think rationalists can argue that ethical judgements, in principle at least, are amenable to rational and empirical criticism, and that mour ethical values can be modified in the light of reason. There is a long philosophical tradition that does establish practical reason as a basis for ethical decisions.

Rationalism needs to be supplemented by humanism, however, for it is humanism, first and foremost, that presents a set of ethical values. If the claims of divinity and superstition are found to be lacking -and I think they are - then the foundations of traditional religious morality are undermined. The new frontier for rationalism is to help develop a new ethics appropriate to the postmodern global community in which we live based upon reason and science, not alien to them. This ethic focuses on individual happiness and fulfillment, some autonomy of choice, and self-determination.

This may be difficult to achieve everywhere, for some sectors of the globe are in different stages of social development. Parts of the world are economically backward, existing on an impoverished subsistence level. Other parts of the world have entered an industrial phase. Still others have become postindustrial information and service societies.

How do we apply rationalism to these diverse social conditions? The basic question for both humanism and rationalism is to deal with political and social problems. The ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries no longer apply fully to the twenty-first century. We have become a global planetary society, and thus there is an urgent need for fresh thinking.

Can rationalism help us in formulating wise social politics? If in the sciences we seek to test hypotheses objectively, can similar tests be applied to political and social policies? I think that we have no other option than to try to use the method of critical thinking to solve social problems. All too often political, economic, and social policies are mired in ancient traditions, based upon appeals to authority and power. But we need, especially in democratic societies, to publicly debate the best policies to pursue. And this depends on an educated electorate capable of making informed decisions, an open free market of ideas, and access to the media. I submit that the agenda for the rationalist-humanist movement in the future should be on the ethical and political level.

We have amply demonstrated that rationalism has been a powerful instrument of progress in science and technology, contributing enormously to the betterment of humankind. We now need to demonstrate its efficacy in ethics and the social order. Often religious intransigence wedded to authoritarian moral creeds and entrenched social systems are obstacles to rationalism. Nevertheless, the rationalist revolution must be extended to these broader areas of human concern. If and when they are, I believe even more profound and positive improvements of the human condition will ensue.

I trust that this International Congress will debate vigorously the power of the rationalist movement for the future of humankind, its vast potentialities, and the obstacles that we have to overcome to realize them.