One of the major critiques thrown at the religious by atheists, is that religious people are not rational. The assumption is that we are simply pure-blooded pie-in-the-sky mystics. The religious attempt to counter these misconceptions by proving just how rational we can be, or how rational it is to have religious belief.
Yet the religious already have a simple and ready-made answer to the question of whether or not we are rational. We have theology.
Now theology, in the broad sense, is the systematic and academic study of the rational justifications for, and proper interpretations of, the doctrines of a religion. Obviously the particulars of theology will adapt to suit the religion in question, and thus just about every major religion will have their own theology. Yet despite all of the disparities that exist between the various religions there is a basic theological method. Just as there is a scientific method which can be used to discern the veracity of any claim in the various different sciences, so also there is a theological method. This method is also basically the same for every religion, just like the scientific method which does not change in form but only in content depending on the object of its focus.
So my aim here is to explain the theological method, show its steps, and ultimately justify its rationality.
The goal of a method
The point of a method is to establish a set of rules which will help guide our inquiry in a way that is structured and logical.
In the first place a method has something that it is trying to establish, prove, or discover. There is some bit of knowledge, wisdom, or even data which the method attempts to investigate. So the method always begins with the question, and the question is always determined by what I want to know.
So for example, consider Rene Descartes’ method from his Discourse on Method. Descartes claimed that he had discovered the “true method of arriving at knowledge of all things of which the mind is capable” So the goal of his inquiry was a complete system of well catalogued and categorized knowledge of everything. Descartes wanted a scientific method, scientific in the sense of being a system of all knowledge, which is basically what the term science originally meant.
You could also consider the hypothetico-deductive method from Michael Shermer’s A Skeptic’s Manifesto. Shermer wants a method whereby we put forward a hypothesis, conjoin it with a statement of initial conditions, deduce a prediction from the two, and finally try to determine if our prediction has been fulfilled. So for Shermer, as for many scientists, we want a method which can make accurate and observable predictions in order to verify an initial hypothesis.
So then what is the goal of the theological method? What is the inquiry which guides the theologian?
The theological method seeks an understanding of the demands, goals, rules, and designs which the divine being or beings have placed upon humans and the universe. In brief, the theological method wants only one simple thing, to know God. Though in practice that is never simple.
The method must be logical
So now we just need to investigate the basic steps of our theological method in order to determine how it works.
Before we begin we should establish only one basic ground rule. All reason-based methodologies must follow the rules of logic. You can have irrational methodologies, however strange that might seem, but if your method is supposed to yield consistent universal results then it must be rational and it must be founded in the principles of logic. In practice this means that your method should avoid any and all logical fallacies, at least in its initial construction. This also means that the ultimate proofs of all reason based methodologies are to be given in terms of logical proofs.
In the most basic sense, what makes the scientific method so remarkable is that it fulfills certain logical requirements. The scientific method is an inductive method of research and that means that its primary goal is to establish the probability of an argument being strong. Strong arguments are backed up by a great deal of evidence. On the other end of the spectrum an inductive argument for which there is very little evidence is quite weak. The strongest arguments meet the total evidence requirement by taking into account all relevant evidence which either proves or disproves the argument. The weakest arguments only meet the minimum evidence requirement by finding at least one fact or bit of data which proves the point.
Thus a strong scientific theory meets the total evidence requirement and will be backed up in as many ways as possible by as many studies as possible. On the other hand a weak theory which can produce only one fact to prove its point is generally what makes for a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories do involve facts, but they generally leave out far too much relevant data to be taken seriously.
The other basic type of argument is deductive, and deductive arguments prove validity by demonstrating that a conclusion follows with certainty from the evidence based solely on the way in which the argument has been structured.