The Uses of Common Sense

A great deal of ink has been spilled in the course of Western
philosophy over the question of whether or not the material
world exists. Some great minds have been led to insanity by
the possibility that it does not; others have accepted their
nihilism cheerfully. But just about all philosophers, whether
they came from the tradition of empiricism and skepticism,
like Hume, or from that of idealism, like Hegel, were
eventually forced into a sort of extreme subjectivism,
concluding that we do not, in fact, exist, and that the world
is merely the product of our imagination. Various
philosophers accepted this solipsism to a greater or lesser
degree, but it formed the essential tenor of philosophy in the
modern world.

This is rather alarming for those of us who stroll around in
the non-philosophical world, putting one foot in front of the
other on the hasty presumption that the ground exists and will
be there to meet it. Most of us are probably frightened by
the threat of nothingness which lies at the heart of this sort
of thinking, which is why I’ve heard so many people describe
philosophy as “depressing.” But unfortunately, there’s no
way around these conclusions. It is entirely possible that
the material world does not exist, that it is the product of
our imagination.

The breakthrough of the analytical philosophers, particularly
Bertrand Russell, however, was to point out that, simply
because something is possible, that does not make it true.
This is where common sense comes in and allows us to
distinguish between one possible proposition and another. For
instance, it may be true that every person I’ve ever known is
the product of my imagination. However, it may also be true
that what our common sense tells us is correct, and that
people have an independent existence. What is more, the
second option has probability on its side. This is
illustrated by the following example. Suppose I see a
stranger out of the corner of my eye on a city street. I will
probably not think anything of her, especially if I do not see
her again for another twenty years. But at the end of those
twenty years, when I do encounter her, she will appear twenty
years older. Now, it is possible that I have an incredibly
brilliant and far-reaching imagination which is capable of
keeping tabs on every stranger I encounter and making sure
that they all age whenever I’m not imagining I’m watching
them, but this would be quite a feat. The more likely
conclusion is that these strangers have an independent
existence and material properties which cause them to age
whether I am there or not.

This is the value of common sense: it steps in where reason
fails us. Of course, common sense may be wrong. It told
Aristotle, for instance, that dung produces vermin, which no
one believes today. Science often has to fight an uphill
battle against common sense. But this underrated quality does
get us through the day, and we all rely on it more than we are
willing to admit. We do not steer clear of cliff edges, for
example, because we know that the curvature of space-time
causes massive bodies to exert force on one another, but
rather, because of our common sense. Without it, we would
surely all be dead by now.

Common sense is not a replacement for reason, experience,
scientific method, etc. But where these prove ineffective, we
may be forced to use it, as in the above philosophical
example. This brings me to my main purpose in this essay:
religion and its relation to common sense. Religious people
often deride atheists for their excessive reliance on reason.
They regard us as arrogant eighteenth-century Whigs
convinced that all the mysteries of the universe will
eventually bow before our almighty reason. Little does it
matter that it is far more arrogant to declare absolute
knowledge about God and eternal life, as religious people do,
than to say, along with the atheists and agnostics, that it is
useless to make definite propositions about things which can
neither be proved nor refuted.

Atheists, at least in my experience, do admit that reason
cannot conclusively solve all the questions of life. It can
help make sense out of experience, intuit conclusions from
masses of evidence, and connect one idea to another; it can
also help us determine what is possible and what is
impossible. But when it comes to determining between several
possible conclusions, that is where common sense must aid us.
We often rely on it to tell us that one thing is more
probable than another.

One of the favorite tactics of religious people and of the
more militant “I don’t know” agnostics is to accuse atheists
of having a pointless “faith” in the nonexistence of God.
Everyone has her own absurd beliefs on the question, they say.
Since none can be proved, why should atheists hold to their
own view so firmly?

Of course, your typical atheist does not say that there cannot
possibly be a God; she says that she refuses to believe in one
until she sees some evidence. All admit that there may be a
God. There may also be a mystical creature called the Slynx
which hangs by its tail from tall branches and drops onto
unwary passersby. To say that one does not believe in either
is not the same as declaring that both are outside the realm
of possibility. This is where common sense makes its
appearance. It is possible that the aforementioned Slynx
exists in some deep woodland in Siberia or the American West.
But because there have been no confirmed sightings of the
Slynx in fraud-proof conditions, because no Slynx has been
captured and put in a zoo, and because no unfortunate hikers
are found in Yellowstone or Yosemite with unmistakable signs
of Slynx manhandling, common sense tells us that it is more
probable that there is no such thing. This assertion of
probability is the only one that atheists are making.

If we examine other religious questions we come to similar
conclusions. Take, for instance, the question of the divine
inspiration of scripture. Most religious people believe that
their own preferred holy book was at least partially inspired
by God, and some of the more tolerant believe that the same
may be said of all scriptures (although most set L. Ron
Hubbard’s Dianetics apart).

Again, reason will only take us so far in all of this. It can
help us determine what is possible, but beyond that, we are
stymied. It is possible that there exists a God. This God
may live in the sky or in a burning bush or with the Slynx in
Siberia or outside of the material world entirely, as
religious people now argue. It is also possible that this God
inspired the Holy Scriptures. Reason does not tell us that
this is necessarily either true or false, but common sense may
point us in the right direction.

First of all, the notion of the divine inspiration of
scripture leads most people to conclusions which they cannot
possibly accept, both ethically and empirically. One need
only read the transcript of the Scopes Monkey trial to
encounter a few obvious flaws in the Old Testament’s view of
the world. As Clarence Darrow pointed out, while the Bible
may not allow for the theory of evolution, it tells us a great
many things as well which science has long since discarded.
For instance, Joshua is described as demanding that the Sun
stand still, which indicates that the Sun rotates around the
Earth. Of course, many religious people do not today
believe that this is the case.

Most scriptures also teach ethical lessons which no one today
can accept. If one seeks violent pornography, one need not
read the Marquis de Sade, but simply open the Bible. This
includes a scene (chapter 19 of Judges) in which a “selfless”
man takes in a stranger who is being pursued by a gang of
rapists (this is not to be confused with the story of Sodom
and Gomorrah, which begins with a similar premise). The
selfless man in question offers the rapists his daughter and
his concubine instead of the stranger, who, as a man, has a
right not to be raped which the Old Testament does not grant
to women. “Ravish them and do whatever you want to them,” the
man declares. The rapists proceed to do just that, after the
concubine is sent out to them. The next morning, apparently
without reason, the selfless man “took a knife, and grasping
his concubine, cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and
sent her throughout all the territory of Israel.”

This sort of grotesque, directionless loathing of women can be
found in nearly all scripture, and this is not to mention the
other violations of human rights and dignity that they
encourage. Islam, for instance, was developed by patriarchal
chieftains who practiced polygamy and slavery. Mohammad
himself married a girl as young as nine, which we would now
describe as pedophilia, and engaged in slave raids on rival
tribes. Meanwhile, Hindu scriptures such as the Manusmriti
encourage one to pour molten lead in the ear of a member of
the lower castes who forgets her place, and the Ramayana, an
epic with holy status, describes Ram, the godly hero, driving
his wife Sita to suicide by self-immolation.

Few people today would accept these things
unquestioningly. Of course, there are still Islamists who
throw acid in the face of girls attempted to go to school, and
there are still members of the upper castes in India who
commit atrocities against Dalits, but among the intellectual
defenders of religion, this sort is a rare breed (although we
shouldn’t overlook the more or less openly misogynistic
Islamist “scholars” who are considered by many to be part of
the mainstream). Rather, these defenders make the claim that
the parts of these scriptures we find objectionable were not
the work of God but were added later by malicious human hands.
For instance, most modern Hindus no longer accept the
Manusmriti as legitimate scripture. Also, most now regard
Ram’s treatment of Sita as a sort of lesson in how not to
treat women, and regard Sita’s suicide as an act of defiance.
This seems an alarming claim to make when women in
Afghanistan, for instance, are currently immolating themselves
in large number due to the hopelessness of their condition.
Should we regard these suicides as acceptable, or only those
which supposedly took place long ago?

But if there are apparently human hands at work in these
scriptures, and they are not merely God’s words, then how are
we to determine what is sacred and what is profane? Our own
reason and conscience? But then, as our collective ideas
change, we are bound to discover still more human meddling in
the body of these scriptures. For instance, one hopes that we
will someday regard cruelty to animals the way we now regard
slavery, or that we will view the belief in hell and eternal
punishment as extraordinarily vicious. Then we will
undoubtedly uncover more human work, while God’s share in the
writing of the scriptures will seem smaller and smaller, so
much so that one wonders why He deserves the credit of sole

So, we are faced with two possibilities, and reason assures us
that both are theoretically possible. Either God, writing
thousands of years ago at different points of the globe,
somehow miraculously forecasted our future humanitarian ideals
and attempted to write them down, but various wicked human
scribes got in the way and put in a lot of rot about slavery
and misogyny which God did not intend. This is, I repeat, a
possibility. The other possibility is that scriptures were
human books written by various ruling elites in backward
societies, many of whom owned slaves and regarded women as

And this is where common sense comes in, and points out that
one of the two possibilities has a great deal of probability
on its side.

There remains one final religious argument to consider: that
of Karen Armstrong in her recent book, The Case for God.
Armstrong argues that atheist thought is incapable of
demolishing faith in God, because religious people and theist
writers have a conception of God which Richard Dawkins, say,
has failed to understand. This conception of God is not of
some bearded fellow in the sky, but of an enormous, universal
question mark. This God cannot be understood, described, or
expressed in human language. It cannot even be said to
“exist” per se. Rather, it represents the mystery of the
cosmos, the great enigmas of existence, before which we are

One does a double take when faced with an argument of this
sort. If God does not exist, then Richard Dawkins is
perfectly correct. If Karen Armstrong does not believe in a
God which has an actual existence, which can wield an impact
on the physical world, which can affect our daily lives, and
which can be thought of in something resembling language—in
short, if all she believes is that the universe is full of
mystery—then clearly she is an atheist herself. No serious
atheist has ever denied that the universe is full of mystery,
wonder, and majesty. While scientists and rationalists may
have the hubris to attempt to solve one or two of these
mysteries instead of accepting powerlessness and defeat, this
does not mean that they are the philistines Armstrong thinks
they are. Richard Dawkins, for example, has frequently
written of the beauty of literature, art, and the natural world.

The true absurdity of Armstrong’s argument is that she
believes that all religious traditions have been built around
this conception of God as a non-existent non-God. Scriptures
and dogmas have simply attempted to guide believers toward
this mature understanding, she argues. We will leave aside
the obvious fact that if God is conceived as non-existent and
lacking supernatural power, then it is no longer a God and the
believer becomes an atheist. Armstrong’s assertions about
religious traditions do not seem credible. Granted that many
modern theologians have been forced to adopt an increasingly
distant and non-Godly conception of God, but this has nothing
to do with the traditions they represent and everything to do
with the progress of science, which has steadily eroded any
rational basis for religious belief and pushed theologians
into further and further backwaters of linguistic nonsense
(Armstrong’s apparent assertion that God exists without
existing is only the most recent example).

All scriptures describe a God or several lesser gods who
speak, act, and wield an impact on the material world. All
have a will, all interfere with our lives, and all may change
things as they see fit. It is possible that Karen Armstrong
is correct, and all of this is intended allegorically. But
why, we may ask, would religious people write allegories in
order to express the opposite of what they say? If they were
trying to convince people that God does not exist in an
explicit sense, why would they write allegories in which He
does? Finally, why would prayer, sacrifice, and the belief
that God can fulfill one’s wishes be such a deeply ingrained
aspect of all religious traditions if those traditions did not
believe that God could wield an impact on the real world?

Common sense is indeed on our side. We atheists, therefore,
do not need to regard reason as the only human capacity of
worth. Religious people have long since abandoned reason,
after all, as Freud pointed out in The Future of an Illusion.
But even common sense and ethical feeling are against them.
We may therefore conclude that no human thought process of
merit, other than wishful thinking, leads to religious
conclusions. The forces which compel so many otherwise
intelligent people to accept their value must be sought
elsewhere. The task is a big one, intended for more expert
hands than mine.

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