One of the reasons why so many people believe wrong things is because it is so easy to rationalize things to make them sound true when they’re not. What’s worse, it’s very difficult to recognize rationalization when we’re the ones doing it. And that goes double when it’s someone else trying to convince us that we’re rationalizing. But there is at least one significant difference between rationalization and honest inquiry that helps clarify which one we’re actually employing.
I noticed this during an extended conversation with a Christian on my other blog (around the time I first presented the Gospel Hypothesis, as I recall). I noticed a pattern in his arguments: every time I introduced an argument that highlighted a clear difference between what was true and what was not, he would introduce an argument designed to obscure the distinction between truth and falsehood, so that you couldn’t say which of two possibilities was more likely to be correct.
I’m sure you’ve seen the same things many times. For example, if a loving God existed, we would hear about it from God Himself, when He showed up to participate in the loving, personal relationship that He was initiating and that was His heart’s desire. That stands in stark contrast to His inevitable failure to show up if He does not actually exist. There’s a clear-cut, visible, verifiable difference between the outcome if God is real, and the outcome if He is not.
Obviously, this demonstrates conclusively that no such loving God exists, which is a problem for the believer. The believer’s response, therefore, is to propose some additional set of extenuating circumstances whose primary goal is to make it necessary that God not show up in real life. In other words, it is designed to make the outcome if God exists look exactly like the outcome if God does not. It is designed to prevent us from finding out which is true.
This attempt to prevent discovery of the truth is one of the hallmarks of rationalization. The person who is honestly attempting to discover the truth has no need to try and make it more difficult to tell the difference between truth and falsehood—quite the contrary! But the person who is resisting and opposing the truth must necessarily seek to suppress it and prevent anyone from being able to tell what’s true and what is not.
It’s not ironclad, and there may be circumstances where in fact there is insufficient evidence to tell what’s true and what isn’t, and it’s not rationalization to say so under those circumstances. But when we have to go out of our way to invent something whose sole function is to make a false hypothesis indistinguishable from a true one, it’s time to seriously consider whether or not we’re just rationalizing to ourselves.