At the end of yesterday’s post, I posed the question, “Is religious faith irrational?”
Well, okay. I didn’t so much pose it as answer it. “Yes,” I said. I argued that religious faith is irrational, by definition, in a way that secular faith isn’t. I argued that religious faith means maintaining one’s faith in the face of any possible evidence that might arise to contradict it; in fact, that it means asserting ahead of time that no possible evidence could ever undermine your faith. In other words, it means asserting that your faith trumps reality. I said that religious faith answers the question, “What would convince you that your faith was mistaken?” with the answer, “Nothing — I have faith in my god. That’s what it means to have faith.” (Thanks to Ebonmuse for this, for about the fiftieth time.)
And yes, I said: I think that’s irrational. Secular faith (and the leaps thereof) often has instances of being irrational: but it isn’t irrational by definition. I think religious faith is.
Now, there are many religious believers who would hotly dispute this. There are many believers who think religious faith is entirely rational, that it’s based on evidence as much as anything else in life, that faith and reason co-exist nicely and even depend on one another. They write apologetics; come up with complex and elegant defenses for their beliefs; get into debates in atheist blogs. (There are also believers who embrace the irrational and even paradoxical nature of faith… but I’m not talking about them right now.)
But to the believers who insist that their faith is rational, I would ask them to consider this question, the question posed by Ebonmuse and cited at length in my previous post: What would convince you that your faith was mistaken? What conceivable evidence would make you change your mind and decide that God didn’t exist after all? Again, if the answer is, “Nothing could change my mind, that’s what it means to have faith” — well, that pretty much proves my point. (If the answer is something other than “Nothing,” don’t just argue your case here — be sure to tell Ebon about it. I’m sure he’d be interested to hear it.)
And I’ve noticed a pattern among religious believers defending the rationality of their faith. They enter into the debate full of logic and counter-arguments; but almost inevitably, they end up the debate by saying things like, “Well, that’s just how I feel,” or “I feel it in my heart, and that’s enough for me.”
I applaud these believers’ desire to see their faith as rational. I think the desire to have your beliefs be rooted in reality — or to not have them be preemptively defiant of it, at least — is a good instinct, a noble and worthwhile yearning. But when it comes to religious faith, I just don’t think it’s happening. Again, while secular faith has instances of irrationality — many of them, even — it isn’t irrational by its very nature. I think religious faith is.
and this is very important —
I don’t think religious believers are.
Not all of them, at any rate. Not by definition.
Here’s the thing I think atheists need to remember. It is entirely possible to be an overall sane, rational, functional person, and nevertheless have one particular area of irrational belief. Or even more than one.
In fact, it’s not just possible. It’s damn near universal. To atheists, as well as to believers.
We’ve all held irrational beliefs, and held on to them irrationally for longer than we should have. Belief in lovers who didn’t deserve it; belief in political ideologies that didn’t hold up; belief in leaders or role models who let us down time and time again. Belief that all those months you spent perfecting your suntan would be worth it. Belief that taking LSD really helps your pool game. Belief that your mother died of cancer because she was angry about you leaving home. Belief that you can write 90% of your senior thesis the week before it’s due. (This one turned out to be correct, but it was an extremely close call.) Belief that those bounced checks must have been your bank’s fault. Belief that you can work just fine with the TV on. Belief that getting married would fix your fucked-up relationship, simply by deepening your commitment to it. Belief that you can argue people out of their religious beliefs, if you just make your arguments good enough. Belief that this will finally be the Cubs’ year.
Okay, maybe I should use some examples that aren’t from my own life. How about these: Belief that nobody will notice that you’re totally wasted. Belief that your car can run for another ten miles when the gas gauge says “Empty.” Belief that you can’t get pregnant the first time. Belief that you’ll never regret that Grateful Dead tattoo. Belief that you’ll never regret taking physics instead of philosophy… or vice versa. Belief that a new outfit, a new haircut, a new car, will radically change your life. Belief that he/she will come back to you when they realize how much they miss you. Belief that if everyone smoked marijuana, there would be no more war.
Do any of these sound familiar? From your life, or from the lives of anyone you know? If not, I’m sure you can come up with some of your own, from your past, or maybe even from your present.
And none of these beliefs make us fundamentally irrational people. It is entirely possible to have certain irrational beliefs — even significant beliefs, even stubbornly held ones — and still be a basically rational person in most other areas of our lives. It’s not just possible. It’s universal. We all do it. In fact, hanging on to mistaken ideas once we’ve committed to them seems to be a basic part of how our minds work. And despite that, we’re still generally rational people, able to process information and analyze it effectively and make appropriate decisions about how to act on it… most of the time.
It’s not like people are either rational or not. It’s not like rationality is an either/or quality, an On/Off switch that gets flipped one way in some people and the other in others. It’s a spectrum, indeed several spectra, with some of us being less rational in some areas and more rational in others.
Look. I think religious leaps of faith are very different from secular ones, and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t. I think religious faith is inherently irrational, and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t. But the fact that religious believers hold one irrational belief that atheists don’t hold doesn’t make them fundamentally less-rational human beings than us. And we shouldn’t pretend that it does.