Is Religious Faith Irrational?


El_greco_the_repentant_peter_3At 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.

Brain_lobesNow, 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.)

AngelheartAnd 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.

But —

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.

Chicago_cubs_logoWe’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.

MarijuanaOkay, 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.

Light_switchIt’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.

Comments

  1. says

    I think you failed to mention one. Some generally rational people, including atheists, maintain an irrational belief in “free will”. I have had many discussions with some about this and it is impossible to reason with them, at least at the moment. I think some may come around after a lot of reflexion.
    Here is Daniel Dennett on the subject.
    http://meaningoflife.tv/video.php?speaker=dennett&topic=freewill
    PS, I had to change my email, but I am still the old bernarda.

  2. says

    Belief that if everyone smoked marijuana, there would be no more war.
    I don’t think we can call this one irrational until it’s been empirically tested!

  3. says

    I think you’ve missed one important difference: on the whole, religious faith is held up as desirable, whereas secular faith isn’t.
    There are plenty of exceptions, of course: believing that your SO isn’t cheating on you, in the absence of an ironclad guarantee, for instance, is virtuous. But this trust is itself currency in which you purchase good will. And there are apologists who try to give their beliefs a rational foundation (Pascal’s Wager may be the most famous “rational” apologetic).
    But on the whole, it’s easier to find examples where religious faith is held up as desirable for its own sake (e.g., the story of Doubting Thomas), or where secular faith is something that one settles for, rather than something one pursues. (For example, I’ll take a leap of faith and trust that the waiter hasn’t spit on my food, because the risk is too small, and the potential outcome too negligible, to justify the cost of finding out for sure. But a person with a food allergy might not be willing to trust that the kitchen left out the tomato as requested.)
    In short, religious faith is often held up as a virtue, whereas ordinary faith or trust is usually a compromise that allows one to function in the real world.

  4. Jason Failes says

    “Secular faith (and the leaps thereof) often has instances of being irrational: but it isn’t irrational by definition”
    Nail —> Head.
    A few weeks ago, Chris Hedges was on the CBC hawking his new book, and criticizing the “New Atheists” for being fanatical, closed-minded, war-promoting, eugenicist etc.
    What he was doing was not just regular quote-mining but “person-mining”, taking, for example, the pro-war stance of Hitchens and painting all atheists with that broad stroke as being potentially and/or inherently violent.
    This not only ignores the great variability of secular beliefs (unlike the almost magnetic alignment of most Christians on issues such as abortion and gay marriage), but ignores what you point out so well: In principle, all of our beliefs are falsifiable.
    Oh, and also:
    “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 once spent two-years getting a Christian to this point, after reading literally dozens of apologetics books, and perhaps hundreds of her e-mails.
    It was very frustrating.
    She just believed so completely, I thought she must know something I didn’t. That wasted a lot of time.

  5. says

    I did, actually, complete 90% of my senior thesis the week before it was due. It wasn’t a good idea, but it did work.

  6. Griff says

    Yep, laughed at the “senior thesis” one; I didn’t do that myself, but I think about 40% of it wasn’t written until the week before it was due.
    The thing I have a problem with, I guess, is being expected to take other people’s irrationality seriously – whether it’s about religion, partners, friends, or anything else. If you’re going to be irrational, fine. Just don’t expect me to give you any credence on whatever subject you’ve decided to be irrational about.

  7. says

    Greta, the Barefoot Bum wrote a post in response to this one. We can all disagree with one another on some things, but personally I felt his tone was unnecessarily harsh.

  8. nosmok says

    90 percent of a thesis the week before it’s due? Bah! I laugh at you star students! Try 90 percent of your thesis in the 48 hours before it’s due. That’s sticking it to the man, dudes. I really showed them!!!
    –nosmok
    ps– this is the Cubs’ year! I can feel it!!!

  9. says

    Nice post. As usual I agree and disagree. Dug the spectrum analogy. Was unclear about this though…You conclude, “I think religious faith is inherently irrational…” I got trolled into a horrid mess on the chaplain’s blog about this same issue.
    It’s unclear whether you’re assigning the label of irrationality to ALL variant forms of religious faith, or only those variants that would answer the pre-defined question of “What would convince you that your faith was mistaken?” with, “Nothing…”
    If you are asserting that ALL forms of religious faith are irrational, doesn’t that contain within itself the irrational presupposition that you’ve analyzed or understood ALL possible variants of religious faith? Or do you perhaps mean to say that “all forms of religious faith, *as currently understood by yourself* are inherently irrational?”
    I would like to comment more and leave my answer to the question, but need clarity. Although you did give a vague definition of “religious faith” I’m curious how you, personally, define “rational,” and what your personal criteria are for deciding whether or not a given belief is rational…??

  10. says

    What I am saying, CL, is that all forms of religious belief *that I have seen* share this form of irrationality: the irrationality that answers the question, “What would convince you that your faith was mistaken?” with the answer, “Nothing, I have faith, that’s what it means to have faith.”
    I’ve seen an awful lot of defenses and explanations and apologetics for religious faith, and I haven’t seen any exceptions. And until I see an exception, I am fairly comfortable with my assertion that this form of irrationality is inherent to religious faith.
    And supporting my conclusion: Ebonmuse’s challenge has been available on the Internet for close to seven years. It’s been discussed on numerous web forums. But he’s only received two responses. And both were, as I pointed out, singularly unresponsive. (He said in a comment here that he’s in process of receiving a third, but from his description it seems like it’s going to be every bit as irrelevant/ logically impossible as the other two.)
    But like I said, if you know of an exception — a theistic response to this challenge that doesn’t reply, “Nothing” and that isn’t shot through with irrelevancies and logical impossibilities — I’d be interested to see it.

  11. Kagehi says

    > Some generally rational people, including atheists,
    > maintain an irrational belief in “free will”.
    We can’t say, with any certainty of truth, via pure logic, that the universe itself “is” they way it is, and isn’t instead something else, which merely looks, from out limited perspective, like it has causality, and a whole mess of other things. Some things you take as absolutes on the **grounds** that its neither practical, nor helpful, to describe them as something other than what they seem to be. ‘Free will’ is like that. Since we cannot know what all the individual *effects* are that *cause* our choices, nor does it appear likely within the bounds of our ability or perception “to” know, we are left with either provisionally accepting that free will exists, or spending a lot of damn time babbling about all ways it might not be, without actually getting anything useful out of the effort. Likely “every” rational person recognizes that they don’t know for sure, but pretty much all of them figure that its rather pointless to even try to act otherwise, since… well, how the frack do you *act* as though every thing you did was predetermined by prior events? The only answer anyone has come up with is the rather absurd idea that you can “find” your true “destiny” by listening to the words of some clown that is **just** as causality based as you are, and, this is where things get stupid, “choosing” to do what they claim god wants, instead of what ever you where going to “choose” before…. How the hell does that work anyway?
    Simple fact. Free will or not, if you don’t have it, you wouldn’t know it, nor could anything you do be “effected” by that, save through the cause and effect of knowing, which makes knowing and not knowing *both* meaningless.
    Its like asking if it matters if a marble would do something different, if it “knew” that it would going to end up in the bottom of a box of other marbles, when someone is shaking the box. If free will is an illusion, then we cannot act any different knowing than we would not knowing. All we would do is change the state of a few “switches”, resulting in a different outcome, switches that wouldn’t have flipped anyway, without prior events making us aware of the “fact” which changed them.
    Its an irrationality that *all* people hold, since the result of not doing so is perceptibly nonexistent.

  12. Anon Ymous says

    Thanks for the article. I read Ebon’s article on the same material, and I remember vehemently disagreeing with him that all people with faith would answer “Nothing” when asked what would shake their faith…
    And then I thought about it a little more.
    I mean, my own answer, when I was a Christian, would have been “I don’t know”. It amounts to a very similar thing, but it isn’t the same… I always assumed there would be something that could counter my faith, but never really cared about it enough to work out exactly what that was…
    And then, when I finally admitted to myself I was gay, and read what that jewel of humanity, Rev. Phelps, had to say on the matter, I started to actually look at faith a bit closer, and tried to work out what could actually tell me one way or the other whether any of it was actually true.
    First stage was fairly easy, really… working out things that could be true that would make the bible not inerrant didn’t phase me at all – I was never a creationist, so I never assumed biblical inerrancy, again I’d just never bothered to follow through that logic to where it lead, that maybe the rest of the bible was suspect as well. Anyway, I worked out some things that could make the bible not a true indication of God’s will – and lo and behold, those bits of evidence turned up. So out went the bible.
    That probably would have been enough for me, if I hadn’t started reading atheist blogs while trying to work out the rest lol… I probably would have ended up with an irrational god-belief that was just no longer tied to a book. But reading blogs like yours and PZs and so forth made me question even that…
    The place I am now is that God almost certainly doesn’t exist (as in celestial teapot kind of almost certain) – and if he does, well, either he’s “good”, in which case he knows how I got where I am and will understand; or else he isn’t, in which case he isn’t worth my time anyway.
    Anyway, I read Ebon’s article after losing my faith, but I still felt he was being unfair, because I didn’t think any person I went to church with as a kid would have answered “nothing” if posed that question… But honestly, I think most would have answered like me – “Never really thought about it. I don’t know” – and on further reflection, I suppose the difference there is more in attitude than in content…
    I think a lot of people hold to religious beliefs as a kind of “null hypothesis” the way I did… that is to say, unless you have reason to question it, they just let it stand.
    The thing that makes it so pernicious, of course, is that it’s so damned hard to question…
    [P.S. Apologies for the behemoth of a post…]

  13. says

    Hi Anon –
    I agree that most religious people, if posed this question, wouldn’t be able to think of how they could answer it and would say they didn’t know. It’s not a question that the average believer has given much thought to, I’m sure. I think that further supports, rather than undercuts, the thesis Greta’s advancing here.
    But, on the other hand, there are a large number of religious believers who *have* explicitly addressed this question – and of those who have, most of them that I’ve seen have given the answer in my essay, that no conceivable evidence could shake their faith. In fact, many large religious organizations make it an explicit requirement that their members affirm this. The creationist group Answers in Genesis has an official statement of faith which says the following:
    “By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.”
    And a popular Christian biology textbook which was at issue in the recent University of California v. Calvary Chapel lawsuit has this line:
    “If the conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.”
    This position of immunity to evidence is not a fluke or a rarity, but a fairly common view among many religious individuals and organizations. I’ve yet to find any who affirm the opposite.

  14. says

    “[P.S. Apologies for the behemoth of a post…]”
    No apologies necessary, Anon. Your comment was interesting, thoughtful, and very pertinent — especially since we’re considering the question of how deconversion happens. (I’d be interested to hear more from you about that.)
    Like Ebon says, I don’t think your comment undercuts my basic thesis. (And it seems like it wasn’t meant to.) But I think you’ve added some important nuance: that religious faith answers the question, “What would convince you that you were wrong?” with the answer, “Nothing, that’s what it means to have faith” — OR with the answer, “I don’t know, I never really thought about it.” Which, as you point out, more or less amounts to the same thing.

  15. David Harmon says

    Jason Failes: She just believed so completely, I thought she must know something I didn’t.
    And I think you’ve just summed up much of why folks get drawn into this stuff.

  16. says

    “I think a lot of people hold to religious beliefs as a kind of “null hypothesis” the way I did… that is to say, unless you have reason to question it, they just let it stand.”
    Yes. I think religions have convinced people that it’s normal and desirable to have some kind of religion, to believe some set of tenets.
    One important role that visible atheists play is to make people realize that they don’t need to subscribe to any belief if they don’t want to. It seems obvious, but the obvious often needs to be pointed out.

  17. says

    we should all worship politicians because they are he best liars among us, always promising to buy our votes with our money.
    Politicians also promise you can have everything you want and someone else will pay for it. Clearly a lie we all choose to believe for some reason

  18. Raphael says

    You might not like to hear this, but stuff like the second part of this post is the reason why you’re my favorite atheist blogger/geral commentator, Greta- I can’t really imagine Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers, let alone Christopher Hitchens, writing something as humble and self-aware as that.

  19. says

    Perhaps the reason Christians have such a difficult time answering the question is because of the irrationality of the question itself. Turn the tables for a moment and ask someone of secular faith, “What would convince you that YOUR faith was mistaken?” Note, I am not asking them to believe in the God of the Bible. Maybe not in any god at all, just to admit that man is not necessarily the greatest being in the universe, perhaps even on the planet. It is a very difficult question to answer from that perspective I would think.
    What about those whose life depends on their faith in a higher power? Granted, 12-steppers can choose whether their higher power is God, god, the group consciousness, etc., but they MUST have a higher power to be successful. And many are. How do you respond to their “faith?” Is it still irrational?
    You speak of entering debates as if the entire question can be answered on the basis of logic. That is only an assumption that a person of secular faith would make. It is as if you are asking a believer, “If you thought like I thought, what would it take to convince you that I am right?” It sounds a little silly when put like that!
    As a long time Cubs fan, let me ask you this: Is it irrational to believe that this could be their year? True, many years of history are working against us, but what of Boston and the curse? 86 years of history were working against them, does that make every Boston fan who thought that 2004 might be there year irrational? If it does, strike one up for the irrational people of Boston!
    Perhaps your belief that the question of “What would convince you that your faith was mistaken?” should be of vital importance to the believer is merely because it is of vital importance to you, because the box that you believe the world exists in is a smaller or at least a different box than the one the believer thinks it exists in.
    For what it is worth, I believe that my faith has been mistaken from time to time. I don’t fault God for that, I fault my own slowness, stubbornness, and lack of understanding. So as I have grown, my faith has changed. I am okay with that, and I hope God is too. And perhaps, if you can accept it, that is the answer to your question. If you ask “What would convince you that your faith was mistaken?” I would have to say I acknowledge that at times my faith has been mistaken, that I have made mistakes regarding what I believe, about God, myself, humanity, the Cubs, etc. As I grow, my faith changes. That is because I am human. And if humans are at the top of the heap, that heap is a lot smaller than I thought!

  20. says

    “What about those whose life depends on their faith in a higher power?…but they MUST have a higher power to be successful. And many are.”
    Actually, I’m afraid that they’re not. 12 Step Programs have a variable long-term success rate of 3-10%, depending on the report.
    I do social work for a living. I do nothing but work with people with substance abuse problems. The small margin of people who escape their addictions don’t do so because they’ve given their lives up to a higher power (nearly all of my clients are devoutly Christian, but few of them have successful recoveries) they do so because of a strong human support network, involvement in positive social interactions, proper job training and (what d’ya know!) education. In other words, putting their faith in a higher power didn’t do a lick of good until actual human beings stepped in to help.
    In fact, the clients who often fail the worst are the ones who have surrendered themselves the most to their ‘higher power’. Many clients feel that since their lives are in the hands of a higher power, they aren’t personally responsible for having a relapse.

  21. says

    Spherical:
    “Turn the tables for a moment and ask someone of secular faith, ‘What would convince you that YOUR faith was mistaken?'”
    Um…
    I spent much of the previous post, the first post in this series:
    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2008/05/what-would-conv.html
    answering that very question. The whole point of that post, in fact, was that people with secular faith *can*, at least in theory, be convinced that it’s mistaken. And I gave several specific examples. So I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking.
    “You speak of entering debates as if the entire question can be answered on the basis of logic. That is only an assumption that a person of secular faith would make.”
    I’m actually working on an entire new post on pretty much this subject. The gist: No, logic and reason and evidence aren’t best suited to answering all questions. But they *are* best suited to answering questions about what is or is not true in the real, external world. And that’s what the God hypothesis is: a hypothesis about what is true about the world, how the world works, and why it is the way it is.
    As to whether it’s rational for, say, 12-steppers to believe in God: The question of whether religion is useful and whether it’s true are two completely different questions. More on that here:
    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/11/true-or-false-h.html
    Also, see Dave Haaz-Baroque’s comment above.
    Finally, I have never once said that man is the greatest being in the universe, or even on the planet. Quite the contrary. I see people as very much part of the physical universe, merely one aspect of it. (Albeit a very interesting one… but of course we humans are going to think that…)
    Thinking that there is no god is not the same as thinking that humanity is the pinnacle of the universe. I don’t think we’re at the top of the heap. I don’t think there is a top.

  22. says

    I most certainly concur with Raphael, who wrote:
    “You might not like to hear this, but stuff like the second part of this post is the reason why you’re my favorite atheist blogger/geral commentator, Greta- I can’t really imagine Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers, let alone Christopher Hitchens, writing something as humble and self-aware as that.”
    Also the Going to Church post….very humble and introspective

  23. says

    Another great post. I really wish that more Atheist would take this approach to understanding theists rather than just labeling them as “stupid” for not understanding science and reason (advanced concepts that are recent development in the scope of human history).

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