Rationality and religion.

Ian Buruma is much smarter and much more well read than I am. He asserts that:

Religion is not a rational enterprise. Its metaphysical claims cannot be proven; either one believes them or one does not.¹

At first reading I took the phrase “rational enterprise” at face value, but later I realized that the following “Its metaphysical claims cannot be proven” implied that here “rational” in fact should be taken as “logical” (or perhaps “scientific”). Even though “rational” sounds objective and almost scientific, in fact rationality is wider than logical or scientific reasoning.

If one takes into account that rationality also includes concerns like motivations, values, goals, then it becomes clear that both logic and science aren’t enough for establishing that something is rational. For example, one can’t determine using only logic things like choosing a profession, choosing a mate, having children (or how many), etc.

A lot of people would argue that it is irrational to have nine or ten children (except, interestingly, religiously motivated people). However, how can one argue rationally (taken as locigally and stricly fact-based) for having two children as apposed to no children at all? A narrowly defined rationality falls short, it needs values.

It seems to me that, in order to establish whether something is rational or irrational, first one has to agree on certain background assumptions that on themselves cannot be determined by pure logic. Unless everybody agrees on an objective system of morality like that of Sam Harris, in which case the problem becomes one of lack of information and knowledge, since the ultimate goal (well-being for conscious creatures) is a given.

Coming back to Buruma’s quote about religion, I take it that he means that since religious claims cannot be proven, it does not belong to the domain of logic and science. Religious claims require faith. I agree, but as it happens, a lot of religious people do not.

First of all, lots of ordinary believers and even quite a few sophisticated apologists think that, in fact, their religion can be proven.

For example, lots of Christians still think that the New Testament constitutes reliable eyewitness testimony of the resurrection of Jesus, thereby proving the veracity of the whole bible and all Christian beliefs. One can try to point out that their argument is circular and that anybody can write a book with firsthand accounts of miracles, but to no avail.

Also, believers don’t like to be told that they are not being rational. I am under the impression that apologists are becoming more and more creative in building “rational” and even “scientific” arguments for their beliefs, but of course “rational arguments” for belief are nothing new, nor do believers need to be professional apologists to come up with some.

The first time I talked with a believer about his faith, I was slapped with the most basic one instantly. Proof for God is all around you! From the cosmos to a blade of grass, everything screams out: God exists! And to doubt that, means to be blind, more specifically, irrational.

Buruma’s assertion about religion not being rational caught my attention because I myself am often guilty of thinking or calling the behavior of my fellow human beings irrational. For example, suppose you are young and healthy. Subsequently you start using one of the most poisonous and addictive drugs that we know (I mean tobacco cigarettes). I think that is highly irrational. And I’ve tried to put to these people hard facts (about how damaging smoking is) that (so I feel) should have convinced them to (at least try to) quit this poison straight away. Of course smokers don’t want to listen to any of that. They may come up with (silly, illogical, childish) rationalizations that are supposed to invalidate the facts or at least make them irrelevant. More often they decide that am a nasty person that should be avoided. Of course I learned not talk to smokers about how unhealthy smoking is. But in my mind I still take note of the irrational thought processes involved, and feel sad.²

To me religious people are irrational very much like cigarette smokers. Some people lose their faith because they have a flaw in their character that forces them to follow facts to the truth, even if the truth is unpleasant. However, most believers will rationalize like crazy. Professional apologists will even lie, to “protect” the naive believers.

1. Ian Buruma, Taming the Gods: religion and democracy on three continents. Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2010, p. 9.

2. I am aware of the claim that the prefrontal cortex (involved in reasoned decision making) isn’t fully developed until the age of twenty-five (and for some never) and that for that reason young people are the ideal target for the tobacco industry. I am of course also aware that once people are addicted they no longer will be able to think rationally about that very fact. While this may tell us why these people are being irrational, the fact itself remains.