Religion Today

Monday, September 27, 2010

Religion is Irrational. So what?

A common charge leveled against religion is that it is irrational. Although this charge has been around for centuries, it has recently gained new currency through proponents such as Ayn Rand, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins -- and now apparently Stephen Hawking.

What does it mean to say, "religion is not rational?" That's a good question, because rationality itself has many different definitions. They range from notions so vague that every thought not markedly insane is rational to formulations so strict that no idea is rational unless it meets several philosophical tests.

The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences gives its initial characterization of rationality as requiring "justified beliefs and sensible goals as well as judicious decisions." The three criteria here suggest an answer to our question. Since most religions and religious people are capable of formulating sensible goals and making judicious decisions, it must be the justified beliefs where the problem lies.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century attacked religion - Christianity in particular - for having "beliefs" that could not be justified or proven, such as the belief in a god, which it labeled as a superstitious fantasy.

On the one hand, this intellectual movement was highly successful, for it became the basis for the scientific and technological revolution that shaped and continues to shape our modern world. On the other hand, although the Enlightenment demonstrated that there was no rational proof for a god's existence, it failed to prove there was no god or gods. It ran into the problem that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The Enlightenment showed by its criteria that religion was irrational, but it did not demonstrate that religion was wrong.

So religion is irrational. So what? Do human beings live such rational lives that religion should be seen as a detriment?

Of course not. Humans base surprising few of their decisions and actions on rationality.

What is your favorite color or ice cream flavor? Which sports team do you root for, or do you detest sports?

If you are married, did you pick your spouse on a rational basis or did you fall in love? Was it "love at first sight"? That's not rational!

What about your friends? Did you rationally choose them out of a list ranking their best qualities, or are they just people you happened to meet and hang out with?

What do you do as a hobby or when you are relaxing? What are your favorite TV shows? Are these rational choices or just what you enjoy?

You know you should loose weight, but just one more cookie . . . .

Guys, what about your preference in cars? Or is it trucks or motorcycles? Do you lust after a Lexis or a Mercedes, or would you rather have a Ferrari or a Jag? Sure, you can debate their strengths and weaknesses, but (imagine a low, slow whisper here) what do you really want?

Think about the process of buying a vehicle. We select a few choices (rationally, of course!) and test drive them. We then pick the one we "like" or the one that feels "comfortable." Hardly a rational decision!

Gals, what about your look? You know, the style of clothes you choose to wear, the way you put on your make-up (or not), your hair style? Are these simply rational decisions devoid of feeling and emotion or do they result from aesthetic choices? To put it more simply, do you wear what "looks good" on you?

These observations are offered tongue-in-cheek, but they aim to make a simple point. Humans do not really lead rational lives. Many of our everyday thoughts, decisions and activities have little to do with rationality. Indeed, the real surprise is that we manage to think and act rationally as much as we do. So the accusation that religion is irrational simply means that it is like most of the way we live our lives.


  • Hi Paul,

    I've always appreciated your columns, but I think that you missed the mark
    on this one. Or more precisely, your analogies are not appropriate. I hope
    I'm not sounding argumentative, but you are confusing belief systems with
    personal preferences.

    When I describe my belief system, I am describing what I think to be true.
    If I say I believe in the supernatural, some would consider me irrational.

    When I describe my hobbies, or what car I selected, I may not be able to say
    why these are my preferences. You could say my choices are therefore
    irrational. I would say that these are simply the things that I like, for
    whatever reasons. My preferences are not part of my belief system. I don't
    need to justify my preferences, but I am responsible for what I think to be

    Maybe the more appropriate question for the analogies you chose would be to
    ask why some prefer to believe in a god.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9/27/2010  

  • Oh, I just prefer to choose to believe that life is irrational all the way around. Maybe that's why I'm so attracted to Religious Studies: I'm comfortable with irrationality. I feel sorry for those who insist on rationality in everything. They miss out of rainbows and sunsets and snotty noses and and probably never learn how to comfort a 3-year-old who believes there are monsters under the bed. Give me my irrational world any day!

    By Anonymous Jo, at 9/27/2010  

  • There is a myth that science takes away from the beauty of the natural world and the universe. A rainbow is just as beautiful now as it was when we didn't understand them. Here is a great short video about the beauty of a flower from a scientist's perspective.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 10/15/2010  

  • not at all a cogent article. Religion, and the belief in God, is irrational if one understands the definition of rational. it is not inherently "wrong". It is, however, inherently something that cannot be proven by logic, and is thus irrational, that is to say, outside the realm of that which can be proven.

    By Blogger GC, at 12/23/2011  

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