A Rational Approach to Irrationality

Irrational Intense battles are being waged over religion and its rightful place in society. There are debates over evolution and creationism, conflicts over the teaching of evolution in schools, and disagreement on matters of religious accommodation. People are passionate about their positions and the debates often get nasty. However, I think that the respective sides have more common ground than they realize.

Suppose you could choose either to maximize human rationality or to maximize human happiness. For most of us, even for the most strident advocates of reason and critical thinking, I suspect the choice would be happiness or well-being. Sam Harris, a well-known advocate of reason has suggested that maximizing human well-being ought to be the very foundation of our moral system. What would be the value of reason if it didn’t contribute to well-being?

Let’s assume that the value of reason ultimately lies in its ability to improve well-being. Reason and empiricism have brought us great scientific discoveries, lifesaving medicines, and technologies that make our lives longer and healthier. It’s undeniable that rationality can improve well-being.

It might seem, given these benefits, that improving rationality would improve well-being. But irrationality has its perks. Delusions can provide comfort. They can give us confidence, hope, or a sense of purpose. Superstitions can improve athletic performance, and psychics and astrologers can help people deal with the discomfort of not knowing what the future holds. The most rational objective, then, is not necessarily to have everyone be completely rational but rational to the extent that optimizes well-being.

If we are to be rational and scientific, we ought to appreciate the value of diversity and the role of evolution in shaping our minds. We are predisposed to delusional thinking because our brains have evolved this way; it was evolutionarily advantageous. It is human nature to be somewhat delusional. To expect people to be perfectly rational is to ask us to defy our own nature. It isn’t reasonable.

None of us is completely rational. Many of our social conventions have no rational basis, and some of the things we do to be sexually attractive or likable are just plain ridiculous. I consider myself to be relatively rational, yet I often find myself doing things that don't make a lot of sense. I reconcile this with the words of Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” We are complex animals.

Some people seem to be more prone to delusional thinking than others. This is just one of many ways we differ from one another. Some of us are good with numbers and computation, while others are better with languages. Some people enjoy debate, while others find it upsetting. Some are interested in politics; others are more interested in celebrity hairstyles. This diversity is not a bad thing.

It might seem that the world would be a better place if we were all interested and well-informed on important topics. It might be nice if everyone had a basic understanding of the science behind everyday things. It might be nice if everyone cared enough to vote, and if everyone were rational. But just as we need scientists and other professionals who have a proclivity for reason and empiricism, we need artists and people who feel their way through the world. Such people may be better able to create great works of art that move us on a non-rational level. We are emotional animals; people who understand this aspect of our nature well have much to contribute.

The diversity in our interests and aptitudes is largely attributable to innate predispositions. There may be fundamental differences in the way that astrologers and astronomers process information, for example. For a reason-oriented person, gazing at the night sky might inspire curiosity about the origins and workings of the universe. A more spiritual observer might experience a strong emotional response that reinforces a belief in a supernatural power. Not everyone makes sense of the world in the same way; perhaps empiricism is not for everyone.

The importance of this type of diversity is evident to me when I think of my friends. I have some very rational friends with whom I enjoy debate and stimulating conversation. I also have friends who embrace beliefs that seem completely ridiculous to me. Some are atheists and some are religious, and with others, religion has never come up. I like some of my friends, not because they share my worldview, but because they’re funny or fun to be with, or because we enjoy some of the same activities. It’s possible to form important relationships with people who have very different worldviews. There is a lot more to a person than his or her worldview or capacity for reason.

I don’t mean to imply that everyone’s views are equally valid or that we should tolerate everyone’s behaviors. Irrational thinking can certainly be harmful. It can cause people to avoid helpful medical treatments in favor of harmful alternatives. It can lead to outbreaks of preventable diseases, compromise science education, promote bigotry and violence, etc. It must be kept in check.

However, the response of self-proclaimed rational people to irrationality can also be harmful. Anyone who’s been around the blogosphere knows that skeptics and atheists can be nasty. The frustration and anger that underlies the vitriol is understandable, but the nastiness is probably counterproductive. As Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, points out in a recent talk, few skeptics have arrived at their convictions as a result of verbal abuse.

There is little evidence to suggest that verbal abuse is an effective persuasion tactic when it comes to irrational thinking. It might lead some to reject their irrational views, but it’s more likely to cause people to cling to their views more tightly. It can also reinforce the view that atheists are morally bankrupt jerks. Verbal abuse, being damaging to self-esteem and having little empirical support, is a hypocritical choice of persuasion tactic for people who claim to base their views on evidence.

Paradoxically, the ability to rationalize is often used to protect irrational beliefs and practices. Whether due to a lack of reasoning ability or an unwillingness to face reality, irrational beliefs can be extremely difficult to change. As Carl Sagan observed: “You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe”. There may not be much of a rational basis even for polite attempts to persuade irrational people.

Those who loathe religion and aim to eradicate it should be aware that education and religiosity are negatively correlated. Protecting education from the influence of religious fundamentalists is a logical strategic goal. Yet, direct attacks on religion are threatening to religious people and may lead to more aggressive efforts to influence the curriculum. Perhaps a more effective approach than attacking religion directly would be to encourage parents to share their religion with their children at home or at their respective places of worship. After all, religious leaders would be best able to provide this type of instruction. Secular education may be the single most effective means of promoting critical thinking.

Ensuring individuals’ freedom of religion is undoubtedly important in securing secularism. As Michael Shermer eloquently put it: “As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.”

Freedom of religion can be a confusing term that people on both sides of religious debates can wrongly think they advocate. Religious freedom means that individuals have the right to embrace religious beliefs of their own choosing. It doesn’t mean that parents have the right to systematically indoctrinate their children into their own religion. On the contrary, it means that their children also have the right to choose their own religious views when they reach the age of reason. Systematic religious indoctrination that restricts exposure to alternative worldviews limits this freedom. In this sense, secular schools are more respectful of religious freedom than religious schools.

Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom. If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order (so long as the beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others). Respecting freedom of religion means accepting the fact that not everyone will freely choose our worldview. If we encourage people to think for themselves, we must accept that others will come to different conclusions.

Aiming to promote secularism and optimize well-being are more attainable and reasonable goals than aiming to eliminate irrational thinking. In making secularism and well-being our primary goals, it becomes possible to unite atheists and religious moderates to achieve a common goal.

When it comes to making decisions about policies and practices that affect everyone, most people support a reason and evidence-based approach. Even people who abandon empiricism when it comes to certain supernatural entities, generally support evidence-based decision making on matters of public policy. Also, people who denounce evolution and empiricism seem to have no problem availing themselves of medical treatments that depend on it. Some see this as ample reason to ridicule evolution deniers. I see it as common ground. Whether we’re rational or not, we want to be happy and healthy. Secular education is important in achieving this.

No one is completely rational or completely irrational, but there are people who tend to extremes. The battle over religion and rationality is one that is fought most viciously by people who are strongly polarized on their respective sides. The battle, however, is more likely to be won by moderates.

Our potential to improve human well-being ultimately lies not in our ability to maximize rationality, but in our ability to understand human nature and value people with different worldviews. Success will be most likely if atheists and religioius moderates unite for a common goal; not the eradication of religion, but a securely secular society that optimizes well-being and respects our most cherished freedoms.