Sunday, August 24, 2014

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Most Rational of Us All?

I began having serious doubts about my Christian faith eight years ago, and eventually came to renounce it shortly thereafter. A brief period followed during which I called myself an agnostic in the colloquial sense, feeling more like a fish that had just found its way out into the bigger sea than like someone who was prepared to reject theism altogether. All I knew was that I could no longer believe as I once believed, and I had to head out into the deeper waters to see what else might be waiting.

I've always felt like it took me a very short time to become an atheist. It wasn't overnight, it wasn't part of any emotional tragedy, nor was it the result of reading any particular 'god-hating' unbeliever. It did come on the heels of a lot of inner reflection, however. The doubts that crept in were not about how god had failed me, but were rather focused on failures in my own thinking, reasoning, and process of belief-formation. Looking back now, it's not so surprising that things happened this way, considering the increasing interest I had in skepticism of the paranormal at the time.

Nonetheless, to this day there remains a part of me that sees that agnostic period of my life as almost embarrassingly cursory. Sure, I spent time reading on other religions, talking to people with different views, and I still interacted with my Christian friends and family on a regular basis, but there was no 'spiritual journey' to get in touch with the divine, no visitations to various places of meditation and worship, nor did I even crack open another religious text to pour over its teachings. It was a quite limited standpoint from which I became an atheist.

Of course, there are plenty of people who are born into their religion having never had the chance to consult alternatives prior to their decision (if it's appropriate to call it that). There are also plenty of people who change their beliefs without embarking on some grand path to enlightenment. I've always had a tendency towards the epic and the elaborate in some sense, admittedly, but reminding myself of these things usually doesn't put my mind at ease in the way I'd like. After all, a fool in good company is still a fool, isn't he? Even so, we seem to possess some recognition that one doesn't need to explore every avenue available, or even jump through a majority of the hoops, to be reasonable in settling upon a certain belief.

Instead of chasing this thread and trying to learn more about what reasonable belief means, when I became an atheist I took the tactic that a number of young atheists have taken: I insisted that we have all the evidence on our side, so not being on our side is just being irrational. Unfortunately, this position is strongly alluring in a way similar to when certain Christians cling to the badge of faith as if it's a get-out-of-jail-free card. If you don't have faith, the world is cold, lonely, and unpredictable; if you don't have evidence, you run the risk of believing lies and hurting others by endorsing lies. For some such atheists, the immediacy of their experience digging into the problems behind creationism, biblical inerrancy, and religious moral authority just appears to make their conclusion inevitable, like some such Christians may find their own conclusion inevitable based on the immediacy of the joy and personal fulfillment they experience from their faith.

Despite the conviction I voiced as a young atheist about the irrationality of all religious belief, I was still very aware of how I used to see things when I was a Christian, particularly when my conversations with theists touched on common themes. I noticed how often arguments came down to questions of how to interpret evidence rather than questions of what to admit as evidence. I saw just how much our interpretations vary depending on our worldview. On rare occasions, I might even realize that there seemed to currently be no advantage held by either side. Yet still I contended that the preponderance of evidence pointed only to atheism being the rational conclusion, while my theistic opponents persisted in contending that only theism was the rational conclusion.

As I started learning more about rationality, it started to dawn on me that things were not as simple as I had assumed they were. Declaring something rational is not to say it's true, nor is it simply to say that the preponderance of evidence is in support of it. Rationality has as much to do with beliefs as it has to do with arguments and evidence. For Bob to be rationally justified in believing that Ed caught a 200 lb marlin is just to say that Bob has reason to believe that it's true Ed caught a 200 lb marlin, whether or not Ed actually did haul in such an impressive catch. What makes it a reasonable belief for Bob may be that he knows Ed is a skilled fisherman, he knows that Ed owns some quality fishing equipment, and he knows that Ed likes to go fishing where there is a large population of marlin. However, Joe could reasonably believe that Ed did not catch a 200 lb marlin if he knows that Ed's boat has a broken motor, yet if Bob is unaware of this fact, Bob would also continue to be reasonable in believing in Ed's catch.

The example of Bob, Ed, and Joe is a simple one, but it illustrates the point that rationality can be a sticky subject because it involves considerations about what a person knows, what they believe, and what evidence is accessible to them, among other things. Naturally, the answers will vary in many situations, and so when asking if something is rational, it may be useful to ask rational for whom? This seems to be a major oversight in many arguments had over what the rational choice is from certain political, social, religious, or historical standpoints. Even when the implication is that some decision is the rational choice for all persons, there is a hefty burden of proof to be met to show that this is the case, especially if said decision is taken to be the only rational choice.

Graham Oppy reminds us that not only is there a large and growing body of psychological research showing that none of us are perfectly rational agents, but "even if we were perfectly rational, and had accessed the same full body of evidence, it might still be possible for us to disagree provided that we accessed the evidence in differing orders (and provided that our finite capacities ensured that we could not 'store' - or access - the full body of evidence all at once)." [1] There is no reason to think that such disagreements must necessarily imply irrationality on one side or the other. Neither does it seem objectionable to suggest that two of us viewing the same piece of evidence could come to opposite conclusions and nevertheless both be rational in our beliefs.

Sadly, many voices continue making blanket generalizations about the rationality and irrationality of theism, atheism, of all theists, and all atheists. Biologist Jerry Coyne has declared "theism is irrational because it isn't true," [2] whereas Dinesh D'Souza, Ken Ham, and many other Christian apologists have made similar charges against atheism. Of course, Coyne's comment would commit him to the difficult claim that it was unreasonable for the ancients to believe in geocentrism before the Copernican revolution, but all such accusations of irrationality seem hasty for the reasons already mentioned above.

I have always had my reservations about discerning what another person ought to know, what they ought to conclude based on what they believe, and what evidence should be accessible to them. Frankly, we do so poor a job of this with ourselves sometimes that it can appear pretty arrogant to tell someone else what they're doing wrong. When someone voluntarily engages with us, making arguments and proposals, though, that is a different story. When someone tells me what they believe and why, I respond in really the only way that I can: I tell them what I believe and why, and I may do it by showing them where I disagree with their thoughts on the matter. It may be that they have drawn some irrational conclusions, but finding this in one theist, or in a thousand, is no grounds for hastily declaring all theists to be irrational.

Obviously, this need not mean we adopt a relativistic approach to the issue of god's existence. Keith Parsons writes,

It seems quite possible for an atheist to regard theism as entirely unfounded (i.e. groundless), yet to concede freely that theism is a rational belief for many people. In other words, atheists can admit without hesitation that religious experience is coherent, persistent, and, for many, compelling. Persons who believe in God on the basis of such experiences can therefore be regarded by atheists as perfectly rational. (Of course, the atheist would deny that the occurrence of such experiences shows theism to be true.) [3]

Is there not a sense of freedom in this? I spent years of my Christian life feeling shackled by doctrines like hell, original sin, and 'born again' theology. Try as one might to escape it, there is a very potent division of the world into believers and unbelievers, saved and unsaved, in Christianity. It affects the way you see the people around you (not always in a bad way, to be fair), and perpetuates an 'us and them' mentality. Likewise, atheists who divide the world into rational and irrational beliefs and associate them very broadly with those of religious and non-religious persuasions also color the people around them and perpetuate the 'us and them' way of thinking. There are the redeemed and the damned, the delusional and the sane.

It may be common to hear atheists and theists alike say they don't think holding a particular view makes anyone smarter, but this is cold comfort. The problem with throwing around labels like 'rational' and 'irrational' isn't just one of negative connotations regarding intelligence. As Parsons also observes, the charge of irrationality is a charge of moral failure as well: "It is a way of saying that someone has formed a belief irresponsibly or dishonestly - through self-deception, say, or perhaps by ignoring easily available contrary evidence. To call someone irrational is to say that he has settled for a belief that he knows, deep down inside, not to be the most reasonable one." [4]

This is quite the bold claim to make of someone else, especially someone you may not know personally. However, with all that we've seen on how rationality takes into account one's own beliefs, their access to evidence, and so forth, it does seem that to charge someone of being irrational is to charge them of violating their own beliefs, disregarding evidence they know to exist, and being generally disingenuous in their own personal collection of data and process of belief-formation. Unless one accepts libertarian free will, there seems to be a further question of to what extent a person even could 'gerrymander' their own beliefs in this fashion.

I no longer find it intellectually or morally responsible to hold the view that theism or all theists are irrational, and, as I said, I feel this is a freeing recognition. It does not mean that I will not try to persuade others to my views, nor does it mean that I think all theists are rational in what they believe. Rather, I see it as undoing the vestiges of prejudice lingering in an unhelpful and unreasonable brand of rhetoric. I don't need to worry that the world is going to hell anymore, either literally or figuratively, and I no longer need to reach for the favored psychological "explanations" for why intelligent people persist in religious belief.

Now, when someone asks me why I'm not a Christian, I will simply say I've found reason to doubt that it's true. But it doesn't mean you're irrational for believing it, or that I'm rational for disbelieving, or that we can't have an engaging conversation about our separate views.

1. Graham Oppy, Arguing About Gods (2006), p. 7.
2. Jerry Coyne, Remarkably stupid remarks by sophisticated theologian. (2011) Retrieved Aug. 24, 2014.
3. Keith Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof (1989), p. 36.
4. Ibid, p. 32.