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Rationality and Religion

No One is Purely Rational

One of the chief complaints I have against my fellow atheists is the smug position they claim on rationality. We are the sane, we are the rational, we are the perfectly rational. It’s part of the reason that I could never bring myself to adopt the term “Bright.” I thought it was stupid when it first came out, and the fact that it is still not catching on bears out that it wasn’t such a bright concept.

Sorry.

Years ago, I was a member of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Humanists. It was a time shortly after I had decided that religion really would add little to my life, and I didn’t like the personalities I had encountered at the Minnesota Atheists (we have become a much more fun group since I recently joined.) At a monthly meeting, a Unitarian Atheist/Humanist something-or-other preacher stood up and made the bold statement that poetic references to the emotions of the heart are silly and irrational and that humanists should reject them. “Emotions come from the brain,” he said. “Not from the heart.”

Well, my first reaciton was “Duh.” My second was “So what?” I really had no idea what his point was, because he was not making it very clearly. And he hadn’t inspired me to dig any deeper into a subject I thought everyone had understood since first grade (or perhaps before.)

The guy had an irrational position on rationality, and he was an atheist. From my experience, there is no one who is capable of purely rational thought in every area of our life. We can’t even truly design software that is purely rational (beyond instructions to choose between “off and on.”) So, the atheist claim to be any more rational is rather arrogant. And I am guilty of it sometimes, and often catch myself when I am about to make that sort of grandiose claim.

I would way that the beauty of the scientific method is that it involves checks and cross-checks. It is a recognition of human faults, in that it provides a method to objectively determine the nature of causation and relation against the investigator’s personal bias. Religion provides no such means of checks and balances, so it has no objective measures with which to test reality. Does that make it irrational? No, I don’t think so.

Don’t take comfort in this, Christians, because you probably won’t agree with the reasons that I think this way. Hector Avalos’s two most recent books, Fighting Words and The End of Biblical Studies approach inscripturation as a scarce resource first and then examine historical and textual criticisms of The Bible second.

As inscripturation, the Word is set apart for understanding by a select few. Even the invention of the printing press and the “democratization” of scripture, which at least wrested the Bible from the clutches of the priesthood, created the need for faith to guide one’s reading of the Word. It is interesting to me that when I ask about the contradictions between various translations of The Bible (and even different sections of The Bible,) I am assured that with the guidance of The Holy Spirit and with the gift of Faith the contradictions are broken and the Word makes sense.

Of course, my own experience as a young Christian didn’t bear that out and so it doesn’t make sense to me still to approach an apology that way. So, why do I think that religion (in my argument here I am limiting myself to Christianity, but I think it applies to all inscripturated religions) is rational.

Well, as inscripuration creates a scarce resource of understanding, then faith is the commodity which gives it worth. Faith is that which you hold in order to make understanding of the Word. Even if, as I think, one has to fudge the words in order to give them that value.

gold bullionFaith is a commodity which some people are given at birth, when they are born and raised in their parents’ religion. Even Stephen, who was raised a Catholic and found that the Christian Reformed Church meets his faith needs more effectively, is still holding onto the Christian version of the commodity. Others take it later on life if they convert from non-religion to religion.

The commodity is the societal value placed in faith, the constant message that subtly plays in our media and culture that faith is valuable and that people with faith have more of an understanding of their role in this life. It is a given, as communicated on our money and in the Pledge of Allegiance and few people even think to question its role. In our politics it is taken as the measure of our potential leaders as to whether we can trust them to make the right decision. That this assumption is cynically abused by politicians is the subject for another post.

Faith is also the commodity that buys “understanding of the word.” Letting go of such a commodity, so dearly held for so many years and which Christians value as a precious gift from God, would be irrational if it can’t be traded for something in return. No one gives up something as valuable as faith easily. Only an atheist would be so irrational.

That’s why it was so hard for me to accept that I am an atheist. And I accept that it was irrational, if unavoidable. I just had to be honest with myself.

Did I mention that I also buy lottery tickets? See? I am a highly irrational atheist.

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