The Benefits of Irrationality?

Question from Ariel:

I am interested in your perspective as an atheist on a few things. I am not an atheist, nor am I a theist. I am certainly not an agnostic. As a bit of background: I grew up in an entirely atheistic, secular environment and have only begun exploring religious and spiritual traditions recently. I believe that within all mainstream belief structures that I’ve thus far encountered (predominantly atheist and Christian branches), there arises at some point or another – in some structures it is more hidden and deeply buried than in others – some sort of intellectual dishonesty. In most Christian traditions this dishonesty manifests in a relatively evident form of cognitive dissonance. Obviously very few Christians fully cognize the implications of their beliefs or else they would not be able to function in our pluralistic society. To honestly believe that 3/4 of the people I encounter are going to be punished eternally would put a strain on my existence that would become unbearable. The dishonesty I feel I encounter with atheism is that it cannot provide an answer for the qualitative aspects of our human experience. Answers to questions of beauty, morality, meaning, etc cannot be answered within a materialistic paradigm. Science deals with quantifiable evidence in a horizontal plane of existence while religion deals with qualitative evidence in a vertical plane of existence. It’s been often stated that science deals with the How while religion deals with the Why.

Of course that’s not entirely true. Science can begin to explain Why a particular organism behaves in a certain way by referring to various hypotheses within evolutionary science or psychology or what have you. But any answer to a why in a strictly causal, materialistic paradigm leads to another why, and you end up with an infinite regression. The big questions remain mysteries. When a religious person asks: how does your life have meaning without a God? What do you base your morality on? – those are very valid questions, as much as skeptics seem to want to scoff at them. The answers that often arise are answers of common sense: you make your own meaning, of course! You are moral by treating others kindly and valuing their lives, of course! But none of these answers warrant ‘of course’s.

The way that I see it, atheists have internalized the moral foundations that have been developed in religious traditions and have secularized them without realizing that, in removing ‘God’ from the equation, the ‘foundation’ part of ‘moral foundation’ is eliminated. I believe it might be worth studying / engaging in religious traditions, as well as poetry, speculative philosophy, etc for hints at some sort of higher truth than cannot be captured by adamant rationalism. There is a hugely mysterious aspect to our human experience that should not be suppressed by strict adherence to a particular *method* of thinking, like rationalism, logic, empiricism, the scientific method. These are just that: methods. They are particular closed systems in which we have trained our brains to think according to established rules and patterns. The thing about the aforementioned disciplines of speculative philosophy, religion / theology, poetry and arts in general is that they may, in their most honest and non-dogmatic manifestations, experience a high level cognitive freedom that allows them to delve into the vertical plane of existence. It is in this freedom that we may learn to take the leaps of faith that provide us with the ‘meaning’ that we so desperately crave as human beings. Paul Tillich suggested that with the modern emphasis on rationalism, there has been a removal of ‘depth’ from our experiences. That’s why you see so many people falling victim to consumerism or substance abuse. We are trying to kill an eternal God and substitute him with fleeting things, and it’s not leaving us very fulfilled. It is actually also this rise of rationalism / atheism that has led religions to become as literalized as they are (think about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy established in the early 20th century). Religion feels that it has to move from the vertical to the horizontal in order to duke it out with science, which is why we are now seeing a much more explicit divide between atheist-theism than we may ever have seen in the past.

Anyway. I probably ranted. I am wondering whether you feel there is any space for non-rational thought and belief structures in the ideal future that you envision for humanity.

All the best.

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Ariel.

Science and the associated rational way of thinking does not presume to have all the answers. This is a major difference from religious thinking, which does presume that the ultimate answer to every question is God. This becomes problematic when the questions themselves start to involve God, because it’s difficult for a thing to explain itself. More importantly, a believer can assert knowledge of an ultimate answer and therefore have an answer for everything, but what is the value of an answer if you don’t know whether it’s right?

While the “big questions” remain a mystery, science provides reliable answers for many of the “smaller” questions with practical applications for our daily lives. Because we know the rate at which the flu virus is evolving, we know how often a new flu vaccine must be created and distributed to ensure reasonable coverage (roughly every year). Because electricity applied to a magnetic coil in the right way can cause it to rotate, motors function. Because human beings have near-universal natural instincts towards not only self-preservation but living in social groups, we can develop laws and social contracts that will benefit us all. Meanwhile we keep working on the things we don’t know, so that we might actually discover the facts. (Incidentally, if you search this site for blanket terms like “morality” you’ll find that we’ve done far more than scoff at such questions.)

Rather than atheism secularising religious moral foundations, religions have claimed credit for ethical norms that existed long before they did; atheists simply tend to be the ones to point this out. For instance, the Commandment not to kill from the Book of Exodus was preceded by many entirely secular laws against killing, devised separately by civilisations the world over.

You can philosophise and go as “deep” as you like into any aspect of religion, but as soon as you take as a premise anything for which you have no evidence is true, you are in the realm of the hypothetical. You may experience profound realisations about your chosen topic, but as they may rely on false premises they are built on sand, and it may not be possible to translate your progress into anything which will be of practical help to anyone. This is the main problem with theology, from a non-believer’s perspective. Religion is often touted as another “way of knowing” besides science, but what is it that we “know” exclusively through religion that we actually do know? Comment if you have an example.

If I had to try to boil all of this down, I would return to my first point and say that while science cannot answer everything, religion has no more authority to answer anything and yet does it anyway. Which one you rely on for your worldview depends on whether you care more about having all the answers or being justifiably confident that the answers you have are correct.

Finally, there had better be room for non-rational thoughts and beliefs in the future, because no matter how hard people try to be rational they will always fall short at times. We’re all human, and no one’s always entirely rational. Fortunately, leaps of reasoning can indeed be achieved by taking seemingly illogical or irrational steps, though only if logic and rational analysis are applied to them afterwards. New ideas can come from anywhere, but you have to sift through them once you get them.

3 thoughts on “The Benefits of Irrationality?”

  1. “When a religious person asks: how does your life have meaning without a God? What do you base your morality on? – those are very valid questions, as much as skeptics seem to want to scoff at them.”

    They might be valid questions, but they’re just as problematic for believers as they are for atheists. The only difference is that the doctrines of believers hand them easy answers to these questions. Having been handed answers, they often don’t consider whether the answers they’ve been handed make sense or whether there might be other answers. I would argue that they don’t make sense.

    How does life have meaning with a God? Isn’t what’s meaningful subjective? In other words, isn’t something only meaningful in so far as it’s meaningful to someone? How can a being objectively give someone’s life meaning the way that believers claim? Even subjectively, what meaning is there in being created by a being to behave a certain way?

    When it comes to morality, I don’t think religion is anyone’s source for morality. If the bible said to club baby seals, moral Christians would simply pretend it didn’t because their morality doesn’t come from there. Have you ever heard of the Euthyphro dilemma (is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it’s good). What that gets at is that morality must either be based on authority or consequences. In practice it can be based on both, but not in principle. If it’s based on authority, then morality is arbitrary. If it’s based on consequences, then no being can be it’s source.

  2. I like SmartLX’s response to you Ariel … covers most of what went through my brain when I read your question.

    I’d like to address the following specifically: “The dishonesty I feel I encounter with atheism is that it cannot provide an answer for the qualitative aspects of our human experience. Answers to questions of beauty, morality, meaning, etc cannot be answered within a materialistic paradigm.”

    Questions related to the qualitative aspects of our existence can be answered by science and have been. Lets take beauty and morality. Beauty first … take human beauty … there are numerous studies that have been done to establish what specific features on a face make it appear beautiful to humans. On morality, there is a chapter in Richard Dawkins’ the God Delusion that explains morality neatly and precisely from an evolutionary standpoint.

    I guess the problem is that we are not able to imagine/ see a clear bridge between the scientifically suggested explanations behind our qulitative experiences and our actual experiences.
    Also, some of us may feel that explaning our experiences through science’s materialistic explanations “mechanizes” our experiences and existence.

    But whether or not the scientific explanation “mechanizes” our experiences is not the issue – or at-most it is an issue of a nature similar to the joy that gets taken out of Christmas when you come to know that Santa does not exist.
    The bigger issue to my mind is whether the above scientific explanation of our experiences helps us understand and control ourselves better. I think it does.
    The scientific explanation of our qualitative experiences may take a lot of romance out of our experiences … but I’d prefer truth to romance. For the more liberal theists, religion can become an excuse for holding on to that romance …

  3. Hello Ariel, First, I am going to say two things. 1. Wow, you talk alot (hah)! and 2. From the way you speak, or rather from the things you say, you do actually seem to be a theist.

    I’m not a “researched” atheist (in that I don’t find it necessary to research the bible or other mythologies, evolution, or scientific theories in general (e.g. the big bang theory). So I am offering a bit of a differrent perspective I suppose. I’ll only talk about a few things.

    –How does life have meaning without god?
    I understand that you aren’t actually asking this, but you are claiming that it is a legitimate question. Like SmartLX said, a meaning would be subjective. What many religions attempt to do is apply an objective purpose onto the lives of all humans. Which, would be fine, if it was true. IMO the most important thing that SmartLX pointed out is the VALIDITY of a claim. Sure religions around the world provide so many answers. Answers to our origins, how we should live, how we should treat others. But what use is an answer that is incorrect? These religious claims of purpose, or deities….how are they significant if they can’t be proven? The only way that these assertions hold any water is to start with the assumption that a deity exists. But, why would you start with that assumption when there has yet to be an indicator that that (a deity existing) is true? So the ultimate meaning of human life? doesn’t that assume a purpose? Doesn’t that assume a design or a predetermined plan? The question itself assumes too much IMO.

    –Religion predates morality
    Where are you getting this information from? In just looking at (my limited knowledge of) the bible, most of the morals contained within are either obvious, untrue, or nonsensicle. Sure religions have gathered the obvious morals that are necessary for our survival as a social emotional species. But so what? You think humans would have come this far thinking that killing and stealing is acceptable behavior? This isn’t even behavior that is specific to humans. If humans didn’t have these morals before the ability to form speech and languages, then they would not have survived long enough to develop religion and write them down.

    I think humans yearn to be special. Modern religions sell themselves with souls/good reincarnation and promises of being chosen and superior. People, in general, obviously buy that product readily and happily. But I feel its a useless product (aside from the benefits of the placebo effect, and the value of bringing up some questions that may not otherwise be asked) given that it has no verfiable validity.

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