I Have a Problem with Religion, Not Irrationality.

I do not have a problem with myth, fantasy, imagination,  nonsense, silliness, inspiration, or fiction. I do not even have any inherent problem with arbitrary decision-making, subjectivity, ignoring evidence, or irrational beliefs! I do not think there is anything wrong with these things in and of themselves.

Magic mirror

I have a problem with beliefs based on these things being relied on for important practical decisions. I have a problem with them being considered as important as the health and welfare of human beings. I am especially concerned if they are characterized as the most important beliefs.

I would like to advance a definition of “religious” that captures both this concern and the common usage of the word.

The definition I am advancing does not list set of criteria, such as worship, or a belief in deities, or super-naturalism. I find defining religion in this way renders the definition being either too narrow or too broad. If we limit religion to theism, we exclude Scientology, Raelianism, Taoism, and some forms of Buddhism, all of which are intuitively “religions”. If we expand the definition to something like ‘a perspective on questions of ultimate concern’ we include all kinds of secular philosophy and personal views that don’t seem to fit with what we mean by “religious”.

We also have this phenomena of feeling like some forms of otherwise secular activity are properly characterized as “religious”. We might say someone is not merely an environmentalist,  but is “religious” about it. But when we use the word in this way, I think we really are engaging the same general concept as when we talk of people being “religious” in the theistic sense.

I think all of these things have one aspect in common: a relationship between irrational beliefs and their application to important aspects of human life. The definition I propose is:

“A belief’s religious significance increases, when its personal importance varies inversely with its rational basis.”

In other words, a belief is more “religious” when it is relatively more important, but has less of a rational basis.

If we make “RS” to be “religious significance”, “PI” to be “personal importance” and “RB” to be “rational basis”, the definition can be read as follows:

“RS = PI ÷RB”

By “personal importance” I mean beliefs about things like morality, health, life and death, and whether or not one is going to suffer eternal conscious torture. Contrast this to the importance we give to beliefs about entertainment or hobbies.

By “rational basis” I mean the ability of the belief to be established by scientific, historical, or journalistic methods to professional standards. The more a belief can be established by these methods the more of a rational basis it has.

Needless to say, such a definition does not result in a clear method for placing beliefs into the category of “religious” or “secular”, but I think it draws out what we are getting at when we call something distinctively “religious”.

Lets us look at some examples.  Lets take three Christian beliefs:

  1. the belief in existence of Jesus,
  2. the Resurrection of Jesus, and
  3. that Jesus had “INRI” inscribed on the cross he was nailed to.

By the existence of Jesus, I mean did a human named Jesus live from roughly year 0 to 33 A.D. in Palestine and was crucified by the Roman Empire? Depending on your perspective, this can have either a very high or low Personal Importance. In the context of Christianity, this is, as I understand it, a prerequisite for salvation and eternal life after death. For non-Christians of course it may be trivial or neutral. Let us take the Christian perspective and attribute a very high rating of Personal Importance say 75 out of 100.

This issue also has a pretty high Rational Basis. While not universally accepted, most historians, Christian and otherwise, accept that such a person existed and was crucified. Let us also give it a Rational Basis rating of 75. Applying the algorithm, we have a Religious Significance of 1. (Note to non-Christians, for whom this issue us unimportant, it scores even lower.)

On the question of Jesus’s resurrection, I would attribute a Personal Importance value for this as 100, for everyone. If Jesus really did die and come back to life as a means to save us from damnation (however defined) and to provide an avenue to eternal life, this would be enormously important for any human being. However, the Rational Basis for this claim is quite low. Science tells us that such an occurrence is extremely unlikely if not impossible, it requires something supernatural and contrary to established scientific laws in order to happen. Historians will not generally accept it as true, and so on. Being charitable to this claim, let us give it a Rational Basis rating of 5. This results in a Religious Significance rating of  20.

On our final claim, I think it the question of  whether “INRI” was inscribed on the cross or not, is marginal, if perhaps interesting. Let us give it a low Personal Importance rating of 5. But, it is accepted by historians as quite likely true, so let us give it a Rational Basis rating of 75. This gives us a religious significance of .07.

I think these ratings fit well with our intuitions of how important these various claims are to Christianity in the religious sense. That Jesus existed (score 1) is important to Christianity, but not as important as the resurrection (score 20). Whereas the question of what the Romans wrote on his cross, if anything, is quite insignificant (score 0.07).

The same seems to apply to non-theistic uses of the term “religious”. If we take a spectator sport analogy, we say someone is religious about hockey when their fandom exceeds what most of us would consider reasonable. If someone misses a surgery to watch the final, we would call them religious about the sport.

Moreover, in circumstances where the rational basis is quite low, such as in the case of  art and taste, we don’t consider someone to be “religious” about it until the personal importance rises to a certain level.  For example, a Star Trek fan becomes “religious” about it when she refuses to take off her Starfleet uniform when attending jury duty.

This phenomena of irrational beliefs being given high personal importance is also at play with “alternative” or “complementary” medicine. But I admit, the term “religious” may not fit as well in this context. That is until someone ignores real medicine in favour of something like homeopathy for a serious condition. I think we might label these people as acting religious, but we would more likely characterize these beliefs as ignorant or dogmatic, two terms that also seem to fit quite well in describing religious beliefs I would say.

Ultimately, I do not care what label people use, but the term “religious” seems to fit well for the set of beliefs and actions that I find concerning in this sense, and this analysis unites my interest in anti-theism and other skeptical issues. I know most religious folk will object on the basis that they believe their beliefs are rational, based on evidence, science, history and so on. I usually disagree, let’s have that discussion.

Believe what you like! Enjoy art, fiction, and whimsy and allow them to enrich your life. It seems obvious to say this, but when you start to talk as if these things are reasons to take a belief seriously, I will be concerned. If I think your belief will affect the rights, health or welfare of myself or others, I will try and stop you. To the extent I “attack” religion, it is this aspect I am going after.


About Brian Green Adams

I am an atheist in Canada. I know something about law. "Brian Green Adams" is a pseudonym, taken from Brian Eno, Robert Green Ingersol, and Douglas Adams. Three of my favourite atheists. Not to mention The Life of Brian, Brian Green (physicist), Eno's "Another Green World", and Adam from Genesis in the Bible. The connection to Brian Adams is an unfortunate coincidence, though I was very fond of him when I was 12.
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2 Responses to I Have a Problem with Religion, Not Irrationality.

  1. Julie Brown says:

    Hi Brian, I love the seriousness of your approach to the subject of religion. However, I think our worldview, whether atheist, Christian, Hindu, or whatever, inescapably directs and shapes our approach to life, even public life. Our “practical decisions” are hardly ever neutral (Jews and ham sandwiches, Muslims and beer, sleeping in vs. church on Sunday morning, etc.). But I think you’re onto something here – the most important questions in human life are never going to be answered by science/experience “on a rational basis,” or as I would add, on a MERELY rational basis. BTW, Catholicism has always claimed that it is not SUB-rational, or irrational (lower than reason), but SUPRA-rational (incorporating all of reason and truth, since Jesus is the Logos, but advancing beyond it as well to some knowledge of higher things – things that are unapproachable by reason alone but can only be revealed by God). As Peter Kreeft explains in metaphor, if you want to know if there’s an ocean and what it’s like, it’s **as if** reason can drive you to the beach, but it takes faith to get you into the waves. [FYI I heard the info on sub-rational vs. supra-rational from Pope Benedict XVI via Fr. Robert Barron.]

    Here’s another quotation I think you might find intriguing, from Romano Guardini’s book “The Lord” (Guardini was a significant influence on Pope Benedict XVI): “Truth is the foundation of existence and the bread of the spirit, yet in the realm of human history it is separated from power. Truth counts, but power forces. What truth lacks—and the nobler it is the greater the lack—is immediate power. The lesser truths retain some measure of power because instinct and necessity confirm them; we have only to think of those ethical truths which apply to our own immediate needs to see this. The loftier the truth, the weaker its direct, activating force, the less need for the spirit to surrender itself to that force voluntarily, in freedom. ***The nobler the truth, the more easily it can be shoved aside or ridiculed; the more dependent it is upon spiritual chivalry.*** ” [emphasis mine]

    FYI I was an atheist for about 34 years, then a few years ago I had a profound conversion to Catholicism (and my life is a thousand percent improved! I feel like I have finally started to live, and to understand the world). I really appreciate your thoughtfulness on this subject, but I also wonder if the wholly intellectual approach to religion can take us down the wrong road. Check out Jennifer Fulwiler’s conversion stories on Conversion Diary – she was a very intellectual committed atheist living a secular life, and is now a prominent Catholic writer. I think you’d appreciate these: Finding God in 5 Steps (http://www.conversiondiary.com/2008/04/finding-god-in-5-steps.html), a follow up to that post called First You Must Be Willing to Lose It All (http://www.conversiondiary.com/2011/08/first-you-must-be-willing-to-lose-it-all.html), Reason, Wonder, & Pope Benedict XVI (http://www.conversiondiary.com/2008/04/reason-wonder-and-pope-benedict-xvi.html), On Having Proof (http://www.conversiondiary.com/2006/12/on-having-proof.html), Love and Conversion (http://www.conversiondiary.com/2008/03/love-and-conversion.html), Reason Can Convince You of Stuff That’s Stupid and Wrong (http://www.conversiondiary.com/2011/08/reason-can-convince-you-of-stuff-thats-stupid-and-wrong.html), Against (http://www.conversiondiary.com/2011/09/against-the-our-father-word-by-word.html) and Fear of Life (http://www.conversiondiary.com/2009/06/fear-of-life.html). I was a half-hearted seeker of God for many years but really could NOT believe in Him, who was finally was found by God in the unlikeliest place! As someone who has been where you are, I would recommend that you RUN, not walk, to give the “God experiment” (described by Jen Fulwiler) a shot. God bless you and yours!

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments Julie, I do not think it is responsive to this post, but rather to my worldview in general.

    It is because our cognitive faculties are so prone to bias that we need to develop mechanisms to distance ourselves from such fallacies as wishful thinking on important issues. These are the reality checks and double checks we find in things like science. It is because we have these mechanisms that we consider science so reliable.

    I do not agree with the statement “the most important questions in human life are never going to be answered by science/experience “on a rational basis,” or as I would add, on a MERELY rational basis.” I think some of these questions definitely can and are repeatedly answered on such a basis. Science, law, safety precautions, medical treatments, whether or not to go to war are all areas in which rationality trumps things like “faith”, no matter how defined. I certainly want us to be being as rational as possible on these questions. It is only religion and art that prioritize these other avenues to vague ideas of subjective truth. I think it is because religion cannot justify its most important tenets in this way that it makes these allusions to vague subjective concepts of faith and spirit.

    I have tried ‘god experiments’ with exactly zero results. I have done this on a number of occasions and I am familiar with Fulwiler.

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