Saturday, September 27, 2008

Is reason a religion?

Stephen Law here says...

Is reason a religion?

Stephen Law ( Aug 25, 2008 08:37:00 GMT

What is a religion? I think it must involve worship, right? Well, I don't worship reason. It's just that reason and observation are the only tools we have for getting at what's true. So I use them. So do you, of course, constantly.

Think of your head as a basket towards which many beliefs are tumbling. There are all sorts of nutty beliefs out there that you might adopt - from the the thought that the Antarctic is populated by crab people to the belief that the Earth's core is made of cheese. These beliefs will quickly fill up your head if you don't filter them.

We apply reason as a filter, to try to keep as many of the false ones out as possible. Of course reason is not 100% reliable. But it is (and this is a key point) truth-sensitive. Subject beliefs to rational critical scrutiny and you are much less likely to end up with a head full of nonsense. Those who don't apply this filter will quickly end up with a head full of false beliefs.

Now the thing about many religions is, they encourage you to turn the filter off. They know their religious beliefs are unlikely to get through, so they try to inject them early, while you are a kid and your critical defences aren't properly built up, or they tell you, later, that reason has its limitations and that you should therefore, in the case of this particular religion, turn it off.

Well, reason does have it's limitations, I think. I don't suppose it can necessarily answer every question. But it's the best tool we have if we want to dig out the truth.

Very many cults - from the great religions to wacky New Age movements, suggest, in one way or another, that you turn your filter off and just accept that THEY KNOW - they have access to THE TRUTH.

But should you? Should you just go with what they, or their book, tells you - setting to one side the issue of reasonableness?

No matter how well-meaning and sincere they are (and many are, of course), the answer, if you want to believe what's true, has surely got to be "no".

You rightly use reason every day of your life. Indeed, you constantly trust your life to it.

That doesn't make reason your, or my, religion. Reason is not a religion - it's just an indispensible tool if you want to believe what's true. In the same way that my legs are an indispensible tool for getting around, which I rely on constantly. The fact that I do rely on them doesn't mean I worship my legs, or that they are my religion.

Any belief system that insists that, while you may use reason in every other area of your life, you should turn it off when it comes to these beliefs, should, I'd suggest, be approached with great caution. For this is one of the hallmarks of an intellectual black hole.

Many religions, cults, etc. are designed - or, more accurately, have evolved - to be intellectual black holes. They encourage self-sealing patterns of thought which effectively lock you inside. Get sucked in, and it's almost impossible to think your way out again.

Suppose you have fallen into such a black hole. To outsiders, you look like just one more credulous victim - but of course, to you on the inside, everyone outside seems profoundly ignorant of THE TRUTH to which you now have special access! Indeed, to you as an insider, it seems that you are the one that is now free, and the outsiders are the ones that are trapped!

I am sure that, when you look at New Age cults, etc. you recognise that this is, indeed, how they operate. Is it possible that Christianity is much the same sort of black hole, only a particularly powerful, and of course rather more longstanding, one?

1 comment:

  1. This whole post is based on a false premise: that reason leads to truth and that truth is universal.
    Let's say I find Emma Watson hot. Another man finds her to be ugly. We can't both be right, so we use Reason to filter the truth. Well, that leads us to two distinct truths because, rationally, she is a healthy female of child bearing years and we both therefore should fine her attractive, yet my friend does not. Hence, what is the truth?
    If you say "we are both right," then you are conceding that reason has limits...yet you also said that you use reason in all things and never turn it off as a filter. If your filter of reason is never turned off, then how would you rationally approach the question of the hotness of Emma Watson?
    Reason is very much like a religion: it is a lens with which to view the world, it has obvious shortcomings, it is the basis for wars (as Dostoevsky explains) it is used to control people, etc etc.
    Now, do we apply reason to everything in our lives? No. Rationally, I should have some mackerel(excellent source of B12) some carrots (antioxidants) and wheat germ (fiber) for dinner. But all those things make me vomit and hence I do the irrational thing and have an absolutely fatty, nutritionally insufficient New York style pizza. I just turned off reason...and my life was better for it.
    Every single human being on Earth selectively turns off reason. To do otherwise would be to become a robot. Just as I turn off my reason to say Emma Watson is hot and I'd rather have pizza for dinner then mackerel, I could turn off my reason to say God indeed does exist. No evidence for God, but then again I have no evidence for the deliciousness of New York style pizza or the hotness of Emma Watson. Should I abandon those beliefs as well?
    Reason is a religion that is less honest about its nature than other faiths. Christians (intelligent ones at least) understand that they have faith and no basis to believe what they do save faith. They actually examine that. Rationalist say they use reason at all times, yet they clearly don't (they laugh at comedies, they find some people hot and others ugly, they prefer one kind of food over another etc) while still insisting they are rational.
    It is absolutely arbitrary to suspend reason enough to enjoy seeing leaked pictures of Emma Watson on a beach in Ibiza wearing a thong or enjoy pizza over mackerel, while at the same time taking issue with people suspending reason to believe in God.