Why Believers Can Be Reasonable, Rational and Logical...and Still Be Wrong

"I believe that the truth is out there but that it is rarely obvious and almost never foolproof. What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence do not always coincide." - Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain

"What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!" - Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

The seemingly eternal conflict between religion and science has taken many forms from the trial of Galileo to courtroom clashes over injecting intelligent design into public schools to scholarly debates on college campuses. The religious/theists/believers certainly are not a homogeneous group. They can be fundamentalist biblical literalists as well as PhD holding scientists who affirm a belief in some higher power while accepting modern scientific consensus. The atheist/non-believers group contains hardcore anti-theists who view religion as harmful and seek to curb its authority to those for whom religion or god has no effect on their lives. Misunderstandings and mischaracterizations abound from both camps.

One of the misconceptions that I want to address is an accusation that some non-believers level at the theists. Non-believers sometimes characterize believers as unreasonable, irrational and illogical. On the surface these charges have some merit. As we mature we usually give up our imaginary friends and some of our more magical beliefs but gods, angels, miracles and mythical origins still capture the imaginations and hearts of many adults. Creation stories and fantastic tales of saviors are prevalent in nearly every society on Earth. The stories aid us in making sense of the world and guide us in engaging an uncertain future.

But a look at the reasons and justifications given for these beliefs in gods and their associated religions reveals that for the most part believers have seemingly logical and rational reasons for their beliefs. Some people admit that their beliefs do not meet the usual tests of science and evidence but are relying on faith alone. I won't address those people in this blog but I will pose the question as a side note: If people believe in something without any evidence (which is what faith means), then what else will they possibly believe without evidence??

I submit that refraining from characterizing believers as deluded, science-phobic rubes will accomplish two things: (1) It's a chance for non-believers to take the "high road" by demonstrating a willingness to engage believers as fellow human beings with different points of view on subjects of importance instead of summarily dismissing them as unworthy. This is the same consideration that non-believers would like from the believers. Obviously this isn't always the case but, as an atheist, I want our "side" to be above the demonizing and dismissive tactics employed by some believers. If we atheists are going to charge some believers with being narrow-minded, unreasonable and prejudicial, we cannot be guilty of the same behavior. (2) The second thing that can be accomplished by granting believers this consideration is that if the goal of some atheists is to potentially change some minds of believers (convert?) or at least have the atheist viewpoint more widely considered we must approach them with a willingness to listen and consider their views. It's human nature to automatically put up defenses if we feel someone is attacking us or our beliefs. We stand a better chance to reach more people by listening and then posing some follow up questions or seeking clarification. This is where the believers' arguments fall apart.

Examining the more common reasons given for beliefs in deities reveals four potential flaws: (1) a belief can be reasonable, rational, logical, consistent with personal experience and confirmed by others...and still be inadequate or incorrect, (2) intuitive truths cited as logical and reasonable do not appear to be accurate when scrutinized further or they raise even more questions than they answer, (3) the intuitive truths are based on too many unproven assumptions and (4) the intuitive truths fail to appreciate the scope and context of the assertion.

Reasonable, Rational and Logical...and Still Wrong

Imagine people living a thousand years ago or even farther in the past. Many of them never travel farther than maybe a few miles from where they were born. To them, the earth or whatever they called the land where they lived was stable. It didn't move. Every morning a big yellow orange disk rose from the same general direction and traveled across the sky to disappear in the opposite direction. A logical, reasonable, rational conclusion for them would be that the sun moved while the earth remained still. Even if a few people figured out that the Earth was actually round, it was still apparent that it didn't move.

Was everybody "wrong" in their interpretation? I would say they weren't wrong so much as they were making the best guess they could with the limited tools they had coupled with their personal observations. Their conclusion was reasonable based on the information they had.

For another example, imagine a typical 6-7 year old child who, when asked about Santa Claus, unhesitatingly responds, "Yes, Santa Claus is real." This child has most likely been raised from birth being told about Santa Claus and the whole Christmas story. The child has seen pictures of Santa Claus, has seen him on TV and in movies. The child has probably seen him in person and may have pictures with him. All the child's friends also refer to Santa Claus as a real person, too. Every Christmas morning the child wake up to find presents under the tree that weren't there the night before and the milk and cookies set out for Santa are now gone. What more proof could there be that Santa Claus is real? What other conclusion could this child draw when all logic, reason and experience points to the existence of Santa Claus?

But we know that Santa Claus is NOT real. He is a fictional character. What the child is missing is the correct, salient information that places all the reason, logic and experience in a new light. That information is that the stories of Santa Claus are fiction, the presents and the disappearing milk and cookies can be attributed to the parents and the corroborating support from the child's friends is due to their ignorance of the correct information. We can see how someone who is rational, logical and incorporates personal experience to draw a conclusion, a conclusion validated by others, can still be incorrect!

Some believers have cautioned scientists with these same examples attempting to call into question the certainties and pronouncements of science throughout the ages. Yes, scientific consensus on many subjects has been abandoned and/or superseded by more accurate and complete explanations. But where did these better explanations come from? Science! They were not superseded by a supernatural or religious explanation. The self correcting mechanism of science continually provides more accurate and complete answers for the questions we curious humans ask. Religion has no such mechanism. Instead it has built in self preservation aspects that dissuade questioning the faith or examining religious principles critically.

Relying on Intuitive Truths

What is an intuitive truth? It's a statement or proposition that initially appears rationally, reasonably and (most importantly) instinctively true. It just feels right, down in your gut. It seems obvious. Also, the truth does not conflict with any currently held beliefs. The truth does not create cognitive dissonance.

Often these truths do in fact stand up to scrutiny and research. However, many ideas, especially scientific truths and theories, are counter-intuitive. They aren't readily apparent or perceived. Often they may even run counter to common sense or experience.

Examples of accepted scientific principles which are counter-intuitive: the heliocentric view of the solar system, the atomic theory of matter, quantum physics and light displaying properties of both a particle and wave. All of these scientific principles are generally accepted now but took a long time to be accepted or proven scientifically.

The intuitive truth will always come to mind first and must consciously be suppressed by the correct truth. This is where many believers' rationales and reasons ultimately fall short. They quite literally don't go far enough. They are based exclusively on intuitive truths that do NOT stand up to further scrutiny or rigorous scientific study. The default human tendency is to believe the intuitive truth. We must unlearn first or at least overcome. We initially believe then suppress, it doesn't go away. It takes more work to NOT believe the intuitive truth and we humans usually seek the path of least resistance.

Examples of intuitive truths followed by the non-intuitive truth and/or refutation:

Pascal's Wager or it's better to believe in god and possibly be wrong than to not believe and risk eternal damnation.

The proposition assumes there are only four possibilities: there is or isn't a god, you believe or you don't believe. It's an unsubstantiated choice set. It also implies that the assumed god would not be able to tell the difference between a true believer and someone going through the motions to avoid an eternity in hell which would seem to rule out an omniscient god.

Every effect must have a cause. The universe is an effect, so it must have an ultimate cause. The ultimate cause or prime mover is god.

Cause and effect is true on Earth and within the universe, but any concept of cause and effect and time itself outside of the universe is speculation at best. Also, positing this prime mover as any particular god or being is an unsubstantiated assumption. This prime mover is also assumed to exist "outside" of time and space. However, the space-time continuum started at the Big Bang so there can be no "time" outside of the universe. To counter this, some believers invoke some type of infinite, un-caused first cause or ultimate being that created "time" and can somehow exist outside of it. Again, this is pure speculation at best.

Anything of sufficient complexity and unity implies a designer (Paley's watch). The universe is incredibly complex and appears designed for life. The ultimate intelligent designer is god.

The Internet and the economy are both examples of incredibly complex, intricate entities involving millions of agents constantly interacting with efficiency. Who are the top down, intelligent designers of these entities? (Al Gore is not a correct answer.) Also, we don't know if we are the only life forms within the universe. Even if there is an intelligent designer, how do we know that the designer didn't create the universe for some other life form and we humans are just unintentional byproducts? How do we know the ultimate purpose of the designer wasn't to create dinosaurs? Also, the designer could have been a sufficiently advanced race of aliens who started evolution on Earth millions of years ago and has since remained passive. It's also an intuitive truth (assumption) that if science can't adequately explain some natural phenomenon, the ONLY alternative explanation must be a particular god.

Morality comes from god/The Bible. God, the most perfect being imaginable, is the source of all that is good.

Believers steadfastly cling to the idea of an objective morality, an ideal to which we humans must aspire. God is usually cited as the source of this ideal. But using God as the standard is problematic in that not everyone agrees on a particular god or moral system. Also, the bible, as the word of god, is problematic in that many of its stories and messages run counter to the perceived morality and ethical behavior of today. Further eroding the idea of the bible as moral authority, is that many commandments and supposedly moral acts contained in the bible can be found in older historical records and collections of laws, before Jesus. Morality has varied widely among different current social groups throughout history. It is culturally relativistic with some common moralities present in almost all societies. Also, claiming man only behaves morally due to a system of rewards and punishments imparted from on high doesn't speak highly of man's intelligence or capability to behave humanely.

So many people believe in God, he must exist. Why would we believe in something that doesn't exist?

Belief, even strong belief, is not evidence of existence. We humans have needs for tangible things (food, shelter, companionship) and for some more nebulous things such as love and self expression. But they all are here in Earth and in our societies. We can see people satisfying these needs and can interpret observed behavior over time to verify such concepts as love, compassion and expression. Besides there have been several thousand gods proposed throughout human history. The only thing we can conclude is that humans have a tendency (probably evolutionary in origin) to believe in gods/supernatural beings.

Humans didn't come from monkeys. Or, if we descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

A basic understanding of evolution is all that is needed to respond to this. Evolution posits that humans AND monkeys(all primates) had a common ancestor several million years ago. Several branches led to modern primates and homo sapiens, human beings. If the first human was made by God from dirt, why is there still dirt? Also, this argument against evolution is presumed then to bolster the creation story in Genesis. Even if evolution was disproved today, it does NOT in any way support the biblical story of creation. This is yet another example of the assumption that there two and only two possible explanations for the variety of life on Earth.

Note: I am not cherry picking the most obscure, problematic arguments and ignoring others that are more frequently stated. These are the most used and visible, especially on social media sites, arguments from believers.

Limited Scope

The universe is incomprehensibly old and big. The words eternity and infinity would not be considered hyperbole. The most recent measurement places the universe at about 13.8 billion (with a b) years old and the Earth at 4.6 billion years old. We can't comprehend these figures. At best we can make an analogy, such as Carl Sagan did when he compressed the age of the universe down to one calendar year to give some idea of when certain things happen(1). For example the Earth formed around September 14 with the first signs of life around September 23. All of human history occurs within the last few minutes of December 31.

One of the factors that contributes to the misunderstanding of and resistance to some scientific claims (especially evolution) is the long time period that the claims require to eventually produce the Earth as we know it with its complex flora and fauna. The earliest organic molecules may have initially formed four billion years ago and it was another two billion years before the next stage of complex organisms developed. Modern homo sapiens are generally thought to have emerged only 200 to 100 thousand years ago which is somewhat more possible to comprehend.

There is also the scale of the universe which is impossible to perceive. Some theists posit that the entire universe in all its majesty and wonder was created specifically by a deity for human beings exclusively. That would beg the question what are the billions of other galaxies with billions of other stars and billions of other planets here for? Others say the Earth is so "fine tuned" for life it must have a designer. With possibly billions of other planets in the universe, how can one confidently say that only the Earth could support life and no other sentient life as we define it exists anywhere else??

We humans are provincial in so many ways. It was natural for our ancestors to believe the Earth and the sky was all there ever was or will be. As our understanding of the unfathomable scale of the universe and our tiny place within it has grown, we still instinctively measure things on our human scale. We can know intellectually the vastness of space and time but in our hearts we desperately want to keep our place in the center of it all. This is the source of many theistic propositions, an attempt to retain our special place and exalted standing within the cosmic realm.

Conclusion

In conclusion, theists/believers are attempting to be as rational and logical as other human beings in matters of faith and belief. The weaknesses in their propositions, in the seemingly intuitive logic they employ and their failure to grasp appropriate scales and contexts ultimately undermine the validity of their arguments. While these weaknesses in thought, logic and reason are very human in origin (we are all guilty of them to some degree), the supposition that many of the conclusions based on this faulty reasoning are just as valid as more objective, scientifically based propositions runs counter to over five hundred years of post-Enlightenment, rational methodology.

The scientific method of repeatable, testable, verifiable evidence to support a claim is the cornerstone of modern Western thought. It has informed all aspects of society from economics to medicine to technology to education to social policy. There is a hypocritical disconnect on the part of theists/believers who advance ideas based on faith and intuition, especially as they relate to religion/philosophy, while concurrently utilizing and readily accepting the benefits of the scientific method such as modern medicine, technology and the highest standard of living in history. In other words, how can believers accept the rational/scientific approach in so many instances, and then reject it in others?!

Even most (hopefully!) biblical literalists who reject evolution wholesale (and the scientific method in general) accept the sun is actually the center of the solar system instead of the Earth. If they have overcome the intuitive bias toward the geocentric view, they have demonstrated the ability go beyond intuitive logic and accept scientific consensus even when it might not make sense to them. The reluctance to accept scientific consensus on matters of creation and evolution must be attributed to choice, stubbornness and denial. While this choice may be understandable as a self protective act to justify strongly held beliefs and to retain a sense of divine purpose in one's existence, it cannot be considered another "path to the Truth" on par with science.

Science can be weird, it can violate everything that makes sense but in the end, reality prevails.

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