I’m beginning to see posts on various skeptical/rationalist/atheist websites arguing—or implying—that religion should be immune from the kind of critical scrutiny we give to other superstitions. The latest, “A rational approach to irrationality” by Quinn O’Neill, appeared two days ago at 3 Quarks Daily. Apart from her making the usual “we’re-alienating-our-allies-with-our-stridency” argument (it references Phil Plait’s DBAD talk), she takes an unusual tack: telling skeptics to lay off religion because our goal of maximizing rationality is misguided. We should instead be trying to maximize well being, and that may involve accepting our fellows’ delusions. (Sam Harris take note!)
It might seem, given these benefits, that improving rationality would improve well-being. But irrationality has its perks. Delusions can provide comfort. They can give us confidence, hope, or a sense of purpose. Superstitions can improve athletic performance, and psychics and astrologers can help people deal with the discomfort of not knowing what the future holds. The most rational objective, then, is not necessarily to have everyone be completely rational but rational to the extent that optimizes well-being.
If we are to be rational and scientific, we ought to appreciate the value of diversity and the role of evolution in shaping our minds. We are predisposed to delusional thinking because our brains have evolved this way; it was evolutionarily advantageous. It is human nature to be somewhat delusional. To expect people to be perfectly rational is to ask us to defy our own nature. It isn’t reasonable.
This sounds suspiciously like the let’s-not-take-grandma’s-comfort-from-her argument, gilded a bit with the naturalistic fallacy. We may also have evolved to be sexist and xenophobic, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up trying to extirpate racism and sexism from our world. After all, by asking people to stop disliking foreigners, or those of different races, we may be asking them to defy their own nature.
Further, most of us, I think, aren’t interested in rooting out irrationality for its own sake. Few of us want to tell grandma, on her deathbed, that she’s not going to sing in the choir invisible—she’s worm food. We want to eliminate irrationality in proportion to its malign effects. Astrology? Yawn. UFO abduction? Another yawn. Yetis? zzzzzz . . . .Homeopathy? Here irrationality has some bad effects, and is worth fighting. Ditto with HIV denial, global-warming denial, and opposition to vaccination.
And religion? It’s harmful more often than we may think. Take a faith that is common and often seen as benign: Catholicism. One in five Americans is a Catholic; we have nearly 70 million of them in the U.S. Surely that faith does no harm! But the Catholic church promulgates doctrines that foster the subjugation of women, the opposition to condom use to eliminate AIDS or control overpopulation, and the sexual exploitation of children. (Many Catholics, of course, oppose these things, but you can’t deny that Catholic dogma itself has malign effects.) And how many children does the Church warp, often for life, with its threats of eternal damnation for masturbating or cursing?
And of course religion in general has multiple bad effects. It promotes hatred, wars, oppression of women, and persecution of gays. It instills people with deep sexual guilt and psychological torment about hell and heaven. It instills a morality that opposes rational goals like saving the environment, advancing medical research (e.g., the new stem-cell prohibitions), and eliminating AIDS. It makes people mutilate the genitals of their daughters, fly airplanes into buildings, burn “witches,” and throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls. And of course, it has the pernicious (but less severe) effect of fighting things like the teaching of evolution.
If all religious people were like Quakers, who don’t engage in invidious social action, warp their children, or try to impose a God-given morality on their rest of us, I doubt that many of us would be so vociferous in opposing faith. But of course for O’Neill, who doesn’t mention the bad effects of religion, all faiths are like the Quakers. And, she insists, we must respect them:
Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom. If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order (so long as the beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others). Respecting freedom of religion means accepting the fact that not everyone will freely choose our worldview. If we encourage people to think for themselves, we must accept that others will come to different conclusions.
And besides, irrationality promotes art, music, and literature!
But just as we need scientists and other professionals who have a proclivity for reason and empiricism, we need artists and people who feel their way through the world. Such people may be better able to create great works of art that move us on a non-rational level. We are emotional animals; people who understand this aspect of our nature well have much to contribute.
Now we get to the DBAD argument:
However, the response of self-proclaimed rational people to irrationality can also be harmful. Anyone who’s been around the blogosphere knows that skeptics and atheists can be nasty. The frustration and anger that underlies the vitriol is understandable, but the nastiness is probably counterproductive. As Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, points out in a recent talk, few skeptics have arrived at their convictions as a result of verbal abuse.
There is little evidence to suggest that verbal abuse is an effective persuasion tactic when it comes to irrational thinking. It might lead some to reject their irrational views, but it’s more likely to cause people to cling to their views more tightly. It can also reinforce the view that atheists are morally bankrupt jerks. Verbal abuse, being damaging to self-esteem and having little empirical support, is a hypocritical choice of persuasion tactic for people who claim to base their views on evidence.
Note that O’Neill, like Plait, doesn’t give a shred of evidence for the ubiquity of “verbal abuse.” (In the comments on her piece, one person mentions the harsh tone of some Pharyngula commenters.) And she simply takes for granted that our “attacks” are counterproductive. There’s no evidence for that, either. Do let us remember, as Richard Dawkins pointed out on this site, that much of our criticism is an attempt not to influence the objects of our opprobrium, but third parties who are listening in and may be more open minded.
Likewise, O’Neill suggests that, in fighting creationism in the public schools, we should not do it by attacking religion. (But really, who does that?). Rather, we should try to encourage religious instruction at home:
Yet, direct attacks on religion are threatening to religious people and may lead to more aggressive efforts to influence the curriculum. Perhaps a more effective approach than attacking religion directly would be to encourage parents to share their religion with their children at home or at their respective places of worship. After all, religious leaders would be best able to provide this type of instruction.
But she directly contradicts herself by arguing that parents shouldn‘t “share their religion with their children at home,” because it brainwashes the kids:
Religious freedom means that individuals have the right to embrace religious beliefs of their own choosing. It doesn’t mean that parents have the right to systematically indoctrinate their children into their own religion. On the contrary, it means that their children also have the right to choose their own religious views when they reach the age of reason. Systematic religious indoctrination that restricts exposure to alternative worldviews limits this freedom.
In the end, O’Neill calls for moderation:
No one is completely rational or completely irrational, but there are people who tend to extremes. The battle over religion and rationality is one that is fought most viciously by people who are strongly polarized on their respective sides. The battle, however, is more likely to be won by moderates.
Our potential to improve human well-being ultimately lies not in our ability to maximize rationality, but in our ability to understand human nature and value people with different worldviews. Success will be most likely if atheists and religious moderates unite for a common goal; not the eradication of religion, but a securely secular society that optimizes well-being and respects our most cherished freedoms.
P.Z. Myers has characterized this as the CTA (“crazy town approach”): “squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.” Of course we should try to understand those with different world views. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize them. That’s what freedom of speech is all about: free discussion will lead us more surely to the truth. And even if we can’t change the minds of the faithful, we might influence those observers who are on the fence—especially the next generation.
Although O’Neill begins by discussing forms of “comforting” irrationality like going to psychics or astrologers, it’s clear that her real interest is in protecting faith. Like Plait, she seems to feel that we should go easier on religion than on other forms of superstition. But why? It can’t be that religion is less harmful than equally false beliefs in astrology, UFO abduction, or faked moon landings. Anyone with two neurons to rub together knows that religious superstition does far more harm than these. No, it can’t be that religion is the most benign of superstitions. In the end, the arguments to go easy on religion all boil down to this claim: it’s the most common form of superstition. It’s useless to attack it because it’s ubiquitous and entrenched, and we’ll only alienate people if we try. This is the only explanation for why those who can work up such a sweat about creationism in the public schools are so quick to defend faith in general.
But I need hardly point out one lesson of history: the ubiquity of bad beliefs does not make them immune to change.