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Religion and Rationality

Religion and Rationality

By Peter Naish

From time to time, in the Cognitive Column, I touch on religion; it’s usually when there has been some relevant item in the news. A good while ago now I heard that the Chinese authorities liked Christian workers, because they seemed more honest and harder working. This was interesting because, as a communist state, China disapproves of religions. It prompted me to pose a question. Just suppose we were national leaders with no faith, seeing religious belief as irrational mumbo-jumbo. Should we then make laws to ensure that children were brought up with nothing but science-based beliefs or, with an eye to a tranquil, well-behaved populace, should we encourage the teaching of what we saw as irrational religious ideas? The latter, I suggested, could be rather like getting children to believe in Santa, which makes the potential withholding of presents a useful insurance of good behaviour in the run-up to Christmas! In the Newsletter following my musings, Fred Toates wrote a piece taking me to task, and defending the religious position. My impression at the time was that he may have misinterpreted the point I was trying to make, which of course is exactly what I may be doing for his piece, especially as all this writing took place two or three years ago now. I remember people asking whether Fred and I were still on speaking terms! Of course we were; we go back a very long time, are on the best of terms and agree about most things. Most, but perhaps not this one, so I always meant to write something in the nature of a rejoinder. There’s been so much about religion in the news recently, from Sunni and Shia Muslims killing each other (when not killing Christians) to objections about solutions for mitochondrial diseases; it really seems high time to consider the validity of the beliefs that lie behind the actions. I’m not going to try to deal with every point raised by Fred; rather I want to consider one issue. To ask whether it is rational to hold a religious belief and, if there seems to be a good case that it is not, to consider why so many people nevertheless espouse such beliefs. Incidentally, what I won’t be saying is that if something is irrational it must therefore be mumbo-jumbo! It is a label that I imagined the hypothetical atheist leaders using, not one that I would apply myself. Religion is of so much importance to the lives of so many people that it would be quite wrong to disparage it in such pejorative terms. In any case, as I shall mention below, we all entertain some irrational beliefs.

Fred pointed out that it was inappropriate to refer to practices as mumbo-jumbo when a good many eminent people, including scientists, subscribed to those practices. Of course, it’s just as easy to list many who don’t share the beliefs, and some such as Darwin, who appears to have had a faith once, but then abandoned it. Nevertheless, the point is well taken; there are people with notable intellects and training who do profess a religious faith. Why? It is not, I believe, because they have verifiable supportive data and have based a viable hypothesis upon it. Although that scenario is common place in science, it is not unusual for different scientists to adhere to different hypotheses: two different ways of trying to explain the same set of data. Sooner or later, as more data are gathered, one camp or the other is shown to be wrong, as was the case for the splendid Fred Hoyle, whose steady-state theory of the Universe had to give way to the Big Bang theory. It’s not like that with religion, because there are never (as far as we know) going to be any more data; indeed, the ‘anti camp’ would say that there never have been any data. That’s why it’s called a religious faith. It’s not something that can be demonstrated to be true; it simply has to be taken on trust.

I didn’t need Fred’s list of eminent men and women of faith; I had a first-hand example. He was not eminent, but he was perhaps like those Chinese workers; he was diligent, conscientious and thorough – and also very pleasant. I will call him Simon. He was one of my staff of research scientists, back in the days when I worked for the Ministry of Defence. Simon was very religious; if memory serves he was the son of a Christian minister, and I certainly remember that he married the daughter of another, from a slightly different denomination. Psychologists working in the MoD in those days were part of the Civil Service, and as such had the same strict managerial hierarchy. My boss (who was an atheist of the most determined sort) and I used to get on very well, and would while away many an hour of work time, engrossed in fascinating conversation – at least, it fascinated us. One day he must have been chatting to my staff, and made a ‘terrible discovery’. “Peter! Did you know? That Simon – he’s deeply religious! He can’t be rational! How on Earth can we have him working here as a scientist when he believes all that stuff?” I calmed him down, assured him that Simon was a very good scientist and explained that people seem able to compartmentalise. The rational doesn’t have to be contaminated by the irrational. This distinction between the two mental systems is nicely elaborated by Van Leeuwen (2014) who refers to them as factual beliefs on the one hand and religious credences on the other. Incidentally, I don’t intend to pepper this with prolific references, in an attempt to gain some spurious status of scholarship. These are merely my thoughts on the matter, but here and there I will cite a publication that some of you may find interesting.

I think most people today would accept that there is little in the way of formal evidence to support theistic beliefs, so let’s look at the issue from another perspective. We must all entertain beliefs that lack formal support, but they are useful beliefs, since they can guide our behaviour and, in a sense, act like a little GPS, steering us through life’s complexities. One of mine is that, by and large, most people are basically good. It leads me to approach encounters with cheerful optimism, and I think the belief has served me well. I can’t really test it though; I have no idea whether there are just 5% who are nasty, or even if the figure is 55% and I’ve simply been lucky. In any case, this isn’t a very ‘scientific’ observation of mine, because if I go round approaching people with the smile of blissful ignorance spread across my face my manner may bring out a fleeting ‘nice side’ in otherwise thoroughly unpleasant characters! Whatever the shortcomings of my sort of belief, there is no doubt that the credences of many religions provide their adherents with helpful heuristics and many of the believers seem the nicer and happier for it. However, their beliefs go beyond simply making them honest, or compassionate to those less fortunate; they purport to provide all-embracing truths and guidance, stemming from a Supreme Being. Moreover, unlike the fickle, fearsome gods of the ancients, the Christian God is steadfast and loving.

Now, as soon as believers move away from a simple philosophy for life and start to adopt grandiose beliefs concerning a deity, then they lay themselves open to challenge. As already explained, the absence of testable facts means that one just has to accept the beliefs or not, but claims for an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God can certainly be questioned. A typical opportunity arose in 2010 with the Haiti earthquake. It killed well in excess of one hundred thousand, and many more were reduced to destitution. News items in the aftermath showed survivors praying for help. One couldn’t but wonder why God would require praying to before delivering the much needed assistance. More to the point, why would a loving God let such a disaster occur in the first place? This very question was posed on the Today programme, on BBC Radio 4, and the Church of England had fielded an archbishop no less to answer it. In spite of being forewarned of the purpose of his appearance on air, Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, delivered a pitiful performance, to the extent that it was a mystery why he had bothered to come. If he didn’t have an answer, then surely he should either have stayed away or come and admitted that this was a major problem for his faith and that the Church had no answers. Sadly, the Church of England has a record of producing bumbling bishops as its spokespersons. We had an example recently, with the so-called three parent baby issue. It was on Today again, and the Bishop of Swindon made a toe-curlingly embarrassing attempt to explain why the Church was uneasy about the move to legalise the procedure. In fact all he succeeded in getting across with any clarity was a continual complaint that he needed more time to explain himself. I doubt he would have succeeded in that, even had he been given the entire programme in which to do it.

Let us give the churches the benefit of the doubt, and accept that God does indeed move in mysterious ways, directions that mere mortals cannot comprehend. Even if we adopt this lenient position, there still remains one impediment to an acceptance of religious teaching; it is possibly the greatest obstacle of all. Ever since the ancients made sacrifices to placate the peevish gods, human kind has had the idea that it had best behave itself. Christianity, riding on the back of Judaism, produced a twist to the sacrifice idea; it was the Messiah who was sacrificed, to get us off the hook as it were. Not that we do get away scot free, because for a start one is required to believe in the teachings before they will work. Moreover, depending upon the exact denomination a Christian follows, there are notions of confession, absolution, purgatory and hell. It’s not a free ride, and woe betide you if you do too much sinning! You might think that’s all entirely reasonable; of course a just god would expect his followers to tread the prescribed path. That would be all very well, if there were such a thing as freewill, but there isn’t. If a just God has in some sense created me as I am and, through His omniscience, is fully aware of my future, so knows that I am doomed to turn out a wicked man, how can it be just to accuse me of my wrongdoings and sentence me to hell? The fact is, among the various attributes ascribed to God there are some which are mutually exclusive.

You may be thinking, “Hang on a minute! That might follow if there were no freewill, but you haven’t proved that yet.” Of course, it is everybody’s experience that we do have a free choice in our decision making, but this is an illusion. It is one of the puzzles of consciousness, how we come to have an experience of making choices, when in fact our actions are determined solely by the state of our brain at the time. I won’t rehearse all the arguments and evidence against freewill here, because I do it rather regularly in the Cognitive Column; instead I will make just two points. First, there is a growing body of evidence from the neuroscience field, showing that the brain selects its responses before conscious awareness registers the decision (see, for example, Blakemore et al., 2011). While some may wish to claim that, even in this situation, the brain is still ‘choosing’, it cannot be described as potentially blameworthy freewill when the owner of the brain has no conscious awareness that it is happening. My second point is to draw attention to the notion of exercising leniency if a crime is committed while the balance of the perpetrator’s mind is disturbed. In effect, the authorities are saying, “He couldn’t help it; his brain made him do it.” This position seems to demand two beliefs. First, the only way behaviour can occur is as an outcome of brain activity. There is no spirit or separate ‘me’ that does things, just a brain. Second, if a brain makes a person do something when the outcome is bad, then equally it must do so when the deed is good. For all of us, our brains make us do it, and if we cannot blame a person for bad behaviour, they cannot logically be praised for good. Neither heaven nor hell are just rewards for our behaviour.

From all that I have written thus far, I believe it follows that there are strong grounds for referring to religious belief as irrational. Faith not only fails any rigorous test, such as would provide evidence to satisfy a team of scientists or a court of law, but it also fails a more lenient examination. For the latter we accepted the unproven tenets of faith and simply looked to see the implications of those beliefs. They did not stand up to rational scrutiny. So now I feel justified in embarking upon a search for explanations for religious convictions. In a way, this is a rejoinder to the final plea of the religious, “It may seem irrational to Peter Naish, but a billion people can’t all be wrong.” I made up the billion of course, but the point is, an awfully large number of people have a faith, so some would want to use this as a basis for claiming that there must be something in it. Indeed there might be, but if I can find simple, rational alternative explanations for why people entertain irrational beliefs, then Occam’s Razor will encourage me to shave away these elaborate and illogical growths and expose the smooth skin of rationality.

The first noteworthy explanation for why people would come to believe firmly in something for which there was no evidence was attempted by David Hume. In case you are unfamiliar with the name, he lived in the Eighteenth Century, one of Scotland’s greatest sons. He is probably best known as a philosopher, but in truth he was a polymath and to my mind easily wins the title Father of Psychology, especially the cognitive aspects of psychology. If you have ever been told that Freud occupies that position, with his wishy-washy, untestable nonsense, forget it! Hume was a man who observed astutely and adhered ruthlessly to clarity of thought and evidence, a famous quote being: If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. So much for religious thinking!

Although Hume advocated consigning theistic ideas to the flames, he was none the less careful to attempt an explanation for why so many people should believe in the ideas. He brought together three observations concerning human behaviour and experience, the first being the distress caused by uncertainty. Our ancestors lived in particularly uncertain times, where disease or a neighbouring tribe could strike without warning, or food supplies may dry up; on the other hand, in this quixotic world things might sometimes be very good, with health, peace and plentiful food. It would have been very unsettling, wondering what was going to happen next. The second human characteristic is a strong tendency to believe in causality. From early childhood we start to learn that events are preceded by causes; moreover, we ourselves can often be the cause, we can be in control. Lastly, we tend to anthropomorphise. We don’t simply take other people to be like ourselves, but treat animals as if they are too, and sometimes even inanimate objects. I suppose a modern example would be talking to your pot-plant. Another example is an old tradition that, when a beekeeper dies, the person taking on the hive should go and tell the bees what has happened. Go back rather further and, as Hume was aware, people imagined intelligent spirits in trees, streams and basically everywhere. Putting all these observations together, Hume concluded that our ancestors gained comfort from their anxieties by believing that events were not actually so uncontrollable. Like everything else, food and famine, pestilence or peace, they all had a cause. You couldn’t see or understand the cause, but it must be a bit like yourself - obviously more powerful than your average caveman, but nonetheless with the same sorts of whims. So, all you had to do was a bit of placating and bribing, praying and sacrificing, to keep the spirits happy, then all would be well. Bingo - you had some control after all! Often the results would be positive, Spring returned after Winter, so the beliefs were reinforced. When things didn’t work as happily it was easier to assume that one had got the propitiation ceremony wrong, rather than concluding that the beliefs themselves were incorrect. The spirit world was firmly established and, as with the human world, there was a ‘boss god’ at the top. With the growth of knowledge and education, the number of denizens of this ‘other world’ has tended to reduce, but the supreme God has often survived, not uncommonly with the odd devil or angel too.

I really must bring all this to a close. Fortunately, Hume was so accurate in his observations and prescient in his explanations that there is little more to add. Sadly we can’t time travel, to see whether things really did begin with our primitive forebears as described. However, we can test some of the ideas on modern supernatural believers. Not everyone believes very strongly; there is something of a spectrum, from arch sceptics, through the sort who think “there’s probably something there”, to those with a strong conviction. If Hume was right, we might expect people who more readily accept ideas of the paranormal to have a stronger tendency towards anthropomorphism. That correlation has indeed been reported (Willard & Norenzayan, 2013). Similarly, some people are disinclined to see events as random, believing instead that there is ‘meaning’ and purpose behind things; such people are also more likely to believe in God (Banerjee & Bloom, 2014). You might object that correlations don’t prove causality, and that this could be explained just as well in the opposite direction, i.e. people who
believe in God are likely to believe that God has a purpose for them and so controls events in their lives. This is entirely plausible, but the authors found the things-happen-for-a-reason notion in non-believers too, and concluded that it is a fundamental tendency in humans; where it is stronger, it is liable to result in a person allocating a ‘director’ (God) to make the things happen. There is a good deal more research of this kind, but naturally the effects described, although statistically significant, are not especially strong – no correlations of 1.0! This is as would be expected, because there are many reasons why a person may subscribe to religious beliefs, chief among them being their upbringing. Being taught the beliefs as a child, and living in a society where many people subscribe to the faith, are bound to have a significant impact on a person’s beliefs and practices.

To summarise, there appear to be no thoroughgoing rational reasons to justify a belief in a supernatural supreme being. To give religious people their due (at least, the ones prepared to engage in reasoned debate) they probably don’t want to claim any ‘rational reasons’; they are more inclined to argue that there is more than one way of ‘knowing’ and accessing the truth. One version of truth is the kind used in court; it’s fine to say as a witness, “I saw him do it,” but it won’t do to say, “I just know he did it.” Nevertheless, that is often the way in which religious people believe; they just feel that they know. Of course, a sense of knowing is itself no more than a brain state, but we had best not continue along that path or this will never be finished! So, religious beliefs cannot be justified on the basis of reason, and nor does their widespread existence demand that we give them credence; there are far better, rational explanations, based upon human experience and cognition. Nevertheless, ‘just knowing’ is probably beneficial to the believer, at least some of the time; I only wish some of them didn’t ‘know’ so strongly that they feel justified in slaughtering those who ‘know’ something else.

Banerjee, K and Bloom, P (2014). Why did this happen to me? Religious believers’ and non-believers’ teleological reasoning about life events. Cognition, 133, 277-303.
Blakemore, C et al. (2011). Brain Waves 1: Neuroscience, Society and Policy, The Royal Society. It can be downloaded at: https://royalsociety.org/~/media/ Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2011/4294974932.pdf
Van Leeuwen, N (2014). Religious credence is not factual belief. Cognition, 133, 698-715.
Willard, AK and Norenzayan, A (2013). Cognitive biases explain religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in life’s purpose. Cognition, 129, 379-391.

This article originally appeared in News & Views September 2015.


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