My junior year of college (I was studying to be a band director), I met Steve. Steve was, by all accounts, a talented, intelligent, rational person. Like me, he played the saxophone, but unlike me, he *played* the saxophone. I mean, he flew up and down the scales unconsciously, as if he were playing with 14 fingers instead of the standard 10. Oddly, despite his intelligence and talent, he was a conservative Christian. I thought that was crazy. At the time, I viewed religion and God as ridiculous, only for the weak-minded. Despite this, we became fast friends.
I still recall a conversation (we often got into religious and political debates) in which I said to him, “I don’t know how any intelligent person could believe in God.” To which he replied, without flinching, “I don’t know how any intelligent person could NOT believe in God!” Most of the Christians I had talked to would have been reduced to a puddle of religious sentiment at this point, but Steve held his ground.
Fast forward 25 years. I no longer consider Steve to be crazy. But I look back on my 20 year old self and I understand why I saw it that way. I also understand the view from the “other side.” For a couple years in my 20s, after crossing over to faith in God, I flipped. That is, I thought atheists, my former brethren, were the crazy ones. I no longer believe that, either. But why do we usually look at our counterparts across the “aisle of faith” and wag our heads, thinking, “Those poor fools”?
I think I can explain this phenomenon. It comes down to conditional probability. You see, when you consider whether to believe something, you often weigh the probability that it is true. For example, suppose Julie tells you that she’s been a bridesmaid in over 100 weddings. You’re skeptical. The probability of this is quite low, say 5%, and the reasonable response is disbelief. But what if you learn that Julie is a professional bridesmaid? Now you weigh the probability that she is telling the truth, conditional on this new information. This conditional probability would be quite high, say 80%, which is high enough to warrant acceptance.
Notice that we ignore, for the moment, the possibility that the information about Julie’s unusual occupation is false. We simply form the belief that, assuming she is a professional bridesmaid, the likelihood of her having been a bridesmaid 100 times is quite high. We stand well within our epistemic or rational rights to believe her. But another person who lacks this extra bit of information would not be rational to uncritically accept Julie’s “100 weddings” boast.
That “Extra Bit”
So what does this have to do with rational theism or atheism? The reason that theists or atheists appear so crazy to us is that we are often judging them without that extra bit of information. Without that “extra bit,” we simply estimate the subjective probability for the “bare” version of their position. For example, if you’re an atheist, the subjective probability of theism is quite low. Which means that theism shouldn’t be believed by rational persons! Thus, from the atheist perspective, theism appears quite irrational, and vice versa.
But if we could explore the minds of each person, we would find that we aren’t believing simple, bare propositions. (Let’s say that ‘A’ = “atheism is true,” and ‘T’ = “theism is true.”) We are usually believing A or T conditional on a certain set of reasons–reasons that, presumably, increase the likelihood of A or T. These reasons may include a whole host of things: scientific discoveries, experiences, beliefs about the coherence or incoherence of divine revelation and action, testimony, etc. So, for any theist or atheist, given the set of reasons they have, their belief may very well be rational.
Resist the temptation to perform a summary execution on another person’s rationality.
Keep in mind that while you enjoy access to your own set of reasons, you lack access to the reasons of others. You don’t really know whether the set of reasons they’re working with justifies their belief or not. So, like the American legal system, I think it better to presume rational innocence. Resist the temptation to perform a summary execution on another person’s rationality.
Now some of you are thinking, “How can their reasons make their belief rational if their reasons are all wrong or crazy?!” That’s the funny thing about rationality–it doesn’t guarantee truth. It only increases our chances of getting truth (usually). For hundreds of years, people rationally believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth. So the truth of our beliefs is not what I’m talking about. I just want to show that people can be rational even if they’re wrong. So, you may still pity the fool who believes (theism/atheism), but you shouldn’t automatically peg them as irrational. And you absolutely shouldn’t peg them as “beneath you” on the intelligence or ethical scale.