Theism, Atheism and Being Irrational, Part 1

condescending irrationalI loathe condescension for two reasons. One, I find it deeply offensive to be treated as a cognitive inferior or be told I’m being irrational. Two, when someone acts condescendingly toward me, it is like a mirror painfully reflecting my own condescending attitude toward others. Ouch. And there are few places where people are more smug than in debates about God and religion. Both sides are quite certain they occupy the rational high-ground, the moral high-ground, or both.

Many atheists think that belief in a god is irrational because there is a lack of evidence. To them, believers maintain faith by denial, ignorance or wishful thinking. On the other hand, Christians think that atheists “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” to quote a line from St. Paul. “Unbelievers” run from reality to preserve their illusory sense of moral autonomy. Both sides accuse the other of irrationality. It wouldn’t be hard to produce anecdotal evidence for both claims. But we must recognize that the rationality of individual persons and the rationality of a worldview are two separate things.

dinosaur velociraptorSo here’s the first question I’m interested in: is it possible for someone to be rational AND be a Christian/atheist? (For philosophy nerds, I’m talking about epistemic rationality.) One way to think of rationality is as a relationship between a person’s belief and their total evidence. To keep it simple, let’s start by talking about a single belief: (A) the dinosaurs were wiped out by a comet. Suppose a person, Stephen, believes (A) rationally because his total evidence supports it. What evidence does Stephen have? Stephen was taught (A) by his teacher, who offered good evidence in class, and Stephen has no defeaters (beliefs that would lead him to deny (A)). Sounds rational. Now suppose another person, Marie, never studied this topic, but believes (A) because she dreamt it was true. It seems that Marie is not believing rationally. Now imagine a third person, Neil, who thinks (A) is false, even though he sat through the same lessons as Stephen. Neil saw a reputable scientist on TV who argued that (B) the dinosaurs died out because of natural changes in climate. Is Neil rational in believing (B) and denying (A)? Arguably, yes. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that (A) is true, and (B) is false. Interestingly, this has no effect on the rationality of Stephen, Marie and Neil, because rationality is a relation between my belief and my total evidence.

I made up these cases, but they illustrate how beliefs and evidence can relate. Stephen stands in the ideal position. He believes rationally and his belief is true. Marie’s belief is true, but less than rational. Neil believes something false, but he seems rational in doing so.

Takeaway #1: Truth and rationality can come apart.

I can maintain my rationality even when I (unwittingly) believe something false, and I can get lucky in believing the truth even when my cognitive process goes awry.

What is the upshot of this finding? It is this: Christians and atheists should not assume that people on “the other side” are being irrational simply because they believe something false. The best thing to do is look at each case individually, rather than generalizing about how “Christians” and “atheists” think.

evidence irrationalNow, new questions arise. How do we know when someone believes irrationally? When you talk to your friend on the other side, how do you evaluate the quality of their believing? Well, keep in mind that each person’s total evidence is different. This means that what is rational for me to believe may be different from what is rational for you to believe. In Neil’s case, it would probably be epistemically bad for him to switch his belief to (A) because his total evidence better supports (B). But also keep in mind that you may not know what is contained in your friend’s total evidence. They may have evidence you don’t know about. Stephen, unaware that Neil saw this TV program, might consider Neil’s denial of (A) to be irrational. Likewise, Neil might fault Stephen for continuing to hold (A), even though there is better scientific support for (B). Both are wrong.

Takeaway #2: Your rationality is relative to your unique total evidence

Rationality remains an objective, knowable fact about a person’s belief, but I simply must take care not to judge another person’s belief according to my total evidence. And it is so hard to know what someone else’s total evidence includes!

Takeaway #3: Exercise caution and care when judging another’s rationality

In my next post, I plan to look at particular cases of theistic and atheistic belief and evaluate their rationality. (I will also talk about the nature of evidence.) Feel free to offer feedback on what I’ve written so far. Do you agree with each of my takeaway points? Your feedback helps me know what to clarify and what to address in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Theism, Atheism and Being Irrational, Part 1

  1. Nicely written.
    Will you address how you can know something is true? I.e. If dinosaurs died from a comet if no one was there to observe it?

    1. Thanks, Matt. Great question. For the post and the sake of argument, I’m just assuming that claim about the dinosaurs. I don’t really know anything about the extinction of the dinosaurs. But I think scientists might know it (and us by extension), even though they aren’t certain of it. (I don’t think knowledge requires certainty, just plenty of good evidence, and perhaps more good evidence than rival theories.)

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