Rational or Faith-Based?

In a recent New Yorker article by David Remnick, he discusses Barack Obama and says the following:

… During the campaign, Obama embodied novelty and a broader American coalition, and everything we heard about his temperament — as a community organizer in Chicago, as a president of the Harvard Law Review, as a legislator, as a campaigner — spoke of someone who, in contrast to the outgoing, faith-based President, possessed a gift for rational judgment and principled compromise

I’ll admit: I’m surprised to see that — a contrast between being faith-based and possessing rational judgment.

William Lobdell explains his take on it. I think he veers off course toward the end:

The assumption is that President Bush is irrational and unwilling to compromise because of his faith. And the logical next step is to conclude deeply religious Christians don’t usually possess a “gift for rational judgment.” A zillion Christians possess that gift. U2 singer Bono is a Christian and pretty rational. So is Pastor Rick Warren or, for that matter, Obama.

I don’t know about Bono. But we already know plenty about what Warren believes. I can’t think of any rational reason to oppose gay marriage: Only homophobia and the Bible, neither of which are convincing or worth taking seriously.

Obama? I’d like to think he’s rational. (Of course, I also harbor secret thoughts that he’s only Christian for political reasons and that he doesn’t buy into the Virgin Birth, Resurrection, etc…)

Is it possible to be both religious and rational?

Can you call someone rational when they follow faith on Sunday mornings and follow evidence the rest of the week?

  • Aj

    Rational people, who are comitted to approaching every subject rationally, are not Christians. There is a broad spectrum of Christians that apply a rational approach in differing degrees. What no Christian does, is apply a rational approach to their Christianity. The less they believe compared to other Christians, the more they’re commited to rationalism. The parts they do not believe in, they easily apply rationalism to, but the things they believe on faith, they cannot.

    I haven’t heard Rick Warren say anything remotely rational, but I have heard him say many idiotic things. He’s a Creationist, who thinks before Noah, the earth was irrigated up (no rain), enough said. I haven’t heard Obama say anything about his faith, he labels himself a Christian, but he keeps his faith private. The only things that I’ve heard Obama say about Christianity is that the Old Testament contains horrible things, and that Christianity’s utility is important to people (belief in belief). I’ve never heard him justify a policy or view because of his faith or the Bible.

    As soon as you apply faith to something you abandon reason. A lot of the time it might as well be wish-thinking, and it probably is. Thankfully many Christians can apply rationality to the majority of subjects, Obama seems to apply it to more than most, and more than most of his peers in government.

  • Trina Hoaks

    I do think it is possible to be rational and a believer. That is not to say that the belief is rational.

    V.S. Ramachandran has done some research with patients who suffer from phantom limb syndrome (see the link for a video http://www.examiner.com/x-2044-Atheism-Examiner~y2008m12d22-Top-3-favorite-speeches-of-2008-2-VS-Ramachandran). One of the interesting things about this is that these people, who are perfectly rational, experience pain in limbs they no longer have. It is all related to having formed habits.

    If you apply his findings to believers, it is easy to see how a religiously devout person can be rational as well… albeit, not when it comes to their religious convictions.

    I once told a boyfriend, who happened to be Christian, “no intelligent person in his right mind could believe in God.”

    To this he responded, “I must not be very intelligent then.”

    But he was. He was brilliant. So, of course, I told him, “you are brilliant. You are just not in your right mind.”

    Fortunately, he found that amusing.

  • http://www.rationalitynow.com Dan Gilbert

    I’m not so sure that Mr. Lobdell’s comments can be taken as “rational” with his claim that “zillions” of Christians possess a gift for rational judgement. ;-)

    I think compartmentalizing is the key for theists. Religion goes into one box. Real life goes into another. As long as the two are kept separate, rationality can exist (in the “real life” box).

    The more fundamentalist the theist, the less likely it is for those compartments to stay separated.

  • http://blueollie.wordpress.com ollie

    Here is something that happened to me: I took a quiz at Belief.net called “what kind of Christian are you?”

    I answered each question honestly and rejected every “miracle” or supernatural event.

    Yet, I scored as a “liberal traditional Christian; like Hillary Clinton”.

    In short: many Christians (and Jews) see the events in the Bible (including the supernatural) as metaphors for a social truth or as a useful (if not historically true) myth to live one’s life by.

    It has been my experience that many educated folks who practice religion (including clergy) are really agnostics.

    It isn’t that weird when you think about it.

    After all, I practice yoga several times a week; I don’t believe in the “spiritual aspects” but the poses sure make my back feel better. :)

  • CybrgnX

    If you limit the definition of ‘rational’ then most people are rational. In the restricted sense of our health my Mom was very rational, but as a devote catholic she ‘irrationally’ prayed for us to be well, which is perfectly ‘rational’ in her religious veiw.
    But in the overall ‘global’ veiw of the world and the nature of man (ya politically incorrect)i’ve never met a ‘rational’ religious person.

  • http://www.dianaschnuth.net/ Diana

    When I was a child, up through my teenage years and into early young-adulthood, I was a devout Mormon. I was a smart kid, and I did ask questions. For every question I asked, someone had a completely reasonable and believable answer, whether it was about church doctrine or about God’s use of natural law to suit his own purposes. But there were some questions I didn’t even think to ask, and some tenets I never considered questioning. It wasn’t until I took an intro Sociology class in college that an offhand comment by my instructor finally gave me that first spark of Maybe Everything I Know Is Wrong.

    I think that Christians can be rational — or THINK they’re being rational. They can seem rational to other Christians, and they can act rationally in non-faith-related parts of their lives. When a person literally doesn’t even consider the possibility that what they’ve been taught as a fact may not be so, they don’t think to question it. In their belief system, there is literally no alternative, no other “reasonable” answer. Does that make a person irrational — the unquestioning belief itself?

    With that basis of faith, I do agree that seemingly rational believers can make irrational decisions based on their beliefs: regarding homosexuality, or the sanctity of marriage, or race, or other religions. Remember, though, that to them, it seems completely reasonable. They have no reason to believe otherwise — until someone successfully plants that seed of doubt.

    Once the seed of doubt has been planted in a way that can be fully understood, though, I do feel that clinging to faith in the face of truth is irrational.

  • benjdm

    No person is perfectly rational nor wholly irrational. Religious or irreligious doesn’t really enter into it.

  • SarahH

    Good point, ollie.

    @benjdm: I agree with your first statement, but your second doesn’t necessarily follow. Being religious can “enter into it” as part of what constitutes irrationality in many people who are otherwise rational.

    Example: I have a very smart grandmother who taught elementary school for decades, raised five boys, was married to a brilliant chemist and has traveled all around the world. When I told her about my uncle (on the other side of my family) who recently lost his job, only to get hired a few months later at a job with slightly better pay and insurance, she responded, “That’s the power of prayer.”

    What does that say for all the uncles out there who didn’t get re-hired? Not enough people praying for them? Where’s the credit for my uncle’s perseverance, submitting resumes and applications relentlessly? What about all his years of experience? All moot, because prayer got him the job?

    My grandmother is very rational in most ways, but when it comes to certain religious topics (and she’s a very liberal Catholic, mind you), she’s completely irrational.

  • http://frodology.blogspot.com FrodoSaves

    I know about Bono. He’s an attention-seeking floozy.

  • Shane

    No one is entirely rational. Our brains aren’t wired that way. So, yes, I do think you can call someone “rational” even if they do something irrational every once in a while or every week. Phobias are irrational. Love is irrational.

  • Miko

    I note that the first two questions in the quiz ollie linked are the following:

    Q1. Mary…
    1. Was a virgin chosen by God and impregnated by the Holy Spirit
    2. Was made pregnant with Jesus by a Roman soldier out of wedlock
    3. Conceived Jesus with Joseph out of wedlock
    4. Had sexual relations with another man while betrothed to Joseph

    Q2. Jesus . . .
    1. Was born in a manger in Bethlehem
    2. Was born in Nazareth, at home
    3. Is a fictional character
    4. Was born somewhere in Israel but we’re not sure where

    I’m curious how they expect people who select choice 3 on Q2 to respond to Q1.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Can you call someone rational when they follow faith on Sunday mornings and follow evidence the rest of the week?

    Sure.

    I mean, it’s not as if any of us are rational 100% of the time in all situations. Rationality is a spectrum. You can be rational in some areas of your life and irrational in others. And people do have an astonishing ability to compartmentalize… which is irritating, but does help keep the bad ideas from poisoning the good ones. I would call someone “rational” if they acted rationally in most areas of their lives most of the time. And for many believers, that’s true.

    Of course, what throws all of this into a cocked hat is that standard everyday human thought not only isn’t rational all the time… it isn’t rational most of the time. Read some books about how the mind works. Our brains are wacky. They have lousy probability analysis, lousy cost- benefit analysis, a lousy ability to weigh long-term benefits against short- term pleasures, etc. etc…. pretty universally. Not all the time, but enough of the time.

    When atheists say, “Religious belief is irrational,” I’m totally down with that. But when atheists say, “Religious believers are irrational”… that’s just silly. Maybe they’re not… but neither are we.

  • http://failingtheinsidertest.blogspot.com/ Jeffrey

    Some people honestly think that the historical evidence supports belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus. Now, I don’t agree with this position at all. But I don’t think it should be dismissed immediately.

    We should have enough self-confidence to recognize that some people sincerely disagree with our position on where intellectual honesty leads. Among fundamentalism’s most exasperating beliefs is that atheists really believe in God, but we’re just pretending not to. I would rather not mirror this insanity. If a theist wants to try to make rational arguments for religion, by all means, let them try without antagonizing the possibility that it can be done.

    This is exactly the kind of religion that should be encouraged. Not because it’s inherently helpful or true, but because it gives fundamentalists an easier path out. The ideas of reason and evidence come much more easily without immediately leading to the rejection of their particular religious conclusions. This is like a broader version of your suggestion to encourage theistic evolution.

    This was my path out, and I never would have left what I thought was rational religion through people telling me I couldn’t be rational and believe. It took arguments that engaged my particular reasons.

  • http://www.otmatheist.com hoverFrog

    I don’t see any sort of mutual exclusivity between reason and faith. We rationalise the world through a lens of our experiences. If the lens includes faith then that rationality will include faith. The problem I have is where experiences or evidence contradict faith. In such a situation the rational course of action is to abandon that particular faith/belief. Failure to do so is irrational.

    It is not irrational to believe in Santa Claus if the evidence suggests that Santa brings Christmas presents. When presented with evidence of your parents buying or wrapping presents for Christmas or putting them under the tree then the rational choice is to reassess belief in Santa.

  • Ross

    Otherwise seemingly rational people believe all sorts of irrational things every day. “Maybe today the bus will be on time.” “I think that she/he really does like me.” Etc.

    Also, rational people disagree over all sorts of things. For example, take the John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek disagreements over economic policy.

    Trying to assign cause and effect in any complicated system is inherently not a simple process. Lots of people take a hard look at the evidence for evolution/cosmology/etc. and don’t find it convincing. Similarly, I’ve taken a hard look at creationism/ID/etc. and I don’t find it convincing. You can’t call someone irrational just because you don’t like the conclusions that they have found through a rational process. You can consider them wrong, but that is not the same thing.

  • Aj

    Jeffrey,

    Some people honestly think that the historical evidence supports belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus. Now, I don’t agree with this position at all. But I don’t think it should be dismissed immediately.

    Yes, some people do, but that doesn’t mean it’s rational. A person committed to rational inquiry would demand more evidence, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Personal experience should be one of the lowest forms of evidence speaking rationally.

    I don’t think many of them would accept many other claims (less extraordinary) on the same level of evidence, and none that would contradict their established beliefs. It’s not that Christians find evidence for their beliefs, or their honesty in finding it convincing, it’s their inability to evaluate it rationally that is irrational. And it’s not as if they don’t have the tools.

    Nothing can be dismissed out of hand, but the details don’t matter, the nature of the evidence and the likelihood of the claim is all important.

    Trina Hoaks,

    One of the interesting things about this is that these people, who are perfectly rational, experience pain in limbs they no longer have. It is all related to having formed habits.

    Shane,

    No one is entirely rational. Our brains aren’t wired that way. So, yes, I do think you can call someone “rational” even if they do something irrational every once in a while or every week. Phobias are irrational. Love is irrational.

    I’ll agree but I wouldn’t put the implications in such terms. People are highly influenced by the emotions. People can see, feel, and hear things that aren’t there. People can have sensations that aren’t necessary like fear. People can remove themselves from even their own experience and reflect rationally.

    It’s a bit like placebos working on people who know they’re placebos. You’re not irrational for feeling pains in arms that aren’t there, or seeing the virgin mary, it’s how you reflect on those experiences. There’s plenty of ways the world and your brain can throw strange things at you, it’s how you deal with it that matters.

    As for love, that’s a subjective experience. If you’re in love and that influences your subjective emotions and values, then I don’t think that’s irrational. It just doesn’t apply. People say this about religious beliefs but that’s bullshit. They’re clearly not subjective, you can’t say it’s “true for me but not for you” when you’re talking about someone rising from the grave, that’s accessible to all in principle. If it’s true, it’s true for everyone.

  • http://failingtheinsidertest.blogspot.com/ Jeffrey

    Me: Some people honestly think that the historical evidence supports belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus. Now, I don’t agree with this position at all. But I don’t think it should be dismissed immediately.

    AJ: Yes, some people do, but that doesn’t mean it’s rational. A person committed to rational inquiry would demand more evidence, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Personal experience should be one of the lowest forms of evidence speaking rationally.

    I was committed to rational inquiry as a believer. I did demand more evidence, and hence eventually stopped believing. What changed was not a sudden acceptance of rationality, but a change in what facts I was aware of, and a change in the clarity of my analysis of them.

    Looking back, my arguments for faith were atrocious. But I really did believe because I thought it was rationally defensible. I wasn’t irrational – I was wrong.

    Even with things like young-earth creation, to answer many creationists requires a recognition that they are actually thinking. Take the “moon dust” argument, for instance. While it’s factually flawed, what it shows is that it is possible in principle for evidence to exist in support of a young universe. Millions of people honestly believe that actual evidence of this sort exists in defense of their beliefs. Not recognizing this is a poor debate strategy.

  • grace

    i think your take on “Christians” are pretty much premature and downright ignorant. Faith and reason are the teachings in the bible, the scripture never said that we should just believe and not do anything. We christians believe in the existence of God, in the Supreme being not because we want him to pay our bills and solve our problems, we believe in him because we embrace the fact that there is an existence of after life, that everything in this world is but a temporary experience to prepare us for something that we admittedly do not understand fully. We are humble enough to see that we cannot know the answers to evrythng, but that does not mean that we are blind following the teachings without reason. A man is made with faith and reason, to act otherwise is just plain stupid. You people are campaigning against god, you say that he does exist, you say the we christians are making a fool of ourselves because we believe in him. Well, i am not suprised, you all come from a country where the right has gone terribly wrong, look at your charts, see the suicide ratings of your people, see the demented minds on a killing spree, see your celebrities puke and be deathly thin and be idolized by your sons and daughters, see your daughters get pregnant at the age of sixteen, see them undergo abortion, see them crave for large breasts instead of craving for world peace. See how materialistic you all are, and see how far astray you have all gone.

  • Aj

    Jeffrey,

    Millions of people honestly believe that actual evidence of this sort exists in defense of their beliefs.

    If they already believed, and were not compelled by the evidence in the first place, but are using it to defend their established beliefs (vs. hypothesis), then that’s not a rational way to approach things. If they have heard about mountains of evidence to the contrary, but reject it out of hand because it doesn’t support their established belief, that’s not rational. How can you not be aware of the evidence? In my experience creationism comes down to faith and arguments from personal incredulity, both irrational, any talk of evidence or rationales comes after.

  • Stephen P

    … a temporary experience to prepare us for something that we admittedly do not understand fully.

    We are humble enough to see that we cannot know the answers to evrythng …

    Many Christians like to assert that they are humble, at convenient moments. If Christians were actually humble, most atheists wouldn’t have a problem with them. But all too many Christians go around asserting that they know this and know that (their emphasis, not mine), wrecking science lessons, asserting the immorality of atheism and generally trying to ram their religion down other people’s throats. Hardly humble.

    … see the suicide ratings of your people, see the demented minds on a killing spree, see your celebrities puke and be deathly thin …

    Your writing is not very clear, but your rant appears to be aimed at the USA. Surely you cannot be unaware the the USA has by far the highest rate of religious belief in the developed world? Your rant, if it has any relevance at all, is actually a condemnation of Christianity.

  • grace

    Many Christians like to assert that they are humble, at convenient moments. If Christians were actually humble, most atheists wouldn’t have a problem with them. But all too many Christians go around asserting that they know this and know that (their emphasis, not mine), wrecking science lessons, asserting the immorality of atheism and generally trying to ram their religion down other people’s throats. Hardly humble

    .

    This only goes to show that you are too lazy to study both science and the teachings in the bible. I do not see any reason why you insist that reason and faith contradicts each other. There is NOTHING written in the bible that contradicts science. In fact, if you are patient enough to study religion (not just listening from people who claim they know everything) you will see that all the things that science teaches us in the bible. The problem with the cynics is that they want to feel powerful and all knowing. And most christians do not “ram their religion down other people’s throats” as you have put it. We share the teachings of our church because we believe in it.We leave it all to the listeners if they want to accept or reject it. Who do you think is the more humble: the person who teaches that he knows not everthing, or the person who claims that he knows everything? So much (too) for your definition of humility.

    Surely you cannot be unaware the the USA has by far the highest rate of religious belief in the developed world? Your rant, if it has any relevance at all, is actually a condemnation of Christianity

    I would like to believe that you are not pointing fingers here, that you are not saying that only USA has off the roof suicide rates and other sickening acts.


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