Is religion irrational? Also, on certainty

This is the last of the excerpts from chapter 4 of the book.

Does this mean I think religion is irrational? Well, “irrational” is such a strong word. And it might encourage some people to demand a theory of rationality from me. So instead here’s a quote from Sam Harris:

This to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own. If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is gonna turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic. ( Accessed 5 March 2012)

Or, William Lobdell, in his book Losing My Religion, about his time as a Christian journalist covering the religion beat and how that led to him losing his faith, talks about doing stories about Mormons and learning about what they believed and how at the time, as a Christian, their beliefs struck him as “quite nutty” (p. 124). I like that phrase. So: much in Christianity (and Judaism, and Islam) strikes me as quite nutty. And if you’re at all mystified as to what I could mean by that, just think about what a Christian could mean by saying that about Mormonism.

In saying that, I’m very deliberately avoiding a lot of philosophical debates. And I think being able to avoid certain debates in that way is a very good thing. Now I’ve got my next entire chapter devoted to philosophy, but for now, just think that we don’t normally think we need to resolve every age-old philosophical debate about the nature of rationality, and evidence, and justification before passing judgment on things like Scientology or belief in fairies. And I see no reason why religion should be any different.


One example of a debate I’m avoiding is the debate about certainty among atheists. A lot of folk will complain about how atheists are so damn certain and it’s horrible for them to be so certain. And a lot of atheists go out of their way to say, well, no, we’re not 100% certain we’re just nearly 100% certain. Richard Dawkins does this in the God delusion, for example, with his 1 to 7 scale of where you fall in the atheism versus theism debate. Now maybe Dawkins has the right position on that issue, but I think it’s a mistake to emphasize the issue.

It’s better to respond to believers who complain about atheists being so certain by asking them (the non-Mormons, at least) this: “how certain are you that Joseph Smith didn’t really dig up a set of golden plates, containing the writings of a series of ancient Native American prophets, who were genuinely guided by God, and then translate them accurately into English with supernatural help? And if you’re going to claim no one can be 100% certain about anything, what percentage chance do you assign to the possibility that Joseph Smith really did all that stuff?” You could come up with similar questions for Mormons about another religious figure.

Now there actually are some interesting philosophical arguments as to why no one can be 100% certain about anything, but I get the feeling that most people who say that aren’t motivated by a deep understanding of the arguments. They’re just repeating something they vaguely remember from the one philosophy course I took in college. And even if you thought seriously about the issue and think those arguments are right, the most you can say is that while nothing is 100% certain, some things are just so astronomically improbable that our brains can’t even keep track of the tiny probabilities, so their chance of being true may as well be 0%. That’s my response to people who complain about atheists being so certain.

Now you could probably write an entire book of “101 silly arguments that religious believers make, but would never accept as arguments for anyone else’s religion.” And when I say “you,” I really mean you–you don’t need me to do it for you. So let’s move on to talking about philosophy.

When passing a law is the easy route
Why I’ve decided to start deleting jerky comments more often
Bill O’Reilly’s argument for the existence of God
Harry Potter and the problem with genre deconstructions
  • Bill Occam

    Nice post.

    I think it’s reasonable for some people to be atheists, and it might even be reasonable for some people to be 100% certain of atheism. I just try to persuade people that Christianity isn’t unreasonable either.

    I mean, you might not be persuaded by Swinburne’s cumulative case, or Pruss’ cosmological argument, or the kalam cosmological argument, but I don’t think you could say it’s unreasonable to find these arguments persuasive. We are so made that we find different things compelling.

    • rayndeonx

      I think you have to look at what seems rational prima facie and what seems rational after reflection. Prima facie, the cosmological arguments seem compelling but after reflection, they seem unconvincing to me. The “problem” in philosophy is that you have lots of people who are presumably looking at the same data and thinking hard about the issue – but consistently fail to come to any sort of agreement as to what the heck is going on.

      *I put problem in scare-quotes because I don’t think disagreement is so much a problem of philosophy as much as its nature. You can think of it as a feature, if you will.

    • Michael B

      The actual problem with all three of the “arguments” you mentioned is just that… they are just “arguments”. An argument without real evidence is just… nothing. Sorry, but I can’t believe in nothing.

      All three of those arguments make no predictions about how the world works. Make no testable or falsifiable claims. Which means that they are just baloney. And it follows that no, it isn’t reasonable to find those arguments compelling if you have any basis in rationality at all.

    • josh

      No, I do think it’s unreasonable to find these arguments persuasive. They are terrible arguments.

  • –bill

    There are ambiguities in the word “rational”. One sense of “ratinal” refers to methodology: if you accept Aquinas’ premises, then Aquinas’ method of deriving results is rational. Another sense refers to acceptance of the premises: is it rational to accept Aquinas’ premises? That’s a trickier question.

  • J. Quinton

    Now there actually are some interesting philosophical arguments as to why no one can be 100% certain about anything, but I get the feeling that most people who say that aren’t motivated by a deep understanding of the arguments.

    Less Wrong argues that 100% certainty is itself irrational. Though most people who argue that 100% certainty isn’t possible probably aren’t arguing from reason but from an attempt to place the irrational on the same footing as the rational. I.e. everyone has faith in something so all faith is equal.

  • Russell

    I’m far more certain about the irrationality of religious belief, than I am about whatever gods might exist. Believers endlessly explain and write about how and why they believe, providing from Pascal through C. S. Lewis ample evidence that their belief is not rational.

  • mikespeir

    Is there a difference between a capacity for being 100% certain and being justifiably 100% certain? What is certainty, anyway? Do we just take a red marker, arbitrarily circle some expanse on the vast gradient that is human mentality, and label that “certainty”? What’s the mechanism behind it? How would we even know how certain we are of a proposition?

  • http://skepticiality.wordpress.com Lord Griggs[ IgnosticMorgan,InquiringLynn,Fr. or Rabbi Griggs, CarneadesofGa]

    Alister Earl McGrath states that first one gets the evidence for belief and then uses faith for certainty whils haughty John Haught claims that faith envelopes ones whole being, but either way, one self-brainwashes-remains like WLC in ones belief. More rational people follow William Kingdon Clifford!And I drive William James out of the pragmatic community,because he advocates self-brainwashing as Blaise Pascal also does.
    ” Faith doth that to people.” Fr. Griggs
    ” Faith,that begged question, is just the we just say so of credulity.”
    No matter how theologians define faith, they err grieviously!

  • John

    Religion isn’t irrational – religion subjects people to irrationality, there is a difference. This is because religion is a real (non-meme) retrovirus affecting people all around us for 50,000 years. Religious people are victims here, we need to help them, not mock them.

    src: religion: the ultimate std?