Reason as a moral obligation

My friend Jesse has told me I need to reevaluate de Botton.  I re-read his CNN article and I don’t think I need to change anything, but I do want to explain why I think the truth is so important.

In his piece de Botton opens by calling the question of god’s existence boring.  Perhaps he thinks it’s relevant, but just unexciting, though that is not how I think his article reads.  If he thinks the truth is more important than actions then his whole piece is superfluous.  His whole thesis is distilled to its purest form in this excerpt:

“Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue [whether or not religion is true], with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.”

Clearly the truth takes a backseat to other things in the mind of Alain de Botton and those like him.  I’m here to explain why it shouldn’t.

A few times per year you can bet that a child will fall sick with a preventable illness.  Rather than take that child to the doctor, the parents will pray and pray (and will recruit others to pray).  They will do this for weeks as their child’s condition worsens.  Their pulse will slow, their skin will lose its color, their breathing will evaporate, they will weep in pain and at no time will the parents summon an ambulance.  They will watch and pray until their child dies.

If the word “bad” is to have any meaningful definition, parents who watch as their child slowly and painfully dies are bad.  They are monsters.  But there is an important thing to note: these parents loved their child.  They loved their child as much as you love yours (or would love yours).  They wanted their child to get well as much as any loving parents.  The evil of these parents did not spring from the womb of malcontent.  The fault was that the parents failed to be reasonable.  That’s it.  They had bad ideas about how the universe worked that twisted their love into the murder of their offspring.

And so it is with so many who do harm to others, whether it is the Catholic church hastening the spread of AIDS or Muslims carving away at their daughters’ genitals, irrationality corrupts good intentions.  This is why if you have good intentions you have a moral obligation not only to yourself, but to those around you who are affected by your actions (which are an extension of your beliefs), to try and figure out reality to the best of your ability.  To fail to do so is to gamble with the lives of those around you.

The response will come back: so criticize the people who are monsters, leave the charitable believers alone.  But that’s simply not possible.  When I criticize the monsters of faith, from the parents who lovingly watch their children die to the mobs who love the sinner enough to vote away their rights, I must criticize their primary failing which is not a lack of compassion or good intent.  Most of the people on this planet have good intentions.  The problem is that they stopped being reasonable.  That is their sin.  It was the difference-maker, the thing that makes monsters of otherwise good people.  It is a sin that is shared by each and every charitable Christian.

But look, says Alain de Botton, at how useful the erroneous beliefs are.  It is true that inaccurate beliefs can produce good results.  For instance, if I believe I’ll die if I don’t donate $50 every week to the United Way, I will be a charitable person.  But that is not an argument for keeping that belief alive because perfectly sane reasons exist for being charitable that don’t require me to abandon my concern for what is true (and don’t tacitly endorse others doing likewise).  We already know that untrue beliefs can have horrific consequences in the real world even if, at times, they are capable of catalyzing good will.

Sam Harris rightly says we do not need bad reasons to be good.  I take it a step further and say that utilizing bad reasons to be good with no concern for their truth is a moral failing.  It is allowing yourself to potentially have your good intentions perverted.

This is our gripe with faith, and why activists like myself cannot treat faith as an ally to humanity even if it barricades itself within the mind of a good person.  Faith is the opposite of reason.  It is reason’s most diametric enemy.  It is a license to believe literally anything.  There is no idea within the sum of human imagination that is so ludicrous, so at odds with reality, that faith cannot be advanced in its defense.  Faith supports the idea that Jesus wants you to rebuild houses.  It also defends the idea that trusting doctors is offensive to god.  One is not more likely to be true than the other and both are propped up by the same mechanism.  Rebuilding houses will not go away if that mechanism is destroyed, for there are reasonable means to get to the conclusion that one should help others.  But nobody can argue that reason allows for one to pray as their progeny withers into demise.

What’s worse is that within Christianity (and other religions), we are not only told that it is acceptable or even noble to have faith in things that are rendered untrue through the lens of reason (how else do you get to the conclusion that someone rose from the dead?), but that we must be unreasonable or suffer eternal punishment.  It does not matter if this gets people to be charitable sometimes, it is immoral.  We need not market the poison as a tonic because it doesn’t kill everybody.

So many of the “truth is less important than actions” crowd ignore the horrors catalyzed by religion and focus on the occasions when the dice roll of faith has landed people on philanthropic actions.  By doing so they perpetuate the idea that it is ok to be unreasonable, so long as you’re the right brand of unreasonable.  But irrationality is never good as it’s undoubtedly the enemy of our effort to be better.

This is why when the faithful are defended by taking a select group who have not been made monsters by irrationality and saying “Look at how nice they are!” we can only scream back “Look at how unreasonable they are and look at how they’re spreading the idea that being unreasonable is ok!”  We do not take issue with people being nice, we take issue with a lack of concern for what is reasonably true.

This is why I am driven into a frothing rage when people like Alain de Botten say things like…

“Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue [whether or not religion is true], with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.”

You cannot be overly obsessive about what is true.  It is your duty to care about what is true to ensure that your good intentions are realized in the results you create.  It is also your charge as a well-intentioned person to encourage others to care about what is reasonable and true because we’re all working together down here on earth, and errant beliefs affect us all.  A “fanatic” about reason is a very, very good thing to be.  Alain de Botton attempts to position himself as being above a concern for the primacy of truth and, in doing so, allies himself with the same force that produces the worst in humanity.

I am an advocate of reason.  Anybody who says that reason is not a priority, or that it’s less of a priority than how some people act cannot be considered my ally on that front.

This is why when Hemant says

de Botton later made headlines when he said “the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true.’” WHAT?! BUT THE TRUTH IS ALL THAT MATTERS!said a bunch of atheists in response. They seemed to ignore the part where he said:

To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. It seems clear that there is no holy ghost, spirit, geist or divine emanation. The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to if one concludes he doesn’t.

…it doesn’t rescue de Botton and those like him.  We did not miss that part.  But de Botton saying religion isn’t true doesn’t mean he’s giving the truth the importance it’s due, it just means he agrees with us on atheism.  It doesn’t mean he’s not cutting other people slack on being unreasonable.  That’s what we care about.

A failure to try and be reasonable is the moral failing of fundamentalist Christians, liberal Christians, and even some atheists.  They are all wrong and should all draw the ire of anybody who thinks a care to be reasonable is a requirement for any well-intentioned person.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Rory

    ::golf clap::

  • Everyday Atheist

    Brilliant! I greatly appreciate the willingness you’ve shown in several posts to acknowledge the humanity of believers without giving an inch to the disease of faith. It’s a hard line for most of us to walk, but you do it with honesty and consistency. Kudos.

    • John Horstman

      Ditto; well-put JT.

  • Holland Wilson

    The faithful can be reasonable, though truly rational people are a rare minority in organized religions (most people who are entirely rational and spiritual embrace philosophies like Buddhism or personal practices, and then do so with no illusions about their spirituality being objective truth).

    In the end, rationality only goes so far. Science can only tell us about what we can perceive and test. Philosophy can only tell us about what we can conceive and discuss. People who embrace rationality and allow faith to fill the gap where science and philosophy fail do exist.

    • skepticallydenpa

      The faithful are only reasonable in spite of their faith. Even then, they are allowing themselves to be unreasonable in the conclusion they have reached. To say that it doesn’t matter because they are reasonable everywhere else is foolhardy. Using faith to reach a conclusion, opens the door for it to be used to reach any conclusion.

      Science allows us to discover what is true to the best of our ability. Philosophy can propose new hypotheses for science to test or help us better understand the world around us. Faith is a tool used to reach whatever conclusion you want without and in spite of the evidence. Faith is irrational. And proposing that one man’s irrationality does not affect another is a failing in the observation of all the other conclusions that can be reached on faith.

  • skepticallydenpa

    “One critic castigated (James Randi) for being ‘obsessed with reality.’ I wish the same could be said of our nation and our species.” ~Carl Sagan

  • Anonymous

    Everyone knows, and hardly anyone one disagrees, that ends do not justify means.

    It seems to me that the question of the importance truth addresses the converse, whether the righteous means make consequences irrelevant.

    Actually, I think this is often what people often imply when they say that the end does not justify the means. It’s certainly implicit in the Catholic disapproval of contraception.

    But really, if you are a responsible, moral human being, you must accept and account for the consequences of (people acting on) your beliefs.

    In this, the Vatican falls short and saps like Alain de Botton can only be good and moral only on the assumption that their opinions are of no consequence.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    It is true that inaccurate beliefs can produce good results. For instance, if I believe I’ll die if I don’t donate $50 every week to the United Way, I will be a charitable person. But that is not an argument for keeping that belief alive …

    … and de Botton never argued for such a thing. His point was pretty clear: we don’t need the erroneous religious beliefs about God and the supernatural, but some of the practices are useful. Given that, he’d obviously recommend keeping the charitable habit while ditching that fear of dying. There’s no hint that he supports the idea that we “need bad reasons to be good” or recommending “utilizing bad reasons to be good.”

  • Mark

    Reason does not always equal truth.

  • Monster

    As I understand it, Muslims and others from the middle east areas are not circumcising girls because of a religious belief but due to a cultural trend. I do not believe the Koran instructs them to do so. It is a sad cultural phenomenon that is similar to breast enlargement to the best of my understanding. Many women of that area report thinking that uncircumcised genitalia looks too masculine and strange.

    Personally I don’t believe that breast implants nor circumcision is a good practice.

    But I don’t think the Muslim faith is to blame for this.