Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Who's Being Unreasonable?

"It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can't see things as they are."
G.K. Chesterton's character, Father Brown

A favorite charge leveled at religious believers by those who denounce their belief system is that they are ignorant, gullible, irrational and, on Richard Dawkins' view, "deluded." As comedian Bill Maher puts it, "You can't be a rational person six days of the week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work and, on one day of the week, go to a building and think you're drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god." To go along with the discussion of doubt, I dug up a recent Wall Street Journal article that touches on this topic. Titled, "What Americans Really Believe," the piece reports on ...
a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University [in September, which] shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.
Hmmm. It is interesting to me that folks like Maher and Dawkins want to base their knowledge of the world solely on rationalism which they equate with scientific (as opposed to scientific, philosophical and theological) arguments. In that light, they are content to lob insulting assertions about the intellectual vacuousness of religious folks. But the research offered here by the WSJ is based on research studies done by ... scientists. So, instead of just lobbing insults, I propose that we look at the actual data.

The Gallup Organization recently polled Americans about questions like: Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?
  • 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things.
  • Only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.
And here's a favorite of mine: "While increased church attendance and membership in a conservative denomination has a powerful negative effect on paranormal beliefs, higher education doesn't. Two years ago two professors published another study in Skeptical Inquirer showing that ...":
  • Less than one-quarter of college freshmen surveyed expressed a general belief in such superstitions as ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance and witches
  • The figure jumped to 31% of college seniors and 34% of graduate students.
In summary then, religious and more educated people are less likely to hold to what Maher and Dawkins might call "irrational" beliefs. This data is in direct opposition to the claims they make. In fact, Maher himself ...
... is a fervent advocate of pseudoscience ... Mr. Maher told David Letterman -- a quintuple bypass survivor -- to stop taking the pills that his doctor had prescribed for him. He proudly stated that he didn't accept Western medicine. On his HBO show in 2005, Mr. Maher said: "I don't believe in vaccination. . . . Another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by is the Louis Pasteur [germ] theory." He has told CNN's Larry King that he won't take aspirin because he believes it is lethal and that he doesn't even believe the Salk vaccine eradicated polio.
I also find it interesting that some of the most influential people in our culture are the Hollywood elites who personally and professionally (through their artistic work) mock religious people for their archaic anti-rationalism. These are the anointed few who, regardless of their education or background, are regularly called on to: lecture us about our duty to all kinds of justice issues; testify before Congress about scientific and cultural issues because they may have made a movie about them; and find increasingly inventive ways to wedge their agenda into media meant to influence us to think the way they do. At the same time, one of their most popular belief systems (I hesitate to use the term religion) is Scientology, the brain-child of science fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard.
Hubbard proposes that emotional duress in an individual's life is caused by an accumulation of unpleasant memories and traumatic incidents, some of which predated the life of the human. In Scientology, he further stated that spirits (or "thetans") have existed for tens of trillions of years (several orders of magnitude greater than the scientifically accepted estimate of the age of the universe). During that time, Hubbard says that thetans have been exposed to a vast number of traumatic incidents and have made a great many decisions that influence their present state. According to Hubbard, thetans were conditioned by extraterrestrial dictatorships such as Helatrobus in an attempt to brainwash and control the population ... Among these advanced teachings is the story of Xenu (sometimes Xemu), introduced as an alien ruler of the "Galactic Confederacy." According to this story, 75 million years ago Xenu brought billions of people to Earth in spacecraft resembling Douglas DC-8 airliners, stacked them around volcanoes and detonated hydrogen bombs in the volcanoes. The thetans then clustered together, stuck to the bodies of the living, and continue to do this today.
This is just a short summary of the beliefs of Scientology, a "religion" brought to us by and for the enlightened elite who make a game of mocking traditional faith. Without going into any more detail, I find it amazing that those who believe nonsense like this could look down their collective noses at anyone who holds to Christianity.

I bring all this up for a very important reason: Nobody believes in nothing.

It seems that we humans have some kind of innate propensity to believe in something outside ourselves that serves to validate and give meaning to our existence. If not the commonly recognized religions that have been around since humankind came on the scene, we will gravitate to something bizarre or even dangerous. It is hard to justify this human characteristic outside of some kind of theistic/deistic reality. I don't see any way to explain it within a naturalistic worldview.

I suppose one could appeal to some kind of Darwinian explanation that serves to promote the will to survive, but I don't see how. A belief in abstract concepts like: other-than-physical reality; life after death; the need to rectify our moral failings; or even the need to "better ourselves," do not square with a purely deterministic, mechanical world.

Instead, it seems more "rational" to comprehend and seek a better form of reality that draws us its way because there actually is one. I can't fully explain this human characteristic otherwise. I don't think this view is irrational at all, especially if it also serves to explain the metaphysical aspects of rationality we all seem to understand innately. Or, to quote one who put it better than I ever could:

"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."
~ C. S. Lewis


  1. I don't think the propensity to believe in something outside ourselves is evidence of God. Rather a spiritual structure or narrative helps people make decisions about their lives through metaphor and a more abstract spiritual language, especially when that meta-narrative is shared by a cultural community.

    Each religion and each non-religious worldview helps participants create meaning for their life. A problem occurs when people start to believe that what is meant to be abstract and metaphor is actual scientific truth.

    I consider myself a member of the broader Christian community and find a lot of value in the Bible, but I don't think many of things it talks about really happened in the way described.

  2. Anonymous,

    The point of the piece was not that this common yearning is "proof" of God; it is that the theistic explanation makes more sense of the common yearning than any other explanation. If there is no God, or no transcendent source of meaning, the common yearning would make no sense. As for your assertion that:

    " ... a spiritual structure or narrative helps people make decisions about their lives through metaphor and a more abstract spiritual language, especially when that meta-narrative is shared by a cultural community"

    It is nothing but a tautology to say that "spiritual language" and "spiritual structure" explains our common quest for spiritual meaning. Actually, I don't think it even makes sense to say that anyone needs this to "make decisions about their lives through metaphor." What do you mean by that?

    Also, you give away your materialist explanation when you suggest that we can only arrive at actual meaning through "scientific truth." Can you prove that using science?

    Finally, I would like a more clear explanation of your "broad Christianity." Jesus is Christianity. He affirmed the truth of the entire Old Testament, was murdered for claiming deity for himself, and we have reasonable evidence that he actually resurrected from the dead. So, if Jesus seems to attest to the truth of the things the Bible talks about, how is it that any "broader Christian community" could not?


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