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Religion and Reason

Does One Cancel the Other Out?

Are religion and reason incompatible? I don't think so, but that isn't always an easy position to uphold. I can't claim that there is any necessary connection between being religious and not being able to reason well because there are plenty of irreligious atheists who reason poorly. At the same time, it seems rare for religion to promote reason or value logic while at the same time it's common for religion to praise high emotions and faith, two things which often inhibit good reasoning.

I have said many times and continue to maintain that how a person reasons can be far more important than what conclusions that person actually arrives at. If I were stuck on a deserted island with someone, I'd much prefer to spend my time with a devout but skeptical Christian who is very good at reasoning, philosophy, and logic than with a gullible atheist who doesn't know one end of an argument from the other and couldn't identify a logical fallacy with both hands and a flashlight.

I might share a particular conclusion with the atheist, and that's fine as far as it goes - but it doesn't actually go very far. Why? Because I don't share much else and I don't share things which are simply more important. I might disagree with the Christian on lots of specific issues, but we share other things and stand a chance at having very productive and interesting conversations. How one thinks and how well one thinks can be much more significant than the actual beliefs one holds.

This is important. What it means is that just because you and I share particular conclusions or attitudes, that doesn't mean we share enough of what is most important. If hold a conclusion that I agree with, but do so for poor reasons, then that has a significant impact on how you and I can interact. I may certainly work beside you when it comes promoting that issue, but in the end we won't really be able to talk about the issues and discuss things like that conclusion's implications, how it relates to other topics, etc.

The face of the Christian Right often isn't one that reasons very well. That's one of the things which repels people like myself as much as their position on things like gay rights - perhaps more so, because if they demonstrate an ability to use sound reasoning then there would be a good chance at a productive dialogue despite our differences. If, however, they demonstrate a propensity towards poor reasoning, then the outlook for such a dialogue isn't very hopeful.

Alas, such an inability to reason properly isn't exclusively the domain of the Christian Right - the Christian Left is no stranger to it either. Consider a recent post by Mark Kleiman where he wondered about the importance of paying much attention to comments from the National Council of Churches on "the proper role of the UN in the reconstruction of Iraq." He didn't argue that religious leaders had nothing to offer on religious or moral matters, just that they had no immediately obvious expertise of experience that would justify others thinking that they had "an especially valuable opinion" on such a matter.

Of course, he said basically the same about himself - it's not like he is an expert on such things, etiher. This is just a simple Argumentum ad Verecundiam fallacy: the mere fact that a person has authority in one area (a religious tradition, drug policies) doesn't mean that they have authority in any other area. Maybe they do, maybe they don't - but if someone expects others to pay attention, they'll have to provide some reason. Mark might be wrong in thinking that the NCC has nothing especially valuable to offer, but he's completely right to note that if they do, this fact isn't communicated simply by knowing that they are ordained religious leaders.

The responses from religious progressives to this observation would be funny if they weren't so depressing - and by that I mean that they demonstrate an unfortunate lack of sound reasoning or logic. People blew up emotionally without, apparently, taking the time to closely analyze what was actually written. Chuck Currie wrote a truly ridiculous response which mischaracterized Mark's post at nearly every turn. I assume that he didn't do that deliberately, which of course is the point because it shows that he simply didn't understand how to properly analyze something like Mark's original note.

Allen Brill acted as though a failure to give someone special deference for no reason other than that they were ordained is, somehow, anti-religious. He actually thought that Currie wrote a "fine response," which means that he was unable to identify the serious problems in it. Of course, he made similar errors in his own attempted analysis.

Kynn Bartlett described Mark's post as "bashing" the NCC, never mind that he "bashed" himself for the same reason and that the only thing he questioned was whether they had the experience or expertise to have "an especially valuable opinion the proper role of the UN in the reconstruction of Iraq." Bashing? Could we get just a little perspective here, please?

Some of Mark's word choices may have seemed insensitive to some people, but it doesn't take much critical distance to see what he was saying even though those words. Kynn Bartlett has certainly demonstrated an ability to critically analyze people's writings elsewhere, but anyone can be critical of material they already disagree with. It's how you react when faced with something you agree with that really matters.

Of course, that wouldn't be as emotionally satisfying as a good rant, right? I strongly suspect that to be a big part of the problem: instead of reading things from a critical, skeptical, and reasoned perspective some people lead with their strongest emotions right from the outset. Whatever immediate emotional reaction they have is their reaction, regardless of what new information or interpretations might come along later. Isn't this in fact one of the chief problems with religion?

If religious progressives have any interest in working with secular progressives, it isn't enough to share particular political positions. It isn't enough to agree on gay rights or the right course of action in Iraq. Such commonality only really allows for making common cause on those issues, and even then perhaps not with a lot of deep understanding an appreciation of one another. Sadly, it's not just possible to have a productive dialogue with people who can't reason their way through an issue, even if they agree with you when it comes to social or political policies.

That is why it is necessary to demonstrate an ability to reason well and use logic well when arriving at those conclusions. If the reasoning appears poor and the logic appears flaky, then a person stands a good chance of being dismissed as someone not worth working with, even if their final conclusions are extremely appealing. Jerry Falwell should be dismissed not simply because of his bigotry but because his arguments are filled with holes big enough to drive a truck through. How much good can religious progressives really do if the quality of their arguments is no better?

Not much. Bad conclusions are, in part, a consequence of bad reasoning.

I don't believe that being a theist or being religious automatically means that a person can't reason well or can't use logical properly. But, you know, extensive contact with religious people and theists sometimes makes that position difficult to maintain. Situations like what I describe above make me question whether we should even try. I have neither the time nor the interest to bother myself with people who, when challenged to think critically and step outside their emotions, respond with further rants and indignity.

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