Essay:The end of faith and the myth of rationality

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Essay.svg This essay is an original work by Nebuchadnezzar.
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This essay is a follow-up to an earlier essay.
We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
—David Hume[1]
Man is a rational animal -- so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents. On the contrary, I have seen the world plunging continually further into madness.
—Bertrand Russell[2]

One does not have to misunderstand religion to oppose it. This is the sum of my differences with the so-called "New Atheism," or, more accurately, various undercurrents of secularist and antitheistic thought that have popped up throughout history. I'm going to concentrate a good deal on claims made by Sam Harris because he tends to be a prime offender in misunderstanding religion in political, cultural, and historical contexts, in addition to the fact that it's better to address specific arguments than make vague generalizations and torch straw men.

Courtier's Reply[edit]

No doubt the phrase "misunderstands religion" tempts the response of "Courtier's Reply!" A distinction needs to be made between refuting theistic arguments and understanding it as a cultural phenomenon. Complex theology can indeed generate infinite variations on the same theme and I believe that the arguments for non-trivial, non-meaningless gods (i.e., not "outside of space and time" or the wordplay of pantheism) have been refuted scientifically and philosophically. However, there is no such thing as a monolithic "Religion." Religion does not exist in a vacuum with no context. Like everything else, it always exists in a historical and cultural context. That context must be understood if one hopes to mount an accurate cultural critique of religion.

Harris and the Holocaust[edit]

In The End of Faith, Harris often includes disclaimers that he does not deny the role of various non-religious causal factors in historical events, but this all too often merely amounts to lip-service to serious historical analysis. Take, for example, his section on the Holocaust. Here he relies heavily on Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners,[3] which, in my opinion, is an important work, but flawed and one-sided enough in some ways such that it can't be taken as a definitive account of the Holocaust. While apologists have attempted to write the complicity of the churches out of history, the corrective is not to write them back in as the main villain. Harris glosses over the number of other "undesirables" killed, amounting to about six million deaths by some accounts, which would be equivalent to the number of Jews killed. Somehow, the reader is expected to believe Christian anti-Semitism is responsible for all of this. In a footnote, he also dismisses the notion that the Holocaust was "an expression of reason." This is a massive straw man (unfortunately perpetrated by some that are loose with words) — it was an expression of rationalization in its over- and mis-application of "reason." The bureaucratic element of the systematic killings was what led Hannah Arendt to coin the term "the banality of evil."[4] Harris has no time for the background of nationalism, "scientific" racism, the American eugenics programs (which the Nazis drew some inspiration from), the Treaty of Versailles, and the economic collapse of the Weimar Republic (could the Nazis have come to power without this?). This tendency to inflate the role of religion in historical analysis is not limited to this chapter of the book, which is a point I'll come back to later.

Religion as ideology, ideology as religion[edit]

In his treatment of the Holocaust, Harris glosses over the grafting together of religion with nationalism and racism (the myths of the "nation" and "race" being on par with religion for their potential to harm, if not more so, in my opinion) into Positive Christianity and a Germanic/"Aryan" national mysticism. Indeed, nationalism so powerfully mimicked the rites of religion that the anthropologist Josep Llobera named his study of the phenomenon The God of Modernity.[5] Harris' chapter on the Holocaust strongly implies that nationalism and racism flowed directly and logically from religion itself, which is again a massive oversimplification. The same problem plagues his (and many others') treatment of Christian fundamentalism in America. What is currently called the "Religious Right" in the US is an outgrowth of Southern politics (note who built the evangelical political machine that bolstered the Reagan Revolution: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson). The Second Amendment and states' rights are not in the Bible. As the Nazis grafted religion onto a national mysticism or mythology, so did the Southern partisans. The sacredness of the Second Amendment is in large part a remnant of the Western frontier culture and militias formed by former slave-owners in the South during Reconstruction. Edward H. Sebesta has argued that Southern politics have propagated deeply into all aspects of American politics.[6] Whether or not you fully buy his argument, he makes the influence of Southern politics quite clear. Harris makes no mention of this in The End of Faith. Similarly, one can't make sense of what goes under the umbrella of "Black Theology" without understanding Southern politics -- the history of slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, etc.

What of communism? Harris writes it off as a "political religion." If the definition of religion can be stretched that far, it becomes meaningless. Harris is, of course, attacking unshakable faith in ideology, not god. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and other’s eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Religion as proxy[edit]

The social psychologist Henri Tajfel famously demonstrated the ease of creating in-groups and out-groups through the minimal group paradigm, popularly referred to as the "granfalloon effect" (a term borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle).[7] Tajfel found that these groups could be formed by completely arbitrary standards, such as flipping a coin. In the real world, a person may belong to various overlapping granfalloons that complicates the process of examining religion as a granfalloon in isolation. This is a problem Harris runs into as above, but to use a much simpler example, take the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States. The battle against so-called "Political Romanism" by the Know Nothings was in fact a proxy, a manifestation of a general xenophobia, used to discriminate against newly arrived Irish and German immigrants. Religion was simply a marker of cultural and ethnic affiliation.

Atran, Harris, and Islam[edit]

In Talking to the Enemy, Scott Atran explores the roots of violent extremism and terrorism throughout history and, in the process, explicitly debunks a number of Harris' claims.[8] Atran demonstrates with empirical research and first-hand field work that jihadi ideology is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of suicide bombing by Islamic extremists. It's the social factors, specifically a "band of brothers" type arrangement, that are the best predictors of suicide bombing. In addition, the practice of suicide bombing was originally pioneered by the secular Marxist Tamil Tigers.

The myth of rationality[edit]

Atran also criticizes Harris for arguing that science and reason can "replace" or "destroy" religion.[9] To understand Atran's argument fully, it's necessary to turn science itself against the concept of "rationality." When we do so, it is as utterly demolished as the world's many holy scriptures have been. When I say that rationality is a myth, I don't mean that logic, reason, and evidence are meaningless. I mean that the dichotomy of reason and emotion, originating with Plato and Aristotle, and manifesting in the "rational actor" model of modern social sciences, is a myth. This is confirmed by basic neuroscience in addition to mountains of psychological and social research.

The neurobiology of "irrationality"[edit]

Antonio Damasio (in Descartes' Error and further work) presents case studies of people suffering brain damage such that they lose emotional affect.[10] The mediation of logical thinking by emotion may be localized to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, though the picture will very likely become more complex as neuroscience moves forward. The important point is that these people became victims of "paralysis by analysis," such that they performed thorough cost-benefit analyses for even the most trivial decisions. Even going to the bathroom could be an ordeal of monumental proportions. Needless to say, they had trouble living what we would call "the good life." Similarly, the removal of the amygdala (involved in fear response and emotional learning, among other things) in animals and its destruction in humans resulting from rare medical conditions produces results that are patently irrational. These people lack a concept of fear and put themselves in mortal danger without blinking.[11]

The failure of the senses[edit]

The second failing of the rational actor model arises from the fallibility of the five senses, something that should be the most obvious to scientists as science itself is a method of overcoming this fallibility. Misperception, however, comes not only in the form of things such as hallucination, but is a product of our own biases. When Simon and Garfunkel sang "A man sees what he wants to see, and disregards the rest," they were in fact scientifically accurate.[12]

The limits of learning and decision making[edit]

There are huge flaws in human learning and reasoning, as a few years in school should no doubt teach you. Our memories are prone to confabulation and our reasoning suffers from numerous cognitive biases. However, a critique of the rational actor model in quantitative social sciences didn't come about until Herbert Simon's concept of "bounded rationality."[13] Since then, psychological and economic models have become more adept in predicting how we are "predictably irrational," in the words of Dan Ariely.[14]

The gap between belief, rhetoric, and action[edit]

Humans are often "irrational" as well in that they may act contrary to their own beliefs. Though there is much research on rationalization and cognitive dissonance, one does not need to read academic literature to know that people can act hypocritically or deceptively or simply not act on their professed values at all.[15] This leads Harris into the pitfall of what might be called "creedal determinism," that there is some one-to-one relationship between beliefs (especially religious) and actions, which is perhaps the largest fallacy underpinning his historical analyses, one that leads to naive and oversimplified readings of events as demonstrated above. By analogy, consider American foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson famously coined the phrase "making the world safe for democracy" in 1917 as part of his rationale for entering World War I.[16] The same Wilsonian rhetoric has been used since then as a sales pitch for just about every military intervention, leading to wonderfully Orwellian names such as "Operation Just Cause" and "Operation Iraqi Freedom." While American exceptionalism re-branded as Wilsonianism (and once again re-branded as "neoconservatism") has made heavy use of the rhetoric of "democracy," it would be asinine to say that American military interventions were "caused by" democracy. Again, as Atran demonstrates in the case of suicide bombing, Harris largely concentrates on one factor (religious belief) in his analysis of the phenomenon leading him to a faulty conclusion. This would be similar, in a way, to making the claim that the 1954 CIA-backed coup in Guatemala was "caused by" the belief that Jacobo Arbenz was a communist threat to democracy (i.e., repeating the propaganda of Edward Bernays) and leaving out any mention of the United Fruit Company and other US economic interests in Guatemala.[17]

The roots of religion and "sacred values"[edit]

In In Gods We Trust, Atran cites these findings chapter and verse, putting them in the context of research in evolutionary biology and psychology, anthropology, and history.[18] One of his main conclusions is that the tendency to see supernatural agency is a by-product of evolution. This is central to his point that we must deal with the irrationality of human nature and the inevitability of religion. I don't know that I necessarily agree that religion is an inevitability -- Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman have presented a convincing economic argument for increasing secularization[19] -- however, society can always provide a new form of intellectual snake oil. The power ascribed to cabals by conspiracy theorists is near superhuman enough that they could almost be a form of modern polytheism. "Ufologists" like Lloyd Pye recycle creationist arguments, replacing god with aliens.

In any case, the point made by Atran stands: We must "leverage" irrationality on the political scene. This is something the Machiavellis of the world and their armies of propagandists had figured out long ago but social scientists are just coming around to. Harris can respond that he has received numerous letters testifying to the fact that believers were reasoned out of their faith. This is true, but a misunderstanding of Atran's argument. Stating the irrationality of human nature is not equivalent to arguing that no one can be reached by rational argumentation. What it means is that, on a societal level, geopolitical issues such as Islamic extremism can't be solved through some kind of religious debate. I think it is a good thing that Harris et al have won secular "converts," though when it comes to a deeper understanding of religion, they replace one set of misconceptions with another. This is because "reason," which is generally conceived of in terms of the rational actor model, is a "sacred value" of the scientifically minded.

Sacred values are abstract moral, ethical, or social concepts that are considered to be inviolable. There is a large body of research on how sacred values affect decision making, which breaks the concept of a totally utilitarian rational actor.[20] Sacred values are central to religious belief systems, but all people have them but the most hardcore nihilists. This is what Atran means when he says that the core religious beliefs are not empirically verifiable, not true or false. They are abstract and logically incoherent ideas (one of Atran's arguments in In Gods We Trust is that they spread because they are logically incoherent). Much like theologians have been trying to explain how the Christian god could be simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, rational actor proponents have been adding epicycles on epicycles to salvage the concept of rationality. Rationality as we normally conceive of it, like the Christian god and other popular delusions such as a "ghost-in-the-machine" free will, is logically incoherent. Emotion and values must drive the use of reasoned thinking, otherwise the cognitive system collapses in on itself as with the aforementioned brain damaged patients. Thus, it is "rational" to be "irrational," an inescapable paradox. And so rationality must be left behind as another myth, as nonsensical as any god.


  1. A Treatise of Human Nature
  2. "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish"
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Hitler's Willing Executioners. for the controversy over the book.
  4. Evil: The Crime Against Humanity
  5. Review of The God of Modernity
  6. See Breaking the White Nation and Confederate Christian Nationalism (with Euan Hague)
  7. The Granfalloon Effect in Age of Propaganda
  8. Review of Talking to the Enemy. See pp. 413-427 for specific refutations of Harris. See also the Washington Post article 5 Myths About Who Becomes a Terrorist for similar arguments from security analyst Jessica Stern.
  9. Edge discussion on Beyond Belief. See their discussions at Enlightenment 2.0 and Beyond Belief 2006 for background context.
  10. Fora TV interview with Damasio. Robert Burton has expanded on Damasio's work in his synthesis of research on "feeling of knowing" judgments in On Being Certain.
  11. Humans, Like Animals, Behave Fearlessly Without the Amygdala, New York Times
  12. See Chabris and Simons' The Invisible Gorilla and the famous eponymous experiment.
  13. Bounded Rationality: A Response to Rational Analysis
  14. Dan Ariely's TED talk
  15. See Eric Shwitzgebel's Acting Contrary to Our Professed Beliefs and Knowing Your Own Beliefs.
  16. Wilsonian Slaughter, The American Conservative
  17. See The Engineering of Consent: Guatemala Coup 1954, excerpt from the documentary Century of the Self.
  18. Review of In Gods We Trust
  19. Why the Gods Are Not Winning
  20. Philip E. Tetlock. Thinking the Unthinkable: Sacred Values and Taboo Cognitions