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The Rationality of an Illusion

any skeptics, on occasion, enjoy a heated denunciation of religion. We rail against supernatural faiths, not just for their palpable falsity, but for their sanctified cruelties, their crippled imaginations, and their all-too-common suspicion of human efforts to better our lives. All in all, religious belief seems at least irrational, and perhaps a harmful habit our long-suffering species would best be rid of.

Being fairly described as a screaming atheist, I am inclined towards such a view myself. I also have an taste for the intellectually bizarre, spending too much time on creationist weirdness, demented apocalyptic fantasies, Islamic rulings on minutiae of our sex lives, and no end of paranormal feats and miracle tales. This is mostly amusing, but every now and then it gets too much and I have to let off some steam with a rant on the terminal stupidity and gross egocentricity of the human animal. Not that sophisticated, respectable religious thought is any better. Reading the work of religious academics is just as infuriating, as I watch them retreat from all substantive claims while saying God is still the ultimate cause behind it all. In the end, all that remains is metaphysical pontificating or a diffuse mysticism; a divinity which is merely differently ridiculous when compared to the fundamentalist Big Boss In The Sky.

Even so, I find I am ambivalent when it comes to whether I can, without reservation, recommend a godless life for most people. A divine reality is useless as part of an explanation of our world; an atheistic naturalism seems much more likely. But recommending a thoroughgoing naturalism is more than making a claim about the nature of our world. It also asks people to adopt a way of life which can sustain such a naturalistic view. In that case, we are no longer only arguing about what is true; we are also discussing questions of personal identity, of coping with an often obnoxious world, of what is good and how to live.

For someone with a strong atheist identity, such complications might not seem to change matters much. I, for one, cannot imagine myself as a believer. I grew up in an irreligious family in a secularist subculture. Today I work as a physicist and dabble in philosophy; both are disciplines in which infidels are as common as dirt. I simply do not have much incentive for faith. This is not to say my naturalistic views are immune to strain, or that I find them especially helpful in moments of personal crisis. But even if it seems naive in this postmodern world, the notion of seeking truth and accepting what seems most likely remains too deeply ingrained. If the evidence and arguments point to a godless, accidental world, that settles the matter for me.

No doubt plenty of other people put truth first, even if they mistakenly judge the balance of arguments to favor a divine reality. But this attitude is hardly universal, and I doubt whether it is even all that common. Most of us, I suspect, take a more pragmatic approach; we weigh truth claims not just by cognitive norms but in the context of a much broader set of interests.

By this, I do not mean people self-consciously believe what seems convenient, though New Agers equating truth with the therapeutic are not too difficult to find. Instead, our perception of the world is often shaped by non-cognitive interests. Take, for example, the extreme case of creationists. Though they believe evolution is incompatible with human dignity and purpose, they also insist it is literally false, not just discomforting. Creation evangelists put much effort into elaborate, ostensibly scientific justifications of their views. Comparing these with mainstream science, it becomes clear their religious concerns systematically distort their understanding of the world.

We cannot just stop with this observation, however. Creationists’ beliefs are not arbitrary; they do not arise from a mysterious religious insanity. The creationist universe is a moral order, where the structure of the natural world exhibits a purpose directly relevant to the concerns of everyday life. The rightness of the patriarchal family, for example, is supported both by its naturalness and indirectly because the facts of creation and history conform to Scripture and its prescriptions. People rarely lack curiosity about the stars above or the forms of life around us. But together with that, and usually far more pressing, are questions about how to bring up the kids, where to find hope in the face of adversity, or whether to trust the neighbors. If a theory of the stars or of life infuses nature with a purpose which legitimates answers to more immediate questions, it will be much more useful than one which merely satisfies idle curiosity.

Our traditional religions are all pragmatically oriented in this way. Muslims, for example, ask their religious scholars about whether it is permissible to work for an insurance business, what they should seek in a husband, or when they should assemble to pray for rain. They receive direct, authoritative answers grounded in an overall view of the world which legitimates these answers. Whether conceived of crudely or through endlessly convoluted metaphysics, a sense of cosmic purpose ties together everything from commonsense anthropomorphism to the need for some solace in the face of the imperfections of this world.

If such supernatural hopes are false, it is tempting to call the whole structure irrational, no matter how beautiful its promises. But another sense of “rational” may be more appropriate here. When a person considers their options and chooses effective means to their ends, we call this rational. Furthermore, our various interests often conflict, and since it is hardly rational to remain at cross-purposes with one’s self, we revise and develop our interests, trying to achieve a more harmonious way of life. In other words, there is a pragmatic sense of “rationality” which emphasizes an overall coherence of purpose, belief, and action. It is about balance, rather than fanatically demanding cognitive truth above all.

In this sense, a religious way of life may well be rational. It brings social morality, metaphysical speculation, and personal therapy together in a tidy package. Naturally, this involves some compromise. Sometimes a simplistic, intellectually unsatisfying answer is more useful than an arduously thought-out but ambiguous one. This has its risks; fear of Hell can set the believer on the straight path, but it sometimes gets in the way of a mature submission to God. However, though not perfect in any of its functions, religion certainly works well enough to help the faithful cope with life. We can see this in the immense success of supernatural belief. Not only does it help achieve a balance of interests, religion itself becomes an object of profound care. So as ways of life, religions very successfully reproduce themselves, even in modern times when alternatives have become much more available.

This is not to say everyone is best off converting. In the pragmatic sense, there is no unique rationality, only different stable patterns of interests adapted to differing conditions. Today, alongside traditional religions we have individualist spiritualities which downplay both social morality and reason in favor of magical experience and therapy. Disillusioned with authoritarian faiths, many seek a more fluid, modern balance, drawing on many traditions; yet this is still a distinctly religious quest for wholeness. And of course, though marginal, there are Enlightenment Rationalist Fundamentalists like myself, who feel nauseated whenever someone mentions wholeness. Options abound.

Now, this begins to sound too much like a spineless relativism. It remains that for at least some of us, taking up religion or refusing it are live options. And quite a few will confess, along with me, to being addicted to argument. A song-and-dance about “pragmatic rationality” does not really help any of us decide what to do. On the other hand, if we are to ask someone to stop believing in gods and demons, thereby alienating their family, offending their boss, and generally turning their life upside down, we had better have more to offer than just a more accurate perception of a remote reality.

How, then, can we make a case for one way of life over another, when both seem satisfying, well-adapted to local conditions? We need to appeal to some common interests, constructing a more global perspective which encompasses both options.

Some of our familiar arguments attempt just this, trying to convince anyone listening that the cost of believing falsehoods is too high; if not at an immediate personal level, then for our societies, in the long run. Believing disease is a divine punishment might shore up the social order, but surely it is better to have a different order, one which can make use of medical science. Premodern Muslim society might have enjoyed stability and inspired great devotion to its ideals, but it was too vulnerable to superior European firepower. Almost all of us share some very basic interests, be it only health, survival, and a measure of freedom from material deprivation. And as the last couple of centuries show, free inquiry and its product, a more accurate understanding of reality, are critical for advancing such interests.

In fact, we often think seeking the best available knowledge is vital for effective pursuit of any interest, so much so that it does not seem worth arguing the point. And in a perfect world, this would be correct. In our world, things are not so simple. If science can help us eliminate smallpox, it can also show us how to make atom bombs. Some theologians moan about how science becomes an amoral monster when it loses contact with the divine; we do not have to agree with them to see that knowledge can be dangerous. The discovery, use, and widespread dissemination of genuine knowledge all come with significant social costs as well as benefits; we cannot charge in with the innocent assumption that they will always serve our common interests.

Naturalism does, in fact, appear to have some undesirable side effects. Utilizing modern science gives societies a competitive advantage, but it also tends to erode the mythic thinking which human social reasoning has historically depended upon. For the thoroughgoing naturalist, there is no special purpose pervading the world which derives from a divine reality. Instead of the objective moral clarity of religious systems, we are left with different stable, successfully reproducing patterns of interests; there are better and worse ways to pursue our ends in the social realm but no overarching “oughtness” attaching to actions. Though morality remains essential, as an enterprise concerned with negotiating between competing interests, naturalists do not have the sort of facts which in and of themselves could legitimate a social order. Not that we haven’t tried to invent them, what with wretched fantasies like Dialectical Materialism or Social Darwinism. We cannot, it appears, honestly beat religions at their own game. In that case, a society which lets naturalism loose in all aspects of life will deprive itself of a tried-and-true device for social legitimation.

There is, of course, a standard response to such worries. This freedom from transcendent ideals may be a good thing rather than an invitation to chaos. After all, traditional religions back up some notoriously oppressive social orders. Divine justice has a way of becoming pie in the sky; ideologies of stability often end up legitimating stagnation and misery. So getting rid of priests and mullahs does not leave us in a moral vacuum; instead, it is an opportunity to build a humanist morality we can truly call our own.

Nice words. Words, however, which ignore how transcendent ideals of justice have sustained the oppressed and the radical as well as the comfortable and conservative. Even when we can agree on what we like or despise, it is extraordinarily difficult to decide whether religion or atheism has been a force for good or evil. With all the historical contingencies involved, it might not even be all that meaningful a question. It is no surprise this debate so often degenerates into comparing one side’s Torquemadas with the other’s Stalins. This gets nowhere; if we reply that humanists would never set up death camps, well, then Quakers never go on jihads.

Worse, the words in favor of humanism are as dubious as those denouncing religion. It is hard to say contemporary secular humanism presents anything like a compelling moral ideal. Nineteenth century freethought activists saw atheism as a way of liberation; today, we are more likely to be mired in middle-class complacency about everything but church-state separation. For all its merits, this is not a vision of liberation but a narrow identity politics.

I don’t expect this to change either. Since we are not constrained by a transcendent ideal, the nonreligious come with a wide diversity of moral and political views. Personally, I identify with a vague hope for democratic socialism, no doubt due to some localized brain damage. From where I stand, oppression by corporate elites are as real as that by priests and mullahs, and money being the measure of everything is no less horrifying than having to submit to some lunatic Scripture. When I try and act on this perception, however, I find some of my best allies are religious people, who resist the commercialization of everything precisely because they preserve a vision of morality which transcends this-worldly interests. And on the opposing side, I find many who are as uncompromisingly godless as I am, but who are committed to a right-wing libertarian ideal.

We seem to be stuck. Whatever the philosophical challenges of deciding between rival ways of life, they are vastly exacerbated by the overwhelming complexity of human affairs. We are not very good at calculating what equilibrium of interests our societies will evolve towards, and it is hopeless to try accounting for unforeseeable circumstances and new knowledge. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect we do, in the run of our lives, try and achieve a pragmatic balance. The real world, in other words, performs our impossible calculation, and so we can learn from the compromises we actually see. Modern societies in fact do a fair job making use of accurate cognition while containing its undesirable side effects.

Since the godless respect philosophers rather than mystics, let us start with the intellectual world. Generally, the social roles of our intellectuals are structured so as to keep them productive in terms of overall societal goals. This is not to say they are on a tight leash. In fields like, say, molecular biology, we approximate the ideal of disinterested inquiry fairly well, producing excellent, reliable knowledge. Nevertheless, it remains true that science is supported for pragmatic reasons, especially for the military and commercial advantages it generates. Love of learning and the audience for science documentaries will not support massive research institutions. And without due care, excessive entanglement with any non-cognitive goal is as capable of corrupting science as direct subservience to an ecclesiastic organization.

Since science is supported largely because of its instrumental value, we can expect religion will have at least an indirect influence. So in the sciences, compartmentalization reigns. That is, while strict naturalism is the order of the day within each discipline, it is seldom extended beyond. Scientists resist supernatural intrusions into their own patch, like staunchly religious biologists denouncing creationism, but they have little incentive to go further. Scientific institutions themselves avoid stepping on too many religious and political toes. Reflecting this situation, the conventional wisdom in the sciences is that modern science and suitably tame religious claims are fully compatible, and that as long as science and religion stick to their separate spheres, no distasteful conflicts will arise.

Such influence is even more evident in the humanities. To begin with, thinkers in these disciplines are directly concerned with questions of human meaning and balance in life; hence they more easily integrate religiosity with their intellectual work. And though humanities people come in all stripes, it is not at all unusual for them to express distaste with the reductionism implicit in scientific naturalism, or for them to treat myths as expressing a sublimely deep truth even if superficially they seem false. But the more serious problem is that an important pragmatic reason to have a stable of social thinkers around is so they can spin myths of legitimation. Like an established clergy, they can be guardians of values before producers of knowledge. No scholar need set out to defend an ideology at all cost for this to happen. It is enough that our institutions be such that those with the appropriate convictions are more likely to succeed.

I see a good deal of this in the realm of political writers, the media, and think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation who can be counted upon to crank out advocacy-research favoring religion. And sometimes in academia. Consider the religious studies programs at secular universities. They produce some solid work on the history of religions and the details of particular beliefs, but especially in the United States, they often have a theological agenda. This is not confessional theology of a narrow sort, but rather an effort to promote understanding between diverse traditions and get a handle on the divine reality revealed through different cultural lenses. I am not saying this is not a worthy task in a pluralistic society. But these values do compromise inquiry. In effect, anti-reductionism and an endorsement of mysticism come built into the discipline, excluding fully naturalistic approaches.

Such is the intellectual world. It harbors the sharpest skepticism about the supernatural, and at the same time, it incorporates safeguards to contain this skepticism. In that case, what about the wider public arena, which is, after all, where religions are born and destroyed?

Once again, we find most people appreciate knowledge, especially made flesh as technology, but manage to contain its threat to vital myths. Scientists, for example, command a cautious respect, so actors in white coats may appear in TV commercials. But just in case, a stereotype of scientists as spiritual morons stands close at hand.

A common pattern seems to be to go with modern knowledge as far as it works, and then patch up the gaps with supernatural belief. For example, few deny the power of scientific medicine, and would like to have as much help from it as possible. Where it comes short, however, many turn to magical brands of alternative medicine. Though not much for effecting real cures, they certainly make people feel better often enough that they keep coming back. Part of the reason is the unbelievable arrogance of science-based medicine in neglecting the social and psychological needs of patients, treating them as mere support systems for diseased organs. A good part of the attraction of magical healing, though, is religious. By conceiving of humans as spiritual energy fields, alternative medicine taps into hopes for wholeness. Though the magic is not real, the problems it soothes are. Promoting psychic surgery for cancer is of course not a rational social choice, but some attention to the religious aspect of patients’ lives may well be genuinely helpful. As usual, it is a question of balance.

There is another reason practices like magical healing will be with us for a long time, which also has to do with practical rationality. Beliefs like an immaterial spirit or a designer responsible for the order in the world are rooted in common sense. And common sense is common because it is a cheap quick-and-dirty approach which works most of the time in everyday circumstances. Our intelligence evolved to negotiate a social realm where there are purposes behind everything; it is only natural that we perceive the universe anthropomorphicly. It is a difficult and costly process to become able to appreciate why the best of our modern knowledge often radically departs from this common sense. This is not to say being an infidel requires a postgraduate education, but we need some special interest and a minimal background even to know which authority to trust — godless evolutionists or the nice creationist who also sports a Ph.D. In the end, for many people, stepping beyond common sense is a costly undertaking for no clear benefit.

At this point, there is an obvious objection I have to answer. Certainly, in examples like alternative medicine, we see the supernatural compensating for when our knowledge fails us. But with the growth of knowledge, is it not true that religion has been receding? We cannot all become humanists immediately, and perhaps we will always have pockets of supernatural belief because human effort can never solve all problems. But as secularization of our societies continues apace, religion will become ever more marginal.

There is some truth here, but also a good deal of rationalist myth. Though the customers of alternative medicine rarely abandon the scientific variety, it is the magic and not the naturalism which shapes their overall picture of the world. Indeed, this is integral to the therapeutic success of magical healing. The beauty of this sort of arrangement is that people can both benefit from modern knowledge and limit its application to what is immediately practical.

Observing that the industrialized West has secularized can also be misleading. In our pluralistic societies we take on many different social roles, and many ideologies compete for cultural dominance. Since we cannot count on detailed theological agreement, we develop secular norms for conducting our public business. We want our plumbers and doctors to be competent in their sphere and pay their taxes, but do not care which church they attend. So we see immense secularization of public institutions, and especially in Europe, widespread indifference to organized Christianity. But this does not mean supernatural beliefs have become obsolete at a more personal level. Instead of the death of God, we should speak of a more individualist supernaturalism.

Signs of this postmodern style of belief are everywhere, particularly if we look at popular preoccupations with spirituality or the paranormal. This is a religious quest with the themes of personal power, therapy, and even reconstruction of communities badly battered by modern life. Popular religion serves these desires well, since even when it obsesses about received traditions, it has no sense of history whatsoever. The time of revelation is only a template for the present, and in a fluid society like ours, it is ever-ready to be re-imagined, re-interpreted, and mutated beyond recognition. Thus, far from being frozen dogma, much of modern religion is extremely adaptable. Seekers shopping for faith are likely to find something which makes them feel at home in the universe and restores a sense of moral purpose to their fragmented lives. And if not, they can always assemble their own blend of free-floating spiritual ideas.

I have no clear idea what will happen in the long term, and neither does anybody else. But for now, I remain impressed with the resilience of supernatural belief. For all its inability to generate genuine knowledge, religion simply works for most people. It is hard to argue with success.

Am I then saying we skeptics should accept defeat and go home? Not at all. Some of us do manage to bring our other interests into balance with a naturalistic perception of the world, and there is no law of nature which forever restricts humanism to a small set of intellectuals and cultural dissenters. I would, however, like a little soul-searching among ourselves. While we have a well-developed, intellectually compelling picture of reality, we are weak in matters of identity and morality. Our way of life satisfies us; I, certainly, am not about to start consulting theologians when I run into ethical questions. I am unmoved by talk about the absurdity of a godless life; self-indulgent philosophical hand-wringing over existential matters leaves me as disgusted as does New Age drivel about cosmic consciousness. Still, the Enlightenment remains incomplete, and there is work ahead for those of us committed to its ideals. Lots of work. In all likelihood, it will be extremely difficult to achieve what we want; more so than understanding the stars, finding life evolved, or uncovering the flaws in our holy books.

We can begin by taking religion more seriously. Too often, we adopt a doctrine of Original Stupidity: people are born into religious superstition, live enslaved by it, and die in ignorance. Our Calvinist faction sees those of us free of faith as a mysterious Elect, destined to stand apart from the incurably irrational masses. And we also have a Social Gospel, which holds that if we just got the priests out of the way we could defeat Stupidity and usher in the Millennium.

This will not do. The supernatural may be an illusion, but we will never understand religion if we conceive of it as a failure of rationality. Most people still have supernatural hopes, even in a time when the priests have lost their old influence and there are more opportunities than ever to be skeptical about the gods. This continuing appeal makes better sense when we see religion not as a consolation for weak minds, but as eminently pragmatic, even as a rational approach to the problems of life. Religion may not be a perfect rationality, and not all forms of religiosity are useful, but then we cannot claim perfection either.

So let us go forth and seek our own balance, and criticize the hell out of supernatural claims on the way. But we should also, I think, be more sober about our prospects, and learn to see more in religion than its falsity. We will then shed some of our own comforting myths, and perceive the world a bit more clearly. If that is not worthwhile for an atheist, what is?