I received an interesting comment from a Facebook friend to my recent essay on Sparring with Christians. She complained that for me “everything has to be rational” but that for her “not everything is rational and in fact the most important things in life aren’t nor can be explained in rational human thought,” including religious faith. I thought her comment raised an interesting point, and I decided that I would expand here on the response I made to her comment.
First, a word about what is meant by the term “rational.” This is a concept that is much too complex to try to cover here. Suffice to say that the term implies the drawing of conclusions based not on emotion but on a critical, logical investigation and evaluation of all available evidence.
And that brings up a key distinction between two mental constructs, emotions and beliefs. Emotions include such things as love, anger, disappointment, elation, and wonder. Beliefs are statements about one’s view of the nature of the world, what one takes to be true. Briefly stated, beliefs are properly subject to rational analysis and ought to be based on such. Many emotions are not.
As an illustration, let us consider the Green Bay Packers. I happen to be a long-time fan of the Packers. (Sigh . . .) This is an emotional attachment, not a rational one. I can speculate, even analyze, why I have this attachment—I live in Wisconsin, many of my friends are fans, the team’s fortunes are featured prominently in local media, the team has a history of success. But, with the possible exception of the team’s success, none of these factors is rational justification for being a fan. (And, frankly, I am sure that, even were the team a perennial also-ran, I would still find myself rooting for them. After all, I’m also a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers.) I want to be as careful as possible in stating what I mean by this. I can analyze the reasons why I have become a fan. But that is different from stating that my being a fan is rational. It’s not. I didn’t sit down and weigh all the factors and decide to be a Packer fan based on that analysis. Rather, fandom simply happened to me.
Beliefs are different. They are one’s understanding of the nature of the world. A claim that the Packers are the best team in the National Football League would be a statement of belief. Rational people could argue about the truth value of that statement, pointing to won-loss records, offensive and defensive statistics, etc. In some cosmic sense the statement is either true or false, depending on how one defines the term “best.”
But here is the danger: Beliefs can be contaminated by emotions. One’s attachment as a fan of, say, the Chicago Bears can affect his or her belief regarding whether they are the best team in the NFL. But no matter how rabid a fan one is, that fact will not make the Bears the best team. The key is to understand the difference between emotion and belief and to recognize how one can influence the other.
I want to think that my beliefs, including beliefs about religion, are based, not on emotion, but on a rational analysis of the best available evidence regarding the nature of the world. After all, why would I want to believe something that is patently false? Why wouldn’t I want my beliefs to be as close to the truth as possible? To do that, I need to use the very best tools available. That means relying on objective evidence, logic, the scientific method, and, yes, rational analysis.
Why rely on those tools rather than on subjective evidence, such as feelings and “knowing in my heart,” or on authority, such as what scripture states? Because the scientific method and rational analysis have been supremely successful in furthering our understanding of the world. Reliance on subjective evidence and received authority have not. It’s as simple as that.
Having said that, I also recognize that for many Christians religious belief is not primarily a rational matter. It is an emotional one. Indeed, they point proudly to their faith as fundamental to their worldview, understanding at some level (hopefully) that faith is simply belief in the absence of evidence or despite the evidence. Many Christians would like to proclaim that their religious beliefs are grounded in reason as well as emotion. However, the “tell” is their admission that there is no evidence or argument that could shake those beliefs. Their beliefs are evidence- and logic-proof.
And I can understand the emotional draw that religious faith can provide, from a sense of community and friendship to facile answers to difficult philosophical questions to fear of losing one’s fundamental worldview without having something familiar to replace it. All I can say is that for me, as well as for other nonbelievers, those are not a problem.
© 2015 John M. Phillips