Tuesday, September 23, 2008

(Ir)religion and Irrationality

David Friedman:
Religions serve at least two purposes, both important to humans. One is to help make sense of physical reality, explain (for instance) why living things appear to be brilliantly engineered creations. The other is to make sense of life, to answer questions about what we ought to be doing and why.

The development of science over the past few centuries provided a strong rival to religion for the first purpose, an explanation that not only covered the same territory but came with much stronger evidence for its truth. One might hear stories about occasional miracles at Lourdes or elsewhere, but one directly observed the miracles of science every time an electric light was turned on or an illness cured.

Science did not, however, provide an alternative for the second function. People responded, I think, in one of two ways. One was to retain a serious belief in the religion and reject those parts of modern science that they found inconsistent with it—in its more extreme form, the fundamentalist option. The other was to give up serious belief in the religion and adopt some substitute: Environmentalism, Liberal politics, Marxism (as in "liberation theology"), Objectivism, New Age superstitions.

Two recent events started me again thinking about this situation. One was a conversation with a college freshman very upset to discover that the church she was now attending blended environmentalism, which she does not believe in, with Christianity, which she does believe in. The other was a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal offering quite striking evidence, from polling data, that religious people are less superstitious, less given to a variety of what most of us would regard as irrational beliefs, than non-religious people.

The effect is not small.

Which gets us back to a recent blog post and associated discussion—on whether the fact that people were religious was a reason to expect them to behave in irrational ways, hence a reason not to want a religious person as President. Judging by at least the evidence in the article, it's the other way round. It is the non-religious President we should be worried about—because who knows what he believes instead.


lewis said...

Yes, but . . .

Do the authors of this study consider the TBN faithful to be evangelical? If included, the non-irrational evangelical percentages could be even higher.

My experience is that those "Christians" who watch TBN are, in general, very superstitious. They follow a different message. To them they can use words to command goodies. If Palin were a member of a Word of Faith congregation, I would be concerned.

thinking said...

Extremists on all sides are a danger.

To group "Liberal Politics" as a substitute for religion for some is rather a cheap shot and inaccurate.

I could just as easily say that for some conservative politics is a substitute for religion, or for that matter, belief in the markets is a substitute for religion. I can find such examples.

I can name just about any philosophy or even object and find some examples of people using that as a substitute for religion. False idols take many many forms.

As to who we elect to high offices, the key is that these are secular positions in a secular govt, and we should evaluate these people independent of their religious beliefs. We should examine the issues, the qualifications, etc.

When I choose a doctor I do not administer a religious test. The same goes with choosing a plumber or mechanic.

Why? Because the talents and capabilities do not correlate either positively or negatively with any particular religious belief system.

I do not need to believe that Christians make the best doctors or politicians or leaders or anything in order to believe in Christ. My faith does not demand or depend upon some sort of earthly litmus test.

Why should I choose a President with less rationality or intellectual rigor than I do when considering people for other jobs?

Brian Hollar said...

Lewis, I totally agree that some religious people can be superstitious, but on average are so to a lesser extent than the non-religious. Additionally, with someone who is from a traditional religion, their belief system and values are a relatively known quantity. For the non-religious, there is far less certainty.

Thinking, Friedman's point is neither a cheap shot nor inaccurate. You are absolutely correct in citing that politics is in many ways a substitute for religion. That is why I am very distrustful of people who are too far partisan and/or unquestioningly supportive of particular candidates or parties.

To compare a presidential candidate with a doctor, plumber, or mechanic is not a fair comparison. A president has the potential to have large influence on the course of a nation rather than on a specific outcome for a specific task. When an isolated task is my objective, I care most about a person's talents and skills in that specific area and not so much about their worldview or personal values (outside of not cheating me on a job I've contracted them to do). In a political candidate, worldview is critically important which is why so many people get so intense about Presidential elections.

Rationality and intelligent are necessary, but not sufficient qualifications for a president. Despite what many from opposing sides say about any of the current crop of candidates, they have all passed this test to some degree. At this point, the best a person can do is to vote for the candidate that shares their priorities in setting policies and their values in making future decisions. That is not something as critical in the professions you named.

Beyond a certain point, values matter far more than intelligence in determining political outcomes. Nixon was one of the most intelligent presidents we've had. Reagan was (arguably) one of the solid in his worldviews. Which of the two would you rather have as president?

lewis said...

My comment "If included, the non-irrational evangelical percentages could be even higher" was poorly worded. What I meant to say . . . if the authors included the Word of Faith Christians in the conservative evangelical category and I contend that they should not have been, the percentage of non-superstitious evangelicals is probably even higher.

While the WOF followers may have conservative social views, they most certainly do not have conservative biblical views.

Sorry for the confusing post.