What Do You Think Rationally About?


On Tuesday, during my weekly interfaith supper, I was discussing the book Something Other Than God by Jennifer Fulwiler. About two weeks ago I was lent that book during the interfaith tea time that we host. He was a Catholic and I was discussing why I’m an atheist with him. I’m not really sure why, but he decided to loan me the book (we had just met and he lives on the other side of the country). In the end we did a book exchange: I gave him Faitheist to read. But I’ll get more into this in another post when I talk about why I didn’t like Jennifer’s reasons for becoming a Catholic.

Anyway, we were discussing the book in the interfaith supper and I mentioned how I found her reasoning to be problematic. As a result of my disagreement with how the author came to her conclusion, a pastor friend of mine asked me if I always think about things so rationally. To me, that is a silly question. Of course I think about things rationally. How else could I know anything? But that’s not how the mostly Christian group saw things. To them, Jennifer Fulwiler’s conversion story makes perfect sense. To them, the question wasn’t why she used that rational to come to Catholicism, it was why do I think her rational matters?

I think this is one of the biggest reasons why atheists and theists so often talk past one another. We see rationality differently. I know that theists don’t expect the same level of rationality that I do, and I know that they don’t understand why, or even how I can, expect so much rationality. But I can’t understand how theists can be happy with not having that level of rationality used. How can someone be happy to just take something on faith?

I think it’s important to realise the different value given to rationality when discussing faith, belief, and conversion with someone who disagrees with you on those subjects. Especially where conversion is concerned.

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26 responses to “What Do You Think Rationally About?

  • Not So Polite Dinner Conversation – room for another debate | Club Schadenfreude

    […] a discussion here, this is Seth’s reply to my comment (the italicized bits are parts of my […]

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  • Chris Highland

    The most hopeful and helpful part of this, for me, is that you choose to share a weekly meal with people of faith! I find that encouraging. This is exactly the direction I think theists and atheists need to move toward to squeeze out of our mental boxes. Thank you for this. It makes *rational* sense.

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  • Joe

    You might have different understandings of what it means to be rational.

    http://trueandreasonable.co/2014/06/30/practical-versus-theoretical-rationality/

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  • Home And Spirit

    Perhaps it isn’t a question of rational vs irrational thinking but linear vs abstract thinking? One of the many problems for instance with fundamentalists is their viewing the bible in a linear fashion rather than in the abstract. For me, there are times when I reason with my head and times when I reason with my heart. I trust my heart before I would trust a religious viewpoint.

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  • J. Matthan Brown

    I had the privilege of hearing Jennifer tell her story at a conference I attended last year; she’s a delightful person. I look forward to hearing why you found her reasons for becoming Catholic unpersuasive.

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  • winstonscrooge

    I don’t think all theists reject rationality necessarily. I am a theist but I also consider myself to be a rational thinker. Rational thought is a great tool to make my way through reality — but (to me) it does not answer everything. There is irrationality in the world. Not everything can be measured and I think those things that cannot be measured are worth considering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Seth Scott

      Well put, I was going to comment something similar and saw yours. I don’t know if he coined it or not, but my pastor likes to use the term “trans-rational” when talking about faith: Although something believed in by faith cannot be reached by reason alone (like trying to reach a ceiling with a step-stool), the objects of Christian faith are not “irrational”, but exist in parallel to and complement rational thought. There are other examples of this as well: For instance, I can’t give a solid, rational case for why I love my wife — but the fact that I love her is apparent nonetheless, and I don’t balk at my rational mind’s inability to encapsulate even something as meaningful to me as my marital love.

      I agree with your language: Rational thought is a tool, one of many, that give us full lives — though it cannot be expected to account for absolutely everything.

      Liked by 1 person

      • clubschadenfreude

        I can give a rational case why I love my husband. We like the same things. We think similarly. We wish to see the other happy. I find each other physically attractive.

        All of these things can be attributed to empathy, growing up in a similar area, reading similar things when growing up. I do not find my rational mind unable to encapsulate love. I have evidence of my love of my husband and his of me. I have no evidence at all for the religious myths and miracles claimed as true.

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        • Seth Scott

          True, but I don’t think your love is reducible to this rational case. There are lots of people that would satisfy those criteria, and yet you don’t love them like you love your husband. There’s something else to the equation, I think — and while it doesn’t defy reason, it is complemented by reason (as is shown by the criteria you provided).

          If rationality was all there was to leading a full life, then people wouldn’t “fall in love”, they would “decide to marry” as if it were a business transaction — and this doesn’t seem to be the case, at least in my experience with people. Having evidence for something like love is not the same as saying love is reducible to evidence. In the same way, my faith is supported by evidence, even if it is not reducible.

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          • hessianwithteeth

            You’re assuming that there is only one person that it is possible for her to love like her husband. The reason that she loves him is not because she can only love him, it is because circumstances led to her falling in love with him before she could fall in love with any of the others. It’s a simple case of being in the right place at the right time. It is also a case of living in a society that does not find polyamory acceptable. If she lived in a place where it was acceptable for a woman to marry many men, she may have found that she loved many men. But that is not the society she lives in. Faith is not needed to explain any aspect of her love for her husband.

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          • Seth Scott

            Well, yes I agree with you, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. I’m not saying her husband is the only candidate, but that I’m doubtful the series of decisions that led to their marriage were altogether, entirely, and consummately rational in nature. I imagine there were probably other elements that could be said to have aided the rational decision to get married, but that were not in themselves entirely rationally justifiable.

            I think neuroscience backs me up on this. The part of the brain that deals with rational thought and language is the prefrontal cortex — however, the part responsible for most of the decisions we make is the limbic system. We can weigh evidence with our rational mind, but when push comes to shove and we go with our gut, it’s the limbic system all the way, and that involves all sorts of non-rational elements (emotion, etc.).

            I’m not making the case that rationality is not involved in such things, I am saying that I don’t believe all decisions can (nor should) be reduced exclusively to rational thought. Which seems to be the point winstonscrooge was making up there.

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          • clubschadenfreude

            No, there are not “lots of people” who satisfy this criteria. If there were, I’d be pleasantly polyamorous.

            What else is in the equation? All I see from you is a vague claim and nothing to support it.

            And how is your faith supported by evidence? Many religions claim the same “evidence”, for instance “look around, *my* god made the universe”, I can feel my god, my god did miracles. Why should I believe your evidence over others?

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          • Seth Scott

            Well, I wasn’t trying to start a big argument, just making a point 🙂 If all of the decisions you make in life can be reduced to reason alone, then your experience is different from mine, that’s all.

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          • clubschadenfreude

            Your point is wrong, so I have little reason t believe a claim based on it.

            Again, “What else is in the equation? All I see from you is a vague claim and nothing to support it.”

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          • Seth Scott

            Then I cede the issue 🙂 Though I do think the relationship between the limbic brain and the prefrontal cortex (as I mentioned above) can be instructive on this topic.

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          • clubschadenfreude

            As would I, brain chemistry, the physical structure of the brain, things that are quite real. If they are working correctly, they are also what helps us determine what is rational so I am not sure of the difference you might draw.

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        • Seth Scott

          Well, perhaps I’m misunderstanding you: To me, you seem to be saying that in order for a thought process to be rational, it must be able to be reduced to only rational parts. I am saying that I don’t think this is a reasonable expectation.

          Returning to the marriage analogy: As I stated before, I imagine there was something beyond mere reason that led to your marriage to your husband — for instance, I would venture to guess that emotion probably played a significant role. I’m sure your reasons for marrying your husband are on the whole good reasons — and I imagine one of those reasons has to do with how you make each other feel. However, since emotion is not a rational criterion, the case can’t be made that the decision was entirely a rational one. Not to say that it wasn’t a good decision — I imagine it was — but good decisions are not necessarily entirely rational decisions, and this is the crux of my point.

          So, bringing it around to faith: A significant part of my decision to continue to be a Christian has to do with my subjective religious experiences. I would not consider these experiences, in and of themselves, to be rationally reducible. However, for the same reasons why I believe marrying my wife was a good (albeit not entirely rational) decision, I see no need to discount my experience out of hand when forging my worldview, simply because I can’t fully account for such experiences with only logic and rational thought.

          The evidences for theism — at least, the best evidences, I believe — are of this “trans-rational” nature. I find it (if you will allow me the term) irrational to cast out all such evidences, simply because they are not entirely rational in nature — if emotion is a good enough criterion to consider when making such a binding commitment as marriage, things like subjective religious experiences should be admissible in a worldview without the worldview being dismissed and labeled as “irrational”.

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          • clubschadenfreude

            Good decisions may have elements of emotion to them, but I find that they are based on rational choices. And to contrast that, emotional decisions can often be bad ones, not based on reality, but based on what someone fantasizes to be real or wants to be real. Case in point would be your religious experiences. It’s very enticing to believe that one knows the power behind the universe and that one’s opinions are supported by such a power. I know, I was a Christian too.

            I am going to guess that since you are a Christian, you would agree that all other religions are wrong, yes? If so, why do you doubt them if their evidence is as good as yours, this “trans-rational” evidence that you speak of? If you cast out this evidence for those other religions, why should I consider it acceptable for yours?

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          • Seth Scott

            Thanks for the response 🙂 Several things:

            1) You’re making some assumptions about my motivations (or at least my psychology), and I think I have good reasons to say with confidence that they do not, in large part, apply to me. If a significant part of your former decision to be a Christian was because you “[wanted it] to be real” and because you wanted to “know the power behind the universe,” then the nature of our religious experiences are quite different indeed. (I would certainly never think that “[my] opinions are supported by such a power.”)

            2) As far as other religions are concerned, it’s not so simple as that, because religious experiences are not the only evidences to be considered — it was just one such example I used to help make my point. True, the religious experience aspect of evidence is not, in itself, entirely conclusive when it comes to the issue of comparing one religion with another — but, if that’s the discussion, I think there are other evidences that (the way I see it, at least) makes Christianity the best choice.

            3) That being said, I don’t feel I have to discount the experiences that adherents to other religions experience. There is no reason I should disbelieve such experiences happened. Again, though, it is complicated: a) People (myself included) may be mistaken as to what is causing these experiences; b) some experiences may, in fact, be fabricated (though I think it’s a stretch to say that they all are, as some naturalists would assert); c) I happen to believe that God can touch someone no matter what religion they belong to, because God loves people; d) I happen to believe in the existence of supernatural entities apart from God, that are capable of conjuring up supernatural experiences; etc.

            4) Lastly, I’m not sure I’m expecting you to consider my religious experience “acceptable” — or, at least, not compelling. They’re my experiences, after all — why would I expect anyone else to be convinced by them? However, I think such experiences should at least be given the time of day, and not cast away out of hand simply because they are not altogether rational. I think a well-rounded, mature philosophy is one that may not take such experiences at face value, but at least take them seriously enough to look at them closely and, if rejecting them, have good, applicable reasons for doing so.

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          • clubschadenfreude

            If I am making incorrect assumptions, please do make sure I know that I’m wrong. I have no problems with that.

            I think I can say that I never made a decision to be a Christian, I accepted what I was told by other Christians as truth because I trusted them for other reasons. And until I decided to look into things for myself, I had no reason to question it. If you would, tell me what was your reason to be a Christian? Could you also tell me what sect you are and your position on some things like who goes to heaven, hell, are the OT laws still in force (and which) and any other distinctive thing that might not be what other Christians believe? And, yes I know that’s quite a laundry list but it does help me know what kind of Christian you are, as opposed to, say, EquippedCat and Paidiske here.

            If religious experience isn’t entire conclusive when comparing one religion to another, what would you suggest using? For example, what about Christianity seems more believable than, say, Hinduism?

            If you don’t discount the experiences the adherents of other religions have, how do they fit into your Chrisitianity? How can someone say that someone else is mistaken to the cause of an experience? I see that you believe that your god can touch people of other religions. How does it does this and why doesn’t it tell these people that Chrisitianity is the only right one, an idea which I would assume you believe if you believe that one can only be saved through Jesus Christ. If you don’t believe this, let me know. You also claim that this god loves people, which would not be supported in the bible, from this god’s actions against those people who do not believe in it.

            It is interesting that you believe in other supernatural entities. Do you believe that they are all “evil” since they are not of your god? That’s pretty much what the bible seems to claim.

            I may consider your religious experiences compelling if they would affect this world as the various holy books claim that they did. For example, the bible says that those who are baptized and believe in Jesus can do miracles like he did, healing the sick, etc (Mark 16). Can you do any of these things? Can you show any evidence for the essential events in the bible? I am very familiar with the evidence that Christians usually give which are easy to counter but perhaps you might have something new. You say that you don’t think subjective experience should be discounted out of hand. I agree, but they should be analyzed and not taken as the truth. For example, you say you do believe in other supernatural entities. If someone claims that their god talked to them, or did a miracle, why would you not accept that it was the god they claimed, and not some other interpretation that you might put on it?

            What would make someone’s philosophy “well-rounded” and “mature” to you as opposed to something that wasn’t either of those things to you? I do see such words as being the usual caveats by a theist to discount other theists, somewhat like how paidiske wants to claim that Christians would agree with her if only they did “solid” bible study.

            Thanks for the interesting dialogue. It’s very enjoyable. 🙂

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          • Seth Scott

            What awesome, thought-provoking questions! I’ll be intentionally brief, so clarifying follow-ups are welcome 🙂

            If you would, tell me what was your reason to be a Christian?

            In short, I became convinced by personal experience (and somewhat by academic study) that God exists and that Jesus is whom He claimed to be. I’ve posted a very short version of my story on my blog: http://weighingevidence.com/2015/01/22/my-testimony/

            Could you also tell me what sect you are…?

            I’m non-denominational Protestant. I believe in the Nicene Creed and the authority of Scripture. OT laws are in effect insomuch as Christ’s work on the cross did not legitimately overturn them; examples of such laws that are no longer in effect would include ritual law (like performing animal sacrifices and refraining from shellfish, Acts 10) and civil law (such as laws regulating slavery and stoning for civil offenses, Romans 13); the third section of the law (the moral law) is still in as much effect now as then. I believe in the spiritual gifts (miracles, healing, prophesy, etc.). I believe in a literal heaven and hell. Haven’t quite made up my mind on young earth vs. old earth — leaning toward the latter, since the science is convincing and seems compatible with a conservative reading of Genesis. Happy to answer any other specific questions if you would like a clearer picture 🙂

            If religious experience isn’t entire conclusive when comparing one religion to another, what would you suggest using?

            These kinds of questions, I think, is what got me interested in apologetics — I wanted to compare Christianity to other religions in arenas such as history, archaeology, philosophy, etc. For example, I don’t think I could be a Muslim because I think their take on who Jesus was is historically false; I reject Hinduism, in part, because I think their cosmology doesn’t line up with what we know of the origins of the universe; I don’t believe in Mormonism because nothing in their historical sacred text seems backed up by archaeology; etc. I actually was a Hindu (sort of) for awhile, when I left the church for awhile and was experimenting with other spiritualities, and there were experiential differences as well that helped further convince me that there was something special about Christianity.

            How can someone say that someone else is mistaken to the cause of an experience?

            This occurs even within my own religion. For instance, though our church doesn’t make a big deal out of the spiritual gift of tongues, we believe it can be a legitimate expression of God’s love. I’ve heard people admit that they would do things like speak in tongues in order to be a part of what other people are experiencing. They didn’t necessarily recognize at the time that they were doing these things on their own (psychology is tricky that way), but later on, after experiencing what it’s supposed to feel like, they were able to admit that the experience they were having wasn’t something from God, but it was something from their own desire to “fit in”.

            I see that you believe that your god can touch people of other religions. How does it does this and why doesn’t it tell these people that Chrisitianity is the only right one, an idea which I would assume you believe if you believe that one can only be saved through Jesus Christ.

            Two things:

            1) I believe He does do this, exactly. It seems that people in the Muslim world, for example, are coming to Christianity in pretty significant numbers because of visions or dreams of Jesus telling them where they can find missionaries who will tell them more about Him.

            2) Believing that one can only be saved through Christ is not the same as saying one can only be saved through belief in Christ. I think there is Biblical support for the idea that God is more interested in our level of response to the revelation of Him that we have received than He is about what we say we believe on a creedal level. C. S. Lewis gave a nod to this idea in one of the Narnia books, where one of the “bad guys” ends up in Aslan’s Kingdom, much to his surprise and others’, since he technically served another deity — yes Aslan, seeing the sincerity of his heart and knowing that he had no opportunity to learn directly about Him, counted his worship for the other god as if he had done so for Aslan. John 10:16 comes to mind, but there are other passages as well.

            You also claim that this god loves people, which would not be supported in the bible, from this god’s actions against those people who do not believe in it.

            This statement seems to assume that sending unbelievers to hell is unloving. What makes you say this? If hell is just punishment, then it has nothing to do with love, it has to do with justice — it’s not “unloving” of society to send criminals to prison. Also, I think, in a way, hell in itself is a manifestation of God’s love for unbelievers, for He is honoring their decision not to be separate from Him. To force them to come into heaven and be with Him for eternity would be an even greater hell for such people, I think.

            It is interesting that you believe in other supernatural entities. Do you believe that they are all “evil” since they are not of your god?

            I believe the Biblical revelation about the existence of angels and demons, so they’re not all evil — just the ones that are trying to lead people astray and give “false” experiences and visions.

            Can you do any of these things?

            I am not the personal eyewitness to the sort of “mind-blowing” miracles spoken about in the New Testament, but I have seen quite a few “smaller” occurrences (some of which I had a hand in) that I would consider miraculous to convince me that such things do happen. I also know people who claim to be eyewitnesses to such things, and there’s also resources such as Keener’s book on miraculous healings that provide documented support that such things still occur.

            Can you show any evidence for the essential events in the bible?

            I probably don’t have much new for you in this arena — I have an interest in history, but I am no historian. I am a fan of Gary Habermas’ minimal facts argument for the resurrection of Christ, however — since, really, the only miracle that really makes-or-breaks my faith is the belief that Christ rose from the dead.

            If someone claims that their god talked to them, or did a miracle, why would you not accept that it was the god they claimed, and not some other interpretation that you might put on it?

            Because I have to reconcile such data that comes in with other evidences. For instance, I don’t believe in ghosts — and yet I believe that some poltergeist activity is legitimate. When someone claims to have had contact with a dead relative or something, I process that claim in light of other such experiences that, if allowed to continue, led to more demonic activity, where the “spirit guide” or whatever they thought it was would show its “true colors” at a certain point. I believe along the same lines when it comes to things like UFO sightings and alien abductions — I believe they can be legitimate experiences, but I don’t believe aliens are actually making contact with us, for the data seems to better indicate a demonic trick.

            What would make someone’s philosophy “well-rounded” and “mature” to you as opposed to something that wasn’t either of those things to you?

            It’s sort of a vague question, but I think I get the gist — forgive/correct me if I’m wrong. I guess the reason why I use such language is because it seems to me that most errors in forming one’s worldview come from a myopic processing of data — i.e., giving one piece of truth more weight or significance than others. It’s the root of biases, in my opinion. I’ve often said that when it comes to most people I speak with on any subject, we can generally agree on most of the facts — we just weight their significance differently. It’s like ethics, I guess — less a discussion of “what is morality?” and more about a discussion about conflicting definitions of “the good”. I feel I am in danger of rambling, and I doubt I am answering the question well 😛 I guess it comes down to weighing all the evidence, not just the evidences that sound good, or that line up with our upbringing — going out there and seeking out the whole truth, and rather than ignoring data that doesn’t fit with our worldview, finding a way to incorporate such data into it. I hope that makes sense.

            Same to you! Thanks for the discussion.

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          • clubschadenfreude

            would you mind me taking this discussion over to my blog? I’d like to answer, but I think this is getting long and taking up too much of Hessianwithteeth’s comment space. I can make a post with links and we can continue in that comments section, if you’d agree.

            Liked by 1 person

    • hessianwithteeth

      I never said that theists reject rationality. I said it means something different to you than it does to me. I don’t think that we’ll ever have all the answers, but I think that rational thought is necessary to have any knowledge. I don’t think you can know anything without it.

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      • Ros

        ‘I think that rational thought is necessary to have any knowledge.’

        Just out of interest, what do you mean by ‘knowledge’? For example, which (if any) of the following would you consider to be knowledge?

        1) I am feeling pain
        2) Fire causes me to feel pain
        3) If I don’t want to get hurt, I shouldn’t get too close to a fire.
        4) Fire stimulates the pain receptors in skin. It can also cause physical damage to skin/flesh.
        5) It’s best if other people don’t get too close to a fire.

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  • Mikavelli

    The biggest issue with Christianity is that fundamentalists don’t account for variable change – everything is “black or white” to them, which is actually quite an irrational mindset in the first place.

    I take Christianity as a philosophy rather than an absolute “rule book” because humans and humanity evolves with society / technology and so forth. These things need to be taken into account, taken into context and understood before choosing to quote parts of the religion we “like”. Reductionist.

    But this goes for any religion really, or rather the “institutionalised” ones.

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