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Posted by on Aug 25, 2008 in intellectual black holes, reason | 14 comments

Is reason a religion?

Hi Jamie

I am going to respond to just one thing here – which is your comment (in comments on previous post) that reason is a religion too.

Hmm. What is a religion? I think it must involve worship, right? Well, I don’t worship reason. It’s just that reason and observation are the only tools we have for getting at what’s true. So I use them. So do you, of course, constantly.

Think of your head as a basket towards which many beliefs are tumbling. There are all sorts of nutty beliefs out there that you might adopt – from the the thought that the Antarctic is populated by crab people to the belief that the Earth’s core is made of cheese. These beliefs will quickly fill up your head if you don’t filter them.

We apply reason as a filter, to try to keep as many of the false ones out as possible. Of course reason is not 100% reliable. But it is (and this is a key point) truth-sensitive. Subject beliefs to rational critical scrutiny and you are much less likely to end up with a head full of nonsense. Those who don’t apply this filter will quickly end up with a head full of false beliefs.

Now the thing about many religions is, they encourage you to turn the filter off. They know their religious beliefs are unlikely to get through, so they try to inject them early, while you are a kid and your critical defences aren’t properly built up, or they tell you, later, that reason has its limitations and that you should therefore, in the case of this particular religion, turn it off.

Well, reason does have it’s limitations, I think. I don’t suppose it can necessarily answer every question. But it’s the best tool we have if we want to dig out the truth.

Very many cults – from the great religions to wacky New Age movements, suggest, in one way or another, that you turn your filter off and just accept that THEY KNOW – they have access to THE TRUTH.

But should you? Should you just go with what they, or their book, tells you – setting to one side the issue of reasonableness?

No matter how well-meaning and sincere they are (and many are, of course), the answer, if you want to believe what’s true, has surely got to be “no”.

You rightly use reason every day of your life. Indeed, you constantly trust your life to it.

That doesn’t make reason your, or my, religion. Reason is not a religion – it’s just an indispensible tool if you want to believe what’s true. In the same way that my legs are an indispensible tool for getting around, which I rely on constantly. The fact that I do rely on them doesn’t mean I worship my legs, or that they are my religion.

Any belief system that insists that, while you may use reason in every other area of your life, you should turn it off when it comes to these beliefs, should, I’d suggest, be approached with great caution. For this is one of the hallmarks of an intellectual black hole.

Many religions, cults, etc. are designed – or, more accurately, have evolved – to be intellectual black holes. They encourage self-sealing patterns of thought which effectively lock you inside. Get sucked in, and it’s almost impossible to think your way out again.

Suppose you have fallen into such a black hole. To outsiders, you look like just one more credulous victim – but of course, to you on the inside, everyone outside seems profoundly ignorant of THE TRUTH to which you now have special access! Indeed, to you as an insider, it seems that you are the one that is now free, and the outsiders are the ones that are trapped!

I am sure that, when you look at New Age cults, etc. you recognise that this is, indeed, how they operate. Is it possible that Christianity is much the same sort of black hole, only a particularly powerful, and of course rather more longstanding, one?


  1. One of the best arguments I’ve read. Shorten it by 50% and it would be even better.

  2. Stephen is replying to Jamie’s comment: “Evidence” is the worship to the god of Reason. People can be “converted” to this church of Reason (“We may not convince Jamie…” and “It may be that we won’t change anyone’s mind”). Decrying the falsehood of other beliefs (“…idiotic fallacies…” and “silly”) is common. Just an observation.I don’t think your reply is quite correct, Stephen. You segue from “We apply reason as a filter,” to “many religions… encourage you to turn the filter off;” the second clause seems to imply that reason is the only filter for our beliefs.But of course every religion is also a filter, as Jamie’s earlier comment indicates: Jamie wouldn’t believe miraculous claims about L. Ron Hubbard, because [he doesn’t believe that] Hubbard is God.In a sense, Jamie’s comparison is apt. There are features in common with religion and reason: they both act as filters, and we are convinced that beliefs that pass through that filter are true (or more likely to be true). Beliefs that fail to pass are false.True means true for everyone: If you do not use the same filter as me — if some beliefs pass one filter but fail another — one of us is mistaken.Similarly, we have the same ethical and emotional beliefs about the ideas that pass and do not pass from our filters. It’s ethically wrong to have false beliefs, and a person who persistently adopts false beliefs (and rejects true beliefs) is seen as perverse, if not actually stupid.Instead of focusing on the similarities (religion and reason are both filter), we should focus on the differences: What kind of filters are they? What kinds of beliefs do they pass or block? Can we evaluate these beliefs independently of the fact that they pass and fail some specific filter.Likewise, can we consider characteristics of the filters independently of the specifc beliefs they pass and block?Of course, we must choose criteria on which to compare filters, which means we must apply a filter a priori to this evaluation. Presuppositional apologists (those more sophisticated than Sye) make this issue of self-reference the central theme of their apologetic.We can get hung up forever on this self-reference, or we can simply try to identify the filters we have in common and use those common filters to evaluate our other filters. For example, everyone — Christian and atheist alike — drives with their eyes open and pointed front. In some sense everyone gives at least some epistemic authority to the evidence of their senses.[Note: if you click on a post title to see the post and its comments, a permalink to each comment is attached to the comment date/time.]

  3. Hi BBOf course you can filter your beliefs other than by applying reason. E.g. you could filter them according to how attractive you found them, or whether they accord with your prior religious beliefs. Point is, unlike e.g. filtering on the basis of whether a belief is attractive, etc. reason is a *truth-sensitive* filter. In fact, even the Christian acknowledges.

  4. “…even the Christian acknowledges this.” I meant to say.

  5. Jesus reiterated the OT ban on “other” gods by stating that “Man cannot server two masters”. Therefore if Jamie thinks that using reason and evidence is worshipping them, then either he must never use them or else he must disobey his god.

  6. Religion seems to encourage selective suppression of many other filters too.For example we often consider the motivations and characters of people both in our direct experience and in thinking about the actions of historic and even fictional figures. Whenever there is some sort of mismatch we start to become suspicious, either of the person (direct experience) or the account (historic or fictional). If an author makes the protagonists in a work of fiction behave in ways contrary to their established nature we become dissatisfied and either expect matter to be resolved in some adequate way or become critical of the author or the work. What would we think of a book where Sherlock Holmes gives up on a case because its too puzzling or Biggles commits a caddish act in the last chapter to avoid paying his mess bill?Religion (of the Holy Book variety) often requires us to suspend any sense that the actions of those in it, both human and divine, make sense in that way.

  7. paul power – I always thought that the OT God seemed to be implicitly acknowledging the existence of other Gods. He never said “Don’t be daft Moses; there aren’t any other Gods. Worship Baal ’til you’re blue in the face – it wont get you anywhere because theres no such person.” but he does seem to go out of his way to forbid worshiping others.

  8. anonymous:The “ban” I mentioned is the ban on the worship of other gods. Sorry I did not make that clear.

  9. Point is, unlike e.g. filtering on the basis of whether a belief is attractive, etc. reason is a *truth-sensitive* filter. In fact, even the Christian acknowledges this.I do not think that Christians do in fact acknowledge that reason is a truth-sensitive filter.Many Christians and other religious people (especially creationists) admit only that the beliefs passed through by reason have some overlap with those passed by their religion. Reason — in their view — both passes and blocks some false beliefs and some true beliefs.Some relgious people might admit that reason allows through only true beliefs, but that it also blocks some true beliefs (specifically true beliefs about the Christian god that must be taken on faith) along with the false.Such unreliable filtering is held by such religious people to stem not just by virtue of imperfect justification, but from fundamental flaws in human reasoning. Some reasonable ideas are wrong in principle, no matter how solid their reasonable justification.No matter how you slice it, we must define truth to be that which passes through some sort of epistemic filter. A definition of truth that isn’t dependent on some sort of filter is useless: there is no way of distinguishing the truth or falsity of a statement without appeal to some epistemic filter.There are two ways of interpreting the quoted sentence.In the first sense, you might be saying that reason is a “truth-sensitive” filter because truth is defined to be that which is reasonable. The first sort of Christian would say that you’re just defining yourself to be correct; the second sort would sneakily ask you if falsity were defined to be that which is not passed by the filter, and then hit you over the head with Godel.The second interpretation is that we can determine that reason is a “truth-sensitive” filter because we can independently evaluate the beliefs passed by reason, and observe that reason does indeed pass only true statements, block only false statements, and at least recognize the indeterminate nature of some statements.However, if this were the case, then why employ reason at all? If we can determine the truth or falsity of statements by some means other than reason, then why not use that method directly? Why even discuss reasonability?Remember, I’m on your side here. But the issue is, I think, more subtle than your presentation suggests.

  10. Of course Christians think reason is truth sensitive – they rely on it all the time to arrive at true beliefs about the world. Indeed, they constantly trust their lives to it.In fact, they will even happily apply it to Christianity whenever they think it supports their case.They just go sceptical about it whenever they start losing the argument.Of course, they can, when given a good argument against what they believe, go all sceptical about reason. But that would be a move made in bad faith, given they are perfectly happy to use it otherwise.There is an issue about how to justify reason, which I myself raised a little while back (in the Sye correspondence). But that’s really not relevant here.

  11. Barefoot bum explains the problem of trying to parry the “reason is religion” accusation from a philosophical standpoint alone. Reason is clearly going to win the early rounds of such a discussion, because as Stephen says, it provides a more reliable truth filter than conventional religions. However, I don’t see how such a discussion does not eventually end up with the theist retreating to a position that forces stalemate; where at the very least, both parties must accept that there is really no way to pull the curtain on Descarte’s Demon completely.Which is why I chose to attack it in the other thread from a theological standpoint. If Jamie wishes to include reason in his definition of religion, then he forfeits any theological right to appeal to reason.It’s right there at number two in the Ten Commandments, chaps. One God, one faith, and no compromises.Naturally, Jamie isn’t prepared to dismiss reason, which is why he is here trying to find answers. And good for him. Clearly, he understands that reason must be something that transcends myth and tradition. If it is a religion, it must be a particularly special one, if his own God is prepared to set aside that Old Testament jealousy and allow his flock to worship Reason, too.

  12. sorry the link is hit “going nuclear” to the left.

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