Sunday, 10 July 2011

In Defense of the Irrational

There’s an argument floating around that Christians – at least those crazy fundamentalists – are Christians because they don’t understand logic.  The more rational a person is, the closer they come to an enlightened atheism.  The ultimate atheist would be totally rational, freed from the crippling bonds of bias and fallacy.  I’m going to argue that this ideal is harmful, and in fact encourages the irrationality it seeks to avoid. 
On the well-known fundamentalist Jack Chick’s website is an essay by Robert Morey, a long-time Christian apologist: Common Logical Fallacies Made By Muslims. Morey’s essay attempts to dismantle the arguments in favour of Islam.  Surprisingly, he writes clearly and logically about the awful arguments Muslim apologists use.  Without the references to Jesus, his essay would have been perfectly at home on an atheist site.  However, almost every one of Morey’s arguments applies just as well to the Bible as to the Qu’ran. Take his second point, a concise explanation of how proofs based on a holy book are circular:
Arguing in a circle: If you have already assumed in your premise what you are going to state in your conclusion, then you have ended where you began and proven nothing.
Examples: Proving Islam by the Qur'an and then proving the Qur'an by Islam.
How wonderful would it be if Christian apologists stopped trying to prove the Bible’s infallibility with Bible verses!  Later on, Morey writes:
…he [the Muslim] is assuming that if he can refute the Bible, then the Qur'an wins by default. If he can refute the Trinity, then Allah wins by default. But this is logically erroneous. You cannot prove your position by refuting someone else's position. The Bible and the Qur'an could both be wrong. Muslims must prove their own book.

This is the exact same argument that defenders of evolution use against creationists: arguments against evolution do not justify creationism; intelligent design does not win by default if scientists are unable to explain abiogenesis.

How can someone display this level of critical thinking about Islam and then totally fail to view one’s own belief in the same light?  The buzzword which springs to mind is ‘cognitive dissonance’, and I believe it’s appropriate in this case.  However, this case shows that cognitive dissonance isn’t just found among people who scorn rationality – like Morey, it’s possible to be capable of reasoned argument and unquestioning faith at the same time.  Even atheists, often self-proclaimed rationalists, have beliefs that are totally resistant to evidence. 

Questioning someone’s cognitive dissonance provokes an offended response, as it’s possible to see in arguments with fundamentalist believers.  When have atheists displayed such a kneejerk response to questioning an issue?  Without giving direct examples, it’s not hard to find instances of irrationality in the discussion of, say, politics (or eating meat)

Like Greta Christina, I don’t think human beings are capable of total rationality.  We didn’t evolve for abstract thought and it’s arrogant to believe that we can objectively evaluate every aspect of our lives.  Ironically, a belief that one lacks any cognitive bias is the perfect environment for bias to thrive in: if I see myself as a being of pure reason, why would I bother examining my own positions?  After all, they must be rational if I came up with them

Reason is a tremendously useful tool.  To use it effectively – and maintain our credibility as rationalists – we need to admit that we’re not rational all the time; that in some areas it may even be preferable to be irrational.  We need to learn to live with the part of ourselves that justifies the unreasonable.  Otherwise we run the risk of becoming like Robert Morey: crusaders for logic, keen analytical minds bent on exposing all irrationality – except, of course, our own.


  1. I sit back with a snack and attack all your writing while biting. Move on to Islam and Morey and I see someone who—given to dissonance—isn’t dense.

  2. Given to dissonance? I'll cop to that. It's a shame you lost the anapaests after 'someone', though - I was enjoying the flow of your comment.

  3. It was a moment of indiscretion. I won't sully your craft further, ha ha. But if you squint at it just right, it can be read as "someone who—given to dissonance [and I most certainly meant Morey rather than you, if that came off wrong]—isn’t dense."