Religion, Rationality, and Religious Rationality
Why rationality does not satiate our urge to worship
The enlightenment story goes a bit like this: Throughout most of human history, life was nasty, brutish, and short. But then, somewhere in the 1600s, we developed this miraculous thing called the scientific method. Science and rationality enabled us to make tremendous breakthroughs and quality of life improved for billions of people.
We took the same scientific method and applied it to our understanding of nearly everything — our brains, our economy, and our government.
In our attempt to secularize government and remove the divine right of kings, we endorsed a scientific type of operating. The answer to everything was to make it more rational, more objective, and more scientific—and less religious. The less religious, the better.
This change in style was in response to a lot of violence that was religiously-motivated. The logic went as follows: We disagree on who God is, and even when we do agree, we disagree how to best serve God—and as a result we fight these pointless wars that kill millions of people. So what if we stopped fighting by just sweeping these big metaphysical questions under the rug and we instead aligned on a minimum viable morality? That's a pretty compelling pitch for people who have been fighting endless religious wars.
That’s exactly what happened: a long stretch of peace and economic growth ensued. Trade and economic activity became much easier because people weren’t clashing over metaphysical disagreements all the time.
One flaw in the thinking, however, is that we believed it was possible to replace religion with rationality. But the problem with trying to replace religion with rationality is, well, people aren’t rational!
People aren’t rational
As we’ve discussed, most of human rationality is not used to create belief systems, but rather to come up with arguments that rationalize opinions the person’s subconscious brain has already formed. Rationality acts less like a CEO and more like a PR person: justifying decisions you’ve already made to others and yourself.
Now, even if people were rational, it’s impossible to derive morality from reason. This is articulated best by David Hume’s claim that you can’t derive “ought” from “is”. Even if you were able to capture infinities in a spreadsheet, you wouldn’t be able to derive morals accordingly, since any such argument would require faith-based axioms like ”human life is sacred, and everyone has rights.” However, you won’t find these human rights under a microscope — they only exist because we’ve spent the last several thousand years creating rituals that sanctify the moral equality of humans. If we took out the rituals and metaphysics that go hand-in-hand with our ethics, our sacred rights would be resting on much flimsier ground.
Deriving morality from reason leads you to dangerous places — communism and Nazism being two primary examples. When you compare Christianity to those two, Christianity doesn’t look so bad. Here’s another example of how decision-making via reason alone leads you to ethically scary places.
Or more timely, the CEO of Alameda:
Of course, not only can we not derive morality from reason, we also can’t derive many other things from reason because the most things are too complex for us to understand. In our increasingly-specialized society, there's always going to be someone who has acquired enough specific knowledge to operate the machine better and you would be wise to defer to them. That's a big part of modern life: no one fixes their own car or builds their own house anymore.
And yet as we saw during COVID, even experts don’t always make rational decisions and are swayable by moral panics. Because people harbor all sorts of biases that compromise their judgment. Even if they are acting rationally, they may be acting rationally in their own interest. One individual’s rational self-interest is most likely different from another person’s or the common good at large.
Reason doesn’t satiate our religious urges
The facts are this: you can’t run a society on reason alone. Reason cannot inspire a military to fight. Reason cannot convince people to have children. Reason cannot motivate people to sacrifice to the extent they need to for civilization to flourish. It’s not possible to individually rationalize each of the sacrifices necessary for people to fight for something greater: nation, god, family, creed, etc.
The other flaw in purely rational thinking lies in seeing reason and revelation as mutually exclusive concepts. Both were historically seen as part of what it meant to be integrated and embodied. The trick we play on ourselves is thinking that the Enlightenment split these things apart and created a situation where reason could reign supreme without any other motivating forces.
As one scientist once said: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”
The problem that we’re identifying is that you can take the man out of religion, but you can’t take the religious nature out of the man.
There's something religious about being human. There exists an animating impulse that causes us to long to worship something. This is what David Foster Wallace was getting at in “This is Water'': left alone to our own devices, we can’t not worship something. You might worship god, you might worship social justice, you might worship Bitcoin, but you’re going to worship something whether you like it or not.
Something will always define your identity and understanding of the good. If it's not traditional religion, it will instead be a religion you have constructed for yourself — or more likely, a religion that someone else has constructed for you under the guise of reason or whatever might be more appealing to you.
New atheist types look at extreme politics and say: well, this is just religion. Which is true. They’re right about the religious nature of modern political activism. But then they'll say the problem is that “it's a religion” and the solution is that we have to get rid of it just like we got rid of Christianity. As the logic goes, then we'll be able to go on and have fully rational lives and dispel religion once and for all.
But like we said earlier, people crave identity and meaning. It's what gives life purpose. It's what motivates people to continue on through the suffering of life. If you do not possess some kind of identity, community, and a metaphysical understanding, then you’ll find yourself living a life of quiet despair. You certainly won't coalesce as a society, a civilization of people, or form families.
As Jordan Peterson said on a podcast, we’d just end up with “Stalin instead of God.”
This is what the new atheists got wrong. They told themselves stories about how now that we’re enlightened, we’ve outgrown the need for religion. But of course that same religious impulse didn’t go away, it just migrated to something else: politics, mostly.
Have you noticed that as of late, every man, woman, and child on earth must concern himself with politics? All art, science, medicine, education, leisure: they all must be about politics to be of significance. Only politics can bring about a perfect world where all problems are solved — sounds…religious, no?
Humans are religious beings who are practically incapable of not believing in something. If traditional religious faith structures are eliminated from their lives, humans will instead fill them with cruder, less conscious faith structures — including political ideologies.
The irony is that these new atheists, in getting rid of religion, paved the way for the new faith of modern political activists who immediately canceled them. There’s this old essay “Richard Dawkins got pwned” which explained that, even though Dawkins famously hates religion, he unwittingly follows the religion of protestant progressivism. When Martin Luther King says “The arc of the universe bends towards justice” he’s talking about that same kind of progress. But we allow progressivism to dominate public spaces because it’s technically not religious in the sense that we understand religion.
How do we satisfy our religious urge?
Charles Taylor’s concept of “the buffered self” claims that, in what he calls the “enchanted” world pre-science, we were vulnerable to external forces we couldn’t even begin to understand.
What happens post-science, or in the era of “disenchantment”, is that the self becomes buffered, isolated, and protected. That protection is quite helpful in that it projects you as an individual. But the same buffer that protects you, the same buffer that frees you from constraints on family, society, and religion, is the same buffer that isolates you. And there’s a profound loneliness in this, because meaning is now entirely up to you. You’re alone in an endeavor that humans have been trying to do as a collective for thousands of years…Good luck!
The bottom line is this: reason, even if you have the proper motivations and capacities for it, can never be enough on its own.
The question then becomes, whether you look to the past or the future. If towards the future: what does that look like?
If you’re trying to go back, how do you overcome the problem that all old religions have, namely that they’re based on premodern belief systems with supernatural aspects that can’t be justified in a post-science world? As we discussed, you can’t take religion piecemeal and expect it to hold any weight. Without supernatural beliefs, you don’t actually have the same old religions — you only have weak, fake versions of them. If movements don’t have sufficient conviction to follow their views all the way to their logical conclusions, the movement will be susceptible to entryism to the new faith, which is what we’ve seen happen today.
This is the big question to end on: If old religions have been too culturally debunked to be revived en masse and religions whose supernatural has been stripped from them are too fake to be useful, how do you have religions in a postmodern world?
Thanks to Molly Mielke