Religious and Rational?
A research-based perspective on combining religion and rationality
Posted Apr 26, 2017
Guest blog post written by Rev. Caleb Pitkin
“Wisdom shouts in the street; in the public square she raises her voice.”
Proverbs 1:20 Common English Bible
The Biblical book of Proverbs is full of imagery of wisdom personified as a woman calling and extorting people to come to her and listen. The wisdom contained in Proverbs is not just spiritual wisdom but also contains a large amount of practical wisdom and advice. What might the wisdom of Proverbs and rationality have in common? The wisdom literature in scripture was meant to help people make better and more effective decisions. In today’s complex and rapidly changing world we have the same need for tools and resources to help us make good decisions. One great source of wisdom is methods of better thinking that are informed by science.
Now, not everyone would agree with comparing the wisdom of Proverbs with scientific insights. Doing so may not sit well with some in the secular rationality community who view all religion as inherently irrational and hindering clear thinking. It also might not sit well with some in my own religious community who are suspicious of scientific thinking as undermining traditional faith. While it would take a much longer piece to try to completely defend either religion or secular rationality I’m going to try and demonstrate some ways that rationality is useful for a religious person.
The first way that rationality can be useful for a religious person is in the living of our daily lives. We are faced with tasks and decisions each day that we try to do our best in learning to recognize common logical fallacies or other biases, like those that cause us to fail to understand other people, will improve our decision making as much as it improves the thinking of non-religious people. For example, a mother driving her kids to Sunday School might benefit from avoiding thinking that the person who cuts her off is definitely a jerk, one common type of thinking error. Some doing volunteer work for their church could be more effective if they avoid problematic communication with other volunteers. This use of rationality to lead our daily lives in the best way is one that most would find fairly unobjectionable. It’s easy to say that the way we all achieve our personal goals and objectives could be improved, and we can all gain greater agency.
Rationality can also be of use in theological commentary and discourse. Many of the theological and religious greats used the available philosophical and intellectual tools of their day to examine their faith. Examples of this include John Wesley, Thomas Aquinas and even the Apostle Paul when he debated Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers. They also made sure that their theologies were internally, rational and logical. This means that, from the perspective of a religious person, keeping up with rationality can help with the pursuit of a deeper understanding of our faith. For a secular person acknowledging the ways in which religious people use rationality within their worldview may be difficult, but it can help to build common ground. The starting point is different. Secular people start with the faith that they can trust their sensory experience. Religious people start with conceptions of the divine. Yet, after each starting point, both seek to proceed in a rational logical manner.
It is not just our personal lives that can be improved by rationality, it’s also the ways in which we interact with communities. One of the goals of many religious communities is to make a positive impact on the world around them. When we work to do good in community we want that work to be as effective as possible. Often when we work in community we find that we are not meeting our goals or having the kind of significant impact that we wish to have. It is my experience this is often a failure to really examine and gather the facts on the ground. We set off full of good intentions but with limited resources and time. Rational examination helps us to figure out how to match our good intentions with our limited resources in the most effective way possible. For example as the Pastor of two small churches money and people power can be in short supply. So when we examine all the needs of our community we have to acknowledge we cannot begin to meet all or even most of them. So we take one issue, hunger, and devote our time and resources to having one big impact on that issue. As opposed to trying to be a little bit to alleviate a lot of problems.
One other way that rationality can inform our work in the community is to recognize that part of what a scarcity of resources means is that we need to work together with others in our community. The inter-faith movement has done a lot of good work in bringing together people of faith to work on common goals. This has meant setting aside traditional differences for the sake of shared goals. Let us examine the world we live in today though. The amount of nonreligious people is on the rise and there is every indication that it will continue to do so. On the other hand, religion does not seem to be going anywhere either—which is good news for a pastor. Looking at this situation, the rational thing to do is to work together, for religious people to build bridges toward the non-religious and vice versa.
Wisdom still stands on the street calling and imploring us to be improved--not in the form of rationalist street preachers, though that idea has a certain appeal-- but in the form of the growing number of tools being offered to help us improve our capacity for logic, for reasoning, and for the tools that will enable us to take part in the world we live in.
Everyone wants to make good decisions. This means that everyone tries to make rational decisions. We all try but we don’t always hit the mark. Religious people seek to achieve their goals and make good decisions. Secular people seek to achieve their goals and make good decisions. Yes, we have different starting points and it’s important to acknowledge that. Yet, there are similarities in what each group wants out of their lives and maybe we have more in common than we think we do.
On a final note, it is my belief that what religious people and what non-religious people fear about each other is the same thing. The non-religious look at the religious and say God could ask them to do anything... scary. The religious look at the non-religious and say without God they could do anything... scary. If we remember though that most people are rational and want to live a good life we have less to be scared of, and are more likely to find common ground.
When you encounter someone from a different worldview who you believe acts irrationally or believes something irrational try and put yourself in their shoes. Ask what their starting point is, ask what facts they know, what they believe, and what kind of emotional place they are in. Once you get some mental picture of these things does a previously irrational act of belief suddenly seem more rational? By doing so, you can help avoid the fundamental attribution error, and be more rational yourself, regardless of your worldview!