Religion as a Black Market for Irrationality
By Sam Harris
Christopher Hitchens has written, with characteristic candor and eloquence, that “[r]eligion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.” This ten-fold indictment needs little support from me, as evidence of its truth has been crashing down upon us for centuries. However, I’ve been asked to provide such superfluities by the editors of this page. There is nothing like racing to the aid of a man who needs none.
Each of my essays for On Faith has highlighted one or another facet of Hitchens’ jewel of blasphemy. I recently argued that religion is “contemptuous of women” at some length. Here, I offer further thoughts on how religion is “irrational” and “invested in ignorance”.
*** Reason is a compulsion, not a choice. Just as one cannot intentionally startle oneself, one cannot knowingly believe a proposition on bad evidence. If you doubt this, imagine hearing the following account of a failed New Year’s resolution:
“This year, I vowed to be more rational, but by the end of January, I found that I had fallen back into my old ways, believing things for bad reasons. Currently, I believe that smoking is harmless, that my dead brother will return to life in the near future, and that I am destined to marry Angelina Jolie, just because these beliefs make me feel good and give my life meaning.”
This is not how our minds work. To believe a proposition, we must also believe that we believe it because it is true. While lapses in rationality can often be detected in retrospect, they always occur in the dark, outside of consciousness. In every present moment, a belief entails the concurrent conviction that we are not just fooling ourselves.
This constraint upon our thinking has always been a problem for religion. Being stocked stem to stern with incredible ideas, the world’s religions have had to find some way to circumvent reason, without repudiating it. The recommended maneuver is generally called “faith,” and it actually appears to work. Faith enables a person to fool himself into thinking that he is maintaining his standards of reasonableness, while forsaking them. There is a powerful incentive to not notice that one is engaged in this subterfuge, of course, because to notice it is to fail at it. As is well known, such cognitive gymnastics can be greatly facilitated by the presence of others, similarly engaged. Sometimes, it takes a village to lie to oneself.
In support of this noble enterprise, every religion has created a black market for irrationality, where people of like minds can trade transparently bad reasons in support of their religious beliefs, without the threat of criticism. You, too, can enter this economy of false knowledge and self-deception. The following method has worked for billions, and it will work for you:
How to Believe in God
Six Easy Steps
1. First, you must want to believe in God.
2. Next, understand that believing in God in the absence of evidence is especially noble.
3. Then, realize that the human ability to believe in God in the absence of evidence might itself constitute evidence for the existence of God.
4. Now consider any need for further evidence (both in yourself and in others) to be a form of temptation, spiritually unhealthy, or a corruption of the intellect.
5. Refer to steps 2-4 as acts of “faith.”
6. Return to 2.
As should be clear, this is a kind of perpetual motion machine of wishful thinking—and it leads, of necessity, to reduced self-awareness and diminished contact with reality. But it is reputed to have many benefits, and once you get it up and running you will be in fine company. In fact, from the looks of it, you will never be lonely again.
September 27, 2007