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Religion as a Black Market for Irrationality

By Sam Harris
Posted: March 10, 2012.
Published: September 27, 2007.

Print: The Washington Post

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.

Enjoy!

Comments (16)

Reminds me of a few of my favorite lines from Inherit the Wind.

“But all you have to do is knock on any door and say, “If you let me in, I’ll live the way you want me to live, and I’ll think the way you want me to think,” and all the blinds’ll go up and all the windows will open, and you’ll never be lonely, ever again.”

posted on March 10, 2012
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2. Wave Rider

I have three comments.

1 - Sam Harris’ New Years Resolution example is boorish and sophmoric.  The example bears no relation to the thought processes of a Theist. 

2 – The charge by Hitchens can be seen to have applied to all guiding world views.  Think of the French Revolution, the Bolsehvick Revolution, the Maoist Revolution.  Hitchens would be much more accruate to have said the following.  Man “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.”  Just look at history.  No wonder Jesus said that many are called but few are chosen.

3 – I also think Sam Harris’ method can be applied to Atheists seeing that they also ignore evidence and takes great leaps of faith.  See the method rewritten below:
How to Believe in There is NO God
Six Easy Steps
1. First, you must want to believe there is no God.
2. Next, understand that believing there is noGod in the absence of evidence is especially noble.
3. Then, realize that the human ability to NOYT believe in God in the absence of evidence might itself constitute evidence for the NON 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.

posted on March 14, 2012
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3. MajorityofOne

There’s a bit of a problem with your number one Wave Rider. I can speak for myself and for a lot of other atheists I know who were once believers and that is I didn’t want to believe there is no god. And, trust me, no one gives us athiests a gold star for not believing and tells us we’re noble. Quite the contrary, as you’ve demonstrated with your post.

With the exception of Hitchens who has said that he doesn’t see why anyone would want there to be a god, I would love it if there was some"one” I could beg for stuff…and it actually happen..world peace, clean water and food for every person, etc etc. When I was a believer I begged the creator to show mercy to certain people, or animals who had been maimed by a car, or well, the list goes on and on. Things always went on the way they were. I still hoped, in the face of what were for me becoming overwhelming odds against there being a god who was willing to interfere on my behalf or even on the world’s behalf.

If you can believe in spite of the overwhelming evidence, then good for you, but your brain works differently than mine. I’ve tried to maintain belief and I just finally gave up. Nothing noble about it.

posted on March 14, 2012
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Wave Rider’s re-write of the six steps for becoming an atheist is a non-starter.  Here, I’ll help you start it properly:
1. First, you must want to find the truth, based on the best evidence available, and welcome the addition of new facts, whether or not they support your current understanding.
I’ll leave it to the reader to proceed from there in a more sensible vein.

posted on March 15, 2012
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Thank you Dr. Harris (@ Sam Harris.) for once again elucidating the process of religious faith. 

I have found it a particularly interesting phenomenon (perhaps not the best word for reasons to follow) that, for example in mental health arenas, when a collective delusion is identified or imposed, such as in the case of a Folie à deux or a Folie imposée, we do not have an issue tagging this issue as pathological in this day and age.  Yet, when the same identification of magical thinking and cognitive rigidity is found behind a thin veil of religious approbation, it gets a free pass and is otherwise protected from criticism or even examination.

I think the historical significance, to which both you and Christopher Hitchens have written, is relevant and speaks volumes to the questions of how and why.  I agree that it is important to challenge the shield of religion in an effort to gain clarity as to the ways in which we are hindered as a society through our shared cultural delusions, etc.    I do not think it is an accident that the same type of cognitive rigidity (which is often seen as a maker for psychopathology) seems to also be positively correlated with religious fundamentalism.  Yet, while with the schizophrenic, we refer to his or her magical thinking as delusional or ‘religious preoccupation’ and strongly suggestive of pathology, with the believer we socially sanction the myths as ‘faith’ and give it a free pass. It seems to me what defines the two (to the observer) is the context in which it takes place; However, should this make one less problematic than the other?  I think not.

Ironically, while as a society, we allow screenings for ‘mental illness’  and other indicators of rigidity of thought when it comes to trusted positions such as security and safety, we do not hold other potentially dangerous or socially corrosive ideologies to the same standard.  Indeed, as I write this comment, the State of Virginia has recently passed a law forcing vaginal probes on women (including rape victims); there is an active national brawl over reproductive rights; and the two major candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination are either in agreement with the sporting of magical underwear to combat evil or in protecting the United States from the (perceived) very real threat of an actual ‘Satan’.  All of these controversies are religious based, and there is no question that the proponents of them brought them to the social arena BECAUSE of,  not merely as an inspiration from, their beliefs.

Now, in the case of agreed upon mental illnesses (whatever that means), I do not believe we should go around throwing people into treatment.  Indeed, our society allows people the dignity of keeping their delusions so long as they do not affect the social order or pose a danger to themselves or others.  However, when they do, the serious and persistently mentally ill (SPMI) will end up with social restrictions, forced treatment or other social interventions incident to their interference with others such as social disruptions fights, vagrancy, aggression, etc.  Yet, in the context of religious imposition, we do not require the same absence of corrosiveness in our society.  We allow politicians and professionals (or just about anyone) to speak nonsense and impose their restrictions on the entire citizenry based on a belief system that is no more well grounded than a collective psychiatric delusion.

I look forward to the progress of The Reason Project and other such movements and hope that we are able to foster a collective that insists on there being investigation and inquiry as a basis for the betterment of our human civilization.


A. Drozd

posted on March 17, 2012
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6. Wave Rider

MajorityofOne,
I can accept your objection to my number one.  I really don’t believe that this applies to all atheist groups/individuals but it is true for some.  But please remember, that is the comment Sam Harris used to slam theists that I merely apply back to his world view.  Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are at best ill informed or at worst disingenuous in the remarks made IN THIS ARTICLE.  Chris makes some very harsh critiques against religious groups that leave an important fact out.  That fact is that you can level those same accusations against non religious (Atheistic) societies (N. Korea, China, and the USSR).  It would be more correct to say that that “Mankind 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.”  Chris can’t just blame the groups that he has an obvious vendetta against.  In turn, Sam Harris makes some illogical parallels centered on absurd references to smoking, raising people from the dead and Angeline Jolie.  He follows with the quote that I altered.  The very combativeness of his approach does not set the tone for logical debate.  From my experience, that seems to be the prime tool in the arsenal of many non believers (and many believers as well).  You have been contributing to this site for some time now.  You have seen this tactic leveled at Theists from other contributors (and vice-versa). 
I appreciate that you shared a bit of your struggle on the issue.  What I hear you say (figuratively) is that you don’t believe because your concept of God would not allow pain and suffering and life would be peace.  I admit this is very difficult to deal with.  We are given a reason in scripture.  Some accept and some don’t.  I choose to accept the explanation that comes with the hope for a resolution.

Regards,
Wave Rider

posted on March 24, 2012
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7. Wave Rider

A Drozd

I read your post but must confess it appears long on opinion and short on substance.  You base your entire argument on the premise that the Theistic world view requires suspension of reason (magical thinking).  You may not be aware of this but the Theist finds abundant evidence in the creation to support belief in God.  The Theist cannot prove God but finds evidential support for the plausibility of God’s existence – hence the term faith).  Furthermore, there is eloquence in the laws of cause and effect that presents a hurdle that even the Atheist can’t get over without suspension of reason (enactment of faith or magical thinking).  Atheists have yet to present a scientifically proven spontaneous cause for the creation of life, the universe and everything (to quote Douglas Adams) that would not require an intelligent prime mover.  Without that proof the Atheist does not have the moral ground to support a derogatory “magical thinking” position.  You can’t impose the scientific proof requirement on the Theist and then exclude that requirement for yourself.  The Atheist can only logically take the position that they cannot prove God and therefore they choose not to believe (which is legitimate position– but is a costly one if wrong).  The springboard to your cognitive rigidity position, in terms of cause and effect, is simplistic and invalid.

I understand the argument you are making on cognitive rigidity.  However, you must remember that psychopathology arising from cognitive rigidity is not confined to the Theist world view.  Mao Tse Tung and his followers exhibited extreme cognitive rigidity in the implementation of their Atheistic world view, as did the Bolsheviks, as did Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, as did others.  The results of their cognitive rigidity on those societies are clearly documented for all to see.  Religious believers have not cornered the market on this.  It is a condition faced by all people regardless of world view and is quite complex in its varied manifestations (it is human malady).

Regards,
Wave Rider

posted on March 24, 2012
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Waverider

I believe you are seriously mistaken.  You try to palm of the atrocities of Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin et al off as the acts of atheists. They may have been atheists, but their evil arose from faith, i.e. unreasoned beliefs in communism etc.  I therefore place them in the theists camp.  In place of god, place communism.

Theists and communists are so alike, but their gods so different, that they are threatened by one another.

Secondly and perhaps more important, no one has ever (to my understanding) ever killed in the name of theism. It is always in the name of a particular god. There has never been (and I challenge you to provide an example) a person who has killed in the name of atheism. 

Finally, atheists are not a group in the same way that Christians, Muslims, Hindus etc are.  They are just ordinary people who believe in thought and rationality and will go where it takes them. Atheism is not something that provides a reason to live or die for.  It is not even a thing.  An atheist is the opposite of a theist the same way that a non-believer in Santa Claus is a aSantaClausian. No such thing.

posted on March 25, 2012
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” Reason is a compulsion, not a choice. Just as one cannot intentionally startle oneself, one cannot knowingly believe a proposition on bad evidence. “

It’s interesting how Sam can deny reality in this fashion, all in the name of Reason. Many people, if not the majority, can do this without any problems. That Sam fails to see this is his failure in rationality.

posted on March 26, 2012
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10. Wave Rider

Scorpionrat,

Your first point - I do believe that all the leaders of the communist movements identified were in fact atheists (as were the fathers of communism - Marx and Engels).  So I really don’t believe I am palming anything off.  They were Atheistic authorities whose brutality ranks as some of the most atrocious in history.  However, I KNOW that all Atheists are not like that.  In fact many /most Atheists have exemplary morals. The point that I am trying to make, as always, is that most atrocities committed by man against man result merely from the fact they are man (Christians call that fallen).  Men often want because they do not have.  And some are willing to take in total disregard of others.  And often using force to do so.  It really doesn’t seem to matter what their worldview is.  We can’t really blame God.  We need to blame ourselves.

Your second point – I have to admit this is a difficult point that I also struggle with.  I have resolved the issue somewhat in my mind.  Admittedly, I have to rely on theological explanations which shouldn’t surprise you.  I will try to explain if you are in fact interested.  If so, let me know.  If not, I will pass. 

Your final point – I must point out that the communists have often felt their system was worth dying for.  Remember that struggle is a basc tenant of communism.  And we have historically seen that once they prevailed in the struggle they believed it was necessary to eliminate religion.  Bear in mind that communism as an economic system could have faired well without the surpression of religion.  Religion would not have had a problem with communist economic system.  It was the communists who were/are hostile to religion.  I think that hostility towards religion is not significantly different than that expressed by a many atheist today. 

Regards,
Wave Rider

posted on March 29, 2012
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Wave,

It may suit your worldview that theological questions are the center that the world orbits around, but it’s just not true with everyone.  Some see the Church as a source of power while others see it as a threat.  It’s not more complicated than that.  The fact that the Communists were atheistic had no bearing on their actions other than to suppress what they thought was a threat to their power.  As Scorpionrat said, no one has killed in the name of atheism.  It was just one part of their ideology.  There’s no doubt strife, war and all the bad parts of humanity would still exist if religion went away, but by favorite quote from Steven Weinberg:

“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.  But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”.

Religion gives people a cosmic excuse for their baser desires as does a faith-like adherence to political ideology.  Millions have died simply because they didn’t believe in the right God. 

You said:
“Atheists have yet to present a scientifically proven spontaneous cause for the creation of life, the universe and everything (to quote Douglas Adams) that would not require an intelligent prime mover.  Without that proof the Atheist does not have the moral ground to support a derogatory “magical thinking” position.”

True the fundamental questions are unknown at this time, but claiming you DO know these answers IS magical thinking.  Why not just admit the truth and say you don’t know?  You want something to be true so you believe it.  That’s called faith and it is magical thinking.  Anyway, your cause and effect hurdle isn’t as high as it used to be.  I’d suggest reading Lawrence Krauss’ ‘A Universe from Nothing’.  The atheists don’t have a moral high ground to stand on, but we do have the rational high ground.  What’s not rational is to impose our desires on the universe which is what believers do just like any other form of magical thinking.

posted on March 30, 2012
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Wave,

You have touched on something that I think needs to be differentiated.  I have heard the arguments for the existance of a god such as the “first mover”. Actually, I first heard it in my grade school religion classes.  I’m not going to talk on that, although that argument is not quite bullet proof (watch the episode of Curiosity “Did God create the Universe”).

Religious scholars believe these arguments validate their particular religion, when this couldn’t be farther from logical proof. These arguments try to prove that a god exists, but in no way show that all the claims of any religion are true.  In fact most of these claims have zero evidence to back them up, besides that they may be written in a book by people several thousand years ago. For instance, the belief in some sort of an afterlife whether it be heaven or hell or reincarnation. The belief that when you pray, god is listening and may or may not answer your prayer in one way or another.  I think we need to be especially wary of claims like these because as humans we want this to be true.  We are scared of death.  We want someone to always look out for us and listen and help us, but making up stories doesn’t make it so.

posted on March 30, 2012
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13. Wave Rider

Patrick,

I do believe my point was that it doesn’t matter the worldview.  Man is at the center of the problem We go to war because we don’t have what we want. Our wants can be land, power, etc..  It just doesn’t matter.  And man must use thier worldview to secure his position of power.  Man is responsible for the results.  You can’t blame God for mans actions.  The argument that the atrocities in the name of God are greater than the atrocities in the name of man is not sound.  The effects are the same.  You are being selective in your criticism.

sjkelly486,

I agree with most of your points.  I merely argue that it is logical to believe in God.  The religious manifestations of the belief in God cannot all be correct if they are claiming to be the truth (Truth cannot be contradictory).  It is therefore logical that if we are to know God that He must reveal Himself to us.

Regards,
Wave Rider

posted on April 6, 2012
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14. maikel annaghlee

buybuydandavis
“It’s interesting how Sam can deny reality in this fashion, all in the name of Reason.
Many people, if not the majority, can do this without any problems.
That Sam fails to see this is his failure in rationality.”

What a wonderfully ironic Truth.
Congratulations!
I hope this ides of March insight: “God is logically an atheist” is as equally ironic.

posted on April 11, 2012
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Buybuydandavis> dude, you are an oaf. Your laughable rebuttal to Harris’ statement that “one cannot knowlingly believe a proposition on bad evidence”, was to point out that millions of people delude themselves every day. No shit. The key word you somehow missed was KNOWINGLY. Religious zealots don’t REALISE their core beliefs don’t correspond the nature of reality. You really think that an intellectual.of his caliber would fall in a hole that shallow? Come on dude, you’re either shamefully disingenuous or a moron. Harris’ comments on the definition of belief were as self-evident as can be.

posted on September 13, 2012
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Oh, hello.  I just joined the fray and it’s lovely.  Thanks loads for the debate.  Haven’t heard such great ideas since Nixon took office.  Well, I’m going to try to bring this down to a practical level.  Let’s talk about a real estate agent named Polly who is about to show a property to a client named Mr. Mann.  Nice guy, middle aged, wife, two kids, wants a house with three bedrooms, two baths, medium size yard, near transportation routes.

Polly says that she has just the property for him, great neighborhood, the right type of neighbors and all that jazz. Off they go in Polly’s car.  A few miles and some small talk about the weather later, they pull up in front of a vacant lot on a block with similar vacant lots lining both sides of the street.  For the most part, there is nothing much on any of the vacant lots except dead grass (due to the drought of summer), some beer cans and cigarette butts and lots of bird droppings although no birds in sight.

“Well, here it is, your dream house,” says Polly proudly.

“But I don’t see any house or anything here.  The place is a wasteland!” says Mr. Mann,

“Oh my, that’s what all my clients say when they first see it but look closely, this is a two story split level.  The first floor contains a lovely, sunny breakfast nook, a wonderful modern kitchen with genuine tile flooring, a living room with already installed cable access jacks and a guest bathroom.  The upper floor has three bedrooms and the second bath.  There’s also a two car garage with plenty of space for storage.”

Mr. Mann shakes his head in disbelief, but Polly chatters on about the amenities, the excellent price, how she would be willing to ask the seller if the price could be reduced a couple of thousand because of the economy and about financing a mortgage at the lowest fixed rate.  Finally, with Mr. Mann shaking his head in continued disbelief, two cars drive up and park next to two vacant lots across the street.  Two families pile out of the cars with bags of merchandise and groceries.  They wave to Polly.

“Those are your neighbors,” Polly says, “Aren’t they wonderful?  So cheerful and happy and there are plenty of children for your kids to play with.”

The neighbors now walk onto the vacant lots that they purchased and distribute their merchandise and groceries in various places on the ground, then sit down and stare blankly into space.

“But this is ridiculous,” says Mr. Mann, “I still don’t see any houses.  Those people are sitting on vacant lots with garbage scattered about.”

Polly frowns.

“Mr. Mann, “she says, “Do you think I am lying to you?  I am licensed by the State, have a degree in economics, have sold over a million dollars worth of real estate in the past year, won the Real Estate Agency Award two years in a row.  How could you even think that I would deceive you?”

“I guess with all those qualifications, you wouldn’t deceive me.  I’ll tell you, ” he says, brightening up, “I need to go to do another chore today but we could come back tomorrow with my wife and see how she sees things here.  If she likes it, we will buy.”

“Excellent!” Polly says.

“By the way, Mr. Mann says as they get back into the car, first waving to the neighbors who are still in a trance state but wave back, “Do you know of a clothing shop in this area?  I have to buy a new suit for a business appointment day after tomorrow.”

“I know just the place! “Polly says with enthusiasm, “It’s called The Emperor’s New Clothes Emporium.  They will show you the best suits you can imagine.”

If you would like to purchase property from Polly, please phone her at 000-000-0000.  However, if you don’t want to live on an empty lot in the middle of nowhere with strange neighbors who also live on vacant lots, you might want to ask Sam Harris if he has any property for sale.

posted on October 29, 2012
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