Never trust the devout …

Warning: Offensive generalizations follow. If you can’t handle anti-religious comment, or hyperbole, then please stop reading now.

I’d like to make an argument, only semi-playfully:

Devout religious faith renders one’s analytical and observational skills slightly suspect if not outright dubious.

People who are devoutly religious are accustomed to lying to themselves. They lie about reality, most obviously, but they also lie about what they believe and why they believe it. Most theists of course believe that their faith is reasoned, and at the same time believe that most other theists’ faith is a result of unquestioned upbringing. They’re half right, anyway.

Now, the human capacity for self-deception is unparalleled. And religious faith is only one small piece of that. But religious faith has a high degree of acceptance among the population as a “good thing to have”, and consequently, a large number of people lie to other people about their religious practices. Many of these folks may know they’re lying, of course. But I generally find that most folks don’t like to outright lie, and if they do, they do it quickly, justify it, and don’t think about it much after that. So I’m guessing that most people who say they’re going to church regularly, even though they’re not, are deceiving themselves, more than they’re trying to deceive the questioner.

And let’s not forget that folks who really are devout are somehow capable of lying to themselves on a regular basis about the nature of reality and the world around them. Maybe because, as my grandmother wisely noted, when you get older and closer to death, you want to believe. (She was happy about that, because she thought it meant I would eventually return to the church.) Ultimately it doesn’t matter why people engage in this bizarre self-deception — it just matters that they do it.

So it boggles my mind how, if people maintain such wildly inconsistent & incoherent views of the world, their role in it, and odd mythical creatures like deities or, god forbid, angels & demons — how one is supposed to fully trust such a person. At any point their religion could be tampering with their views. At all points, their inability to root out the illogic & the huge masses of self-deception has to make you question their other conclusions.

It’s not that religious people will lie all the time or that they’ll be wrong all the time, or even that they can never be trusted. It’s more that, with anything you hear from such a person, you have to give it that extra few seconds of evaluation. You can’t just take what they say, ahem, on faith.

Here is how ignorance works: First, they put the fear of God into you—if you don’t believe in the literal word of the Bible, you will burn in hell. Of course, the literal word of the Bible is tremendously contradictory, and so you must abdicate all critical thinking, and accept a simple but logical system of belief that is dangerous to question. A corollary to this point is that they make sure you understand that Satan resides in the toils and snares of complex thought and so it is best not try it.

— Jane Smiley, “Why Americans Hate Democrats — A Dialogue: The Unteachable Ignorance of the Red States”, Slate.com, 2004-11-05

update 2005/8/13:

I wrote the above just after the 2004 election, and de-published it fairly quickly. Atheist, anti-clerical, I may be, but I am respectful of people’s rights to believe what they like. So I’ve been thinking about this issue off & on for the past year, trying to figure out what is my core concern, and how to express it. I recently started reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris, who hits these ideas too. My critical responses to his work let me think a bit more clearly about what I wanted to do with this post.

In the real world of course it would make no sense to stereotype religious people as terminally confused. Acting on such a stereotype would, first, be every bit as foolish as acting on any other group stereotype.

First of all, the stereotype itself falls apart. What is religious belief? It’s vastly different for different people. For most people, religious belief is comprised of a number of somewhat interlocking ideas: the desire for and belief in an ethical systems; the relation of ethical systems to established frameworks; certain unquestioned assumptions & childhood indoctrination; spiritual yearnings; emotional needs; wishful thinking; neurological pattern-seeking behaviors; honest efforts to wrestle with philosophical conundrums (“what is the meaning of life?” “why is there evil?” “why is good better than evil?”); etc. I would wager that relatively few religious adherents have engaged seriously with all the specifics of whatever particular religious doctrine they claim as their own. Firebreathing atheists (like myself, at times) like to trot out the most blatantly absurd beliefs: old men in the sky, angels, demons, virgin births, virgins with fans in heaven, etc. Couple those absurd images with logical fallacies like ‘omnipotent and omniscient’ and you can have a full-time job poking at religious beliefs. But relatively few actual religius adherents have in the fullness of rational evaluation concluded that they believe in the literal interpretation of both Genesis creation stories, all the Levitican rules, and Archbishop Ussher’s totting up of the genealogies in the Bible to arrive at 4,004 B.C. as the creation date. So defining any one person’s religious “beliefs” is an almost hopeless task; to go from there to ascribing a set of such beliefs to a group of people is even more hopeless.

Second, even if one was able to establish what we mean by “religious beliefs”, and define even one person by that belief, it would be meaningless as a way of determining how to interact with that person. Unfortunately, because religious belief is but one species if irrationality, and each and every human being has their full huge and unmeasured share of irrational and unfounded beliefs.

Despite these problems, though, there is a little nugget of something serious in my little argument (some might call it a hateful rant but why be particular). Religious belief is an area in which we as a society permit to pass unquestioned — even condone — large quantities of irrational, unquestioned thought. I find the practical and political impacts of religious belief troubling. But I also find troubling the fact that we treat religion with such kid gloves. What are the implications of turning off critical thinking in some major subset of one’s life? Reinhold Niebuhr made his leap of faith thoughtfully, no doubt, but I suspect that most such leaps of faith are not so conscientiously undertaken.

I’ve long been a proponent of fostering critical thinking, for instance, media literacy. It might be time to think about the problems caused by a lack of critical thinking.