Oct 09

Reason and Irrationality

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of people who hold two sets of worldviews simultaneously. In particular, those who simultaneously maintain an evidence-based view of the world we live in and a set of religious beliefs.


It shouldn’t be such a mystery. For a good chunk of my youth, I was interested in the paranormal and the occult, and kind of half-believed that this God-creature everyone talked about was actually watching me all the time. But when I actually started applying critical reasoning to superstition, I found that, after a time, I could no longer maintain a belief in any of those things that used to interest me, because to do so would be to exempt them from the standards I worked hard to apply to everything else in my life. (The sense of being watched, however, took a lot longer, and remains very much part of my psyche.) And since that time, I’ve been puzzled by those otherwise rigorous skeptical thinkers who do exempt their religious/supernatural beliefs from examination.


I think maybe I’ve found part of the answer.


I was doing the dishes today, and out of nowhere, it occurred to me that I still hold some irrational beliefs. Allow me to list a select few of them for you:


  • left is a better direction than right
  • odd numbers are better than even numbers
  • 7 and 13, in particular, are probably two of the best numbers
  • west is a better direction than east
  • north is the best direction of all


If you had a powerful supercomputer that was able to simulate my whole life up to this point, you could probably point to a rational explanation for why I hold these beliefs. However, these beliefs are still irrational and useless. They do affect me, however.


If I were to be in a situation, say exploring a large shrine, and I came upon a gate with two paths, barring any additional information (for instance, a map or guidebook telling me which path would lead where), I would almost invariably follow the left path.


If you were to present me with a map of a city, with points of interest marked with numbers but otherwise in a language I couldn’t read, where all said points were equidistant from my starting locations, I would choose to visit either location 7 or 13.


Absolutely irrational. But these beliefs really have no effect on my life or anybody else’s life, except in situations where I might as well flip a coin to decide what to do.


And that’s where this breaks down, of course.


Someone can be a skeptic and, deep down, believe in fairies. However, if that someone makes decisions in his or her life based on the idea that fairies exist while there are other pieces of information available to them, then he or she has crossed some line, and THAT’S the part I don’t understand.


If I gave my irrational beliefs the same level of respect and weight as people do to their religious beliefs, my behaviour would be crazy. If I got in an elevator, maybe I would have to visit the 7th floor, despite the fact that the office I need to go to is on the 6th floor. Maybe instead of turning right when I leave my house, I would have to turn left in a circle until I was facing in that direction.


What would happen? People would question my actions and beliefs. Do I have the right to have and act on these beliefs, provided I hurt no one else? Of course! Do I have the right not to be questioned, mocked, or ridiculed for them? Absolutely not. If I keep these beliefs to myself and do not overtly manifest them in my day-to-day behaviour, then no one will question me.


By now, you can probably see where I’m going with this. Skeptical people who also hold religious beliefs should not be allowed to wall of that section of themselves from their fellows. Of all people, they should understand this.


I heard recently that some (American) skeptics’ groups don’t allow the subject of religion to be discussed at their meetings. I find this absolutely ridiculous. A skeptics’ group is not an atheists’ group, but I think that people need to be intellectually honest about irrational ideas that they hold that affect their lives, even if those ideas are, unlike left being a better direction than right, traditionally protected ideas.

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