Rationalizing Isn’t Rationalism

Rationalize:  To find false reasons for irrational or unworthy behavior (Oxford-American Dictionary, 1980.  3d definition)

This dictionary definition might well have been written with god-believers in mind, for many religious people are determined to stubbornly and irrationally hold on to what they believe in, no matter what the evidence to the contrary.  Their position is not rational, so they resort to rationalizing their beliefs.

To be rational means to rely exclusively on logic and reason in ascertaining the truth of any claim.  A rational person will not cling tenaciously to an idea that has been adequately refuted.  By contrast, a person who is rationalizing is making up specious arguments in favor of an idea they wish to maintain; they are rarely open to admitting they could be wrong and changing their opinion.

Traditional books on atheism and religion have referred to the various “arguments” for the existence of a god or gods.  But, given the fact that god belief cannot be objectively verified or falsified, these arguments should properly be called rationalizations.

Examples of the religionist’s ability to rationalize are multitudinous and easily recognized.  For example, an atheist might point out that an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good god had both the intelligence and ability to stop the massacre of Jews during the Second World War and failed to do so.  Rather than admit that their god cannot therefore be all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, the believer will say something cognitively meaningless such as “the ways of god are not for us to know” or “who are you to question god?”   This is classic rationalizing: the answers they give are not rational, but instead convey the fact that the believer, when presented with an obvious contradiction and error in reasoning, will attempt to rationalize away the contradiction rather than admit they are wrong.  Rationalizing can therefore be said to be inherently dishonest.

For most believers, facing the truth is not an option; they have too much emotional vested interest in their beliefs to consider that they might be wrong.  This is where rationalizing comes in.  Giving up their belief in god is of course not an option.  Neither is altering their perception of what they imagine their god to be like.  So, they well grasp at any straws in their attempt to salvage belief in their imaginary best friend in the sky.  They will deny.  They will evade.  They will obfuscate.  And when all else fails, they will lie.  As irrational, pathetic and immoral as all this is, it is the essence of that “respectable” discipline taught in religious schools the world over: theology.

What does this say about the believer’s sense of honesty?  What does it say about how they value truth?  And, given that the overwhelming majority of people in the world believe in a god of some kind, what does that say about world culture?

Certainly, one’s emotions and the ability to rationalize go hand-in-hand. Religious people accept their beliefs on faith and are not likely to be dissuaded by rational arguments that refute what they want to believe to be true.  Instead, they will search for any facts that seem to bolster their conclusions, no matter how remote and superficial the relationship of these facts to reality might be.  The entire field of religious apologetics is built on rationalizing.  Facts that disagree with their desires must be falsified at all costs; real facts and evidence can be extremely anxiety provoking.

Rationalizing can and does take many different forms.  One of these can be seen when believers credit their god whenever something goes right for them or in the world around them.  If they get a promotion at work, the credit goes to god rather than to their own competence and effort.  If they are in an airplane that narrowly averts a catastrophe, they thank their god rather than the pilot whose skills saved their lives.  Why are these people so afraid to give credit where credit is due?  Simply because the pre-rational biblical notion to “beware the sin of pride” is unfortunately alive and well in the third millennium CE.

The flip side of the coin is the believer’s absolute refusal to blame god for anything that goes wrong, either in their own lives or in anyone else’s.  If their child is murdered, rather than blaming god for failing to do something to prevent it,  religious parents will insist that “god’s ways are not our own” or “god needs that child more than we do” or some other such rationalization.  If a man were standing idly by while their child was being killed, they wouldn’t hesitate to condemn him.  Yet, they refuse to blame their supposedly all-good, all-powerful god for his failing to act.  Clearly, devoutly religious people hold a double standard where morality is concerned.  Why is it immoral for a human to do nothing to save the child, but not immoral for a god, who after all is supposed to be all powerful and all good?  Believers have no answer to such questions, so they simply fold their hands, rationalize and spout silly platitudes: “God will make it right” or “God has his reasons.”  So, in addition to being dishonest, religious rationalizing can also be said to be grossly immoral.

Believers cannot have it both ways.  They cannot say that god is all-good and then contradict themselves by saying his idea of good is different from ours.  This makes the concept of good meaningless.  However, since their beliefs are founded and sustained by faith, rather than logic, they are not about to be dissuaded by logic.  In the religious world view, contradictions exist in abundance.

Religions in general, and Christianity in particular, have managed to survive lo these many centuries due to a number of important factors.  Among these are the fear of death, the  desire to be cared for by a supernatural deity, the promotion of religion by the state (woefully obvious in these United States) and two other lesser known factors.  The first of these is the fact that religions have literally stolen their adherents from the cradle.  The Jesuits said it best with their infamous injunction to “Give us a child until he is six years old and we have a convert for life.”  When people raised in this way encounter atheists, those atheists pose a challenge to their overall worldview, which is not based on logic and reason but instead on faith. It is much easier to believe than to think.

This leads us to the second seldom-recognized reason why religions have managed to survive for so long.  Simply put, they tend to make abject mental slaves of their adherents.  Fear and guilt, rather than love, are the two emotions western religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism  seek to inculcate in their followers.  To a somewhat lesser extent these are also present in Eastern religious systems including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.  To challenge the worldview one has been raised to believe in is so daunting and anxiety provoking as to be virtually unthinkable to most religionists.  Many Christians, for example, would never even consider the notion that their god doesn’t exist, or that Jesus Christ was probably a mythical figure.  Such ideas are simply too unsettling for most of them, and should anyone suggest them, many religious people, rather than attempt to prove their case, instead simply lash out in anger at whoever had the audacity to question their cherished beliefs.

As previously noted, fear and guilt, rather than love, are the primary emotions Christianity seeks to inculcate in its followers.  If its hold is not as great or as universal as it was in earlier times, it is unquestionably still there.  “Jesus died for you” is a message guaranteed to invoke feelings of guilt if literally believed.  As any social scientist knows, a person who feels guilt is much more likely to gravitate to a life of crime than an individual who possesses good self-esteem.  Yet Christianity warns us to beware the “sin” of pride.  We see the noxious results of Christianity’s methodology every day in our newspapers.

It is high time for religion and theology to be exposed for the intellectual and moral frauds they are.  Philosophical ideas should never be closed to further examination and re-thinking, yet theology begins with a conclusion it wants to be true, and then makes every effort to find justification for believing that conclusion.  But philosophy and common sense tell us that any idea that is to be taken seriously must be in principle falsifiable.  But theology does not allow this most basic rule.  For the theist, truth is measured in accordance with how it matches up with belief.  Since they cannot objectively prove their case, their only resort is to rationalization—or violence.  Human history conclusively bears this out.

So when believers tell us that they possesses the “TRUTH”, they do nothing of the kind.  The simple fact is that, despite what they say, believers are not at all interested in the truth; what they want is validation.  Beliefs are subjective, while facts are objective, and truth, since it comes from an impartial observation of facts, is not subjective, but objective.  If you cannot prove a given statement objectively, and there exists convincing evidence refuting it, only the irrational, the anti-rational or the intellectually dishonest will continue to believe in it.

If subjective faith was in fact a valid method by which we could obtain knowledge and truth, how does the believer account for all the different religious systems in the world?  Faiths contradict one another; Muhammad cannot be the prophet and not be the prophet at the same time and in the same way.  Therefore having faith in one religion has no bearing on its truth or falsity.

Rationalizing is by no means restricted to the less intelligent.  No less a renowned Christian apologist that William Lane Craig habitually employs rationalism when logical arguments fail him, as they invariably must.  To cite but one example Craig, in a 1998 debate with atheist Eddie Tabash, was asked by Atheists United member Henry Farber (a Holocaust survivor) why Craig’s god stood by without lifting a finger to help the six million Jews who were massacred in the Second World War.  True to form, Craig replied that the genocide served a greater purpose because the Jews “got Israel” because of it.  What is this if not the most egregiously immoral kind of rationalizing?  Doesn’t this conclusively illustrate the paucity of logic in the theistic rationalization for god?  More importantly, doesn’t it also illustrate how the theist is more than willing to abandon all moral sentiment and all human feeling in order to continue holding on to an irrational belief?

Let the believers rationalize.  Let them avoid the facts; it’s their fantasy.  Where we atheists draw the line is when these fantasies are supported by our tax dollars, and legislation is enacted solely on the basis of religious fantasy.  The rights of everyone else are never considered when the Religious Right insists on their “freedom” which invariably means the freedom to discriminate against everyone else.  The degree to which faith, magical thinking, and mysticism become interwoven into the fabric of secular society is the degree to which that society has become a repressive totalitarian state.  If religious history has taught us any single lesson, that is it.

By: Jon Nelson

Categories:   America, Atheism and Religion