Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is the Religious Brain Capable of Reason?

This is a serious question, elicited by recent posts, events on this blog. Can we regard religious believers as having the use of their faculty of reason? Or - to use Chris Hedges' words is religion "a superficial, primitive and dysfunctional condition detrimental to reason".

Here is the core of the issue: all the most energetic manifestations of religion, from speaking in tongues, to witnessing, to full immersion baptisms, are reflections of a total belief in whatever prompts the action. The rational brain must then succumb to the dynamic that elevates the importance of belief over all else. If this is so, and multifacted arenas in the real world show it to be, then belief, any belief, must be the antithesis of reason.

The tragedy of organized religion, especially a certain form of mindless Christian fundamentalism, is that it is evidently succeeding in institutionalizing such brain conformity. It is happening to such an amazing extent that one can now visit any fundamentalist church anywhere in the country and hear the exact same words every single Sunday - not only from the ministers, but from their congregations! To accomplish this, it is clear that all individual thinking (and by extension, reason) has been suspended.

The tragedy of such a Hive Mind is vastly compounded when these ardent believers later seek and ascend to positions of political power in society. They then are empowered to initiate programs antithetical to the welfare of rationalists, secularists in terms of negative legislation (such as outlawing abortions, or certain books as "blasphemous")

It is, therefore, in the best interests of a viable society to seek ways and means of minimizing the power of beliefs to shape policies.

But before going on to deal with the larger context of belief, let us ask if a religious brain is capable of reason at all?

In fact, there are some that are. In a previous blog entry I referred to the priest conducting a seminar in Alaska, who disputed that infallibility could be true, and also that Heaven and Hell could exist. He further went so far as to assert the miracles as stated could not have transpired.

When I asked him to elaborate on each of those points, he did so with perfect reason at his command.

For example (I still retained the notes from that encounter), in the matter of papal infallibility, the priest noted that - "no one, no human, is able to put forward propositions which inherently cannot be erroneous."

The reason, he observed, is because no human brain is complete or perfect. Every brain contains a residue of imperfection which causes memory to go awry, or the drawing of false conclusions based on incomplete facts. To therfore assert that one special person is "infallible" - even in faith or morals, implies that this person possesses a perfect brain - with total comprehension and no imperfections.

On the matter of Heaven and Hell, I received a very similar reasoned argument to one I'd heard some three years earlier while debating an Anglican priest.

As he put it: "IF God is infinite, that also means omnipresent. This means there can be only one Being, not many. If there were many different types of Being - say one for devils and Hell, one for Heaven and good guys, one for those in purgatory....then Being is no longer infinite. It is broken up and separated into parts- divided from each other.

So unless one puts 'Hell inside God', as it were, there can be no Hell. There can only be one type of afterlife existence, not many. That one type must be intertwined with God's total Being."

Those were pretty much the same words used by the Anglican priest who referred to his doctrine as one of "Universal Salvation".

I was so entranced by this padre's use of reason, I put the case of miracles to him, such as recorded in the bible - and bid him challenge those too. He didn't disappoint.

In his words:

"An abundance of allegorical and mythological literature exists, and it is quite conceivable that accounts of miracles are part of the mythic tradition. I think that believers risk serious error by presuming miracle stories to be rigorous historical accounts. An inspirational message need not be diminished in any way because it is framed in metaphorical terms."

This, of course, makes good sense and is reasoned out. It makes more sense than to accept a rotting, 3 day old corpse could be brought back to life! Or the chemical composition of water literally altered to yield wine. And yet this is what the typical fundamentalist's brain deems accurate!

One can, in fact, propose four basic criteria to assess whether any given arguments - say made in favor of miracles - conform to rationality, or are disguised forms of superstition:

i)Ockham’s Razor, which inheres at the heart of scientific hypothesizing. That is, given two competing hypotheses the one with the fewest ad hoc assumptions is closest to the truth.

ii)The probability test of philosopher David Hume- that reads: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."

iii)The ignotum per ignotius test for logical fallacy. Ignotum per ignotius means “invoking the LESS well understood to explain the not well understood.”

iv)The fundamental principle for all exotic claims: “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence”.

Let’s now apply these to a number of cases to see how they work. I will start with the claim for “soul”. Given two hypotheses – one which uses simple observations of consciousness (e.g. See Daniel Dennett’s ‘Consciousness Explained’) and one which posits “soul” in addition, which is to be preferred? Obviously, that which excludes “soul”, since it unnecessarily complicates the issue. In addition, invoking “soul” violates the ignotium per ignotius test. Indeed, religionists have not even offered an operational definition for “soul”, and until they do so there is small likelihood they can provide extraordinary evidence for it!

What about “God”? All the same aspects apply. Consider the question posed by the late astronomer Carl Sagan in the “Cosmos” episode, ‘The Edge of Forever’. He asks: “How did the universe begin?” He interjects, “Some will say ‘God made it’, but then WHO made God?” He argues that rather than inviting an “infinite regress” of cause, the simplest action was simply to leave “God” out of the causal nexus. Thereby we satisfy all the principles (i)- (iii).

Is Sagan justified? Consider that adding “God” into the mix doesn’t enhance cosmological data or predictions one iota. Nor does it refine the tensor equations. Clearly it amounts to a redundancy.

Lastly, consider the claim of a miracle: Jesus “walking on water”. Prof. Hugh Schonfeld has a simple explanation for this: a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “al” which can mean “by” or “on”. So, when a scribe really wrote “walking by the water” it was translated to “walking on the water”.

Now let us apply the Hume test (ii). Is the Schonfeld claim of mistranslation MORE or LESS miraculous than a man actually violating the law of gravity and walking on water? It doesn’t require a lot of thought or effort to see that the mistranslation of a passage of the New Testament is LESS miraculous (or if you prefer, less improbable) than that a man actually, literally walked on water.

In this way, one can see how a basis for implicit atheism can come to be.

Of course, to a died in the wool believer these will all appear like so much nonsense. But that is because the brain of a (fundamentalist) believer only regards absolutes as sense. The trouble is that the use of reason shows on many levels that the world cannot be and is not predicated on absolutes. Every major natural law discloses this, from Einstein's principle of relativity, to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, to Kurt Godel's Incompleteness Theorems.

Clinging to beliefs because "they are in the bible" thus shows that ardent religiosity is probably a superficial, fear-driven psychological means of alleviating chronic stress and anxiety created by an insecure societal environment. Later, in a different blog piece, I will show that indeed such belief dependence addiction is rampant in the U.S. - precisely because our nation offers so few protection and support systems - say compared to advanced secular European nations. For this reason some have opined that IF the U.S. ever did pass a universal health care law it would mark the beginning of the end for crazed religious fanaticism and belief. Thus, put elementally: "Insecurity breeds religion, security fosters non-theism"

And now I present a little test of reason for any believers. If they can post a solution to it, I will happily make another exception to my claim that most religous brains are incapable of reasoned thought, or logic:

Three Fundamentalist Christians: Brandon, Brianna and Betsy, are to debate three Atheists: Gunnar, Gunther and Guatama.

On the eve of the debate: ‘Evolution is a Fact, Not Fiction’, Brianna becomes seriously ill and must drop out.

The Christians are given the choice of competing or forfeiting.

If they compete, to make the debate fair- they have the choice of two options:

a) They will each be able to increase their respective times by a ratio 3:2 over the Atheist team to compensate for the missing member.
b) Or, they can elect to remove one member of the Atheist team.

Other sub-conditions, however, also apply:

If the Christians opt for (a) they will only be able to use one bible quotation as a basis for argument. Assuming it is used, that quotation’s oral recitation cannot last longer than one minute duration. It must also be chosen at the time of the debate, not before. If the recitation of the quote goes one second over time, the Christians forfeit.

If the Christians opt for (b) they will be allowed to use two bible quotations in the same way, and allowed two minutes for each recitation. They will be allowed to select the quotation ten minutes before the debate. However, the Atheist team will be allowed to eliminate one or other quotation at the time it is introduced in debate with no time for the Christians to read it or use it before elimination. They will then be left with the quote remaining.

IF, the Atheist side chooses to eliminate one quotation, then the Christian team must revert to option (a). It can no longer use option (b).

If their team reverts to option (a) it must cede at least five extra minutes to each Atheist for his closing statements.

In order to avoid this, the Christian side will be allowed to change the debate title to Evolution is Fiction, Not Fact’

However, IF the Atheist team can cite a single fact of evolution, which has a validated basis, the Christian team:

i) not only loses the debate summarily but also
ii) must forfeit all its remaining debates for the year.

Which option should the Christian team choose to get the best result, and exactly how should they expedite it?

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