By Zach Hudson
A You Tube clip from a BBC talk show called The Big Questions caught my attention recently. Kate Smurthwaite, a comedian, actress, and member of the National Secular Society, found herself among a panel of religious leaders when asked about her concept of heaven:
Kate Smurthwaite: We’ve got people here from different faiths, and they all believe, in some kind of heaven in a different sense, and every single one of them believes in this heaven on the basis of faith, and faith, by definition, is believing in things without evidence. And personally, I don’t do that because I’m not an idiot.
Upon hearing the word “idiot” the crowd reacted with gasps, boos, and some cheers. Part of me loved it—the part that enjoys venting my spleen by proxy, the part that enjoys seeing blood on the sand. Such a comment makes quite an implication, though—that because of their religious faith, which requires the suspension of logic and the willful ignorance of evidence, theists are by definition “idiots.” I find such a statement simply can’t be true without fundamentally redefining the word “idiot” into a way we never naturally use it.
I have known many religious people in my life, and some were very smart. One, a dear friend of mine in high school, was brilliant. I learned more from conversations with her than from many classes. She has gone on to become a medical doctor. She was, and I assume still is, religious; she believes quite literally in magic, and about some things she is very superstitious. Though I can’t conceive of how she can hold certain irrational opinions, she is by any measure a very intelligent person.
What’s going on here? I think the answer is that we humans frequently compartmentalize our logic and our beliefs. Nassim Taleb made this point when he accused skeptics of being “domain dependent”: “I find it extremely inconsistent to be suspicious of the bishops and be a sucker when it comes to the stock market,” he says. This idea of context-specific rationality is actually pretty familiar: you may know a businessman who never makes a business decision without thorough research, lots of data, and good logic, but who plays the slots compulsively knowing full well that they only average a return of 75 cents on the dollar. You may know an ingenious mathematician who suffers from irrational fears, or a hardened skeptic who will swear up and down that his sports teams is destined to win, despite their lousy record. “Idiot” doesn’t apply here. In fact, one study showed that even statistics professors make logical mistakes in the discipline they themselves teach when presented with a problem in everyday language, outside of the classroom, and are not warned ahead of time.
This is true, I am sure, of my doctor friend. She will never prescribe magic crystals, nor prayer, nor superstitious ritual, to any patient—she will prescribe treatments that have withstood the scrutiny of the scientific method. At some point in her career she may conduct trials on a new drug, and magic will never enter into it. The two are quite separate for her. It may annoy me that her rational side doesn’t affect her irrational side, but I am reassured that the converse is also untrue. Furthermore, compartmentalization works the other way, and I know I am guilty of it. I pride myself on not believing in miracles or the supernatural, but I have made career decisions without an ounce of the critical scrutiny that I have used for metaphysical decisions. A shrewd investor may call me an idiot, but I contend he would be misapplying the term.
Why does this matter? I see three big implications of the way we humans compartmentalize our logic and beliefs.
1. Despite your frustration, don’t call religious people idiots. Be accurate, specific and polite. Antagonism might sell airtime, but it doesn’t convince people, especially when it is inaccurate.
2. The way we compartmentalize our beliefs and habits implies, to me at least, that changing other people is harder than we imagine, and efforts are likely to be fruitless. If people simply aren’t using the same set of rules to consider one matter versus another, you will never convince them.
3. The way in which beliefs and habits of mind from one part of our lives seem not to spill over into others has interesting implications for why people do the things they do, or specifically, why religious people make the decisions they make. Simple observation shows that members of the same faith, the same denomination, even of the same congregation, still behave differently from each other. Consider the possibility that religion doesn’t actually cause anyone to do anything—it simply justifies whatever they choose to do post hoc. If that is true, then someone with an irrational hatred of one particular group of people won’t abandon their irrational hatred simply because they abandon their irrational metaphysics; conversely, some life-changing event might erase the hatred without ever disturbing their belief in miracles.
This means that we might want to reconsider our purpose in arguing metaphysics with theists in the first place. Our time might be better spent giving aid and support to our fellow freethinkers, protecting our legal rights, and addressing matters of social justice cause by cause. Of course, that’s no reason to back down from a good debate, and it’s absolutely no reason to hide our own beliefs, to apologize for them, or to water down our logic for fear of offending. But that is not the same as offending for offense’s sake, and if we are to attempt any conversion of our theistic friends, we are better off appealing to their intelligence instead of dismissing it.
Zach Hudson teaches at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. He is a father of three and working on a book of thoughts and support for young atheists through his blog, Things They Don’t Tell You (http://ttdty.blogspot.com).