Fishing for Followers

logicOne of the few prejudices still practiced openly in this country is the rejection of atheists. Polls show that no person who declares themselves an atheist can get elected. (Just in case anyone wants to vote me into some political office, let the record show that I am not an atheist. I am a firm, committed  . . .  something or other.)  As a result of this bias in America, a lot of books have been published attacking religion and promoting atheism. Dawkins and Hitchens come to mind, but there are others. This spate of apostasy has, of course, prompted a backlash of books defending religion.

I am all in favor of rational thinking (except when it comes to diet and exercise). And as a recovered Catholic, I know full well the harm that religious dogma can do. But these attacks on religion have two fundamental flaws: one is rhetorical and the other is factual. The rhetorical error is one of a sweeping generalization. Adopting reason and logic as guiding principles works great for me. And I assume for Dawkins as well. But lack of adequate educational opportunities and prenatal nutrition means that many humans do not have the intellectual or mental capability to religiously follow the path of reason. Other people can be so emotionally or psychologically damaged that reason and logic are simply not enough of a foundation to build a life. I can hear the haters now: “You’re saying that only ignorant, brain damaged people believe in religion.” I am not saying that. In fact, that would be a different logical fallacy. But even the most hard core religious fanatic has to agree that there are people who lack the ability to reason. Just follow some Jehovah Witnesses around the neighborhood and you’ll see what I mean. The point is that a life dictated by reason is not for everybody.

But the worst error is writing as though humans are rational creatures by nature. We are not. Our amygdala has a lot more to do with our behavior than our cortex. Irrational behavior is not only common in humans but necessary for survival. Youngsters, who questioned their shaman’s warnings about evil spirits waiting in the darkness, went out and got eaten by a saber tooth tiger.  These disobedient brats did not pass on their rebellious genes to us. Therefore, we come by our irrational thinking naturally through evolution. Those who wish to promote reason and logic must learn to work with what we have: a three segmented brain that spends as little time and energy on thinking rationally as it has to. It is a brain that believes in Santa Claus and seventy-two virgins waiting in heaven with equal certainty. It is not an organ that is easily changed by mere reason.

Fortunately for those of us who want more rational thinking by voters, governments, and people in general, there is plenty of research on how to do it. One example is the CDC research on vaccinations. In the case of science vs. Jenny McCarthy’s breasts, the silicon fun bags come out on top often enough to have doctors seeing red. Spots, that is. The fact that science is what transformed her into someone who could achieve a national platform to promote her nonsense is an irony that has not escaped me. The CDC has done a number of experiments to try to determine how to combat her baseless attacks on vaccines. What they found was that rational arguments, logic, and facts had no effect on parents getting their kids vaccinated. Only emotional appeals were successful in changing behavior. Showing parents the effects of polio, whooping cough, etc. and reminding them of their duty to protect their offspring had the desired effect of increasing vaccination rates.

This success of emotional appeal doesn’t surprise anyone in the marketing field. Those who market political candidates, for example, have used emotion for decades to convince voters that anything good for the 1% is beneficial for the 99% of the rest of us. Any electorate that can elect both Carter and W as leaders of the free world is not using reason as a guide. Marketers use emotion to manipulate us to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need. And when enough of us stop buying, because we lost our job due to downsizing moves that financed some CEO’s honey hideaway, the economy falters.

The fact is that no one, not even a certifiably crazy person, is capable of admitting that his or her behavior, choices, or thinking is irrational. Fear changes belief and behavior whereas facts usually don’t Rational people need to stop trying to use reason to increase the use of reason. Simply put: to expect rational arguments to convince irrational people to engage in rational thinking is itself irrational. You don’t bait a hook with syllogisms to catch a fish. You use a big fat juicy worm and hope the fish isn’t rational enough to wonder what the hell a worm is doing hanging around in the water in the first place.

3 Discussions on
“Fishing for Followers”
  • Interesting argument. I agree that humans are irrational, but so what? That’s the state of a human being. What got me about your argument is the assertion that some people don’t have the capacity to think logically. You say that Jehovah’s Witnesses are illogical, but I don’t think you’ve ever taken your own advice and gone out on service with one. Their religion is logical to them.

    Religion is just a context for understanding reality, and as humans, we create our contexts from nothing. As a country, we have many prejudices, and they’re not just against athiesm. I would say that our propensity for having prejudice and practising it is the issue, not those against whom we practice our prejudices.

  • The so what is that proponents of reason are dealing with people who aren’t rational. They are fishing without bait. But I disagree with you about creating context from nothing. That is impossible. Our brains don’t work that way. 2500 years of philosophy argued against your position, and MRI’s prove it wrong. All context is created from stored memories of experience. Hence the use of story telling and metaphors in religion and politics. I didn’t say that there are people who don’t think logically, all humans use logic. But many people use highly flawed logic and are incapable of using logic (as defined by philosophy or science) as their SOLE guidng principle. By definition all religion is illogical but many people cannot live without it. There is one of my points. As for JW’s, I don’t have to follow them; they come to me almost every Sunday. How logical is it for someone who believes that there is a limited number of seats on the bus to go door to door selling more tickets when heaven is already overbooked? Thanks for reading and thinking carefully about what I wrote. I appreciate it.