January 14, 2016

Faith and rationality

I’m an atheist. I feel a majority of people are religious because they never question the things they learn in their early years or because they need faith to cope with the hardships of life. However, recently I’ve been thinking about some better reasons behind belief systems that aren’t readily obvious.

I have read arguments in favor of faith, that link it to personal happiness and achievements. They make some sense to me. Most atheists dismiss such claims as false crediting but, in my opinion, they overlook a very important property of faith: the willpower and motivation it generates. If faith can create extremists who are willing to die for the silliest of causes, it is definitely powerful enough to push people beyond their natural limits. This makes it “real” irrespective of how shaky the foundations are. It is a force similar to love, patriotism, etc., and can control our brains to an extent that rational thought cannot. Thus, if faith can somehow be cultivated in a controlled manner, it might be put to good use.

This has been proven to some degree by Alcoholics Anonymous or AA, which is a group aimed at helping alcoholics stay sober and escape addiction. Developing faith and spirituality in alcoholics is a key part of their methodology and statistically, it has been highly successful.  AA exploits our brains’ tendency to prioritize feelings over reason.

Is irrationality a flaw that we should try to overcome? Reason and rationality have been given more and more importance as humanity progressed, and they have been extremely beneficial. But it must be speculated whether there is a limit after which we will start failing at our primary task, i.e. survival. The mental blocks we carry within ourselves are one of the forms of irrationality that have been proven useful. The most prominent example is that we avoid thinking about various existential questions. We know that the rational answer to a question like “Should I have coffee or should I die?” is “It doesn’t matter.” Yet we choose coffee every single time without pondering over the other possibility. It’s a miracle.

In this way, irrationality defines us. I believe spirituality and faith are just various forms of this irrationality that leak out from our fundamentals. While we continue this debate, we will keep shutting out the tiny voice at the back of our heads that whispers things we don’t want to hear.

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. I don’t see faith as capable of compelling people to do anything worth doing which they couldn’t also be motivated to do without it. The only people who ever choose to die for their faith are extremists with a unhealthy level of faith; meanwhile it’s easy to find examples of atheists being willing to risk their lives to attempt to do something that they consider very very important.

    • The example I gave of AA directly counters your point. Alcoholics who have been trying to become sober for years finally succeeded when they were influenced by the faith-based methodology. You can read up about it from various sources.

      The thing is, we tend to think that our mental abilities like focus, motivation, etc can be generated in greater amounts if we try harder. That has been scientifically proven as false. These are much like physical muscles and we do not have unlimited reserves.

      Read “The Power of Habit” for a detailed explanation of the role of faith as a consistent motivator (with statistical data to support the conjecture).

    • Actual research into the efficiency of religious programs compared to secular programs does not support the claim that religious programs are superior.

      Example: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074054720800038X

      Quote: While both groups eventually benefited relatively equally from their treatment — abusing substances on fewer days — it took longer to see improvement among those in the spiritual group. What’s more, those who received spiritual guidance reported being significantly more anxious and depressed after four months than those who got secular help.

      Of course many people have been helped by AA, but there is no good evidence that similar programs without the religious component would not on the average be helpful for a equal fraction of people. (not necessarily the SAME people though, religion is important to some people, so it’s likely that a religious program would work better for some people; but also that it’d work POORER for others)

    • It’s easy to find studies like these with contradictory results. For example:


      Quoting: This study explored the relation between religious faith, spirituality, and mental health outcomes in 236 individuals recovering from substance abuse. We found that recovering individuals tend to report high levels of religious faith and religious affiliation, but choose to rate themselves as being more spiritual than religious. Results also indicate that among recovering individuals, higher levels of religious faith and spirituality were associated with a more optimistic life orientation, greater perceived social support, higher resilience to stress, and lower levels of anxiety.

      The point is, these studies are too small scale to reach definite conclusions. However, in the case of AA, there are actually tens of thousands of results and reviews which made many researchers accept the relation between spirituality and recovery.

      The main problem with the normal disciplined approach was that recovered alcoholics fell off the wagon while going through stressful situations later in life. These occurrences were significantly less for those who believed that imaginary powers help them stay away from alcohol.

    • Agreed. You can find studies either way; thus my overall assessment that it doesn’t seem to be clearly documented that faith has any particular positive effect. In other words, in the absence of strong evidence either way, go with the null-hypothesis.

      How many AA has treated is a complete irrelevancy; of course if you treat 100 times as many with ANY program you also get 100 times as many success-stories; that’s however NOT stronger evidence that your program is superior to other programs.


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About Debapriyo

A random person with few hobbies here and there.

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