Are Rational Religious People All That Rare? (Pt. 1)

From Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman of Sinai and Synapses:

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book called Caveman Logic, by Hank Davis. The main thrust of the book is that our Stone Age minds still cling to superstitious thinking, and that in order to act more appropriately, we have a responsibility to move past those primitive impulses and cognitive mistakes that make religion feel so “natural” and appealing to the average person.

Obviously, religion can easily quash critical thinking, and instead, encourage blind faith. Our minds very easily cling to a “Santa Claus” view of God, believing that if we do good things, we will be rewarded, but if we do bad things, we will be punished. That may be comforting when we are children (or even as adults!), but when are able to become more rational, we see that it’s a hard belief to justify. Not only that, uncritical religious thinking can easily lead to narrow-mindedness and arrogance, and has justified wars, genocides, oppression, and great injustice. So Davis argues that because of all of these reasons, it’s important for human beings to move beyond religion.

I, of course, disagree. The issue in my mind isn’t what religion is, but how it is used. If it is approached and presented compassionately, if it pushes people to act more justly, if it brings more meaning into their lives, and if it elevates us to become stronger and kinder human beings, it can be a great good. To me, our goal shouldn’t be getting rid of religion—it should be about moving beyond the “Santa Claus” view of God to create a more sophisticated theology, and using religion to improve our world, rather than harm it.

A couple of weeks ago, I emailed Davis, to share these points, and he was kind enough to respond. So with his permission, I am excerpting a few our emails, to pose two questions: 1) can religion allow for critical thinking? and 2) are rational religious people all that rare?

My Initial Email:

Rather than rejecting God, I think it is much more valuable to create a hypothesis about how God acts in the world, and then check our experience against it. And if that means we need to change our theology, so be it. Indeed, my personal theology is very close to what you articulated …

I believe it is essential to develop a sense of gratitude. I believe that there are many things outside of my control and that I will never understand. Since I have absolutely no idea what happens after we die, I believe my greatest responsibility is to do the best I can to improve myself and our world here and now. And most crucially, I believe that what we say about God has much more to do with who we are than what God is. In fact, I often teach that “all theology is autobiography” (in the words of Rabbi Laura Geller). And since people are looking for meaning, relevance, and purpose in their life, I have come to believe that a rational, scientifically grounded view of spirituality can have enormous benefit …

Real spirituality, in my mind, is not about angels or talking to the dead. Instead, real “spirituality” involves looking within ourselves to see who we are, and striving to make ourselves and world more just. And while religion is certainly not necessary for this process, if presented well, it can easily help support that journey through communal support and through language to articulate it.

Hank Davis’ Response:

If you were even remotely typical of the clergy, I would change my view and probably would never have written Caveman Logic. But you’re not … you’re probably way to the left of center in your own denomination. In short, I’d like and admire you as a friend, but I can’t imagine you as a spokesperson for either religion or the clergy. You speak for what it might have been had it gone right. But it didn’t …

[Your point of view is] sadly, about 3 standard deviations to the enlightened side of average.

We are still writing back to each other, so Part II will be coming soon, but I wanted to explore those questions listed above: 1) can religion allow for critical thinking? and 2) are rational religious people as rare as Davis thinks they are?

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4 Responses

  1. Andrew Vogel says:

    I value greatly Christian leaders who engage with critical thinking. In my own experience critical thinking is necessary a problem with religious people, it is more a problem with _all_ people. It takes a certain personality to be able to review and undermine your own belief systems and thus think critically. If by “critical thinking” the book author merely means a viewpoint that isn’t religious, then we can see where bias lies.

  2. mj says:

    “Rather than rejecting God, I think it is much more valuable to create a hypothesis about how God acts in the world, and then check our experience against it.”

    A few things wrong with that. Rather than rejecting Gods, most atheists simply don’t believe in them. It might be more correct to say regecting the god claim.

    Secondly, it’s premature to create a hypothesis about how God acts in the world. One should probably first try to test if there is any evidence for the “God exists” hypothesis.

  3. Elaine M says:

    Move beyond spirituality, no. Move beyond belief in a higher BEING, yes. It seems to me, Rabbi, that you are speaking rationally about spirituality. When it comes to belief and promoting belief in a higher being, one is forced to abandon the rational or abandon belief in god – not sure you can have both. Having said that, I would join with a spiritual community led by an enlightened human such as yourself.
    May I split the argument and suggest that a rational non-divisive spiritual life benefits the individual and there are definite societal benefits. However, the insistence that there is a higher being seems to result in divisions among humans, is not beneficial and seems to be magical thinking. If all we did was insist on the values you’ve extolled for the individual rather than having individuals (clergy) demanding or encouraging certain values and behaviours of other humans on the basis of a ‘religion’…religion should bring peoples together rather than divide them. As long as the focus is on OUR/this god vs someone else’s, it is divisive and potentially dangerous. Nonsecular society with strong humanist values with foundation of compassion & kindness is really our only hope -rather than the Us&Them’ism that we see around the world, manifest also in religions.

  4. Ted K says:

    Elaine:
    The Catholic Church has taught since time immemorial that reason and faith are not opposed to each other. They complement each other.
    The problem of divisiveness in society occurs when individuals go against the common beliefs of a society. When a society believes and is founded on the belief in a “higher being” as you call it, it is the atheist that is the source of division, that is, the one who challenges those common beliefs. Indeed, the worship of the individual is itself a religion that sows so much division and hatred everywhere.

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