At the end of last week, BBC News Magazine posted an article titled A Point of View: The child-like faith in reason by political philosopher John Gray. Gray’s basic assertion is that “believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God” and “to believe that human beings can be much improved by rational argument is to assume that they are already reasonable, which is obviously false”.
He starts with the claim that ‘evangelical atheists’ are constantly ‘promoting’ the idea that religion is childish, but the real truth of the matter is that it’s the other way round, “belief in human reason is childish”. And within just a few paragraphs he brings in the Nazis as proof (oh, Godwin) and has a little anti-EU rant.
The basic argument is easy to refute. Belief in a god or gods relies entirely on faith – there is no supportable evidence for any kind of supreme being that created the world or life on it, who watches us, interferes in our lives, answers prayers, causes events to happen, or who guides and judges our morality. On the other hand, the application of reason has given us the answers for how the world came to be and how we came to live on it, and why certain events happen, as well as being the most successful method of developing a better moral society. Reason requires far less faith than religion.
What Gray seems to be getting at, however, is that relying on reason is foolish (a more accurate word, I think, than Gray’s provocative childish) – humans are incapable of applying it and improving. This may be partially true (but I’d like to refute that too, in a moment), but to say it is more foolish than religion is plainly daft.
The crux of his argument is that if we applied reason to our past experiences then we should improve, but we don’t, we just keep making the same mistakes. But is religion a better method? Religion is dogma, law set in stone, it doesn’t change. The same rules that were laid down for a set of Bronze Age goat-herders in the Middle East are true, today, for an inner-city banker in central London.
It is the discarding of these ancient, often morally abhorrent (even for their time) ideologies, and the increasing utilisation of reason, I would argue, that has improved our society. Even religion itself cannot ignore the power of reason – all major religions have been tempered by the secular and humanist ideals of equality and justice over the past two or three centuries, and they continue to be influenced today, in direct opposition to many of the laws within their supposedly immutable holy books.
It is, of course, true that human beings are not rational – we know that. In fact it is through the use of reason that we know it, and are often able to distinguish between a rational act and an irrational one. And true, this knowledge doesn’t necessarily stop us from acting irrationally.
Gray says, “science may yet confirm what history so strongly suggests – irrationality is hard-wired in the human animal”. I think science has already confirmed that. We all know of the idea that a person who runs away from a noise in the tall grass, nine times of out of ten of which is merely the wind, will survive and pass on their genes, whereas the person who ‘reasons’ (usually correctly) it is most likely the wind, so doesn’t run, will get eaten by the tiger who was hiding there the one time it wasn’t. Of such evolutionary behaviour are religions made.
Pure human reason would be as robust as the scientific method. Emotion would not get in the way, neither would confirmation bias, herd mentality, programmed habit, or ideological allegiance. All these can play a part in our decisions, personal or social, and none of them are entirely reasonable.
But I know of no atheist or humanist (‘evangelical’ or otherwise) who actually believes we can have some utopian society based entirely on reason. What a reasonable person knows and is aware of is the very fact that humans have these often irrational traits. The improvement has come in recognising them, and applying a better standard to our decisions despite them. It’s gradual, but society has benefited immeasurably.
Expand your human view and we’re better off, largely thanks to reason, in nearly all areas – health, education, equality and justice. Yes, there is still slavery, torture, war, revenge, prejudice and even genocide, but these things are no longer acceptable to society at large, and united international justice is far more effective and fair now than in the past.
The societies who still foster hate along ‘racial’ or sexual lines are generally ones where some form of irrationality (often faith-based) still holds sway at government level. The Nazis, to use Gray’s rather tired example, did not apply reason to their (bad) scientific policies, but prejudice and hate that was born of myth. It is mainly religion that condemns women, homosexuals, and those who are not the ‘chosen people’ of whatever faith – whether it’s Islam, Christianity or Aryan Supremacy.
Gray is very negative. An attitude like his will result in exactly what he propositions – no improvement in human benevolence, social conditions or morals. As individuals we are all subject to our various human follies, but striving for our governments to apply more reason to their policies, small steps – sometimes three forward and two back – will eventually lead to real overall improvements.
Sense About Science have a campaign to Ask For Evidence. The more people who take up this challenge, the fewer places companies and policy-makers who promote pseudo-science have to hide. This is the kind of thing that starts small but eventually reaches the halls where laws are forged. On a bigger scale, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature uses statistics – and reason – to show that violence has declined and that this is almost certainly due to an age of enlightenment that has gradually and successfully spread.
Our personal experiences are comparable to anecdote and Gray carries out the equivalent of using individual studies to make his point. We should be looking at the meta-analysis, the Cochrane report, to see how we’re doing, and we’re doing relatively well. Reason can be applied as a scientific method to correct our choices. Reason does not require faith. Reason works.
I responded to another BBC Point of View article back in May 2014 – Is it Better to be a Humanist than Religious?