One of the unaddressed, human problems for atheists is the concept of irrationality. While I feel that Richard Dawkins and his Foundation for Reason and Science are a good example of the intellectual trend that needs to become more widespread in America and across the globe, an appeal to humans to be completely rational faces an intractable problem. Despite our capacity for reason and rationality, we also experience life in non-rational ways.
While the scientific method often reveals an underlying order to the chaos we experience, we cannot say the universe itself is rational. Everyone knows what it is like to confront events in life that seem totally absurd. Entire movements in the world of art have sprung up to address this. No matter how much we want to believe that we could be completely rational beings, the human mind is a playground for irrational thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.
My observations of the behaviors of others and myself in my five decades on this planet lead me to conclude that a purely rational approach to life leaves out some important aspects of human experience. I believe this contributes to the persistence of religion, even in eras such as ours where organized religion, zealotry, and extremist fundamentalism produce or justify violence, suffering, misogyny, racism, and abuse. The evils committed in the name of religious good or faith remain unshakable to this day, and those of us who have opted out of our religious backgrounds find this both sad and perplexing. How, we ask, can people continue to cling to primitive, Bronze-Age ideas that breed hate and intolerance and prevent society from progressing towards more humane and inclusive goals?
Many before me have attempted to answer this question, so let’s consider the four most common evaluations. First, humans fear death. Religion offers comfort in the face of a universe that in no way cares about any individual, by creating deities who do care. Religion offers comfort in a universe where everything we are is guaranteed to end, by creating an artificial afterlife where we can live on.
This afterlife is often posited as a form of justice which is absent from the actual universe, an afterlife where “good” people are rewarded and “bad” people are punished. In real life, horrible people get away with horrible things while kind and decent people suffer. Imaginary concepts such as heaven and hell give comfort that there is a form of cosmic justice that exists beyond this world.
Second, humans crave order. Disorder is frightening. The unpredictability of life is frightening, and humans are not alone in this fear. Consider how stressed a pet dog or cat can become if their routine is disrupted, or if forces beyond their comprehension appear to threaten them. If you’ve ever seen a pet hide under a bed during a thunderstorm, or develop oddly unhealthy habits around grooming and eating to deal with stress, then you know what I mean.
In the face of this fear of the disorderly and unknown, religion grants the illusion of cosmic order and also creates an imaginary ruler of that order, one who can set things right or who has a master plan in which we can place our trust. This non-existent cosmic ruler also imposes a moral authority that sweeps away the supremely challenging ethical task of deciding for oneself what is right and wrong—a task plagued by the same disorder and incomprehensible complexity of the world we experience. Deciding for oneself is hard. Having an authority hand you the answers is easy.
Third, humans look for agency. Part of progressing from an infant to a socially mature adult is the realization that other humans and even animals are like oneself in that they have agency. Others can make decisions and choices, have feelings and thoughts, and presumably have some kind of experience of life that is conscious in the same way that we are conscious. Empathy is when we come to consider that the experience of others is something to be respected, understood, and treated with kindness, because we can imagine that we know what that other person or animal feels. Their pain is like our pain. Their hopes are like our hopes. Their joy is like our joy. Their problems are like our problems.
But as important as this empathy toward other agents is to social cohesion in groups—from the smallest tribe to the largest nation—the human mind also seeks to find conscious agency in objects and events which simply have none. A rock or a bolt of lightning or a gust of wind has no agency, but the human mind naturally wants to believe it does. On one end of the religious spectrum, this results in pantheism where every object possesses some form of consciousness. At the other end of the spectrum, it results in monotheism where every action of every object is guided by the conscious choices of some cosmic ruler.
In the middle of the spectrum lie various gradients of these ideas. Though none of them are true or even remotely provable, their allure is the comfort that we do not live in an unfeeling and unconscious universe, but one where we might affect the outcomes of events by supplicating these non-existent agents through prayer, sacrifice, good deeds, wars against non-believers, and many other actions which do not affect the physical behavior of the universe.
Our attempts to appease the gods might make us feel better, or they might lead to atrocities, or both. They might lead us to create monuments or overcome addictions. But they do not at all affect the underpinnings of the universe. We have been fooled by our own propensity to seek out agency in all things.
The fourth and final most common reason given for the continuation of religion is that humans seek power. The first three reasons all deal with feeling powerless against the workings of the universe and circumstance: death, impermanence, disorder, moral doubt, and non-conscious objects and events. But the fourth reason deals specifically with obtaining power over other humans.
There is no greater threat to man than man himself, and no greater source of fear. Religion offers a means to control those others whom we fear, and a means to mobilize or enslave others so that we might gain more power over them and pursue more power for ourselves. Religion empowers us to tell other people what they should be doing and justifies our violence against them when they do not comply. It empowers people in leadership positions to consolidate their social power not only by telling people what to do but by setting themselves up as the authority on what constitutes right behavior for all other people—usually in some bid to expand their personal or political empire.
In other words, because the first three reasons for religion meet basic emotional needs that cannot be met by a purely rational approach to life, the fourth reason allows those needs to be exploited for personal gain and a feeling of control in a universe over which we truly have no control.
While I respect and empathize with intellectual movements that embrace rationality, I doubt we can move forward as a species until we admit that a purely rational approach will never completely meet our psychological and emotional needs. Not until we accept that some kinds of non-rational experience are necessary to our well-being will we reach a more holistic, all-encompassing way of dealing with the lives we are born into.
Fortunately, we have those means within our grasp. In my life since abandoning the religious indoctrination I endured as a child, I have found ways to give free rein to the non-rational parts of my mind through various forms of art. Through poetry, music, and painting, I have found ways to express, confront, and integrate my irrational thoughts and feelings and the absurdity of human experience so I could feel like a complete human being. I often make art more through intuition and emotion than some kind of logical process.
But I have also found there is a balance between the rational and irrational. Music involves the study of scales and chords and rhythms, and it can often resemble mathematics. Painting involves analysis of techniques and the relationships between colors. Poetry involves studying language and what it takes to convey emotional meaning through words. Every art form has some rational component.
But there are stages in the process of creating art and appreciating art where you need to get into a non-verbal state of mind and allow yourself to be swept up in and overcome by the feeling. A mathematical analysis of a concerto will never completely capture the subjective experience of being moved to tears by hearing the music.
For the past eight years, I have also been writing fiction, and it is much the same. I have spent countless hours as a writer and editor analyzing things such as character arcs, story arcs, prose style, post-modern approaches to storytelling, nuances of punctuation and paragraphs, and how to say the most in the fewest words. But at some point, you need to stop analyzing and just write, to tap into some indefinable place in your imagination and go with the feeling so that the reader can also get swept up in that feeling and experience a story from the inside.
Of all the art forms I’ve explored, fiction might be the one most like religion because it makes order out of a disorderly universe. In fiction, unlike life, everything on the page should happen for a reason. In fiction, every detail matters and is relevant. In fiction, we can create a world in which justice prevails, death is overcome, and everything that happens is imbued with meaning—a world that is not at all like the one we were born into.
Granted, many authors like to subvert those goals to make a point about reality, and I appreciate why they do it. I often do it myself. A dose of reality and unexpected tragedy still makes for a compelling story that says something meaningful about our lives. But overall, I see fiction as imposing a meaningful order on life. Life itself is often pointless beyond the biological imperative to reproduce more life. But fiction can advance any point it wants to communicate. Like religion, it takes the incomprehensibly complex unknown and makes it knowable.
And unless we admit that not everything we humans need is met by rationality and find ways to meet those needs through art, the social progress desired by the rationalism movements will not be achieved.