Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Skeptical Heresies #3

March 8th, 2011 Posted in General, Psychology, Religion

I’m in the middle of recording the next presentation in my lecture series on Science and Creationism, but I thought I’d add in the third of my Skeptical Heresies.

3. Sometimes it’s rational to behave irrationally

This one is a bit subtle, but after listening to a few creationist presentations, it struck me that sometimes it makes rational sense to believe in something that is false. After all, once we accept the possibility that a human being can choose what he or she wants to believe, to some degree, and that certain people are so made that they are much more closely drawn to sentimental, superstitious or emotional modes of thought rather than cold, hard logic, then we must come to the conclusion that it would be foolish for such a person to chase after a truth that makes them feel uncomfortable, when there is an untruth that makes them feel comfortable.

Religion is obviously the biggest player in this field. For most of human history, religion was basically the only route for human beings to confront their fears of death & disease; fears of the natural world – dangerous animals and natural disasters. It made sense to build up a belief system that mitigated some of the anxiety that these aspects of life caused, because there was no alternative explanation.

Nowadays, science has gone a long way to curing many previously devastating diseases (smallpox, plagues, malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis, polio), but we still haven’t conquered death – and it seems unlikely that we will find a way to do this in the immediate future. So surely it’s rational for someone who can find solace in irrational superstitious beliefs (religions, mediums, etc.) to do so?

Many of us are far too strongly drawn to rational argument for such things to take hold on us, or we are otherwise unable to contort our minds to such a degree that we end up believing in such absurdities as speaking to the dead. But other people are able to do this, and by doing so they alleviate a huge source of pain and anguish. In my case, I remember the layers of denial and delusion that I had to build up in order to keep my beliefs alive – and the games of intellectual twister I’d have to play with all the different flaws that I had to keep hidden from my rational side. But not all people are like that.

Surely, and counter-intuitively, if you are able to develop a benign superstitious faith that gives you considerable psychological benefits, then that must be a rational thing to do?

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