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"Religion As A Black Market For Irrationality"
Sam Harris, in Newsweek, lays out the gist of evidence-free living:

Reason is a compulsion, not a choice. Just as one cannot intentionally startle oneself, one cannot knowingly believe a proposition on bad evidence. If you doubt this, imagine hearing the following account of a failed New Year’s resolution:

“This year, I vowed to be more rational, but by the end of January, I found that I had fallen back into my old ways, believing things for bad reasons. Currently, I believe that smoking is harmless, that my dead brother will return to life in the near future, and that I am destined to marry Angelina Jolie, just because these beliefs make me feel good and give my life meaning.”

This is not how our minds work. To believe a proposition, we must also believe that we believe it because it is true. While lapses in rationality can often be detected in retrospect, they always occur in the dark, outside of consciousness. In every present moment, a belief entails the concurrent conviction that we are not just fooling ourselves.

This constraint upon our thinking has always been a problem for religion. Being stocked stem to stern with incredible ideas, the world’s religions have had to find some way to circumvent reason, without repudiating it. The recommended maneuver is generally called “faith,” and it actually appears to work. Faith enables a person to fool himself into thinking that he is maintaining his standards of reasonableness, while forsaking them. There is a powerful incentive to not notice that one is engaged in this subterfuge, of course, because to notice it is to fail at it. As is well known, such cognitive gymnastics can be greatly facilitated by the presence of others, similarly engaged. Sometimes, it takes a village to lie to oneself.

In support of this noble enterprise, every religion has created a black market for irrationality, where people of like minds can trade transparently bad reasons in support of their religious beliefs, without the threat of criticism. You, too, can enter this economy of false knowledge and self-deception. The following method has worked for billions, and it will work for you:

How to Believe in God
Six Easy Steps

1. First, you must want to believe in God.
2. Next, understand that believing in God in the absence of evidence is especially noble.
3. Then, realize that the human ability to believe in God in the absence of evidence might itself constitute evidence for the existence of God.
4. Now consider any need for further evidence (both in yourself and in others) to be a form of temptation, spiritually unhealthy, or a corruption of the intellect.
5. Refer to steps 2-4 as acts of “faith.”
6. Return to 2.

As should be clear, this is a kind of perpetual motion machine of wishful thinking—and it leads, of necessity, to reduced self-awareness and diminished contact with reality. But it is reputed to have many benefits, and once you get it up and running you will be in fine company. In fact, from the looks of it, you will never be lonely again.


Posted by aalkon at September 28, 2007 7:43 AM


Thanks for the willingness to have such ideas on your site. I have yet to see the purpose of being religious, other than to comfort your uncertainty of life as a whole. Believing that something is "looking out" for you or has a "divine plan" for your life is a great way to ease the reality of existence. J. Krishnamurti is incredibly insightful on religion and more importantly, human thinking.

This is particularly relative:
Belief Hinders True Understanding-
If we had no belief, what would happen to us? Shouldn't we be very frightened of
what might happen? If we had no pattern of action, based on God, or in communism, or in socialism, or in imperialism, or in some kind of
religious formula, some dogma in which we are conditioned—we should feel utterly
lost, shouldn't we? And is not this acceptance of a belief the covering up of the fear of being really nothing, of being empty? After all, a cup is useful only when it is empty; and a mind that is filled with beliefs, with dogmas, with assertions, with quotations, is really an uncreative mind; it is merely a repetitive mind. To escape from that fear—that fear of emptiness, that fear of loneliness, that fear of stagnation, of not arriving, not succeeding, not achieving, not being something, not becoming something—is surely one of the reasons why we accept beliefs so eagerly and greedily? Through acceptance of belief, do we understand ourselves? On the contrary. A belief, religious or political, obviously hinders the understanding of ourselves. It acts as a screen through which we look at ourselves. Can we look at ourselves without beliefs? If we remove these beliefs, is there anything left to look at? If we have no beliefs with which the mind has identified itself, then the mind, without identification, is capable of
looking at itself as it is—and then, surely there is the beginning of the understanding of oneself.

Posted by: kbling at September 28, 2007 6:52 AM

Krishnamurti is fantastic - rational spiritualism, in which he asks people to really think, and in turn, really live. There's no evidence of some great (or terrible) beyond, so I suggest everybody live hard while they're here...because, best we know (based on evidence, not on fairy tales), this is all we've got, and then we're worms.

My favorite Krishnamurti book -- Freedom From The Known:

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 28, 2007 7:04 AM

It would be a better world if people read that book just once. I have given dozens of (purchased) copies of that book away and have never even had one decent discussion about it. A lot of people are fearful of truely looking (observing) directly into their mind.

Posted by: kbling at September 28, 2007 7:22 AM

I realized the other day that the thing that really allowed me to break through the faith based brainwashing was my fascination with alternative religions. I've always found Witchcraft fascinating and even when I was young I would pick up any book I could on the subject. The problem was, though I found it interesting, and I thought that it would be really cool if I could believe in it, I didn't. And I really really WANTED to believe in it, I wanted to have an altar and an athame, I wanted to burn herbs and cast circles. How cool would that be? I wanted it to be real, but I knew that if I did start following Wicca it would be out of a desire for it to be real, and not a real belief.

Realizing how much I really wanted to be Wiccan, made me think about why I was Catholic in the first place. And I realized that I believed in God because I wanted to, and because it made me feel better. I realized that if I had read all about catholicism and its beliefs without having been indoctrinated into it since childhood I would feel the same way. I would WANT to believe that there was a god protecting me and forgiving me for what I did wrong, and that after I died I would go to heaven. So in the end I only believed in god because it made me feel good, not because I had any other real reason to.

I still really want to believe in God, but I can't, I can't believe in any god, precisely because I want to.

Posted by: Shinobi at September 28, 2007 7:51 AM

kbling: "After all, a cup is useful only when it is empty."

Since the next series of points build on this, could you elaborate on this?

Certainly an empty cup has more -potential- utility than one already filled but a filled cup is actually being useful while an empty cup is just taking up space.

I see how a person who is in thrall to some belief system might fail to meet their potential just a cup full of sand can't be filled with coffee. But a person who never believes anything but what they can personally prove to be true seems kind of...Zen to me.

Posted by: martin at September 28, 2007 8:09 AM

I find I have a bit of the Nietzsche problem, as described by Lou Salome: I am an atheist with profoundly religious instincts. It often results in my knowing one thing and believing another. A sense of destiny is irrational and illusory, but I have one and it's unshakable, probably to my last unexceptional breath. Which is mostly harmless, but it does occasionally lead to the invention of bizarre/entertaining personal superstitions.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at September 28, 2007 8:14 AM

Most people are "of" a certain religion because they're born into it, not because they chose it for some real reason. They just justify it after the fact.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 28, 2007 8:15 AM

Shinobi, I'm a witch (no caps), not Wiccan (although I did read a lot of books about it). The difference being that the Gardnerian tradition of Wicca began in the early 1900's, and is a variation of Aleister Crowley's teachings. I have an altar, an athame, herbs, the whole works, I've cast circles and participated in public and private rituals, and you know what? It's no big deal. I rarely if ever even use any of my tools anymore. When I cast a circle I do it in my head. I have to go, but if you want Ill post more later.

Posted by: Flynne at September 28, 2007 8:40 AM

Recently my dog left me, and I'd be sad, except he was flying a spaceship and returning to his home planet, which offset my grief with wonder and a new appreciation for the unknown.
Before he left I asked him how I could possibly believe in any of my Earthly philosophies now that I had seen this incredible event.
"You want to believe in something?" he asked me while he packed a duffel bag with Milk-Bones, "believe in the Universal Law."
The Universal Law? What's that?
"The law of Cause and Effect. It's the one truth you can count on in all things."
Pretty smart for a dog, I'd say.

Posted by: Gog_Magog_Carpet_Reclaimers at September 28, 2007 8:46 AM

One of the things I'm most grateful for in my life is that my parents got out of the religion racket before I was born. I was raised almost entirely without its influence. We celebrated the pagan-cum-Christian holidays--Easter, Christmas--of course, but they were all about family, food, friends and societal norms instead of a devotional exercise. Likewise, there were no "religion is bad" speeches on my parents' part. They simply left me to find my own spiritual way in life.

I think this lack of religious experience has led to my being completely unable to wrap my head around the supernatural as an adult. At low moments in my life I've tried to turn to belief as a pallative for emotional pain. I just can't do it. I can't seriously believe in a big, friendly fellow in the sky who cares about me. My brain won't allow it. It feels like trying to believe in Santa Claus past the age of five or six.

Posted by: Rebecca at September 28, 2007 9:06 AM

believe in the Universal Law."

And that's pretty much the basis of witchcraft, as well.

Posted by: Flynne at September 28, 2007 9:16 AM

-reply to martin about "empty cup"

What is meant by that analogy, is to say if something is so full of any particular substance (ideas, views, opinions in this case) as to be absolute or unable to allow other views to be considered (or poured into the "cup/mind") then it is unable to be useful again. Consider putting a bunch of knick-knacks in a time capsule and seal it up. Nothing can be improved upon or updated, just stuck with the same ol' stuff which usually has no purpose, except for nostalgia, when you re-open it. Life is a flowing, ever changing, event-filled manifestation in a continual progression (if a life is truly/happily lived). Religious views cannot effectively hold all that encompasses this amazing existence without perverting it to bend to the will of the powers-that-be at any given time in history.

Posted by: kbling at September 28, 2007 12:38 PM

Martin: "I see how a person who is in thrall to some belief system might fail to meet their potential just a cup full of sand can't be filled with coffee. But a person who never believes anything but what they can personally prove to be true seems kind of...Zen to me."

I went on a bit of a tangent. I see you know what is being implyed, so I say to you....

Be it so blissful as to not corrupt your rightful happiness.

Posted by: kbling at September 28, 2007 12:45 PM

Be it so blissful as to not corrupt your rightful happiness too.

Be it so blissful as to not corrupt your rightful happiness- us each and every one.
(tiny tim)

Posted by: martin at September 28, 2007 12:53 PM

-martin: "tiny tim"

Your great, you actually made me smile. Quite a feat considering I'm an overly analytical Virgo.
(Even if you are being facetious)

Posted by: kbling at September 28, 2007 1:15 PM

The problem I have with hardcore atheism (as opposed to softcore agnosticism) is the idea that if something cannot be perceived by humans it doesn't exist, full stop, end of story.

I don't have that much faith in humans.

Posted by: winston at September 28, 2007 1:23 PM

kbling, maybe a little facetious.

"Be it so blissful... etc." sounds, again, kind of Zen.
To me, Zen Buddhism is a kind of spiritual detachment that falls directly in the crosshairs of the linked/quoted piece above.

I think my tropical fish practice a variant of Zen Buddhism, it seems to make them very happy.

Posted by: martin at September 28, 2007 1:29 PM

-martin "zen"

Our need to place (classify) one another into this group or that ideology is what divides us and creates the conflict of being zen or catholic...etc, which is violence toward ourselves. I want to be open and excepting as practicing human interaction, not subscribing to a philosophy or ideal. Read all the sayings of "thou shalt this" and "thou shalt that". Do you see the conflict and separation of becoming something good and righteous and so forth, instead of observing the mind without the screen/filter of beliefs?

Posted by: joel at September 28, 2007 3:04 PM

Holy crap batman!!! kbling has been unmasked. It is I the Joel of previous posting.

Posted by: kbling at September 28, 2007 3:08 PM

I'm also torn between a reliance on empirical evidence and a need for religious feeling. I think God is actually a human construct, but the "all-that-is" or "Tao" - which I think of as natural law - is probably the equivalent. But, I think of Tao as an impersonal force. You can't ask it for mercy, you can't ask it for help, you can't praise it, you can't say it's mother and father to you, and so we've created "God" so we have a personalized being to talk to, and address directly.

Posted by: Red Ree at September 28, 2007 3:25 PM

Martin -

I actually don't see zen Buddhism as necessarily being all that into the crosshairs. It really doesn't necessitate a belief in spiritual/religious notions, or for that matter, much in the way of philosophy. I know a lot of atheists who also practice the art of zen.

I am not actually in that category, my own beliefs are rather in the crosshairs, at least to a minor degree, but I don't really care. I actually agree with the sentiments, for the most part.

I think Red Ree is on to something, minus the natural law bit, which I don't really buy into. I suspect that my notion of God, is really just a personification on my part, of what, I'm not sure. The really odd thing is, I honestly don't care. In a recent discussion, I was put to odds with the notion of deism, that perports that there is a God, but an impersonal, inscrutable God, that kicked everything off and became irrelevant. While I don't presume to say this is wrong, it is just as likely to me that God came into existence, as living creatures (here, us) came to sentience.

I will admit, that I have a profound appreciation for my personification of God. Though to be honest, mostly it makes me feel a lot more comfortable talking to myself. Often times, when I am mulling over a work related problem, I talk (in my head) to a good friend whom I have often worked with. I know him well enough to carry on, with whats probably a fairly accurate representation, his side of the discussion.

Or, I could just be nuts. I wouldn't argue all that strenuously if the accusation was made.

Posted by: DuWayne at September 28, 2007 7:33 PM

Remember this: when you use the term, "believe in...", you are describing an egocentric, emotional investment.

People know so little about how they form beliefs that this basic thing is overlooked repeatedly.

Posted by: Radwaste at September 29, 2007 5:56 AM

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