Frustrated by irrationality

I’m trying to get back to blogging. I really love it — I love writing, I love getting feedback from my readers, I love participating in what I feel are important discussions for humanity to be having — but sometimes it frustrates me to no end. Lately, I’ve been sitting down to write a post and just getting too angry to see it through. The more I think about religion and the wildly disproportionate influence it has on society, the huge drain it is on our resources, and the terrible things it convinces people to do … the more I’d rather just curl up under some blankets and read a novel. I’d rather find some happy feelings than sit here festering in my anger.

(Note to my religious readers: I am not angry at your god. That does not make any sense. How could I be angry at something that I don’t even think exists? I am angry about human stupidity. I am angry at our tendencies toward irrationality and how difficult it is to fight back against these cognitive biases. I believe our world would be so much better if people stopped hanging on to their superstitions, but every day I watch people instead tighten their grip. That’s a tragedy, and I hate to think about it.)

The anger and frustration comes and goes, though, so I’m back again, hopefully for a while this time. What prompted my return was this post on the lovely STFU, Believers tumblr. People have been writing in to share their stories of religious folks’ outrageous behavior in real life (as opposed to just on the internet), and this bit particularly caught my eye.

The people at the church told me that men with long hair and earrings were going to hell. At the time, my dad wore his hair back in a pony tail and had an earring, so I started being skeptical.

The person goes on to describe child abuse in the name of the Christian god, and says that prompted her to become “vehemently against religion,” so I’m going to assume she is now an atheist. I wanted to quote this here to show that it’s certainly not just religious people who are irrational, and that everyone’s irrationality frustrates me. This is why I have trouble piecing together the energy to enter this conversation sometimes. Virtually no one is making decisions about their beliefs based on what is factually true, so why bother presenting logical arguments and evidence? (Okay, this story clearly happened when she was a young child. But she apparently has no problem explaining her thought process this way even now.)

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of objecting to child abuse, although even there I think there is some fallacious reasoning. (If an all-powerful, perfect being who issues rules about what’s right and wrong ordained or even commanded it, wouldn’t that make it right?) My bigger problem is with the sentences I quoted. Essentially: “Religious people told me that a certain type of person is bad. I know and love a person who falls into that category, so I doubted their judgment.” It’s totally understandable that the human brain works this way, but seriously?! Your allegiance to a particular (fallible human) individual just flat-out trumped your belief in the supposedly divine message of a supreme being? Religion can only be worth believing as true to the extent that it agrees with your initial impulses, and it only becomes worth questioning once it presents some immediate conflict?

Ugh. Right answer, but the wrong path to get there.

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  1. Ubi Dubium

     /  November 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    New Post! New post! Yay!

    I’ve found this problem really frustrating as well. That’s one thing that’s motivating me to teach kids at my local UU. (The congregation is pretty woo-filled, but they let me teach!) So I have the opportunity to teach some real critical thinking skills, as long as I can fit it into the curriculum. It makes me feel a lot better, that I am at least doing something, even in a small way, to help the next generation be less irrational.

  2. Aww… ♥ Yay indeed.

    Keep on fighting that good fight. Critical thinking is a lot harder to do as an adult if you weren’t exposed to it as a child. Which year do you teach? (I have some familiarity with the quasi-standard UU Sunday school curricula.)

  3. Ubi Dubium

     /  November 8, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    I teach 6th grade “Riddle and Mystery”. It’s theme is the big questions of life, and I can bring in critical thinking tools that are appropriate for each question. For instance, when we looked at “Does God Exist?” I taught them about ordinary and extraordinary claims, and told them about the Invisible Pink Unicorn.

    I also taught a class for teens over the summer on cognitive biases. That one I developed myself.

  4. Out of curiosity, do you ever make irrational decisions or engage in irrational thinking?

  5. Eric,

    I’m not sure if that was directed at me or NFQ.

    Of course I sometimes make irrational decisions, because everybody does. The trick is to be open to realizing that a decision was irrational, to watch yourself and try to catch yourself when you’re thinking irrrationally, and to be willing to change your mind about things, instead of trying to rationalize why your decision was correct.

    Example: a while back I had to replace my car in a hurry, and at the lowest cost I could manage. I scoured craigslist for possibilities, and came up with a list of cars in my price range. Then I saw a picture of this Taurus, and it was red and pretty, and I had this emotional response to it. It was bigger than I really wanted, and the gas mileage was not as good as I wanted, but OOOHH PRETTY! It checked out mechanically OK and I bought it. And now, well, it’s bigger than I wanted and it’s mileage is not what I wanted, and it’s needed a bunch of expensive repairs, and in hindsight was not the car I should have bought. Lesson learned.

  6. Haha, Eric. What do you think I’m going to say? “Of course not. I’m the only human being ever to be 100% perfectly rational.” Obviously not! But I try to be rational, and (as Ubi Dubium already explained) I do my best to make myself aware of common cognitive biases so that I can check myself for them. If someone points out to me that I am acting irrationally or holding an irrational belief, I work to correct it. I am frustrated when people don’t even seem to understand that that kind of effort would be worthwhile.

  7. Hey, good to see you back, NFQ. đŸ™‚ No worries about feeling burnt out, everyone needs to take a break now and then.

    I wonder if, in some sense, religion is a victim of its own irrationality. If you teach people they should believe what makes them feel good, and then something bad happens to them, then they probably won’t believe what you taught them anymore! It’s certainly not a rational way of reaching conclusions, but if it opens them up to an alternative viewpoint and the possibility of learning critical thinking skills eventually, it can’t be all bad.

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