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The Moral Obligation To Be Rational September 16, 2011

Posted by John Salerno in Religion.
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A rational person rejects faith-based beliefs and demands evidence for the beliefs. But a religious apologist may not be disturbed by the lack of rational explanations for his beliefs, and he may fairly ask, why should reason be valued over faith as a basis for belief? This question should not be immediately dismissed by the rational thinker. If rationality is important for the establishment of belief, then we should be able to give a rational explanation to account for its importance. This article will attempt to establish the rational basis for rationality itself, as well as make the claim that we have a moral obligation to make rational decisions.

But before I can offer my argument, I will propose a definition of what it means to be rational. My definition is based on the following description of “rational inquiry” by A.C. Grayling:

The word “rational” has as its first component “ratio,” which means “proportion.” So a rational inquiry is one in which the judgments reached, the conclusions drawn, are proportional to the evidence – the strength of the evidence – for them. We mean something quite serious by “rational inquiry.” We mean that we are looking very, very carefully at how far we are licensed to think something on the basis of all the reasons and all the evidence that we have for sustaining it.1

Thus, when I speak of a “rational basis” for belief – or “reason-based,” as opposed to “faith-based,” belief – I am referring to a situation in which a person has enough evidence available to her that she can draw a conclusion based solely on that evidence. Her belief is not necessarily true, but it is nonetheless supported by the evidence. A reason-based belief makes claims that are in direct proportion to the available evidence; that is, the available evidence is the only criterion by which she is “licensed to think something,” and any conclusion that goes beyond what the evidence supports is no longer a rational belief.

So why should we value reason-based belief over faith-based belief? Our beliefs affect our perspective of the world, and our perspective of the world determines the actions we take, and our actions affect the lives of other people. Simply put: our beliefs translate into actions that affect other people. Morally speaking, the effects of our actions should be beneficial (or neutral), but not harmful to other people, and only real-world evidence allows us to determine what is beneficial or harmful to other people. Furthermore, a rational basis for belief is the only way to ensure that our beliefs are founded upon the reality (evidence) of our world. Therefore, only through reason-based beliefs can we be assured that we are making the best decisions for ourselves and others. And because rational inquiry is the only process by which we can reach informed opinions that are relevant to our existence and behavior in the world, I conclude that we are morally obligated to base our beliefs on rational thought.

The religious apologist may likely disagree with the claim that only real-world evidence allows us to determine what is beneficial or harmful to other people, instead citing Scripture as the final authority on the value of our actions, despite evidence to the contrary in the real world. But those who would make this objection are not only enemies of reason but are also enemies of reality itself, and there is no common ground on which to continue the debate with this person. Faith-based reasoning is disconnected from reality, and this person has accepted the proposition that the reality that surrounds him cannot determine the value of an action better than the words of his holy book. To attempt to convince this type of person that he should use reason instead of faith, when reason is itself reality-based, is futile. But perhaps there is some comfort to be found in Sam Harris’ suggestion that not many of these people exist:

What is the argument against reason? It’s true that certain people will bite the bullet here and say that reason is itself a problem and the Enlightenment is a failed project, but the truth is, very few people are comfortable admitting to being enemies of reason . . . Nobody wants to believe things on bad evidence. The desire to know what is actually going on in the world is very difficult to argue with.2

1 A.C. Grayling
Oxford ThinkWeek (2011)
http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2011/02/23/richard-dawkins-ac-grayling-%20discuss-evidence-for-the-supernatural-at-oxford-thinkweek/ (quote begins at 15:03)

2 Sam Harris
Atheist Alliance International conference (2007)
http://youtu.be/Ok2oJgsGR6c?t=22m21s

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