Are Rational Religious People All That Rare? (Part I)

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book called Caveman Logic, by Hank Davis. The main thrust of the book is that our Stone-Age minds still cling to superstitious thinking, and that in order to act more appropriately, we have a responsibility to move past those primitive impulses and cognitive mistakes that make religion feel so “natural” and appealing to the average person.

Obviously, religion can easily quash critical thinking, and instead, encourage blind faith. Our minds very easily cling to a “Santa Claus” view of God, believing that if we do good things, we will be rewarded, but if we do bad things, we will be punished. That may be comforting when we are children (or even as adults!), but when are able to become more rational, we see that it’s a hard belief to justify. Not only that, uncritical religious thinking can easily lead to narrow-mindedness and arrogance, and has justified wars, genocides, oppression and great injustice. So Davis argues that because of all of these reasons, it’s important for human beings to move beyond religion.

I, of course, disagree. The issue in my mind isn’t what religion is, but how it is used. If it is approached and presented compassionately, if it pushes people to act more justly, if it brings more meaning into their lives, and if it elevates us to become stronger and kinder human beings, it can be a great good. To me, our goal shouldn’t be getting rid of religion — it should be about moving beyond the “Santa Claus” view of God to create a more sophisticated theology, and using religion to improve our world, rather than harm it.

A couple of weeks ago, I e-mailed Hank Davis, to share these points, and he was kind enough to respond. So with his permission, I am excerpting a few our e-mails, to pose two questions: 1) can religion allow for critical thinking? and 2) are rational religious people all that rare?

The Initial E-mail

GM: …Rather than rejecting God, I think it is much more valuable to create a hypothesis about how God acts in the world, and then check our experience against it. And if that means we need to change our theology, so be it. Indeed, my personal theology is very close to what you articulated…

I believe it is essential to develop a sense of gratitude. I believe that there are many things outside of my control and that I will never understand. Since I have absolutely no idea what happens after we die, I believe my greatest responsibility is to do the best I can to improve myself and our world here and now. And most crucially, I believe that what we say about God has much more to do with who we are than what God is. In fact, I often teach that “all theology is autobiography” (in the words of Rabbi Laura Geller). And since people are looking for meaning, relevance and purpose in their life, I have come to believe that a rational, scientifically-grounded view of spirituality can have enormous benefit…

Real spirituality, in my mind, is not about angels or talking to the dead. Instead, real “spirituality” involves looking within ourselves to see who we are, and striving to make ourselves and world more just. And while religion is certainly not necessary for this process, if presented well, it can easily help support that journey through communal support and through language to articulate it.

Hank Davis’ Response:

HD: …If you were even remotely typical of the clergy, I would change my view and probably would never have written Caveman Logic. But you’re not…you’re probably way to the left of center in your own denomination. In short, I’d like and admire you as a friend, but I can’t imagine you as a spokesperson for either religion or the clergy. You speak for what it might have been had it gone right. But it didn’t…

[Your point of view is] sadly, about 3 standard deviations to the enlightened side of average.

We are still writing back to each other, so Part II will be coming soon, but I wanted to explore those questions listed above: 1) can religion allow for critical thinking? and 2) are rational religious people as rare as Hank Davis thinks they are?

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Are Rational Religious People All That Rare? (Part I)

  1. I’m afraid I share Mr. Davis’s opinion that you are a rare breed of clergy. And I totally agree with you on how people view God. I think it’s always been about how religion has been used…..and misused. Not because of a solid faith in God but because of what a person thinks he can gain from it and his own so-called piety.

    As you noted, in the past religion has done more harm than good. Even today that can apply. Personally, I’ve always looked on God as the greatest scientist and we are merely one of his experiments and it’s up to us to make ourselves better and prove that we aren’t a failed experiment!

    Thank you for your post. It gives me hope for a better world with men like you in it

    • Thanks for your kind words — and I love your image of God as the greatest scientist! What do you mean by that?

      • Thank you. I’ve always had a thing for astronomy and space. Seeing all the stars out there and the other galaxies starting me thinking, when I was kid, about how it all came to be.
        Being raised Catholic, and lapsing when I got to high school, for many reasons, I learned and believed that God made everything. I still do. And from that came the idea that why couldn’t He have created the big bang to see what happened? Or maybe He just wanted to create something unique and beautiful so he let the bang happen.

        God is eternal, therefore his version of time wouldn’t be the same as ours. Maybe, to Him, a billion years is only a hundred or two of ours. So, why couldn’t He have created us in His image and maybe tried other versions on other planets orbiting other suns? Or maybe even gone off the wall and created some really odd life forms out there, like the platypus on earth. Hence, the greatest scientist idea.

        I’ve always found it extremely egocentric to think that we are the only beings in a universe this huge. Even Einstein believed in God. So, why couldn’t God have created other types of life forms? Why couldn’t God create evolution? That way, He could watch and see how his creations evolved and matured. As a science experiment, it would be pretty cool!

        LOL Anyway, that’s my basic idea. Most people think I’m insane but a theory is a theory until it’s proven. If it even can be!

        Thank you for asking!

      • Wondered if you’d seen this……. Sorry it’s so goofy looking! I found it on facebook.

        The Shroud by Meloan and Meloan
        Apollo 14 Astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s Exploration of Inner Space
        http://www.politicsdaily.com
        After leaving NASA in 1972, Mitchell began a new journey: To find an understanding of the universe which encompasses both science and spirituality.

  2. Perhaps Hank Davis hasn’t spent much time in actual discussion with people who have a deep set belief in God. I don’t know (I haven’t read Caveman Logic and I don’t know anything about him). From my own personal experience floating between different religious circles (mostly different branches of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), there are actually few uninformed religious people/practicers of faith who would be willing to discuss their beliefs. The closed-minded, irrational people are the ones who are televised–they are a minority that comes to define the majority. There are just as many irrational atheists out there as there are irrational religious people. Irrational, blind atheism is just as dangerous as irrational, blind religion. In the same way, there are just as many coherent and tolerant people of faith as there are coherent and tolerant nonreligious people.

    Beyond all of the debate, God’s not at fault for humanity’s failings. People like Davis are quick to blame God for the shortcomings they see in others.

    • Thanks for your comment — I agree that the debate is characterized by atheists who mischaracterize religion, and religious people who mischarachertize science. And there is a whole huge majority out there who don’t see the conflict, and their voices are all too often drowned out.

  3. Pingback: Are Rational Religious People All That Rare? (Pt. 1) - Science and Religion Today

  4. PL Holden

    I like your outlook. I, personally like to think of god as the energy that creates and sustains life, and avoid the arguments that theology can occasionally spark up.

  5. Brandon

    What about moving past articulating our beliefs and defining what religion is with words and living out our faith with action and works. It seems that us “religious people” get hung up on our self-definitions too much. Just a thought.

  6. Louise Robson

    Rabbi, I am delighted with your writing…I am a United Church minister in Canada and when I’m exposed to the kind of irrational bickering that goes on in the US I despair…just read an article by Timothy Beal in which he says response to his writing was angry, bereft of reason, uninformed, and insulting. He was looking forward to discussion or debate. Not to be had, apparently, people just screamed at him and at each other. It cuts me to the quick to see ‘religion’ blamed, as if that were one thing to everyone, for the ills of the world. Man, if people would just cool down for a minute and READ some honest scholarly commentary…!! I’d like to think that there are many rational religious minds in Canada, but there are fewer and fewer folks who give it any attention or credence. The easy way, the lazy way, is to just write it off, dismiss it, and go on your way. Don’t listen, don’t read, don’t think. Too bad. But you keep up the good work!

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