The Rationale for Religion

July 22, 2011

Rationalists tend to have little love for religion. A case in point: a game developer by name of Rohrer thought it would be fun to develop a game which offered a religious experience. Playing the game, called "Chain World", would require what Rohrer considered a religious commitment. Well, the whole idea was silly and it unravelled pretty quickly, but never mind. What interests me is the comment on Rohrer's fiasco by another game developer, Frank Lantz. He writes:

     " [the fiasco] reflects the deep sickness unto death that is religion, a
     lethal blend of megalomaniacal solipsism, paranoid schizophrenia,
     platonic idealism, banal pyramid schemes, authentic grass roots
     collectivism, and good oldfashioned resentment."

Aside from the fact that Rohrer's game actually had little to do with religion, the problem with Lantz's little rant is that it's all true. Or half-true, to be exact. Religion has a long history of being an "opiate of the masses", a pretext for murder or mind control, cause for obsessive behavior and mass hysteria, etc., etc. But those rationalists who would expurgate religion from human society once and for all are not thinking rationally. (There is, of course, no such thing as perfectly rational thinking, but that's another story.) 

Religion is not going away, ever. Not as long as we remain rational animals. Why? Precisely.

Rationality has given us a scientific explanation of the world of our experience, an explanation that has enabled us to travel, if not yet to the stars, at least to the nearby planets, and to achieve the highest ever standard of living. (Whether we can maintain this high standard is another matter.) But there is a crucial item missing from our understanding, one that rational thought absolutely cannot supply. It is the answer to the simple question: why?

Rationalists argue "why?" is meaningless and irrelevant as a general question. For every action we take, they say, we can find our own specific reasons based on the local circumstances and our specific intentions and desires. But it's more complicated than that.

What is it that we desire, and why? I think old Epicurus was on the right track when he postulated that the only reason for being is the enjoyment thereof (my paraphrase). True, we do not always enjoy our being, many of us enjoy it only rarely if at all, but we are all driven by a universal hope of enjoying our being in some way at some time (perhaps beyond the scope of our earthly life where our prospects may seem hopeless). The rational question for an epicurean is: "How can I maximize my enjoyment of being?"  (This, by the way, is a trick question, but never mind). Note that the epicurean philosophy tacitly accepts that there is a unversal reason for being, a reason that is not itself rational, for which there is no scientific evidence. 

You may disagree with Epicurus and believe that enjoyment of being is not the objective, that, rather, it is survival (or whatever seems right to you). Which still begs the question "why?". The point is that whatever you choose to believe you cannot avoid choosing to believe. We cannot act at all without some form of irrational faith. That is the basis of religion.

On this basis people have erected over the millenia various structures, seeking to formalize the fundamental belief that life has a purpose and to reduce it to practice. Some of those structures are sound, some are houses of sticks or straw and some are outright frauds. But they are here to stay.

Paul Wyszkowski