When reason vs. faith

People are talking about how polarized public opinion is right now, politically and socially. The widespread assumption is that a narrow slice of undecideds sits in the middle and that everyone else is rigidly fixed in their opinions; hence, all arguments fail.

Ever since the dawn of The Age of Reason, what we commonly call The Enlightenment, reliance on logic and reasoning has been ascendant. The alternatives – irrational beliefs, faith in the supernatural, pseudoscience, fortune telling, and the mantic arts – have increasingly been relegated to popular culture. It’s there that such ideas occupy the fringes of popular society, such as astrology included as entertainment in the pages of the newspaper.

Interestingly, as science historian Justin Smith points out, it was such irrational ideas that influenced the work of revered figures such as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who studied astrology, and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who cast astrological charts for a living on the side. When the natural world appears a chance-filled mystery, false hypotheses sometimes lead to valid ones. Ideas borrowed from pseudoscience can ultimately evolve into scientific fact.

Arguments always fail, however, when people come up against faith instead of reason. Faith in absurdity itself often provides reason enough for some people and at times the more absurd the idea, the more faith it engenders; absurdities become miracles, and their irrationality is evidence that the nature of divine existence is essentially unknowable. When it comes to faith, facts don’t matter.

It is for this reason that arguments about truth with the faithful fail. The conclusions of true believers do not require facts, although strangely, pseudo-facts, conspiracies, or alternate facts are often marshaled to buttress their beliefs. So dominant is our reliance on scientific reasoning that even those who believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old compile archaeological and paleontological “evidence” and narratives to support their contention. What’s often at the core of such efforts, however, are attempts to sustain values, even at the price of subordinating truth.

In a disturbing way, the type of faith that supports belief in religious miracles has been transferred into the world of politics; a willful tribalism has taken hold in America, complete with its own flags, symbols and slogans of belonging. When it comes to the power of political faith, the MAGA movement is a prime example. Failure to convince 60 judges that voter fraud occurred in the 2020 election accounts for nothing to MAGA true believers. Some believe that Joe Biden is a body double, Donald Trump remains President, JFK Jr. is still alive, and the earth is flat. In confronting political faith, there is no penetrating miracles no matter how absurd, not with logic, reasoning, facts, evidence, or argument.

Does anything work? Entering the delusion, perhaps. Because irrational belief is just that, delusional, it quickly unwinds into self-contradiction when it’s deeply examined. The key is not to challenge absurdity, but to curiously inquire. Asked to explain how a body double could successfully pass for Joe Biden requires an explanation of massive conspiracy. So too how it is that JFK is still alive. Ask how it is that massive conspiracy operates, what means are used, who is behind it, and who’s behind them. Because faith provides its own justification, it wanders into self-referential paradoxes that defy explanation.

Faith in the absurd does not change easily, but feelings do, and feelings can penetrate and even dispel delusion. Not always, but occasionally.

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