Investigating pragmatic Christianity

rearviewTwo years into this journey and I find myself at a place where I can scarcely imagine reaffirming Christianity as the best explanation of reality. Even the most “liberal” flavor of the faith looks difficult to swallow. But there is more to life than knowledge and sometimes the most rational thing we can do is eschew truth. Don’t tell me it’s a sugar pill if it is truly my best shot at feeling better. Just lie to me and give me the damn pill.

Almost two years ago I sat in a pastor’s office with my wife to discuss the revelation that I could no longer honestly call myself a Christian. At some point in the discussion I said that I knew that I could blind myself to all sources of doubt and immerse myself in the Christian world – and then wait. After enough time I would probably return to a genuine faith. I shared a similar sentiment with my wife in an email I that I sent her before that meeting, just a couple of days after revealing my loss of faith to her:

It’s like asking somebody to forget what they’ve seen. We can’t choose to forget. It may happen naturally over time, but we can’t will ourselves to forget. … I could ignore those issues, do everything I can to avoid discovering new ones and pretend that they’re meaningless. Over time, that would probably work and the issues would fade into the background. This is where the choice comes in. I could choose to do that but then I would be living a lie for 5, 10, 20 years, or however long it takes for the issues to fade away. Instead, I’m choosing to face the issues. If Christianity is true, then I think that my journey should lead me to that conclusion.

Amongst the countless hours of reflection over these last two years there have been many occasions where I could identify a practical benefit to the Christian worldview. In an earlier post I acknowledged that there is a strong psychological allure in Christianity, namely in the belief that we are not simply at the mercy of chaos and that, in the end, victory will be ours. It is easy to understand why we would want this to be true. These beliefs, however, can and do extend beyond the conceptual and impact us directly in the here and now. Some would argue that holding unsubstantiated beliefs is in some sense wrong (Clifford’s Principle) – but I disagree. I contend that if holding a belief is clearly the best way to attain a desired outcome then it is completely rational to hold it.

So this is want I want to examine. What benefits does Christianity enable us to realize in this life, and is adherence to the Christian worldview the best way to attain those benefits? In other words, does the cost-benefit analysis favor Christian belief over all other possible mechanisms for leading a fulfilling life? To start, I’ve identified a few benefits and costs to explore. This post is in large part a request for your input on these and for other practical factors that I should consider in subsequent posts.

Benefits (even if the Christian worldview is false)

  1. Stress management (achieved in several different ways)
  2. Better outcomes via the placebo effect
  3. Social fellowship with emphasis on encouragement and support
  4. Reduced death anxiety
  5. Regular reminders to self-evaluate
  6. Sense of having purpose and value which transcends our circumstances
  7. Frequent encouragement to cultivate material contentment and to invest in the lives of others
  8. Diminished sense of loss when loved ones die

Costs (assuming that the Christian worldview is false)

  1. Potentially long or indefinite period of intellectual discomfort until dissonance fades, with strong potential for reemergence later
  2. Misallocation of resources
  3. Improperly or ineffectively acting toward a goal because of a false understanding of influences
  4. Undue pressure to accept potentially disagreeable principles on the basis of authority
  5. Insufficient value placed on earthly life and “temporal things”
  6. Potential for anguish over the fate of “unsaved” loved ones

I crossed out #2 on the costs lists because it would be begging the question. If it turns out that the pragmatic benefits of Christianity outweigh the costs and they are not otherwise attainable then the allocation of resources to the Christian cause should actually be viewed as appropriate. Additionally, I need to point out that I am well aware that many of the benefits listed here are not exclusively found in Christianity. The exploration of alternative mechanisms for realizing those benefits is a crucial element to this series.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t included the afterlife in these lists, see my post on Pascal’s Wager. On the surface, this topic might seem contradictory to the perspective I offered there – namely that we shouldn’t believe something just for the benefit. However, there is a vast difference. Pascal’s Wager is based on a purely speculative outcome obtained via a purely speculative mechanism. Conversely, in this case we can draw upon our experiences, psychology and other research to understand probable outcomes in this life.

This isn’t a tidy, well-planned series. My coverage of these topics will span a long time and will be interspersed between plenty of other posts that I’ve already dreamed up. This isn’t the type of thing where the answers are just sitting out there waiting to be found. There are a lot of factors at play, a lot of psychology to sift through and the end result is enormously subjective. Hopefully your interactions will keep me grounded.

Finally, please do not misinterpret this exercise. I can imagine how this might be psychoanalyzed. I’m not in some dark place looking to reclaim the joy I had when I was a Christian. I don’t know how to compare distinctly unique stages of life, but its possible that I’ve never been happier. Ironically, the motive behind this exercise is very non-Christian: if this life is the only one I have then I should pursue the course which makes the most of it. This journey is about more than collecting facts and discerning the structure of reality. It’s also about navigating life, and I went public with this blog because I knew that my best shot at success was to incorporate a wide variety of insights from others. So please let me know your thoughts on this topic in general, and on the individual benefits and costs of a Christian worldview. Thanks in advance.


84 thoughts on “Investigating pragmatic Christianity

  1. Hi Travis, I just recently came across your blog and enjoy reading your posts. You asked for some input so I’ll do my best to offer some. This is an interesting question you’ve posed. Regardless of whether Christianity is true or not, would our lives be best spent adhering to it? I think what concerns me is whether or not I’d be able to pull it off. Is switching back even a possibility without it looking fake? Could we pray again and really believe someone is listening to us? Could we sing those songs again and feel the same way? I’m not sure. If you had to fake it and pretend to believe things that you don’t really believe would any of the benefits you listed actually kick in? I guess that would be my main concern.

    • Hi Dave,
      I agree. I’m not sure whether its even possible. Our beliefs are certainly influenced by our environment, and we can for the most part choose what our environment contains, but I’m not convinced that this would be enough to undo everything (or redo everything, depending on your perspective). That said, if our cost-benefit analysis takes this into account and we still think that it is the best course of action then there’s no reason to hold back. I’m not really sure how to assign relative weights, taking probabilities into account, for the pros and cons. In fact, I’m really not sure how any of this would work in practice but it still makes complete sense that it should be something to consider. When I first put together my topics page I included multiple virtues associated with the Christian walk because I wanted some balance. I didn’t want to ignore the subjective, positive things which are the most important aspects of faith to the majority of Christians. Most could care less about evidential arguments. All they know is that it works for them. This seemed like a good way to tackle some of those topics.

      Regarding the need to “fake it”, I think the tact to take would not be to really try to fake it but to rather immense one’s self in the environment with the understanding that it will take time, perhaps a very long time, before things might feel genuine. This is similar to Pascal’s advice for those who were convinced by his wager. This would certainly be uncomfortable but, if we think that it is for the best, then we should be willing to accept the discomfort for the sake of the benefits. If we keep the end goal in mind then we’ll won’t see it as faking but more just trying to do the best we can with the situation we’re in.

      Thanks for offering your input. I look forward to seeing what you have to share on your blog.

  2. Hey Travis. I like this post because it’s sometimes good to look at worldview questions from a “what is beneficial” standpoint rather than what is true. I like to do both.

    If your wife or close family members are still Christian then I would say that your choice of joining them in their belief would be very beneficial in reducing conflict with those who are close to you. I tend to think that everyone should consider this when looking at worldview change from a pragmatic viewpoint.

    Another thing I noticed is that many of the things you have listed as benefits can be found in many different worldviews. In fact a great many have all of them as benefits (of course if you add my previous paragraph as a benefit then that’s not the case 🙂 ).

    I’d also say that there are so many different versions of Christianity that it’s very hard to make a proper assessment. There are clearly some versions of Christianity which can be psychologically (and even physically) damaging – I’m thinking of groups many of us would label as “cultish”. And then in my mind there is the opposite end of the spectrum like Unitarian Universalism which is much more focussed on living psychologically health lives according to what the best of scientific investigations has taught us. Maybe you should be clear on defining what you mean by Christianity (or maybe you’ve done that in another post).

    For myself I’m with Dave. I just don’t think I could pull off “faking” a belief. In some sense I tried this for 2 years or so at the end of the 5 years of my Christian experience, and I was miserable because I felt like I wasn’t being myself. Perhaps this fits into your category #1 of costs, but maybe it’s actually separate.

    • Thanks Howie. Those are good points. I thought about the family thing but figured maybe it was adequately covered by a combination of “social fellowship” and “stress management”, though it’s certainly comes in at higher level of significance.

      It’s true that many of the benefits can be found in different ways and that will be a key element to this. I plan on exploring whether Christianity has any distinct advantage over alternatives methods for obtaining those benefits. I expect that many of the benefits can be achieved while incurring fewer costs.

      The Christianity that would apply here is perhaps what CS Lewis called “Mere Christianity”. It would certainly avoid fundamentalism. A potential characterization is available at the end of my Where I Am page.

      My period of “faking it” was limited to a couple months and even then I agree that it is miserable. I intended that this is covered by cost #1. It’s pretty hard to ignore just how significant that cost might be.

  3. Travis, I love this post. It’s very human to me all the way to the last paragraph. And you know, there ought to be “mere Christian” churches who would accept anyone, even an intellectual agnostic or atheist who thinks there may be practical reasons to be part of this whole thing. When it really hit me that faith is a gift which happened during a time of struggle after I reconverted, I realized something. With regards to the search for truth, I don’t need to feel so much pressure, I can realize the human limitation and just live freely with what I believe. If the Christian deity exists, everyone is in good hands with regards to the search for truth.

    I have much to say, but maybe I’ll start with one thing. There’s a Presbyterian pastor in NYC, Tim Keller, who is well-read and often quotes famous non-Christian thinkers in support of his teaching. One that left a lasting impression on me was his reference to postmodern author, David Foster Wallace. Wallace realized something about the human condition, that there’s a compelling reason to choose to accept religion. It’s because we all worship something, and the only thing that might not destroy us is a deity like Jesus:

    Of course, this is not a reason for picking Christianity over Islam or Buddhism, but it draws out something about the human condition that relates to the biblical idea of idolatry. Anyway, I look forward to your series on this subject.

    • Brandon,
      Thanks for the video. That’s a great speech. I come away with a different interpretation of the part about worship, namely that if what we worship is “more”, whether it be more money, power, sex, or even things that we tend to assign moral goodness, we will find ourselves regularly and progressively disappointed. The solution is to cultivate contentment by steering our perspective of the world away from the our natural self-centeredness to a realization that we are part of a larger whole filled with a bunch of people who are struggling to find the same perspective.

      So now I’m trying to tie this back into the original post and here’s what I see. An inherent part of Christianity involves this type of rejection of materialism and a focus on personal investment in the lives of others. As Wallace observes, this perspective ultimately improves our life. I agree, so perhaps I’ve missed a potential benefit of Christianity that is something like “Regular encouragement to adopt lifestyle principles which actually improve our lives”. Thoughts?

      • Travis, I can’t refer you to a postmodern video and then say that your interpretation is not valid. 🙂 Joke aside, I totally agree with you in light of what you consider in this blog post. Of course, as a Christian, I am biased to encourage you to retry it, so let me step out of this role for a moment. Why not find a secular humanist group that meets on Sunday and join them? For example, so-called atheist churches are forming all over the place now. Why not go for one of these? I’m not necessarily asking for you to answer right now more than I’m suggesting this is an important and realistic question to consider. I don’t know your situation, but I remember when I deconverted my wife probably suffered more than I did because I rejected the entirety of church. It would have been better for her if I had adopted a pragmatic approach but I was filled with too much hate and cynicism.

      • One of those Sunday Assemblies just started up in the area. It would be a bit of a drive but I think it would be worth it at least once for the experience. Even so, I’ve still been going to church on a semi-regular uncommitted basis. We moved a few months back though, so it’s a new church to us and we aren’t really connected in any way yet (it’s a huge church). I also attended a Socratic Cafe meet up for the first time this last month. That was pretty good but it’s still too early to say what that does for me.

      • It’s good that there are several options out there for you guys. I’m personally not a big fan of giant churches because it seems counterproductive towards fellowship, but I know other people prefer this sort of venue.

        I bet Socratic Cafe is fun. I can imagine two people in dialogue going at it both using Socratic Method like an infinite probe into reality that never approaches anything definitive. 🙂 Not that it should, it’s just funny to think about.

      • I think I actually prefer the big churches because of the variety of people you can connect with. Yeah, you can get lost but that just means you aren’t trying very hard because there are always groups and classes you can join.

        The meeting structure for Socrates Cafe isn’t so restrictive that you can only ask questions, but everyone was definitely very open-minded and nobody argued as if they knew they were right. It was also good to spend some time thinking about topics that weren’t necessarily related to the God question. We discussed things like confirmation bias, mid-life crises, pessimism, etc… It’s a great environment for just collecting ideas and bouncing your own thoughts off other people.

      • I think Brandon has a good point Travis. I think you should give some other groups a try in order to be able to feel like you can measure the benefits better. There are secular humanist or ethical culture groups (which are pretty much the same) in practically all large cities. Personally I enjoyed spending time with the Unitarian Universalists the most, which is a funny thing because they have a bit more of a “spiritual” feel to them. What I liked about the UU groups I spent time with though was their value of humans as well as their tolerance for a very wide range of beliefs (that stayed within the bounds of tolerance and kindness). Atheists and agnostics, and all sorts of “spiritual” people (both theist and non-theist) were very welcome. I enjoyed a lot of the deep discussions I had there in their adult classes, even though I felt a bit less “spiritual” minded than others. It fit very well with my more agnostic and curious “possibilian” approach toward world-views. I spent some time with Bahai as well and found them to be a warm and welcoming group, although I didn’t feel I fit as good there. I wrote a little more here about my experiences with different groups:

      • Hey Howie,
        Yeah, I think it would be worth checking out the local UU congregation. I agree that I could use some more exposure to the alternative options to better inform how to weigh the “fellowship” benefits of Christianity relative to other approaches. I certainly planned on addressing that, so I guess I need some real-world experience to back it up.

  4. Travis, I’m going to go out on a limb here and go against everything tasteful to suggest a book to add to your probably ever-growing library-length queue. It’s tasteless for me to recommend this particular book because I haven’t read it myself yet. But, the author seems very much on top of issues with post-Christianity and the intellectual mood of our times and writes about how Christianity makes surprising emotional sense which I take to be closely related to pragmatic considerations of religion. The book is “Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense” by Francis Spufford. He also gives a nice introduction to it on YouTube.

    • Yeah, looks to fit very well with the topic at hand. I’ve added it to my reading list but I’m not sure yet when I’ll get to it. Thanks.

  5. Hi Travis, I’ve been pondering this post for a few days, on and off, and I’m not sure I have much worthwhile to add to the other good comments, but here’s my thoughts.

    1. If there’s no God, then religion is an evolutionary (natural selection) outcome. It must up until now have given religious individuals or cultures a survival advantage, or it would have disappeared. It may be that religion no longer has a survival advantage in modern times, but scientific studies of religion suggest it is still good for wellbeing. But the studies suggest that the advantages come mainly to the ones with an intrinsic faith (they truly personally believe) and not much to those with an extrinsic faith (they follow the religion for external reasons like social contacts, etc). I can give references on all this if you want them, including some of the findings of the actual benefits of belief. So your experiment may be doomed before you start because the benefits you receive may not be the ones believers receive.
    2. Like others, I would find it impossible to pretend enough to do this, though if you are already involved in some way, that would make it much easier.

    3. I have been thinking a lot about why people believe or disbelieve, and I think a lot of it is down to our presuppositions, the processes we choose to decide what’s true, and the level of evidence we require. I think I’m going to do a post on it soon, but I have found examples in several scientific fields where the theoreticians who demand a high level of evidence don’t change the real world in a positive way nearly as much as the pragmatists who go with what works. When you and I have discussed in the recent past, we have discussed in a theoretical way. But if you tried an experiment like you are hinting at here, you would be being much more pragmatic. While I don’t think it would be easy to try christianity just because it might help you achieve certain desirable goals, if you saw it as a different, more pragmatic, way of testing the truth of christianity, I think it would have some advantages. It would have more integrity, it would be more likely to be effective, and it would be testing a different way of determining truth.

    To me the test might be whether you could honestly pray to a God you doubt is there, asking him/her/it to show you through this process. If you can’t do that (and I think you mightn’t find it easy) then I think you will only be trialling extrinsic religion and it won’t give you much. But if you could do that honestly, then I think it could be very useful.

    Like Brandon said, this is a hard topic for me to write on because you know I have a clear view on all this. I therefore don’t know whether what I have said is an encouragement to you or a discouragement, but anyway those are some of the things I have thought.

    • Hey Eric,
      Thanks for taking time out of your trip to share your thoughts.

      Regarding point A, you’re absolutely correct that some benefits are only realized once the belief is genuine and I want to take that into account. If you review the post you’ll note that the intent is that faith would become genuine after enough time. I’m sympathetic with those who think that this transition might not ever occur, but it seems possible (and from our discussion on indirect doxastic voluntarism, I take it that you would agree). See my response to Dave’s comment for a bit more of an expansion on that.

      To point C, I don’t follow your argument. In the context of this post I see that these approaches are just trying to answer different questions rather than serving as different ways to answer the same question. Yes, an experiential approach is the best way to answer “how should I live to achieve the life I want” but the point of this series is to try and forecast what the answer might be before actually committing to anything.

      There are certainly some prayers which wouldn’t be honest at first and I would think those would be avoided as part of an effort to minimize the dissonance and allow gradual acceptance of the faith. I can tell you that even now I do honestly pray to God to reveal himself whenever I feel compelled to do so. That has admittedly grown less frequent, and I’m still getting nothing in return.

      Lastly, I couldn’t let one of your comments slip by. Your point A says that religion must have conferred a survival advantage but I think that is a misconstrued description of the relationship between evolution and religion. From a naturalist perspective, religion is a concept that has largely been shaped through pressures that aren’t selecting for survival but rather for mental/emotional appeal. Perhaps what you’re getting at is that there are underlying aspects of humanity which may cause us to favor religion and I think this makes sense. So it’s not so much that religion had a survival advantage, but rather that there are features of human nature which carried a selective advantage and are synergistic with religion.

      Thanks again for the input.

  6. I have been a pragmatic Christian of the Catholic variety for over 20 years. As you know from participating in my blog I have my own pragmatic reasoning. Your approach is different and one that I really have not thought thoroughly through, and I am sure I am missing some points. But I can offer these impressions some of which you may have already had in mind:

    Benefits of Christianity:

    1) Prayer. I think prayer helps me be a better person and view others with more compassion. When I say I will pray for someone I really try to pray for them when I can. By consciously taking time to think about others and the hardships they are going through I really think this helps me be a more caring person. Also forcing myself to pray for my “enemies” or people I dislike can make me try to be open to others.

    There have been studies about married couples praying together and staying together.

    (I haven’t checked his research.)

    I pray with my wife every night. It is usually quite short asking God to watch over us help us be good spouses and parents and to watch over our daughters and Friends and family especially our nieces and any other special intentions we have. Together we share our thoughts and concerns with God. We try to pray before Dinner if we eat with our kids or other kids if we know they are Christian. (although we don’t do this that much) And my wife or I pray with our daughters every night when we tuck them in. I think it builds our relationships.

    2) Building a relationship with God. This of course is related to the prayer. But I think it’s also something different. In fact I am almost constantly thinking/micropraying to God throughout my day and that acts as a sort of check to my behavior. But also learning generally is something that I feel is growing my relationship with God. I enjoy reading scripture and other religious works with this in mind. I also like reading scripture from a historical perspective but that is of course different.

    On a related note I also love my church and have a relationship with it. And by that I don’t mean just the individual people at my individual church – I by an large don’t have a relationship with them as I don’t participate much beyond going to church on Sunday. I mean I love the Catholic Church as a whole.
    I love to contemplate saints who lived before and ask them to pray for me. I love going to different churches when we travel and seeing how the mass is the same but different. I love the Catholic Liturgy (this only happened recently when I was younger, people would say things like the love the liturgy and I didn’t get it at all.) I can follow it in many languages even though I am only fluent in one.

    3) Sacraments, such as confession help me stay on track. No one likes to confess bad things they have done. Confession helps me stay on course and prepares me for the time when all will be revealed. I feel the Catholic approach to confession is very beneficial in helping me self-evaluate and think twice before I act in a sinful way.

    4) Christmas – It’s not just humbug for Christians! Yep the story from Luke, especially when it’s read by Linus, is a beautiful thing. I don’t mean to get all preachy and I don’t like it when people lament that “Christ” is no longer in Christmas and woe woe woe about this culture etc. So I don’t mean it that way. I just really do love the Christmas story and I am not sure I would get the same effect if I decided not to believe. The same goes for the last supper and Easter.

    Cons of Christianity:

    1) Fear of death – I know you put this as a positive but I view it as a negative – at least for me personally. As a Catholic I am taught that I am damned to hell if I die with an unconfessed mortal sin. Sadly it seems the popes and church has done allot more binding than loosing with the power to bind a loose, and so many things are considered mortal sins. Now I am a bottom up Christian – which means I don’t take inerrancy of the church or scripture too seriously but I still view my church as an authority. I can only pray they are wrong here. But it is easier if there is no God. I don’t mind that I didn’t exist in 1255 and I don’t really mind if I won’t exist in 3055.

    2) Going to church on Sundays is not always what I want to do. Sure I guess I am on the whole glad I do it. But it is an extra obligation. Sitting at home and relaxing with a cup of coffee instead of getting the kids together is nice too. 
    3) Anxiety generally. I will admit that over the last 2 decades there have been times when I felt distressed not so much that I believed in God. Sure at times I would wonder if I am really being irrational for my beliefs. After all so many atheists keep telling me I am. But then I would think of the reasons for my belief and I see no advantage to being atheist. I also don’t think I suffer from cognitive dissonance. But sometimes I wonder if I am believing rightly or something. I listened to a professor talking about the reformation and he said something like when you are Christian you will likely have to deal with some anxiety. Catholics are anxious of dying with a mortal sin, Reformed are anxious that they don’t “really” believe, and Lutherans are anxious that… well I forgot, but they were anxious about something too.
    4) You can’t do some things. Of course the Church explains that this is freeing you from sin and would say it is good. It does build willpower and I do feel freed to the extent I can comply. Of course that is not always so easy. Give away all your belongings and follow Christ! Or read the beatitudes. It seems we are never completely free from sin. So having faith seems to require quite a bit of perseverance.

    Here it is of course hard to know what I would think if I did not believe in God. I tend to think I would not believe in morality at all. I certainly wouldn’t think our beliefs were reliable guides to whatever an objective morality was. And as you say sometimes one just can’t get behind certain ideas. I just can’t see myself getting behind a relativist morality. So it’s hard to say what I would think, if I didn’t believe in God. I will say that as a Christian you are supposed to do certain things and you won’t always be “fine” with what is required. So there is a negative there.

    Finally at least one thing could cut either way:

    Relationships with others: If your wife has a different religious view than your own it could strain the relationship. You may start to separate in your worldviews. The same can go with friends and other relatives. Not only will this vary in importance depending on how different their views are, but also how much you value the relationship.

    • Joe,
      Thanks for the thorough response. I won’t give you credit for the post but I also would not deny that our interactions in the past have probably played a role in its formation. You have some good thoughts here but I would appreciate some clarification.

      1) Prayer: I had counted prayer under the benefit of stress reduction but had not considered it as a way to improve the quality of our care for others or our relationships with those we pray with. I’ll have to think about how this would fit into the equation.

      2) I can’t count “building a relationship with God” because it assumes Christianity is true. Did you have something else in mind with that?

      On the second part about loving the Catholic experience, I’m having a hard time translating that into a “this is what I get even if it isn’t true” statement. Is it aesthetic, like enjoying a sunset? Is it soothing, like staring into a flickering campfire? Is there reason to believe that others would be likely to receive the same benefit?

      3) Confession: Do you think confession already fits under the benefit of “Regular reminders to self-evaluate”?

      4) Holidays: This one never even crossed my mind. I think I would list it as something like “Greater appreciation of Christmas and Easter holidays”, but that seems too specific. That said, I think I agree with this because even though unbelievers can and do enjoy those holidays, I don’t see how they get anything extra because of their unbelief, yet it would seem that believers do get something extra out of it. I would probably give this a relatively low weight but I think it’s a legit benefit.

      1) Fear of condemnation: This is an interesting comment and I had certainly considered this perspective, especially recalling several childhood scares where I thought that I couldn’t find anybody because they had been raptured and I didn’t make the cut. On average across the population, though, I think I will still count it as a benefit in the “there are no atheists in foxholes” sense. This does help inform how to weight it, however.

      2) Sundays: Do you think semi-compulsary Sunday attendance might fit under the “Misallocation of resources” cost that I crossed out (#2), where the resource is time?

      3) Doubt: Is this essentially the same as your #1? If not, could you explain the difference?

      4) Behavioral constraints: Does this already fit under my #4: “Undue pressure to accept potentially disagreeable principles on the basis of authority”?

      Your last comment regarding conflicting worldviews in personal relationships is in line with Howie’s initial response, to which I responded by suggesting that maybe it was already covered by the benefits of “social fellowship” and “stress management”. What do you think, does it deserve its own category?

      • Travis

        I certainly do not mean to take credit for your views here. It is clear to me that your views have been informed by many sources beyond my own. I am just glad to find someone else pursuing a similar analysis.

        As far as what I said I thought some might already be fit in your categories but I wasn’t sure if they were what you had in mind. Let me address some of the specifics questions:

        “2) I can’t count “building a relationship with God” because it assumes Christianity is true. Did you have something else in mind with that?”

        Ok yes if God does not exist then there is no real relationship. It would be like a relationship with a fictional Character. And we normally do not think of that as a relationship. But whatever we call our thoughts regarding a fictional character perhaps that would fit. Are you glad you got to know Huckleberry Finn or Sherlock Holmes? But when you believe in God it’s a bit different than when you know a character does not exist. So it’s a bit different.

        “On the second part about loving the Catholic experience, I’m having a hard time translating that into a “this is what I get even if it isn’t true” statement. Is it aesthetic, like enjoying a sunset? Is it soothing, like staring into a flickering campfire? Is there reason to believe that others would be likely to receive the same benefit?”

        It’s sort of an aesthetic with the liturgy and much of what I say. Generally with the church it’s the feeling of being part of something bigger than you for one. It’s also a feeling of connection with centuries of people who have prayed that way and with people all around the world praying that way now. It’s a calming feeling as well. I am not really explaining this very well. Let me just say that similar to a relationship to God I have a relationship with the institution of the Church. Maybe it’s like a relationship with a school. But you have been going to the same school your whole life (in my case) and there have been different teachers.

        “3) Confession: Do you think confession already fits under the benefit of “Regular reminders to self-evaluate”?”

        It could. So could some of what I said about prayer. I wasn’t sure what you had in mind. Here though we not only have to evaluate ourselves but we need to take action when we sin. So it goes somewhat beyond that.

        As far as costs I agree with everything you said.

    • After some more reflection I think that “relationship with the community and tradition of the church” and “appreciation for meaning of holidays” are actually just localized versions of my 6th benefit: “Sense of having purpose and value which transcends our circumstances”. So I’m going to keep it as is but make sure that when I address that benefit I examine both local transcendence and cosmic transcendence, where local transcendence relates to things which span human community and tradition over time, and cosmic transcendence relates to things which are fundamental and absolute in nature.

  7. I might suggest that believing something you have not confirmed to be true, even if it is in line with your goals or happiness, is not fundamentally rational. If rationality has not been applied at the foundation of the concept, we can hardly claim to be rational simply because we are happy about the falsehoods we subsequently believe.

    Rationality can be defined as believing X to the degree that perceived evidence for X warrants. Rational belief is not inherently binary, and it is inextricably tied to the degree of the evidence. As soon as we depart from positioning our degree of belief in X to the perceived balance of evidence for X, we have polluted our position with irrationality. If you first irrationally assume a found watch has been set properly, then rationally arrive “on time” to meetings as if it was correct, you can not claim to be rational.

    So, irrationally believing something to a degree not warranted by the evidence to make yourself comfortable or happy can not honestly be called rational in the end.

    • Hi Phil,
      Thanks for contributing. Oxford says that something is rational if it is “based on or in accordance with reason and logic”, and reason is “a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event”. I don’t see a conflict with rationality here. Would you consider a patient to be acting irrationally if they believe they are among the 5% who will survive their condition and they know that holding that belief actually improves their chances of doing so?

      • You can both believe you have only a 5% chance of recovery, and that you have more than a 50% chance of recovery. That’s not just irrational. That’s illogical.

      • I assume you meant “can’t”. This conflict is not the scenario proposed. The proposal is that upon knowing that the population has a 5% survival rate, and upon knowing that those in the population who believe they will survive have a > 5% survival right, then it is rational to seek a belief that you as an individual will be one of the survivors.

      • More precisely, rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the perceived balance of evidence. A degree of belief above or below the perceived balance of evidence is irrational.

      • So correspondence with reality is the ultimate measure of rationality? The definitions I gave don’t indicate this. They indicate that rationality is reasoned belief. While it is usually true that correspondence with reality leads to fulfillment of goals, there are times where the evidence is that a goal is best fulfilled with a wrong or exaggerated belief (e.g., placebo). In those cases are we to sacrifice our goals for the sake of correspondence with reality? Note that I am not advocating unjustified belief, rather that pragmatic reasons for seeking to adopt a particular belief may sometimes outweigh logical reasons against that belief.

      • I don’t think you can believe something you know to not be true – that’s a contradiction in terms. You can however, take on an attitude of wanting to believe something for the sake of the benefits that belief provides, with the anticipation that your adoption of that stance will cause the realization of those benefits. It may be that this also eventually causes your actual belief to change.

      • If you believe something only for the health benefits, you are irrational. If you’re only talking about hope, or desire, I don’t see the problem. But it appears you are actually talking about belief in something untrue.

      • You need to defend this definition of irrational. “Because it improves my odds of survival” seems like a pretty damn good reason for holding a belief. I don’t know how we can call that irrational.

      • Survival is not the metric of rationality. Your epistemic approximation of truth is. Does your degree of belief map to the degree of the perceived evidence? If it does, and yet you’ve destroyed your chances of survival, you are merely a rational dead person.

      • You need to defend your definition of rationality. Here’s a defense of mine: the Oxford dictionary says to be rational is to operate “based on or in accordance with reason or logic” and that reason is “a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event”. If somebody has evidence that holding a particular belief X yields outcome A, and they prefer outcome A to all other outcomes then they have justification for holding belief X regardless of the content of X. By definition, then, they are acting rationally.

        It seems to me a valuation of truth over pragmatic benefits is actually applying the same rationale. You are simply swapping the order of valuation and saying that true belief is more valuable than desire fulfillment. Value, however, is subjective and unless you can show me that true belief is objectively more valuable than desire fulfillment then I don’t see how you can say that somebody else is irrational for their valuation.

      • What do you call it when someone does not position their degree of belief to the corresponding degree of evidence? I called that irrationality. What is your term?

      • If a person’s goals are best achieved through drugs then they are acting rationally in taking those drugs, as is the case for those who have found themselves improving their state through anti-depressants.

        I take it, however, that your use of “soberly” is inferring that the happiness drugs are impairing the person’s cognitive faculties, in which case they are likely to find themselves frustrated in achieving many of their goals and contributing to societal goals, which explains the intuitive sense that they are acting irrationally.

      • I agree, that is irrationality. The disagreement comes in that I do not reject evidence regarding the consequences of our belief as “relevant evidence”.

      • Yes, but do you agree that the evidence for the consequences of a belief are part of the equation? It IS irrational to believe you are a duck because you want to fly, because there is NO evidence for the truth of the proposition that “believing you are a duck will increases the chances that you will fly”. Conversely, it is NOT irrational to belief that you will be well because you want to be well, because there IS evidence for the truth of the proposition that “believing you will be well increases the chances that you will be well”. There are two beliefs at play – the root belief, and the meta-belief regarding the consequences of the root belief. The evidence for the meta-belief may warrant action in accordance with the meta-belief toward a goal. As such, it is possible that we are rationally acting on evidence to behave according to the meta-belief in lieu of behaving according to the root belief.

      • If someone has evidence that believing they are a duck will aid in their escape, and they value escape over true belief in their identity, then they would be acting rationally to believe that they are a duck because they have justifiable reason for their belief.

        Note also that I am skeptical that we can choose our beliefs instantaneously, so the example is somewhat artificial unless we say that “trying to believe you are a duck” is what aids in escape.

      • So you believe someone can believe something they don’t actually believe, correct? Does the person actually know they’re not a duck while believing they are a duck?

      • This was covered in several of the earlier comments, is addressed in the post itself and is the reason for my addendum to the previous comment. No, you cannot believe something that you don’t actually believe. That’s a clear contradiction. You can, however, strive to hold a new belief for the sake of the benefits and take action toward that end in the hope that your belief actually will change. And this is reasonable if you have evidence that time and environment can and will alter our beliefs.

      • So the new belief is knowingly based on a falsehood. Correct? You know you are not a duck, yet you are forcing yourself to believe you are to better your life, right?

      • This excludes part of the equation. Yes, the new belief is knowingly based on a falsehood (I am a duck) but is also knowingly based on a truth (believing I am a duck improves or saves my life). These are in competition with each other and so we must decide which state we value more: true belief with a lower quality (or loss of) life, or false belief with a higher quality life.

        Do you think value should have no bearing on rationality? Aren’t the reasons and justifications we use to defend our rationality ultimately reducible to value statements – in your case, a valuing of truth over consequence?

      • Do you think the person who, values survival, and knows that believing he is a duck makes his survival more likely, and then chooses to believe he is a duck, is rational?

      • Phil,
        All else being equal, yes, the person who chooses to believe they are a duck is acting rationally. There, you got me to say something that intuitively sounds completely absurd. I know that’s what you wanted so there it is.

        Now, realize that we’ve constructed a ridiculous hypothetical with improbable consequences which strays far beyond the reach of our intuitions. So, instead of talking about ducks, let’s abstract this back to show what really happened:
        (1) a goal was identified,
        (2) evidence was analyzed to determine the methods, benefits, costs and probabilities for obtaining that goal,
        (3) the costs were weighed against the benefits and the method which yielded the greatest overall value was identified,
        (4) the person followed through by acting according to the method which the evidence indicated was most likely to yield the greatest overall value,
        (5) the option which yielded the greatest overall value happened to be one in which the person sought to hold a belief which they had previously held to be untrue

        This person is being irrational? The rational thing to do is to go against the evidence and pursue a course of action which is less likely to yield the greatest overall value?

      • You’re defending pragmatic rationality by promoting epistemic irrationality.

        Do you not think this counter-intuitive? Is it possible to honestly believe something for which you know there is insufficient evidence? Does this not intuitively seem dishonest? Do you think an actual god of the universe would reward such dishonesty?

        Do you think believing something one knows is epistemically unwarranted or false to be the expectation of the god of the universe in respect to salvation?

        Do you think Pascal’s wager to be valid? Is there a god who would actually want us to believe in spite of insufficient evidence out of fear of the consequences of not believing? Really?

      • Phil,

        You’re defending pragmatic rationality by promoting epistemic irrationality.

        And you’re defending epistemic rationality by promoting pragmatic irrationality. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t (so to speak). That said, I don’t think it’s so simple. The rationality under consideration in this post relates to deciding how we should act. That is ultimately a question of value judgements, not a question of pure epistemic truth. Ultimately, I think that the question of rational action – that is, acting in accordance with evidentially justified reasons – will reduce to a question of value judgements. If you want to call it irrational to act in the way which maximizes value, that is fine, but I think you’re dealing in a different domain than the domain of the question at hand.

        Do you not think this counter-intuitive?…Does this not intuitively seem dishonest?

        It is no less counter-intuitive and dishonest than me choosing to keep quite when a terrorist walks in the room and says he wants to shoot anybody named Travis. Sometimes the rational thing to do is sacrifice honesty.

        Is it possible to honestly believe something for which you know there is insufficient evidence?

        No. That’s why deciding to take that course would involve a period of forward looking hope that time and environment will eventually bring the desired outcome to fruition. This result isn’t guaranteed and the probability of the desired outcome ever actually being realized is part of the equation. If I was convinced that it was impossible then it wouldn’t even be worth considering.

        Do you think an actual god of the universe would reward such dishonesty?…Do you think believing something one knows is epistemically unwarranted or false to be the expectation of the god of the universe in respect to salvation?…Do you think Pascal’s wager to be valid? Is there a god who would actually want us to believe in spite of insufficient evidence out of fear of the consequences of not believing? Really?

        I see that I need to clarify a couple things. I suggest you go back and re-read the original post. I thought I had been clear but it’s possible that I wasn’t:
        1) I have deemed salvation and the afterlife as irrelevant to the consideration. I even wrote a post on Pascal’s Wager as a prelude to this post for that very reason.
        2) I have not decided that Christianity is “pragmatically rational”. The point of the post was to suggest that it is a valid question to ask and worth consideration. It is entirely possible that I will not find it pragmatically rational to adopt Christianity.

        Please let me know if my stance on these things still isn’t clear after re-reading this post and the post on Pascal’s Wager.

      • Consider 2 of the possible ways a god might decide to reward salvation.

        1. Step out of the shadows and introduce himself personally allowing unequivocal knowledge of his existence, then let us decide whether he is worthy of our worship.
        2. Make his existence unclear, then require full belief in both his existence and deservingness of worship in violation of the standards of evidence.

        Which reflects the justice and rationality of an actual god of the universe?

      • I agree, but the question at hand is whether the evidence regarding the benefits of holding a particular belief might outweigh the evidence against that belief. There are two kinds of evidence to consider: the evidence for the content of the belief itself, and the evidence for the consequences of holding the belief.

      • I would like to maximize both truth and happiness as much as possible, but if I encounter a scenario where one must be sacrificed for the other then I think I would choose happiness over truth (assuming a choice is possible and the proposed outcome is reliable). You wouldn’t? You would prefer enlightened misery over blissful ignorance?

        Keep in mind that I suspect that accurate knowledge is almost always the best tool for maximizing fulfillment of our desires. I am not advocating for belief based on blind hope. In essence, I am instead suggesting that the outcome of holding the belief is more important than the belief content. The outcome is what actually touches our lives, the content is just the tool for guiding our actions.

      • Then you can call that happiness, but you can’t call that rationality. You’ve made an irrational decision based on your emotions to believe something the evidence does not warrant. That’s fine. You just can’t call it rationality.

      • Phil,
        I hate to be a broken record but I have not yet seen you explain why I should accept your definition of rationality. I appealed to our globally recognized tool for the acceptance of definitions – the dictionary. You, on the other hand, appear to be trying to bludgeon me into accepting your definition without evidence by simply repeating it over and over, which is deeply ironic given the definition you are proposing.

        Secondly, you have again accused this view of endorsing belief in something that is unwarranted by the evidence but I have tried over and over to show why that is precisely not the case. The proposal is that evidence for the pragmatic benefits of holding a belief may outweigh the evidence for the logical correctness of a belief. This is not about belief despite evidence, it is about belief because of the evidence regarding the consequences of that belief.

      • Let’s define our terms more precisely then. When someone believes something to a degree not warranted by the corresponding degree of evidence, I call that irrationality. What do you call it?

  8. Hi Phil, I think it may be useful to question what you have said here:

    “I might suggest that believing something you have not confirmed to be true, even if it is in line with your goals or happiness, is not fundamentally rational. …. So, irrationally believing something to a degree not warranted by the evidence to make yourself comfortable or happy can not honestly be called rational in the end.”

    My first question is whether these are (1) statements of ethics, or (2) statements of pragmatic wellbeing or (3) definitions of “rational”. I first read them as (1) – i.e. you were stating that the only “right” way to think was to apportion belief exactly to evidence. But after more thought I wondered whether it was really (3) – i.e. not making any statement about how we “ought” to think, just about what rationality actually is.

    So then, do we have a moral obligation to pursue rationality, as in Clifford’s Principle, and if so, where does that obligation come from? For a theist, morality comes from God or God’s moral law, but I see there an obligation to truth rather than rationality (not everyone has the ability to be rational but perhaps all have the ability to be truthful). For the naturalist, ethics are more pragmatic – what works or even what survives via natural selection, so I can’t see rationality being sourced there.

    We may want to argue that the obligation is purely pragmatic – our lives work best if we “fit in” with the reality of the external world, and rationality is the best way of doing that. Except that this study suggested that this isn’t always the case. Surprisingly, when given tasks which can be assessed objectively later by experts, there are certain tasks (generally the most complex) where those who approached them intuitively obtained better results than those who approached them rationally. The study observed that “Analyzing reasons can focus people’s attention on nonoptimal criteria, causing them to base their subsequent choices on these criteria.” (For my thoughts on this, see Rational thinking is overrated?.)

    I say all this as one who tends to agree with what you say, but I am aware that other people think and make decisions very differently to me. What do you think about all that?

      • There’s no obligation to be rational. You can choose to be irrational, but you can’t remove the fact that you are irrational by claiming you’re not obliged to be rational.

      • And to the degree that relying on intuition works, to that degree it is rational to do so. If you have found your intuitions reliable in the past, you are rational to rely on them to that degree in the future.

  9. Hi Travis & Phil,

    I have watched your discussion with interest and one small contribution. May I suggest one possible issue here?

    I suspect you are both using slightly different (though related) definitions of rationality. Phil says: “irrationality is a degree a belief that does not map to the degree of the evidence for that proposition”, so for him we could also say (1) rationality is a degree a belief that maps to the degree of the evidence for that proposition, and (2) rationality and irrationality relate to propositions.

    But Travis is looking at behaviour, which can be expressed in propositions but which often isn’t expressed that way. And we can construct hypotheticals about behaviour, as Travis is doing. For example, if a belief makes me happy, should I not take that into account in determining if I hold that belief?

    So let us construct a hypothetical via some propositions.

    1. Rational is defined as a degree to which a belief that maps to the degree of the evidence for that proposition.
    2. It is rational, other things being equal, to do what maximises our happiness and wellbeing.
    3. Suppose person A assesses the evidence for belief in God and decides on the basis of that evidence that it is more probable that God doesn’t exist, but still possible that he does exist.
    4. Suppose A also assesses, as some psychological studies seem to show, that he will be happier if he believes in God.
    5. On the basis of #1 and #4 it would be rational to decide (as much as a person is able to decide) to believe in God, but on the basis of #2 & #3 it would be irrational to believe in God.
    6. Thus we have a logical contradiction, illustrating that the two definitions of rational are incompatible.

    That is what I think is happening here. I wonder what you both think. Also Phil, I wonder how you feel about the question I asked you previously, namely: do you think we have a moral obligation to pursue rationality as you have defined it, as in Clifford’s Principle, and if so, where does that obligation come from?

    • Eric,
      I actually agree that it is irrational to believe contrary to the evidence. I just think that the evidence regarding the consequence of belief can outweigh the evidence against the belief itself, turning an irrational belief into a justifiably reasoned and rational belief as a result.

    • UncleE, no, there is no obligation outside the framework of rationality to be rational just as there is no obligation outside the legal system to behave legally. Individuals have the perrogative to act/believe irrationally, but not the perrogative to then call themselves rational in spite of their irrational beliefs/behaviors.

      • So what did you think of the situation I proposed? Are there two different aspects of being rational, or is there something wrong with my hypothetical?

      • Yes, I think there is epistemic and pragmatic rationality. And that appears to be leading to part of the problem. It appears you believe that one can be epistemically irrational in the service of pragmatic rationality, correct?

  10. Hi Travis, I would prefer to believe in accordance with the evidence too, but I’m not sure that this is necessarily a matter of rational vs irrational. Since Phil seems to be espousing an ultra rational approach, I want to make sure I understand – and that starts with clarifying definitions.

  11. Hi Phil, I don’t know if I’ve analysed things that finely before. But at first thought, I think so. An example might be game theory, where (to my very limited understanding) the best results are sometimes achieved by choosing a course of action probabilistically. In this case, the most rational course of action would be to sometimes choose against the evidence.

    Another example would be if it became clear that intuitive thinking is the most reliable in some situations (as I noted above) – in that case it would be sensible (and rational??) to choose intuitively, not via rational processes.

    My guess is that few situations are as black and white as that. But I think there are real life situations where a sensible person will think rationally but also apply other criteria – choosing a wife might be an example where “head” and “heart” should both be considered.

    What would you say about your question and my initial response?

    • You mentioned intuition. I treat intuition as just another sense that can be tested for reliability, then only trusted so far as the test of reliability warrants. Even though we may not understand the mechanism of our subconscious intuitions, that does not mean that intuition does not have a track record that informs us of what degree of confidence in that intuition is warranted.

      As far as the relationship between epistemic and pragmatic rationality, I’ve seen few cases where pragmatic rationality actual produces superior consequences for the epistemic agent and those affected by the decisions of that epistemic agent. I have, however, seen far too often Christians attempt to diminish the importance of rationality in an attempt to give biblical πίστις legitimacy. I do not believe any real god of the universe would want us to believe in him to secure positive consequences rather than believe in him out of an unadulterated response to the balance of evidence for the existence of that god. Pascals wager is just silly, and while I understand the inclination to believe in an ideology that promises (without accompanying warranting evidence) all kinds of emotional and eternal rewards, believing to a degree that does not correspond to the degree of relevant perceived evidence remains irrational.

  12. Hi Phil, I think the same as you up to a point, but I think pragmatic rationality (I might call it common sense) often serves us better than epistemic rationality (I might call it proof or systematic logic).

    As for God, I agree with you too, except you have only offered two alternatives about what pleases God and I think there are more. I think faith means something different to what you may think, so that I can’t see it competing with rationality often and with evidence almost never.

    I don’t think Pascal’s Wager is silly at all, just often expressed badly. I think there is plenty of accompanying warranting evidence, but I suspect our real difference may lie in what we accept as evidence. But I don’t think discussion of those matters will lead very far, so I suggest keeping to Travis’ topic here.

    Thanks for sharing your views, I was interested to understand better what you were getting at.

  13. Hi Phil,

    I don’t have a formulation (though I suppose I could work one up), just the observation that Pascal’s Wager is a form of risk assessment – not surprising since Pascal was a mathematician. I used some basic forms of risk assessment when I worked as an environmental manager, so I know it is a useful tool. So I have no doubt it could be useful in the case of considering the existence of God, if only to clarify assumptions and thinking.

    I looked at the page you referenced thanks. I don’t think it is really relevant to the discussion here, nor do i think it actually relates to what I think, so I won’t respond to it thanks.

  14. Pingback: Finding God in the Waves (Part 2: Reconstruction) | A Measure of Faith

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