Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Can we be religious and sane?

Martin Newland over at the Grauniad's Comment Is Free offers the following assertion - "I am a Catholic. I'm also sane". It is an assertion that the majority of believers in any faith would make.

It is also an assertion which cuts to the heart of the religious vs scientific debate, and makes arguing with theists such an intensely frustrating experience for atheists.

What do we men by 'sane'?

Of course we need to consider what we mean by sane. Wikipedia defines sanity as a legal term denoting that an individual...can bear legal responsibility for his actions. I think that most believers fit this definition, although the definition of children as insane seems odd. I digress.

Generally, sane means whatever the majority agrees is sane. In England a century ago, homosexuals, and umarried mothers were regarded as candidates for the local asylum, and a few hundred years previously you would have been thought insane not to believe in god.

Nowadays, by contrast, having an interest in sexually mature members of the opposite sex who are under eighteen is regarded as insane, despite being the norm for most cultures for most of history.

However, probably the definition that most people use in everyday life is: mentally healthy; free from mental disorder. And it is here that atheists and theists disagree.

Atheists believe that it is mentally disordered to believe in supernatural beings without a shred of evidence. They, and I include myself here, feel that all we need to do is point out the irrational nature of belief to a theist, and they should accept our logic and join our ranks. Unfortunately this doesn't happen. Why not?

Why do religious people not listen to reason?

A recent study by Emory University shows that people who are strongly attached to a partisan position do not use facts to make decisions. Brain imaging studies of comitted American political party members using fMRI showed that it is the emotional parts of the brain which is active during discussions, not the reasoning parts. If you argue with someone about an entrenched position, they defend with their emotions, allowing them to ignore contradictory or conflicting evidence.

In other words, it's very difficult to change someone's mind about an entrenched position with logic, because the logical part of their brain isn't listening.

So, is Martin Newland sane? Yes. He's no more insane than the rest of us. He is, however less rational than the majority of his countrymen.

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