Ridiculous Religious Reasons May 4, 2009

Ridiculous Religious Reasons

This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the American Humanist Association. He usually blogs at Rant & Reason.

Scott Adams, Dilbert cartoonist, has said silly things about evolution and religion.  But his recent blog post entitled The Power of Ridiculous Reasons brings up an interesting idea worth contemplating:

The human mind is wired to accept ridiculous reasons as if they are legitimate. Studies have shown that people are more likely to agree to a favor if the word “because” is used in the request. It doesn’t seem to matter what follows that word. As long as the sentence is in the form of a reason, people accept it as though some actual reason is present.

I’ve often used this method. I think I’ve mentioned these uses before, but I will reiterate to set up my larger point.

Guys tend to argue over who picks up the check after dinner. In cases where I know this situation is likely to arise, I prepare a ridiculous “because” reason that I trot out when the moment is right. After allowing the other guy or guys to make their ceremonial attempt at paying, I say something like “I’ll pay today because this is the seven month anniversary of when you bought your car. Congratulations.” I’m exaggerating slightly, but it isn’t hard to come up with some trivial reason why you should pay. The funny thing is that any reason you offer will settle the discussion. It works every time.

What do you think would happen if Adams turned it around and told them “YOU should pay the check today because this is the seven-month anniversary of when you bought your car.”  Can you picture that working?  Neither can I.

But I don’t want to dismiss the insight; I just want to modify it to say: “The human mind is wired to accept ridiculous reasons as if they are legitimate as long as it supports their desires.”

I instantly thought of Francis Collins, who wrote that he became a Christian because he saw a waterfall frozen in three streams, invoking the Trinity in his eyes.  In his review of Collins’ book, Sam Harris tears into the argument.

It is at this point that thoughts of suicide might occur to any reader who has placed undue trust in the intellectual integrity of his fellow human beings.  One would hope that it would be immediately obvious to Collins that there is nothing about seeing a frozen waterfall (no matter how frozen) that offers the slightest corroboration of the doctrine of Christianity…

If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything. Let us say that I saw the same waterfall, and its three streams reminded me of Romulus, Remus and the She-wolf, the mythical founders of Rome. How reasonable would it be for me to know, from that moment forward, that Italy would one day win the World Cup? This epiphany, while perfectly psychotic, would actually put me on firmer ground than Collins—because Italy did win the World Cup. Collins’ alpine conversion would be a ludicrous non sequitur even if Jesus does return to Earth trailing clouds of glory.

A frozen waterfall has less to do with the truth of supernatural claims than the seven-month anniversary of a purchase has to do with who pays for dinner.  People looking for a reason to act or believe will latch onto flimsy reasons to do so.  Religion relies on it.

When I was in college, I used to talk to the Mormon missionaries whenever I got the chance.  They told me that in order to believe, I had to pray to God with an open heart, hoping to know Him.  I asked whether I could try with an open mind, hoping to know the truth.  They didn’t think those were the same.  Neither did I.

But of course… if God doesn’t exist, then how is it there are PYGMIES + DWARFS??


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  • Ryan

    I’d just like to point out that the study Adams was probably referring to might have been interpreted a little oddly. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1396#more-1396 gives a good (if lengthy) rundown that, in my opinion, debunks the idea that “because” was the important factor in the requests.

  • People interpreting things in terms of their religious beliefs is a classic case of confirmation bias. Countless psychological studies have shown that people will interpret information (such as phenomenological events) in a way that supports their beliefs. Also, people will seek out confirming information, rather than information that might challenge their beliefs.

  • To add to David on the confirmation bias, people in groups tend to experience polarization. So one person will confirm his or her views, but when that person gathers with others having similar views, the views become more extreme. A trip to an evangelical church or fundamentalist mosque should provide evidence of this, though it can happen in any context (i.e.: religion is not required).

  • Grimalkin

    Just on the Mormon thing, I was recently asked by a Mormon friend to pray, really pray, and ask God to open my heart.

    I told him “I can’t do that because I don’t believe in God. If I were to pray, it would mean lying and that’s against my morals.” He accepted my reason and my alternate promise (that I would keep an open mind, whatever that means, while reading the Book of Mormon).

    I do think it’s rather funny, though. It’s like Mormons truly cannot understand what it’s like not to be religious. What if I asked someone “close your eyes and telepathically communicate with a unicorn”? It makes no sense.

  • Larry Huffman

    You are right Grim…I was the same way when a devout mormon. I used to talk to someone about the book of mormon…and when they would offer the kinds of comments that you and Jesse offered, I would be thrown for a loop. What? How can this be?…would seem to be my reaction. ironically, it was I who would walk away wondering why the plainess of it all was just not obvious to the other person.

    I have thought long and hard about what made me a mormon…and to dovetail back to the original post…made me accept unreasonable propositions. it was various needs of my own. For example…when the missionaries began talking to my family I was 11…and my dad was really into it. My needs were such that I did not want my family to accept something that I did not. I did not want to get left behind spiritually…so when I first read the book of mormon…even though 1 Nephi chapter 4 would trip me up for the rest of my believing life…I forced myself to accept it. I willingly admit now that my acceptence was predicated upon something other than the actual truth. Such as…my needs and desires. Plain and simple.

    And…I will not mention details as they are his private reasons…I know that my dad being into mormonism and ready to accept the ‘gospel’ was also based on other needs and desires of his. It really had little to do with what the mormons were teaching. I believe that had any legit (chuckle) church had sent missionaries to my dad’s door that day, he would ahve joined them.

    Oh…and as an aside…if you want to really get into reasons. my dad was always one to respect hard work and people not affraid of work. The missionaries came to our door when my dad and I were up to our chests in a muddy hole while we tried to fix our water main. The missionaries stripped down to their undershirts and climbed in and helped…instantly earning enormous respect from my dad…which in turn had an impact on his ability to accept what they were selling.

  • Grimalkin

    You know, Larry, you’ve touched on something that always scares me quite a bit. When I was a believer, I really believed. Just like you say, I would have a conversation with someone who didn’t believe and come away thinking “why don’t they get it? It’s all so simple!” So it scares me that I feel the same way now, even though I’m on the other side of the fence.

    The only real difference between my believing days and my free days is that I no longer get stomach aches and headaches all the time. I think it might be from the stress of saying “why don’t they get it? It’s all so simple!” despite part of me knowing that wasn’t true. Cognitive dissonance is such a bitch.

  • Larry Huffman

    Grim…hehe…I have had the same thought process. If nothing, I am acutely aware of my faults before, while devout and do not want to repeat them (I am rather embarassed by my views and actions from that time period, actually…though I was right in line with my religion’s expectations).

    I think the thing to me is that I have nothing vested in what I beleive. I believe, bascially, a bunch of scientitifc fact, stacked on top of theories and hypotheses. Any of it can be wrong…I am very free to admit. So…I am not really out there promoting something that must be believed…and I am not worried about anyone’s eternal soul.

    So…I am not really ‘so sure’ of what I do believe. In fact, what I do believe is that there is much we do not know, and much we still ahve to discover wabout what we already think we know.

    I AM sure the god of the bible (and the book of mormon) is not real…but that is because he contradicts himself right in the pages of his own book to a level that I can say so without hesitation. And that does not take faith, just the ability to read something open mindedly. (A god of love does not create a place called hell for example…contradicts the god’s very description of himself, thus discounting him as credible…add that he cannot lie…and well, then he cannot be either).

    And there are times when I have to tell myself that I am not a missionary for atheism. So…yes…like you I am mindful of that possible slide into zealous atheism.

  • Grimalkin

    Larry, I think the greatest revelation for me was when I first realized what went on inside of me when I learned something new.

    As a believer, learning a new fact would throw me through a loop. I’d have to rationalize, ignore, push and shove, and make whatever new fact it was fit in with my beliefs. Take, for example, learning about Native American culture. Why would God reveal himself only in the Old World and not give Native Americans the chance to be saved?

    As an Atheist, learning a new fact makes me happy. I don’t have to be scared. Whenever I learn something new, my experience is one of “ooooh! That makes sense now! And that means that this and that are also true” and so forth. I can think new information all the way through without being afraid.

    But that feeling of confidence, of knowing beyond any doubt that the “God of the Book” isn’t real, still gives me those nasty flash-backs!

  • Grimalkin – I thought you might appreciate this quote from John Stuart Mill in his Speech on Secular Education:

    I cannot help remarking how much less confidence professed Christians appear to have in the truth and power of their principles than infidels generally have in theirs. Disbelievers in Christianity almost always hail the advance of public intelligence as favourable to them ; the more informed and exercised a mind is, the more likely they account it to adopt their opinions : but I cannot find a trace of similar confidence in most of the professedly religious.

  • I instantly thought of Francis Collins, who wrote that he became a Christian because he saw a waterfall frozen in three streams, invoking the Trinity in his eyes. In his review of Collins’ book, Sam Harris tears into the argument.

    Forgive me because I haven’t read either but was Collins really offering an argument? It just sounds more like a confession or the sharing of a personal moment. Just a, “this is what did it for me,” tale.

    I’m willing to listen to those stories. I’ve heard such stories from religious people and atheists alike. Some moment when a symbolic event or insight solidifies a resolve or belief or idea. It’s how our brains often work and I’m not so willing to devalue it by calling it ridiculous.