It is almost universally accepted in the new atheist movement that religious fundamentalists are synonymous with irrationality, and that the moderately religious are relatively more grounded in reality, and more rational. This perception is mainly based on the level of acceptance of scientific theories by these two groups. In general, you are likely to find more rejection of scientific theories amongst the fundamentalists than among the moderately religious. For instance, fundamentalists will not accept that evolution is true, or that the earth is more than 10,000 years old.
An interesting question is – how much more irrational is the fundamentalist position as compared to the moderate one? There is no denying that the moderate position is much more desirable than the fundamentalist one. But is that true because the moderate position is more rational? It certainly is more in touch with reality. But is this closeness to reality a product of sound reasoning? Of rationality?
An important factor in a scientific theory is the number of assumptions required to support it. An assumption is something taken for granted, or something that has not been proven yet. Obviously, the fewer the assumptions in a theory, the more it is grounded in evidence, and lesser the chances of the theory being falsified in the future.
Another important foundation of reason and science is consistency. A scientific theory may be supported by a hundred different observations or facts, and may make numerous correct predictions, and yet, if one new fact comes to light that contradicts this theory, or if a single observation goes against its predictions, the theory is in trouble. This is the beauty of the scientific method – consistency. And this consistency is why we can safely say that the scientific method is the closest we can get to truths in any meaningful way.
And finally, we have the outcomes or predictions of a theory. Given a set of inputs, a good scientific theory should predict precise outcomes. A theory which says the answer is precisely A is more useful than one that says the answer is either A or B, which in turn is still far more useful than one that says the answer lies between A and Z.
Since the moderates are far more rational than the fundamentalists, we can expect them to outscore them in the above criteria. Let’s examine these in turn.
The assumption that there is a god is one common to both groups. But what is the basis for this assumption? In the case of the fundamentalist, there is one basic assumption, from which everything follows. And that is, that his holy book, whether it is the Bible or the Koran, or something else, is a book of facts, or the word of god. Without going into too many details of what these books contain, how rational is it to believe this? To believe this, you must accept that none of the people who contributed to this book were lying. Without examining the details of the book, there is really no way to determine this. But we can say that there is a possibility that the book might be true. That the collective words of numerous authors over the centuries confer some credibility on its truth value. We can say there is some basis for making this assumption. Now consider the moderate stance. The moderate does not believe the holy books to be true literally. Or, in the moderate’s stance, the holy book is unreliable. So what is the basis for the god assumption? In most cases, it is nothing more than a feeling, or something like “I believe because I want to believe”. A famous example (or infamous if you’re a rational person) of such a feeling is that expressed by Francis Collins, the current head of the NIH in the US. Collins saw a frozen waterfall which somehow convinced him not only that god exists, but that the god is a Christian god. As a scientist Collins probably realized he would have to justify his belief in a Christian god as opposed to one of the numerous other ones competing for his gullibility. So he pointed out that the frozen waterfall had 3 streams, which corresponds to the concept of trinity in Christianity. You would expect a bit more solid reasoning from a scientist, but let’s assume for a moment that beauty in nature somehow symbolizes, and also is, evidence of god. Then, as a skeptic, we could ask why the 3 streams represent the trinity of Christianity, and not the Trimurti of Hinduism?
So while we can pin down the number of assumptions of the fundamentalist to 1, which is simply that the historic holy book is a true eye witness account of people over the centuries, what can we say about the assumptions of the moderates? One of them assumes that a frozen waterfall comprising of 3 streams shows that there is a Christian god. Some other moderates assume that our morality is a sign of god. And still some others assume that god is talking to them through intermediaries like the pope and other religious leaders. And let us not forget those who simple assert the existence of god because they can feel the love of god. If you visited an alien planet, half of whose inhabitants claimed that they were created by powerful beings as an experiment in galactic civilizations because of an old historic document passed down the generations, while the other half claimed to be created by the same powerful beings for tens of different reasons, who would you be more inclined to believe?
For me, the truly great thing about the scientific method is consistency. The consistency of the theory of gravity means I have no doubt falling off the cliff of the Himalayas will result in the same end as falling off the 20th floor of a building. Not very pleasant results, but unquestionably, consistent ones. Consistency means that an airplane that flies me from Bombay to New York will also be able to fly me back from New York to Bombay. Consistency rocks.
Since fundamentalists tend to follow their holy books literally, they are as consistent as their books allow them to be. There are of course, some creative interpretations of what the book really means when it comes to passages that advise stoning of people and other such stone age practices. But by and large, the fundamentalist stays true to the book. Adultery is immoral, as is homosexuality, and anyone who doesn’t follow their version of the holy book, is condemned to hell in the mind of the fundamentalist. A Christian fundamentalist will not say agree that the earth is more than a few thousand years old because it would contradict the bible. He will also not accept evolution because the bible says that god created all the species within a week. The fundamentalist is consistent, even if dead wrong.
On the other hand, the moderate has no trouble accepting line 34 on page 76 of his holy book with the same ease that she rejects line 68 on page 234. On what basis does she determine which parts are correct and which are not? At worst we may put it down to her whims, and at best, we can say that she follows the science where the evidence is overwhelming, and follows her book elsewhere wherever it is convenient for her. If the science shows that the earth is around 4 billion years old, the moderate is happy to assume that one day used by god actually stands for hundreds of millions of years. But in some other chapter, the day is again interpreted as 24 hours because otherwise it just wouldn’t make any sense that Moses stayed in the mountains for millions of years. So consistency and the moderate go together like water and fire, one of them invariably disappearing in a noisy confusion of smoke when they come in contact.
Given that the only thing the fundamentalist believes in as a source of truth is his holy book, we can have an honest debate with him, We can point out the errors and inaccuracies in the holy books. We can falsify the claims of the fundamentalist. If the holy books says the earth is a few thousand years old and science says it is a few billion years old, we have a precise point of disagreement. As rationalists, we choose science and the fundamentalist chooses the book, again both being consistent in their positions. Where does the moderate fit in? Somewhere in between. While reason and logic tell us that a virgin cannot give birth and that wine cannot be turned into water, and that even the most circus trained snake has only been trained to say “his”, the moderate does not think these beliefs are unrealistic. But before you dismiss the moderate as being irrational, out he comes with his strong belief in science and evolution! But there is a catch here too. The moderate says that the process of evolution was started by god. We can accept this as a somewhat plausible explanation on the behalf of someone handicapped by a belief in god. But wait, that is not all. Not only does the moderate somehow know that god started evolution, he also knows that once god started it, he never interfered in it. Creationists are ridiculed for believing something written in a book. On the other hand, moderates who make incredible, unverifiable claims like the one above are given a free pass, and even respected, simply because the effects of such claims means that science can be kept free of religion. How on earth can one claim to know that there is a god, that that god is all powerful, all knowing, and by the way, doesn’t ever influence the process of evolution, lest religion be introduced in a science class? This moderate position is really far more arrogant and irrational than anything the fundamentalist can dream of. Not only does the moderate know that there is a god, he knows through his own mind what exactly god does and does not do. He knows the mind of god. Maybe he thinks he is god.
Levels and Effects of Irrationality
There is no denying that for rational people, the religious moderates who accept the above scientific theories are far more desirable to have around than the fundamentalists. Because in this day and age of nuclear bombs, we want as few people as possible believing that the end times are near and that it is their holy duty to bring them upon us. We would also prefer not having around people who think adultery should be punishable by death and that homosexuality is immoral. And surely, none of us want to have more of those who want to replace the entire chapter on evolution with 3 words – God did it. There is pretty much a consensus on this.
In the rational community, there is little or no respect for the fundamentalist position, and it is frequently mocked, looked down upon, and dismissed as irrational. Using reason, evidence, and logic, we can disprove the claim that the earth is a few thousand years old. We cannot disprove the claim that god started evolution and then never interfered in it. While the fundamentalist is dead wrong about a lot of things, at least he comes from an intellectually honest position, a more or less consistent position, and certainly a testable position. On the other hand, the moderate is only wrong about the things science cannot absolutely disprove. The moderate dances with both the fundamentalist and the rationalists as and when it benefits him. It is not an intellectually honest position, but one of convenience.
How can we measure irrationality? If we simply consider being wrong as being irrational then it is easy to say that the fundamentalists are the more irrational ones. But I like to look at it a bit differently. We know that belief in god is irrational. Especially an all powerful, all knowing one. But both the fundamentalist and the moderate believe in this god. At this point we can say that the level of irrationality of both is pretty much the same. This is the basis of all further irrational positions held by both. The belief in god. However, if you do accept god, then is it irrational to accept that god created all the species? If god is all powerful, why couldn’t god have created the millions of different species? If you accept that an all powerful and knowing god created the earth, then is it not possible that his tweaking of various parameters led to the changes in the laws of physics leading to incorrect assumptions in the scientific methods used for determining the age of the earth?
A world without god is a very restricted one. Once you put god in this world, anything is possible. In a world with god it is only as irrational to believe that god definitely does not interfere in evolution as it is to believe that god changed the laws of physics a few thousand years ago. A world with god is a world of infinite possibilities. It is the fundamentalist who actually makes this world a saner one by restricting it to the parameters established by his holy book.
And so while we may agree that the effect of the irrationalities of the moderates are far more desirable than the effect of the irrationalities of the fundamentalist, there is a strong case to be made for the argument that the level of rationality of a moderate is not much higher than the level of rationality of the fundamentalist, if at all.