Here's a marvelous excerpt from Andy Norman's book, "Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think."
I read it this morning and realized it's a terrific way to explain what's wrong with the irrationality of religion. Norman imagines that someone wants to figure out how to best undermine human reasoning that enables us to distinguish truth from falsehoods, what's real from what's illusory.
As you'll read below, what results is... (no big surprise) religion.
Imagine yourself part of a team charged with stress-testing civilization's all-important reasoning practices. The team has an initial meeting, and the question is posed: How can we best disrupt human reasoning practices? The task is then clarified: How can we cause not just temporary disruption, but lasting damage?
"We" would probably begin with a little reverse-engineering: we'd take apart the mechanism and see how it works. This would lead us to the lever-like functioning of reasons and the key role of reason's fulcrum. We'd come to realize that our reasoning practices hinge on a norm that requires us to accommodate ourselves to good reasons.
Then we'd ask: How can we disable this norm?
We might start by creating a loophole in the requirement. Specifically, we could grant that yielding to better reasons is often a good thing, but deny that it's always a good thing. Certain beliefs, we might argue, are too important to be hostage to rational fortune.
Then we'd carve out an exemption and insist that convictions X, Y, and Z belong to a special, protected class. We might call these convictions "articles of faith."
Then, we could spread the good news that this exemption exists.
We'd probably appeal, first, to those who resent rational constraint and explain that on certain subjects, it's okay to believe and assert things without evidence. From there, we could extend the exemption to claims that fly in the face of evidence -- things made unlikely by, or directly contradicted by, facts.
Claims about miracles and virgin birth, for example.
Of course, we might need to traverse this path gradually, giving people time to acclimate to each expansion of the rationality exemption. We could hasten the decline of rational standards by making some articles of faith mandatory: not just permissible, but required. In fact, we could make them nonnegotiable -- the mental equivalent of the immovable object.
The beauty of this approach is that, once such articles of faith are installed, efforts to dislodge them further degrade reason's fulcrum. The lever is obstructed, and something's got to give. A glance at history confirms that we're on to something here: reasoning practices are highly vulnerable to such stresses.
Next, we could sell people on the idea that credulity is virtue.
We could promise fantastic rewards for those who believe and threaten terrifying punishments for those who doubt. We could invent a being capable of delivering such rewards and punishments and make people fear him. Why can't you see this being? Because he's invisible. Why does he need you to believe in him? Never mind: just take our word for it. Why can't we see others experiencing their rewards and punishments? Because all that happens in the afterlife.
If all of this seems patently ridiculous, so much the better -- by which I mean, so much the worse for rationality norms. As the Red Queen told Alice in Wonderland: believing impossible things takes practice.
A saboteur of rational accountability norms must take this to heart. To wreak real havoc, you've got to think big. Go big or go home. Tepid irrationality is for chumps. Real saboteurs wield patently unreasonable claims. When called on it, they double down on the delusion: that's the way to do real damage to rationality norms.
We can also stigmatize those who take epistemic standards seriously. If they're outspoken, we can demonize them. We can label them, say, infidels, heretics, heathens, apostates, or blasphemers. We can teach believers to shun and hate them. We can instruct believers to kill nonbelievers (as sacred texts sometimes do).
Only a few believers need to follow through: the rest of the nonbelievers usually get the message and stop enforcing rationality norms. A little intimidation goes a long way.
We could also harness identity-protective cognition. The idea, again, is that people will usually bend rationality norms in order to protect their identity. The thing to do, then, is get people hooked on one or another ideological identity -- preferably before they're old enough to understand the consequences.
We could saddle children with the identities of their parents. Install an ideological identity early enough, and identity-protective thinking will often be with that person for life. From then on, challenges to identity-defining beliefs will feel offensive and somehow unfair. This is sure to damage reason's fulcrum.
We can also harness humanity's tribal instincts. We can build communities around arbitrary doctrinal differences and have the members of these communities validate each other's defiance of rationality norms. Us-versus-them stories can be counted on to stir deep emotions and skew rational judgment.
We can exploit humanity's "mattering instinct"-- our need to feel that our lives matter.
To do this, just sell a group on the idea that they're God's chosen people. Or better yet, that God has some mysterious mission for them. Faced with temptation like that, rational resolution often crumbles. Mattering myths are highly seductive -- and useful for subverting rationality norms.
We could exploit the evolved brain's penchant for kin sympathy. Those who share the tenets of the faith, for example, could be called "brother" or "sister." We could exploit our natural deference to authority. Authority figures in the community could be called "father" or "mother superior." The sky being at the center of the big myth could be referred to as "lord" or "king."
We could confer status on the most aggesssibe champions of the faith, calling them "reverend," "holy father," "guru," or "ayatollah." We could give these champions a platform and an audience -- a "pulpit," say, and a "flock." They could use this platform to publicly violate rationality norms and celebrate the defiant disregard of such norms.
Stories glorifying the sort of blind faith that Abraham had for God would be especially useful. (The founding parable of the so-called Abrahamic religions involves a father, Abraham, willing to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion to God.) See Abraham's breathtaking willingness to sacrifice not only his reason but also his son? The clear implication is that that's the sort of faith to aspire to.
We could develop a concept of the "sacred" or "holy" that paints certain things as too precious to question. We could label entire lines of inquiry profane. Or sacrilegious. We could promote contempt for intellectual virtues and deride rationality norms as "scientism run amok."