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What Does 'Irrational' Mean?

There are a few terms that I find misapplied and misunderstood over and over again. Topping the list are 'irrational' and 'unnatural'. Here's an example of a common (incorrect) use of 'irrational' from the discussion of my post Why We Ought to Do Away with the 'Free Exercise' Clause:

All religious belief (whether it has a name or is simply a vague belief in god or similar supernatural being) has the potential to lead to conflict simply because all religious belief relies to some degree on irrational thinking, validating this type of thinking. By practicing and justifying irrational thinking, people behave irrationally in other areas of life and come into conflict with others.

And a few others:

Belief in the supernatural is irrational. It has nothing to do with the values one might derive from that belief. That's a separate issue. Belief in something for which no evidence exists is irrational. Not all action that stems from religious belief is irrational, but the belief itself relies to some degree on irrationality.

What is rational about believing something for which there is no credible evidence? Something doesn't become rational simply because it can be rationalized. If that were the case, nothing would be irrational because we can rationalize anything. Rationalization of supernatural belief always relies in some way on at least one if not several suppositions that are not rational. This does not mean that some aspects of the rationalization aren't rational but that the rationalization contains and depends on at least one if not several arguments that are not rational.


The Meaning of 'Rational'

Irrational belief is simply belief that is not rational. But what exactly is rationality? The commentor I quoted seems to have the impression that rationality implies having some certain set of assumptions (presumably those she herself has).

But rationality isn't about what assumptions you have. Every belief is ultimately based on assumptions for which there is no justification - but more on that later. Rationality has to do with your process of reasoning for assumptions to conclusions. I'll consider a fairly strong version of 'rational' here, though much weaker versions as possible. In this strict sense, a rational belief is one that a person has come to through a process of reasoning that is logically valid.

So we don't allow anything like "A and not-A" ("A" standing for any particular assertion, like "grass is green" or the like), or "If A, then B. A is the case. Not-B." and so on.

So is there anything irrational about religious belief in general? Unless someone can show some contradiction that is necessary to religious belief (or belief in one or more "higher powers", etc.), the answer to that has to be "no".

About Assumptions

The commentor in question seems to think that some assumptions aren't "good enough" to count as rational. And of course, although some particular belief might be rational within a person's larger belief system (it follows from other beliefs he or she has, or at least does not contradict them), if some of their assumptions are irrational, their belief system as a whole won't be a rational one.

But, as I mentioned before, every belief system ultimately rests on certain assumptions that cannot be proven, argued for, or even supported by evidence - this is what the commentor I've quoted fails to realize.

Unsupported and Unsupportable Assumptions - click here to continue.


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