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People are not rational, damn it

Recently, I wandered onto the blog of a reasonably outspoken atheist. (This is one of the dangers of having a bit of spare time and an Internet connection.) The person writing the blog claims that she is willing to hold a respectful conversation with any believers who come to her site to exchange ideas. I think she actually believes this, and she does try to follow through on it. However, she is also carrying a great deal of hostility to religion in general and Christianity in particular. I'm not sure whether she's aware of this, but several of her regular commentators are quite open about their hostility to and contempt for any kind of religious belief.

This is a somewhat uncomfortable situation for me. It's not because I'm a believer - I'm not, at least not in any way that's even close to what they mean by the term - but because that much anger and hostility makes me want to pat heads and offer blankets and tell them that it'll be okay... or else just go away. I haven't just gone away yet, and I'm not entirely sure why.

I think it's because I'm trying to put my finger on what it is about their perspective that bothers me, and I think I almost have the shape of it. Part of it, anyway. It isn't the hostility to religion, or the apparent fear that if they acknowledge that holding religious beliefs isn't a moral weakness, they'll immediately backslide into believing. Those are probably worth discussing, but that's not what I want to talk about here.

What I want to talk about is the strong, mostly-unstated belief that if something doesn't make sense, people should stop doing it. It's the attitude that everyone should just grow up and be rational, already. And I have a problem with this.

People aren't rational, damn it.

We're certainly capable of rationality, but that isn't the same thing. People are emotional, tribal, prone to anthropomorphizing, and generally quite bad at risk assessment. We do things because we want to, or because we enjoy them, or because we feel driven to do them. People choose hobbies not on any rational basis, but because something appeals to them. Left alone, people tend to sort themselves into groups, and then look for ways to distinguish themselves from other groups. We see faces in th arrangement of headlights on the front of a car, and talk about our computers as if they had personalities and volition. We base our ideas of how dangerous something is on how scary it looks, rather than how likely it is to actually happen; this is why so many people are afraid of flying, but are willing to drive anywhere and everywhere.

We could argue a bit about whether Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs constitutes a rational basis for decision-making, but my point stands. Once you get past food, clothing, and shelter, people's basic motivations are not rational. We may approach them rationally, try to reach our goals in a rational fashion, but - again - that's not the same thing.

(I suppose I need to mention, explicitly, that these things are going to be more or less true for specific people. Even taking individual variation into account, though, these behaviors appear to be wired into the species.)

That being the case, expecting people to be rational, or trying to live your life in an entirely rational fashion, is - pardon me - irrational. It's also likely to be, or become, very frustrating. Yes, people are adaptable and can learn to apply critical thinking and good research methodology to their everyday lives, and there are a lot of people who would probably benefit from that. Even so, the emotional/instinctive part of our behavior never really goes away.

And, having said that, maybe now I can go away and quit bothering the atheists.