Want to Transform the World? Reason is Not Enough

hummingbird in flight

Reason is a wonderful thing. We'd do well to cultivate more of it, especially when it comes to our political discourse. And yet, I think it is important that we are honest with ourselves by recognizing that reason is not enough. If you are an atheist living in a predominately religious country, you already know that reason is far from sufficient. If it was, religion would have disappeared long ago. We know this, but we sometimes forget that "more reason" is not a complete answer. As much as I'd like to see more reasonable atheists, I recognize that we are making a serious mistake by promoting reason at the expense of all else and expecting it to solve our problems.

The problem we face is that many of our friends and neighbors are not persuaded by reason. If you doubt this, try providing one of your Christian friends with a solidly reasonable argument that their preferred god probably doesn't exist. It rarely works because most people do not base their beliefs on reason. We know this, but we often struggle to remember it. If we want to change the world, we are going to have to connect with people to persuade them. To do so, we are going to need to be able to speak their language. And if we're honest with ourselves, I think we know that their language isn't reason.

I believe there are at three domains where the limits of reason for the purpose of persuasion and influence are so obvious they almost don't require mention: religion, politics, and advertising. People don't believe in gods because they are applying reason. Most religious believers won't easily be reasoned out of their religious beliefs. The same is true of political views. This is why you get so frustrated when you try to convince your Fox News loving relative that they've been misled and get nowhere. And it could probably be argued that the entire point of advertising is to short-circuit reason by getting people to buy things they don't need. Clearly, reason is not the preferred strategy for facilitating this.

Have you ever heard yourself characterize a conversation with a religious believer or political opponent as "like banging my head against a wall" or something similar? If so, my guess is that it feels like that because you are trying to use reason to persuade someone of something who isn't terribly affected by reason. Reason has very little to do with why they believe what they believe. That's why it feels like you are speaking a different language (or ramming your head against a wall).

If we want to change the world, we must "win hearts and minds." That is, we must persuade people to change some of their views and behaviors. Reason alone is not going to get us there. Worse still, too much emphasis on reason in our communication may alienate the people we need to win over. This is part of what is meant by "meeting people where they're at." I think this is a point that would have fit into the context of this post about what those of us who would like to see fewer Republicans in office should be doing very well.

What's the take home message here? Keep spreading reason because we sure as hell need more of it. At the same time, recognize its limits and don't expect it to be sufficient. That is a recipie for frustration rather than progress. And yes, I am well aware that I need to do a better job of taking my own advice on this issue.