The Rationalizing Animal, Part I

Yep, that’s us, Homo sapiens, the much vaunted human race, “the paragon of animals,” widely believed to have been fashioned from dust and ribs by the omnipotent and benevolent Creator of the Cosmos – and in His own image, no less. That’s us, the only earthly species capable of rationalizing, a capacity we constantly push to delusional, self-aggrandizing extremes, especially here in the U.S. in recent years.

Webster defines rationalize as follows: (to) “attempt to explain or justify (one's own or another's behavior or attitude) with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate.” My own working definition goes along these lines: making up plausible, often elaborate and ingenious explanations to support ideologically mandated beliefs or to defend the perceived integrity of one’s self concept.

The use of rationalization as a “defense mechanism” has been studied extensively by psychologists and is one of the key elements of cognitive dissonance theory. This venerable theory posits that conflicting ideas held simultaneously create an uncomfortable emotional feeling (dissonance) that motivates efforts to relieve it. The most intense dissonance results from information that threatens to undermine strongly held beliefs that are integral to one’s self-concept or public identity. Whatever motivates it on any particular occasion, rationalization is the self-serving opposite of objectivity, the opposite of basing one’s beliefs and opinions on evidence and reason. It’s what we humans naturally do, something we’re really good at, at least when playing to a sympathetic audience or to ourselves in the theater of our own mind.

Rationalization is by no means the only mechanism for reducing dissonance: other time-honored, universal techniques include confirmation bias, denial, blame, and changing one’s actions or beliefs. The last is admirable when done with the intention of bringing behavior and beliefs in line with evidence and sound reasoning. Call it scientific thinking, which seems comparatively rare outside of scientific circles. And as I have argued in earlier columns, it does not come naturally, but requires training and discipline. Even many scientists appear to abandon it as soon as they step outside their science milieu.

So once again I am compelled to return to my recurring, doomsday theme of the fatal flaws of human nature. Now, more than ever, it’s essential we get things right. Now, more than ever, too many of us are denying and rejecting science and reason.

“How’s that?” someone might ask. “Isn’t that very human nature you decry the reason for our survival? Didn’t it see us through much more difficult challenges in our distant past?”

To which I must unequivocally answer, “Yes and maybe.” If our evolved nature, in all its stupendous complexity, had not been adapted to the conditions of the ancient environment, we wouldn’t be here to argue about it. So evolution clearly worked for the human species, to such a degree that, for better or for worse, we now dominate a small planet – except, of course, for the things that are beyond our control. What’s discouraging is how many of those things appear to be self-inflicted and wholly preventable.

But the real question is about our future, and whether we even have one. As I understand evolution, it is, by our standards of reckoning time, gradual. As in very, very slow, except at the microscopic level. Evolution is also local, which is to say that species gradually evolve to survive in their local habitats. If the habitat changes too quickly, the glacially slow process of natural selection cannot keep pace and the species may go extinct.

Now consider humanity’s contemporary habitat, planet earth, that has changed so rapidly in the past few hundred years (which, of course, is a tiny blip in evolutionary time). Biologically we are not significantly different from the people who founded this nation. Yet some of the planetary physical and social changes we have wrought since then are so ominous that it’s difficult even to be cautiously optimistic. But I remain optimistic in this limited sense: We have the knowledge and the intellectual tools to cope, even at this late hour; but we must choose to use them. Unfortunately, there are formidable obstacles of our own making standing in the way, foremost of which are primitive belief systems that have gained alarming traction in this country. I’m speaking of right-wing political and religious dogmas, which I view as dangerous, collective mental illnesses.

I’m not qualified by training or knowledge to describe and explain biological human nature, a fascinating topic that is under active and fruitful scientific investigation. But I am persuaded that it has been shown to be a real and meaningful concept, that we are not blank slates inscribed only by our respective environments. Any more than we are special creations implanted with immaterial minds, supernatural souls, and free will, whatever that incoherent concept can possibly mean.

We are the same species that has been on this planet for something on the order of 200,000 years; and it’s beginning to look as if our technological success has dangerously exceeded our scientific self-understanding and collective maturity. That’s why I think it’s of utmost importance to help sound the alarm that a worthwhile future depends upon accepting the fact that we ourselves are fully natural creatures and not the quasi-mystical beings of ancient mythologies. The latter viewpoint is where our human nature has taken us over the eons, and it is simply no longer viable – the world is just too dangerous. I worry along with Sam Harris “that religion is one of the forces that has balkanized our world” and we won’t be able to survive our religious differences indefinitely. I’m also on board with Richard Dawkins, who concluded his classic book “The Selfish Gene” with these stirring words:

"The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight – our capacity to simulate the future in imagination – could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term ones …We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We ... have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

Which brings me back to religion in this country, specifically the fundamentalist/evangelical strains that are major sources of “the selfish memes of our indoctrination.” These religions aggressively assert that virtually all the important moral, ethical, and political answers are contained in a particular ancient holy book. Never mind that it’s filled with brutality, misogyny, and all manner of bizarre and inhumane ideas. According to believers, it was directly inspired by a supernatural, all-powerful Creator and therefore it is the Absolute Truth. The faith-heads who are guided by the words in this book are well organized and constitute an alarming cultural and political force. There seems to be no limit to their use of rationalization, denial, blame – all the mechanisms discussed above – to defend their primitive world view against the dissonance of the modern world, especially scientific evidence and reason.

My next installment, “The Rationalizing Animal, Part II,” will present chapter and verse – a generous sample of the horrors found in the Bible as well as the bizarre words of some of the most prominent fundagelical leaders. It is important to hear what these aspiring theocrats actually believe, because they are deadly serious; and if their ideas prevail we are all in for some real-life horrors. With the Republican majority in the House and in state houses across the nation, we’re already getting a sense of what could be in store. In the abortion wars, for example, they’re proposing to force women to carry the fetuses of rapists to term. And that’s just one example in a nationwide onslaught of irrationality based on primitive religion.

One of the accusations leveled against the so-called new atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al.) is that they caricature religion. But as Harris writes, “We do no such thing. We simply . . . take the specific claims of religion seriously.” And all of us need to be aware of what those claims are, because many of them are egregiously incompatible with the Constitution and our democratic traditions.

Another accusation is that the new atheists either don’t understand or else ignore more sophisticated theology. It must be conceded that Dawkins has made many provocative comments, including “What makes anyone think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?” So in fairness, let me conclude with recent words from Dr. William Lane Craig, arguably the most sophisticated fundamentalist theologian in the country. He is talking about the genocide and infanticide the Old Testament God ordered the Israelites to carry out against the Canaanites:

“So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. . . . the death of these children was actually their salvation.”

Now there’s some of that old time “sophisticated theology” for you. Genocide and infanticide are just hunky-dory as long as God commands it. Makes you wonder how widespread that kind of thinking is in our democracy?

The wonderful non-theist writer Greta Christina asks why statements like Craig’s don’t get more press, why he hasn’t been widely condemned from Christian pulpits and in church publications across the land?

“Because the things he said are not that unusual. . . . Because lots of people share his views. . . . Because these kinds of contortions are far too common in religious morality. Because all too often, religion twists even the most fundamental human morality into positions that, in any other circumstance, most people would see as repulsive, monstrous, and entirely indefensible.”

Rationalize, deny, blame – anything to maintain their depraved belief that every word in their Holy Bible is literally true. So I’m also asking, where are the moderate Christian voices? Why aren’t they forcefully repudiating the hatred and lunacy being promulgated in the name of their god? Back in my Catholic youth we used to pity and/or ridicule these Holy Roller religious nuts. Now they have vast political power and everyone’s afraid of them. Well, fear is one thing; but totally misplaced respect is something else. Why can’t moderates stand up and say that what the religious right espouses is nonsense?

In the meantime the fundies’ political influence keeps growing, with potentially devastating consequences for women, children, education, freedom of expression, world peace . . .