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The Intuitive Response to Criticism of Religion

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Hi, I’m Seth Kurtenbach.  Some hubbub recently developed regarding a recent Science article, or rather, its title.  Like most of the respondents, I haven’t read the article, but that’s okay, because I mean to comment only on the responses to it.  I’m told by a very reliable source that the study itself, consisting of five experiments approaching the issue from a variety of angles, was well-designed and well-executed, and that in the article the authors carefully discourage overly-zealous inferences from the results.  I want to focus on two things here.  First, I’ll seek an explanation for why Professor Ernst, the very reliable source, is so accommodating to religious belief, while elsewhere in his blog he is confrontational toward political positions rather than religious ones, appealing to similar rhetorical techniques as the atheists he decries.  I think this difference among his treatments of positions with which he disagrees is explainable in terms of social taboos.  Second, I will take a look at this theist’s intuitive response to Scientific American‘s report on the Science article.  His response is a good illustration of why intuition is a poor guide to critical thinking.

In his article on the religious belief stuff, Ernst writes,

But I also don’t come down on the side of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the rest who often resort to rhetoric when it comes to questions of faith. I think they do everyone a disservice, and that a lot of people on all sides of this issue deserve a lot more respect.

This is interesting for two reasons.  First, earlier in his blog, Ernst explains that he’s an atheist, and that he’s not one of those “what’s true for some may not be true for others” sort of atheist,

I’m an atheist, and have been for all my adult life (and much of my life before that, too). I’ve never been shy about being an atheist, and I definitely don’t take the view that atheists and religious believers can both be “right” in any meaningful sense. If anything is true, it is that God either exists or does not exist, and there’s no middle ground to be had. Someone has to be wrong about the question of the existence of God. My opinion is that people who believe in God are wrong…

Now, I know Ernst personally, and I bet he’s got some pretty damn good reasons for being an atheist, and for disagreeing with the conclusion of theists.  I bet his reasons against theism are about as good as, if not better than, his reasons against free-market libertarianism.  He describes his position in that debate thus [his emphasis],

Of the people who profess to believe in the efficiency of unfettered free markets, there are actually two types: wingnuts and hypocrites.

Of course, after making such a strong rhetorical claim, he proceeds to give reasons backing it up.  They are good reasons, in my opinion, and I agree with him on the issue.

So, why the difference in treatment regarding theists and free-market libertarians?  Why so polite and respectful to theists, but so rhetorical and confrontational to free-market libertarians?  I think the explanation is simple:  it is still somewhat socially taboo to criticize religion, but political beliefs are perfectly fair game.  Dawkins and Dennett are often quick to point out this inconsistency of behavior.  There’s no reason that religious beliefs should be free from the exact same type of aggressive criticism that political beliefs receive.  I know Ernst thinks that there are at least two types of theists: dishonest (Plantinga) and deceived (Plantinga’s acolytes); why not give them the royal treatment as well?  It would make people feel uncomfortable, and probably hurt some feelings, but why is that a reason against such rhetoric, when exactly that type of rhetoric is used in political discourse?

Speaking of hurt feelings, let’s take a look at Trent Dougherty’s response to the title of the Scientific American article. Trent tells us that the article in Scientific American caused him to become angry and annoyed, and that these emotional responses prompted him to write a rhetorical, snarky response.  He also tells us that he’s writing the article in a rush, as he’s on his way to a conference (perhaps ironically, the conference is called LOGOS), so he doesn’t have time to remove the emotional snarkiness.  However, he also indicates that he deems his angry response appropriate after giving it some reflection.  I’m not sure how he had enough time to reflect on his anger’s appropriateness, but wrote the resulting article in a rush, late for a LOGOS conference.  Due reflection tends to calm me down considerably.  But then, I’m on quite a bit of Prozac.

It seems like Trent is primarily reacting to the title of the article, “How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God: Religious belief drops when analytical thinking rises.”  My limited knowledge of magazines suggests that titles are often the work of editors, interested in generating attention and controversy. Trent also notes that most of his anger is due to the stuff

“around” the article: that the study would be run the way it was, that so many important questions go unasked, the propagandistic title, the responses to and uses of it etc.

But, Trent mostly directs his anger at the article itself, primarily because it does not support the zeal of the title,

Now look back at the title. What a joke. There is not even a suggestion in the SA article about loss of faith in God. It is not even mentioned.

So, he’s mostly mad about the title, because it is about God and the article is not about God, yet nonetheless he’s determined to

go through [the article] line-by-line to keep focus during the rage.

I’m not sure Trent actually read the original article in Science, but he nonetheless critiques it in virtue of Scientific American‘s report on it (or at least the title of the report).  It seems his emotional response is causing him to completely lose focus on the proper target of his criticism.  This is a potential side-effect of intuitive thinking, I’d say.

Part of Trent’s critique defends theism in virtue of its intuitive appeal, asking, “Don’t we *want* people to think intuitively? Isn’t that better than the alternative?”  Given that the alternative is discursive, analytical thinking, I’d say ‘no’, intuitive thinking is not better, especially with respect to fundamental questions of reality.  I think Trent’s article is the result of mostly intuitive thinking, and it seems to highlight the problems with intuitive thinking.


Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy Master’s student and computer science PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers.  Feel free to contact Seth at with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

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17 comments on “The Intuitive Response to Criticism of Religion

  1. sl0wpoke
    May 4, 2012

    One of the troubling assumptions that I read into this post (perhaps mistakenly) is that the choice between analytical and intuitive thinking is exclusive and exhaustive. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    If I’m not misreading, however, then I think a bit more deserves to be said. The strength of analytical thinking is its fidelity to a chosen model. The weakness of analytical thinking is its total reliance upon said model. We’re all well aware that (1) it’s possible to rationally draw unrealistic conclusions from an unrealistic model, and that (2) models in general have a limited explanatory power, i.e. they must frequently trade completeness for soundness. What kind of thinking should we use to choose our models? And how should we approach those questions that our chosen model is unable to answer, even with unlimited powers of ratiocination? We can push analysis only so far in the pursuit of these goals. At some point, brute choices have to be made.

    Of course, by “intuitive thinking” you may simply be referring to informal reasoning that irregularly and unreflectively applies cognitive biases to reason about a chosen model of the world. In contrast to that sort of thought, rigorous analytical reasoning is certainly preferable. Moreover, I agree that there is a real burden on opponents of a sound rational argument to be precise about the flaws in its underlying assumption or its divergence from the matters under discussion; it is not sufficient to complain about rationality itself. Still, I genuinely believe that there is room for non-analytical assertions in a view of the world that is both thoughtful and well-reasoned, and that essential aspects of religion may indeed dwell in these spaces. While I can’t speak for Zach, I think this is how, for instance, one might profess unequivocal atheism while still remaining charitable to religious arguments.

  2. Zachary Ernst
    May 4, 2012

    Hmm… I guess I was a lot nicer to people who are religious than to people who are free market wingnuts and hypocrites. Let me see if I can give a post hoc justification…

    When I call (some of) the free marketeers “hypocrites”, I just mean that as a description, not an insult. A hypocrite is someone who believes one thing and professes another. I’m much more offended by that than I am by wingnuts. But I’ve got good company, namely Jesus, who said:

    “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Mark 12:38-40)

    (isn’t the thing about devouring widows’ houses especially timely?)

    In my mind, a “wingnut” is (something like) a person who believes something without any justification at all, and in the face of tons of evidence to the contrary.

    What’s interesting about the free marketeers and the efficient market hypothesis is that if you know *anything* about current events, not to mention economics, the evidence against it is simply overwhelming. I mean this literally: there is no evidence whatsoever in favor of it, and there is an entire mountain range of evidence against it. Heck, if you even know that the financial crisis happened at all, you can’t believe the efficient market hypothesis.

    Religious belief is not like that. Of course, there are plenty of wingnuts and hypocrites in religious circles, but there are plenty in any circle. In my experience, there are plenty of religious people who have reasons for their belief, and hold their beliefs sincerely. But in the case of the efficient market hypothesis, there aren’t any.

    Or maybe my blood sugar was low when I wrote about the economics stuff. That’s also possible.

  3. sfatheistfitz
    May 4, 2012

    Nicely said, Seth! It never fails to maze me how people who can look so critically at every other example of faulty reasoning still manage to choke up when dealing with the biggest examples of faulty reasoning we have…
    -Dave Fitzgerald

  4. Alex Papulis
    May 4, 2012

    Seth, could it be that certain beliefs when voiced, with a certain attitude, are simply more annoying? I acknowledge that there’s a taboo. How do you differentiate between observing it or conforming to it, and choosing to behave in a way that merely happens to be in line with it? I know a little about Plantinga. How would you characterize Plantinga acolytes? Are there some paradigm examples?

    Dave F., do you think you can identify certain ways of thinking as faulty? I’d be interested to hear your take on my guest post:

  5. rocketkirchner
    May 5, 2012

    Seth , as i have said and it deserves to be repeated here: the Rational Theists like Plantinga and the Rational Atheists like Dawkins are really on the same side. When Flew became a Theists did anything really change ? he came to the conclusion via rationalism . Inteesting though it may all be ….This is all apriori stuff . Herein lies the problem with analytic philosphy . my next door neighbor was a sincere Christian who was getting his Phd in analytic philosophy , and he used to teach at M.U. great dude. but when i would put forth that deep inner expereince trumps reason and the christian existentialist view it would really bug him .

    Your article made it sound like it is Atheism verses Theism . not the case with rationalists at all. why ? becuase they both come to these conclusions via the finite mind . what the hell is the difference? if you want a real juxtopostion, match up in the ring the absurdist verses the rationalist . The one who claims divine revelation verses the one who says they found truth either in the lab or by their reasoning . Then you got a celebrity death match .


  6. Alex Papulis
    May 7, 2012

    Rocket, what’s the difference between your view and fideism? You appear to take a pretty hostile view towards reason, which seems to be at odds with the pope, for one:

  7. rocketkirchner
    May 7, 2012

    Alex , complex question . i have been in the process for a few decades of reconciling being a catholic with the individualism of Kierkegaard. I am not hostile to reason , but rather that deductive reason and its method bringing one to the truth becuase of the limits of pure reason and the finite mind . You will find in the works of Tertullian , how one balances fidelity to the Church of Rome and the absurdity of faith . in a word it comes down to –”inspired reason ” operating with a more accurate level of the Absolute than deductive reason . Deduction is an ”approximate almost”. inspired reason can be a bullseye . One needs the balance of the fidelity to the Church to make sure that one is not sliding into solipsism with even inspired reason . of course Protestents would disagree…but that is ok .

  8. rocketkirchner
    May 7, 2012

    Seth , hey check out the short story ”the adventure of the Norwood builder ” –Sherlock Holmes . all the facts are leading in one direction but the ideal reasoner Holmes says he disagrees with the facts …”i feel it in my bones”. this is a great story about the conflict between the science of deduction and intuitiion , and how they clash , and how the case comes out at the end . A major change in the midst of the Holmesian canon .

  9. rocketkirchner
    May 7, 2012

    Alex , one more thing — one must take ALL the papal encyclicals thru history in context , not just the present Bishop of Rome . it takes time and study . you will find some leaning in some directions toward reason , and others leaning heavier on faith .

  10. Alex Papulis
    May 7, 2012

    Rocket, I’m no expert on Catholic doctrine or history, but are you saying that there has been some pope that has endorsed some form of fideism?

    It’s one thing to say that one believes, it’s another to say that one believes and has no reason to think that his belief is true. I’d be curious to see where this view has been voiced if you have a link, reference, name, whatever handy. I wonder if it wouldn’t be a little uncharacteristic for a pope to claim that for some major doctrine he had no reason to think his belief was true.

    Anyway. This isn’t to say that reason is the be all and end all. Someone can use there reason to determine whatever they are able to, but if they can’t muster up the will to act on it, big whoop. So-and-so can figure out that they want such-and-such, need to do X in order to get it, and then fail because they didn’t have the will-power.

    People can learn things, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to recognize the practical implications either.

  11. rocketkirchner
    May 7, 2012

    Alex , what i am saying is that one has to understand what my father confessor used to call ”the see saw ” . it goes thus : whenever we put to much emphasis on one thing theologically we end up deemphasising another . but we are still on the see saw. when Calvin came in with predestination the see saw got tipped over . his opposite -the Armenianist tipped it over on the other side. The great Catholic synthesis in the 5th century A.D. with the big 4: Augustine , Jerome , Gregory the great , and Ambrose fused Hebrew and Greek thought and the see saw was in balance.

    so no — i dont totally renounce reason , nor do i renounce faith . i just happen to put a huge emhasis on faith thats all. so i have not tipped anything over , but i am top heavy in that area. This Pope is considerd to be one of the most top intellectuals in the world now , and so he puts alot on reason . but if you read pope Leo’s ”Rerum Noverum ” , you will get another angle . Or read any of Pope John the XXIII ‘s stuff . alos , i cannot emphisise enough the Luther verses Erasumus debate. Erasmus was Catholic Humanist of the first order and into reason big time . Luther was top heavy on faith , and ”sola scriptora”. Actually , though i find myself in agreement with Luther alot , Erasmus was THE MAN ! go figure. Maybe its because i am a Catholic Humanist , and i like Erasmus pacifism and his influence on Montaigne and Shakespeare . Plus Luther was a reactionary fundamentalist.

  12. Alex Papulis
    May 8, 2012

    Rocket, does the Catholic church have an official teaching regarding fideism? Does it hold one way or another, either that there are or that there are not reasons for its doctrines?

    There can be a sort of faith that is not unreasonable. What good is knowing something if it doesn’t affect how one lives? A better relation to one’s epistemic situation would be to let what you know affect you. In this way, knowledge must be subjective, not just a relation between knower and external fact.

  13. rocketkirchner
    May 8, 2012

    Yes — the Apostles Creed from the council of Nicea. That is the entire foundation of it all. Alex , if you break down that creed that took forever and a day to hammer out , you will find both Christology and Sotierology all in one shot , and understanding its nuances is enough to have at the center ones existence and behaviour. Take that along with the ongoing encyclicals , the sacramental illumination , community , serving the destitute and rejects of this world , sutdying the Church fathers , and Church mystics ,and the Bible , and balancing this with ones own peak spiritual experiences and you have a living and active spiritual life . i have go that part of it down . of course for philosophers like me to seek to marry all of this with the complete works of Soren Keirkegaard is problematic to say the least.
    that is my goal becuase i believe him to be the Prophet of the modern age that as Sartre said about him .. ”used knowledge against knowledge ”.

    • Alex Papulis
      May 8, 2012

      Rocket, I’m not sure how that answers the question. It’s one thing to lay out doctrines. It’s another thing to say that there are not reasons to believe the doctrines are true. Does the Catholic church take a position on the latter? And I’m not sure, but your position might be even more radical, so do you think epistemic nihilism is compatible with Catholicism? Does the Catholic church have an official position on epistemic nihilism, either explicitly or implicitly? I find it hard to believe that any pope or authoritative body has claimed that, say, no one knows if Jesus was God. According to your view, it seems like the Virgin Mary had no reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. That’s compatible with official Catholic teaching?

      At some point perhaps we can discuss what it might mean to “use knowledge against knowledge.” Maybe after I’m more familiar w/Kierkegaard. 🙂

  14. rocketkirchner
    May 8, 2012

    Alex , we might need to get together for a burger some time . give me a shout whn you have time : ..this is very complex stuff . ..and takes time to sift thru . yes , the Church has strong views on epistemic nihilism . the extention of those views are expressed strongly by Archbishop Berdinan in his book ”A consistent life ethic ”. i own a copy in my personal library i can lend you .

    also , to understand Kierkegaard better , you might want to read about the early church father Tertullian who said ”i believe becuase it is absurd ( credo qou absurdum ) , the Son of God was raised becuase it is impossible ”. tlak to you soon LOL .

    • Alex Papulis
      May 8, 2012

      Yes, we should get together. I would say that if the Catholic church holds that epistemic nihilism is false, and that fideism is false, then it would seems like it holds that there are reasons for believing its doctrines are true. I’m not sure that you are saying, however, that there are reasons for believing Catholic doctrine is true.

      I would add too regarding language of absurdity, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in every context. Seth’s recent post reflects something similar in regards to a different word. It’s very hard for me to believe, in any case, that the Catholic church holds that Mary, say, was unreasonable in believing that Jesus rose from the dead.

      Further more, if that rationale of impossibility so therefore belief is acceptable, then everything goes. From a contradiction everything is proved. If by absurdity you mean something that excludes contradiction, then it’s not clear that the quotes are actually relevant to the issue at hand.

  15. rocketkirchner
    May 9, 2012

    of course it is unreasonable what Mary did ! but to whom it is unreasonable > to those who deem the gospel to be foolishness . if belief is acceptable not everything goes. belief is the opposite of licence . it is becoming a servant to love . this is where S.K. deliniation between the sphere of ethics and the sphere of transcendence is so vital to understand . in regards to contradiction . contradiction is only the appearence of something that it hides , which is paradox. but since the deductive reasoner has a hard time thinking paradoxically , they will only see contradiction . ..and remain stuck in a ”dialectical duplexity ”.

    e-mail when finals are over and give me your phone number and we will get together . LOL .

    i will chack out Seth’s peice ..thanks .

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