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Can reason trump emotion?

September 17, 2016 GMT

People who reject religious faith often explain that it is not “reasonable.” I would agree that it’s not reasonable, but for me that’s not a deal-breaker. Reason is good, but it certainly doesn’t apply to all life situations.

Put another way, reason is a tool and it’s useful in evaluating many things, but not all. If you try to take your temperature with a yardstick, you’ll be disappointed. A good measuring tool, but not for heat.

Reason is an excellent tool for issues related to mathematics, chemistry, physics, medicine and many other things which can be measured, experimented with and replicated. It lends itself well to what we call the natural sciences.

It can also apply somewhat to the area of social sciences — the law, how people behave in groups, in political or economic systems, etc., but it’s not quite as dependable here. People don’t behave that predictably.

Then there’s the whole arena of the humanities — art, literature, music, the realm of aesthetics, beauty, meaning, creativity, culture. Reason isn’t terribly helpful in an art gallery or a concert hall.

Religious faith probably has more in common with these pursuits.

Take the biblical creation story for example. If you read it expecting it to be historically valid or scientifically accurate, you’ll be quickly disillusioned. But if you read it as a narrative exploring human nature, it can make more sense. Why are people so egocentric? What is love? If God has all power, why would he/she choose to be in a vulnerable, loving relationship with us rather than control us, etc., etc. There’s lots to think about there, but not if you limit your consideration to what is reasonable.

Reason often gets enlisted as a challenge to emotion, and well it should. The word “religious” is often associated with fanaticism which, unchecked, can be very destructive. Yet one of the major problems with reason is that it’s not a particularly good motivator. It may be a good brake but a poor accelerator.

Have you ever tried to reason with an alcoholic, or a drug-addicted teenager? Or with a son or daughter caught in an abusive relationship? It can be perfectly clear in your mind, maybe even in theirs, but that rational clarity and resolve is only good until the next drink or drug or date.

Emotion rules much of our thought and action, often without our being aware of it. Think, for example, how most advertising appeals to emotion. Put simply, without emotion there isn’t much motion.

Consider America’s current political crisis. We say we want candidates to deal with the issues (reason), but then we see TV ads or oversized postcards with dark, threatening photos of the opposition candidate. Emotion Trumps Reason. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

For 200 years the word “rationalize” had a positive meaning: to explain something in a reasonable way. But beginning in 1922 in America, it gradually took on a more negative tone: to make something appear rational, even though it isn’t. Typically we might even deceive ourselves in the process, coming to believe our own garbage. It can be a kind of thinly-veiled arrogance, like the old line — be reasonable; do it my way.

In our present political situation, for example, people who normally are offended by lies are able to ignore, even deny blatant evidence, apologize for and vote for someone they wouldn’t want to live next door to.

I started out saying that reason doesn’t apply to all situations. But it seems to me that if there were ever a time when we needed to exercise reason and challenge emotion in our political choices, this is the time. It would involve lots of fact-checking, listening to opposing viewpoints, admitting our own biases and rationalizations, resisting the appeal of easy answers and single-issue voting, giving up the illusion that either candidate will have an unblemished record.

Are we willing to do the work involved? I hope so, but I’m not sure. It’s easier to sit back, get angry and blame somebody else. Perhaps we should be praying not only “God bless America” but “God help us!”