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The University of York Student Union recently held a debate, with the motion ‘this House Believes religion is irrational and today’s society would be better off without it.’ (See here for more details on the participants.)  What caught my eye, however, was an article by Andrew Brown on The Guardian blogs, who was arguing against the motion, in which he appears to create a whole new category in between rational and irrational.

First, however, Brown denigrates young, white middle class people’s knowledge of religion, before delivering up a nice tasty word salad:

All that they know about those religions is that the moderates are opposed to sex, which is nonsensical if not actively evil, while the extremists are nonsensical and evil in all kinds of other ways as well. Nor will they know many believers socially. Religiously fervent students are quite rightly shunned by everyone normal.

The trouble is that nothing in this harmlessly parochial view equips people to think about religion in general. And it can easily lead to the terrible confusion that follows when we consider religious belief, or religions, “irrational”.

The confusion here comes from supposing that whatever is not rational must be irrational and forgetting that there is a huge area of life where questions of rationality are wholly irrelevant. To ask whether religions are rational makes as much sense as asking whether they are pale green, or whether they taste like orange juice.

This is incredibly wooly thinking and does not make a whole lot of sense.  Given that irrational is the opposite of rational, I am unsure of what is neither rational nor irrational.  The tautological definition of ‘irrational’ is something that is not rational. I fail to see how it could be otherwise.

Brown then goes on to argue that there is a ‘huge area of life where questions of rationality are wholly irrelevant’ (I assume that this area includes faith and religion), To me this seems like an admission that religion is not rational, and is an indication that Brown may have been on the wrong side of the debate!

I think Brown’s position may better be described as ‘religion is not rational, but society would not be better of without religion’.  This is evidence of a problem I mention in the Survey Design section of my Research Guides, that of asking two questions in one.  The question ‘is religion is irrational and today’s society would be better off without it’, is really two questions in one.  The first question is ‘is religion irrational’ and the second is ‘would today’s society be better off without religion?’  Whilst I would agree with both of these statements, I think Brown would have had more luck at the debate if he was able to concede on the irrationality of religion (which he seems to agree with) but could still argue for the benefits of religion. Ultimately, badly framing the questions will lead to badly answered questions.