Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling has come to the defence of Madeleine Bunting on belief and rationality. Bunting had said that it is a misunderstanding to think of religious belief as intellectually based or arrived at; it is, rather, about love, commitment and loyalty. Chris's defence of this view is to say that irrationality is ubiquitous in life and often desirable. It inspires artists and innovators, and is a part of loving others, as also of political alignment and decision. Moreover, 'rationality is not the only road to knowledge'; tradition and practice also play an important part. What we want to know, Chris concludes, is whether religion is 'one of those irrationalities that enriches our lives' rather than blighting it, and this is a matter, he says, for empirical sociology.
I think Chris's defence of Bunting makes two valid points, but that it fails for all that. There are plainly non-rational components in what human beings do, what they embrace, what they think, how they act, and so forth, and these non-rational aspects can work in good as well as bad directions. That is why in my criticism of Bunting's argument I was careful not to dismiss love or commitment or loyalty as elements in the generation of knowledge or indeed as having other benefits. I said, to the contrary, that they 'are not to be sneezed at'. Think of how much commitment there is in true scholarship, of how love or loyalty can open someone's eyes to the strengths or the failings of a person or an institution to which he or she is attached. It can do the opposite as well, of course, but for Chris's point to stand, that doesn't matter - so long as there are sometimes beneficial consequences, and not only negative ones.
Chris is also right to say that rationality is not self-sufficient. There are forms of practical knowledge - things that people know how to do without being able to explain how they do it - and there are ways in which a person can get something badly wrong because they know an issue only theoretically but have no practical experience in dealing with it in real life.
Bunting's argument and Chris's defence of it fail nonetheless, in my view, because that argument makes commitment, love, loyalty and practice the route to religious belief, not along with supporting intellectual reasons, but as an alternative to them. Hence Bunting's claim that it is a profound misunderstanding to think belief is 'a proposition at which you arrive intellectually'. One needs to get a firm hold of what her claim amounts to: we are being told that a question of belief about some aspect of the state of the universe is one that can be decided on the basis of love, loyalty and/or commitment. I don't see how Chris can give this a free pass. Would he do the same for the question in empirical sociology he defines at the end of his post? May I decide merely on the basis of love (of God) or commitment (to a church) what the balance of effects, good and bad, of religion is? How about adjudicating an empirical hypothesis in economics or politics - that markets are uniformly benign, that there's a macroeconomic tendency for the rate of profit to fall, that voters are fed up with the present government - on the basis only of my loyalties and commitments? It's unlikely that Chris would endorse this as a generally sound procedure; and his argument that non-rational impulses or motivations can be productive of good consequences has no bearing on assessing it. Bunting's thesis wasn't just - generically - that love, loyalty and commitment are good things (which they often are); it was that they enable people to resolve an issue about the state of the world. The question is why their validating properties should be thought to apply only to the existence of a supreme being and not to other questions of empirical knowledge.