‘Stop Being Reasonable: Six stories of how we really change our minds’, by Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Review by Reg Naulty

Close-up of the book cover. | Photo: Scribe UK.

At the end of anti-religious polemics, there is often the conclusion ‘since there is no evidence for religious belief, you shouldn’t have any – if you do, you’re irrational,’ as though that were straightforward. One is interested to find, at the end of her book about being rational, Eleanor Gordon-Smith concludes ‘that rationality itself may turn out to be as tangled, as knotty, and as rooted in reality as the minds it hopes to change.’

Why does she conclude that? Mainly because the desire to be rational may conflict with other deep-seated desires, especially prudential ones and others connected with intimacy. With respect to the former, in authoritarian institutions, it may be unwise to hold beliefs contrary to those of the person in charge. One may resolve to believe what the leader does, come what may. In family contexts, it may seem to betray a trust to follow up doubts. Many would decide to remain loyal, and hope for the best.

There is an important social aspect to believing, which is a challenge when trying to persuade people. A wise sociologist remarked that, socially speaking, reality is fairly simple: it is confirmation by significant others. These are the people who matter to us. They may be parents, teachers, one’s peers, politicians, sports stars, scientists, billionaires. The possibilities are endless. Thus, if we encounter an idea that appeals to us, and we discover that one of our significant others believes it, we are inclined to believe it too.

So, believing is a complex matter, and we may not be open to argument until our circle of significant others is breached in some way. But we all have a vested interest in living in the real world, which Gordon-Smith seems to underestimate. We do not want our loyalties or our security at work to be at variance with the facts. The penalties for not living in the real world are just too great. Take investing our hard won savings, for example. And that is far from our deepest attachments. We want them to connect up with what there is. Having a correct view of the facts is the foundation of all we do.

Despite that, Blaise Pascal, William James and others, have argued that we may take a punt on the existence of God. What harm will it do? But maybe we don’t have to leap in the dark: ‘When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart’ (Jeremiah 29:13). Should we take such an ancient source seriously? It has been tried and found to work. This would be an appeal to experience. At the end of the day, science turns to experience for confirmation of its claims. Of course, there will be questions about whether the experience really is of God, but if we all have it we shall have something in common to discuss.

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