Standardizing Standards

Is there any good reason why we might choose to apply entirely different standards for assessing the credibility of information in different contexts?

Consider making an investment choice, where your default approach would involve a degree of skepticism. If I offered you 400% returns in a week, you’d find that implausible, if not impossible. Nobody would take me up on that offer, and if anyone did, you’d join me in thinking this a poor choice.

We apply very different standards when it comes to claims involving areas like religion. Why? First of all, systems of belief like religion are rarely chosen in the way we might make an investment choice. In fact, they are usually the product of an accident of geography, in the sense that what you believe is a consequence of where you were born, the environment you were raised in, and so forth.

Second, we might think that there’s more at stake when it comes to religion. Money comes and goes, but religion offers eternal rewards, moral guidance, community, and comfort in times of distress, all at the supposedly low cost of simply believing. What’s the harm, you might think?

Both of these temptations are understandable, but neither of them is sensible. First, the point about accidents of geography should make us think: Is it reasonable to believe something so unshakably, when – if not for the fact that you were born in place X rather than in place Y – you might believe something entirely different, but with equal conviction?

At the very least, this point should serve to strongly suggest that it would be irrational to organize governments, laws, healthcare and education policies on the basis of religious belief. In other words, it should immediately commit us to being secularists (who insist that religion has no place in policy), whether or not or faith survives this challenge.

On the second point, part of the reason that religion continues to enjoy the support it does is by creating certain 'needs' in the first place. Morality never needed religion – religion just told us it did. Religion can’t offer eternal life, because we are mortal. Community and support can be found in friends and family, social clubs, and so forth.

In other words, the distinctive things that religion offers are not real, and the non-distinctive things it offers can be found elsewhere. So why not treat religious claims exactly like any other claim, regarding them with extreme skepticism when they offer competing – but highly implausible – arguments for large (also implausible) rewards?

Again, because religion has told us that different standards apply – that logic and reason are for other questions, not this one. This double standard is an insult to our intelligence, and it’s about time we rejected it. —Jacques Rousseau