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IEET > Rights > FreeThought > Vision > CyborgBuddha > Fellows > Peter Bebergal

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Reclaiming the Irrational from the Religious

Peter Bebergal
By Peter Bebergal
Ethical Technology

Posted: Mar 28, 2009

The rational, and quite reasonable, skepticism regarding religious belief is also in its way discouraging. As we try to imagine a human culture that is devoid of religion, we are also envisioning a human culture that is devoid of something essential to the preservation of the very culture we hope to prolong. That essential something is the irrational.

As a skeptic and rationalist myself, I am often embarrassed to have to admit that I spend considerable time cultivating those irrational aspects of myself, aspects that might look on the outside very much like religion. But this cultivation has revealed to me that what we call religion these days is just as responsible for putting the kibosh on the irrational as is the rationalists and empiricists in our midst. Both rationalists and the religious see religion as what Tim Dean in his recent post featured here calls “prescriptive,” unable to ask “why” as deeply as science. Faith trumps why, the religious might say, and whatever I cannot glean from holy texts I will chalk up to God and all his works as a mystery to behold. (Sadly and disappointingly the final episode of Battlestar Galactica opted for this very solution. It seems fiction is often more likely to find a God in the machine than even the most evangelical religious believers.)

The kind of religion that Dean finds problematic is not irrational at all, however. For the believer, the human personhood of the embryo is wholly rational, resting on the immutable, divine law. This kind of spiritual belief is only one small aspect of the religious imagination, a broad palette that at its root is not rational, and should not be critiqued with the same tools we use to judge those who believe in creationism and saddle-wearing triceratops. We cannot lump convictions about personhood with mythological cosmogonies.

Truth is, I blame religion for this confusion.

In almost every religious tradition there exists some aspect that is beyond the merely moral and legal. Perennialists like Aldous Huxley, and later people like Huston Smith, understood this to be some core mystical element. The mystical elements are often hard to come by, either because they are too esoteric and reserved for the most learned of the community, or because the hierarchy has deemed the mystical teachings to be dangerous or even heretical. Nevertheless, in almost all religious narrative, it’s the mystical that stands out far and above as the most human experiences.

Even many of the early naturalists and scientists saw their task more like that of a mystic, to uncover the secrets the divine will using a rational and exact examination of nature and natural phenomenon. Species of animals and plants, fossils and shells, could be classified and ordered in a way that showed an ordered relationship between all things, a unity that existed below (or above as it were) the empirical. They saw this relationship as a manifestation of God’s mind. Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, was himself a devout believer. His system of taxonomy (kingdom, class, order, genus, species) are still used today, but his religious beliefs are discarded as quaint and simply a condition of his time.

As the rift between faith and science became more divisive — particularly with advent of Darwin and Freud — religionists developed various defensive strategies. One strategy, religious fundamentalism, can thus be seen as a result of the scientific revolution, as the religion scholar Karen Armstrong suggests. Religious thought, particularly in the Protestant sects, started to use the language of science and scientific methods to “prove” religious ideas. Mysticism became even less visible as the religious tried to appear more positivist.

On the other side, the scientific community became more and more embarrassed by religious sentiment in its own home, blaming the new literalism of religion as distorting scientific language. One of the more telling examples is to be found in Audubon early writings about birds, which were filled with what one might call religious or spiritual sentiments. Contemporary bird guides are dull and static by comparison, as if any sense of awe or wonder had been stripped clean, like the feathers off of a bird.

While science is certainly guilty of stripping away religious feelings from our relationship with the natural world, religion also made it more difficult to encounter our world with reverence and awe. The new creationism and Intelligent Design theories (as well as almost all literal readings of the bible) bleed religious thought of its mythological origins. Metaphor, the muscular heart of religious thought, was replaced with an unshakable stone edifice.

The physicist David Bohm intuited this important distinction. In his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm recognizes that the kind of imagination that makes scientific and technological innovation possible is more than a linear function of the rational brain. For the quantum physicists each level of knowledge is just a ripple on the surface of another stream, never reaching the “true” nature of things. At some point, the only possible way to imagine this eternally reducible rational model, is to enter into a stream of irrational reflection.

Whether we are comfortable with it or not, this irrational reflection is what has made possible some of the most important contributions to human culture; from the Bhagavad Gita to Shakespeare, from the Sphinx to Bach. This encounter with what the theologian Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendem is what so much of our civilization is built on. To suggest we could simply remove it would be to disregard not only its value, but how it might teach us something about humility and, yes, maybe even a little morality.

For example, in the Hebrew Bible, the law is a late-comer to the story. First there are strange encounters in the desert, and only then do the ancient Hebrews begin to hammer out a ethic that can support the magnitude of their plight. This is the formidable power of the religious imagination, its ability to provide metaphor in the way of song, liturgy, and most importantly, story.

I am sympathetic to Dean’s position. I often find myself arguing a similar line. But to imagine a scientific future devoid of the irrational, devoid of mythmaking and ritual, looks too much like the kind of technocracy that technoprogressives would do well to argue against.

Peter Bebergal served as a fellow of the IEET in 2009. He is a writer on consciousness, psychedelics, and religion, and co-author of The Faith Between Us with Scott Korb.
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Great article Peter.

Science provides a high definition picture of those parts of reality which are already well understood and, following Wittgenstein, does not speak of the rest of reality. But we are interested in the rest of reality too. We cannot yet have a high definition pictures of the still veiled unknown part of reality, but myth (and why not religion, stripped of its fundamentalist and intolerant parts) can provide an impressionist painting of the unknown, based on the few features science can already glimpse.

This article would be more accurate if entitled, “Reclaiming the Arational from the Dogmatic”. Religion need not be dogmatic, and while we certainly need the arational, we don’t need the irrational.

If you are arguing for a greater infusion of emotion and awe into our secular endeavors, then I certainly agree.

With our brains as they are now, myths, stories, and anecdotes are powerful ways to convey ideas. Though, they have predictable impacts on the way in which those ideas will be remembered.

We ought to have times and places in which to explore this side of ourselves, and currently we have very little. No wonder why people end up searching for it on sundays.

Much of my rationale for working towards a technoprogressive society and the end of work is to open up such possibilities for mystical exploration and self-actualization.

Actually, I do think it’s irrational to ascribe personhood to an early embryo. If anything it’s even more irrational than believing in Young Earth Creationism. The arguments surrounding the latter can get quite complicated, even though all the evidence, once it’s understood, is in favour of biological evolution.

But it is absolutely clear that an early embryo - a tiny clump of cells with no nervous system - cannot possibly possess the properties that we call “personhood”, i.e. self-consciousness and self-understanding as a being with a past and a future. Even fully developed babies don’t yet have those properties.

Whether or not we should refrain from destroying embryos for some other reason, they are definitely not persons.

Science is composed of irrational symbolism.

It’s inevitable that we think like humans with present design.

How is rationality qualified? By emotions 8)

I enjoyed reading your post, and that is interesting how religion redefines itself over time.  However, I am not convinced that religion has ownership on irrational thought and/or behavior.  I also wonder what you think motivates scientists—does anybody honestly think that rationality is somehow manifested into a motivating force to conduct scientific experiments and write reports?  Humans do science for human reasons (that is, until we have better IA and AI), and often the experience of discovery, or even just learning something new, or making something, is what some people call spiritual.  Furthermore, arbitrary, accidental, happenstance connections are often the ingredients of insight and new technologies.  So, what is there to reclaim?  Don’t try to save religion for something that we already have without it.

It seems to me that Bebergal’s essay is a nice expansion of (half of) Einstein’s famous statement, “Science without religion is lame.” Of course, we’ll all interpret differently what he meant by “religion.” I think Bebergal’s readers would like a certain word that Michael Shermer coined: “Sciensuality.”

Einstein only had one interpretation for what he meant by religion:

“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

May I share another quote that seems apropos to the theme here?
“He that would enjoy life and act with freedom must have the work of the day continually before his eyes.  Not yesterday’s work, lest he fall into despair, nor to-morrow’s, lest he become a visionary,:not that which ends with the day, which is a worldly work, nor yet that only which remains to eternity, for by it he cannot shape his actions.  Happy is the man who can recognise in the work of To-day a connected portion of the work of life, and an embodiment of the work of Eternity.  The foundations of his confidence are unchangeable, for he has been made a partaker of Infinity.  He strenuously works out his daily enterprises, because the present is given him for a possession.”
:James Clerk Maxwell, physicist

Some questions;

Why the word ‘believe’

does god hide himself through discord and suffering?

Russell thinks that it is “absolutely clear” that for an entity to be considered as having “what we call personhood”,  it must have self-consciousness and self-understanding. I just don’t think he can assume that the whole world fits into that “we.” Perhaps it is only absolutely clear to those who are absolutely positive there’s no such thing as a soul.

Sean, since I don’t understand your first question, I’ll jump to your second, not by answering it, but by expanding on it. “Does God hide himself through discord and suffering and joy and harmony?”  However, I don’t think this forum was intended to get into this type of theological discussion.

Bryce, that comment was for Edward above, the delay in response posting is responsible for the confusion.

I think we should simply make the technology happen, they the irrationalities developed to dispel cognitive dissonance will dissapear on their own and humans will use biotechnology to eliminate their problems.

Theories are not irrational, faith is theories is irrational.

Thanks for the explanation, Sean.
“Theories are not irrational, faith is theories is irrational. “
I suppose we can add, “so is faith in technology”?

Faith in the scientific process and resulting technology is different from faith in doctrine.

I think I agree with this argument, but I’m not sure because I’m not sure what exactly you mean by the irrational.  It would be interesting for people to spell out what kind of ir- or a-rationality they find essential, useful, or otherwise good.

From what you say about the “mysterium tremendum” it almost sounds like you envision contact with the irrational as a sort of undifferentiated contemplation or experience of the ineffable—sort of the least common denominator of mystical religious experience.  But it seems vaguely ridiculous to try to take that minimal notion of transcendence and tack it onto an otherwise rational worldview.

So what I find interesting is this: what kinds of areligious irrationality are compatible with the modern naturalistic synthesis?

This is a hard and vastly underdiscussed subject, so any thoughts are tentative.  But my instinct is that it may be a mistake to think of the irrational as some kind of core ineffability that science and rationality will never be able to reach.  I don’t think we can say, a priori, that certain questions will never be answered rationally.  Rather, I think that we may have to figure out how to incorporate elements of mystery and “irrationality” as processes, modes, or stances toward the world that we adopt at some times and not at others.

Sean - How is faith in scientific/technological progress different from faith in doctrine?  Just asking.  We certainly have precedent for being able to trust the findings of science, but “progress” is a much squishier term - assuming that we are somehow better off than we used to be.  This may be true in the Western world where we have access to modern medicine and the fruits of science, but for the majority of the developing world, and indeed to the environmental health of the planet, modernity has not been so kind.  Nor has it been successful in persuading us to look beyond our immediate, self-centered material comforts, for example, to get us to help our brothers and sisters in need at home and around the world.

Faith in the scientific process for learning useful and reliable information is not the same as simply believing in a theory without evidence and preventing yourself from investigating other theories.

It’s true much of our science has been implemented poorly.

Should we give up our body of scientific knowledge? I don’t see why.

I agree that ethics should guide scientific pursuits - differently from business as usual.

There was a time when this very same article could have been written in reverse.

The fact is that today, in this our modern world of the 21st century, science has usurped religion’s attraction to the pious and imposing. here and now, it is science threatening to strip faith of its right to exist, and impose a law of belief upon the population that forbids the concept of deity.

But here at the same moment, voices of reason call of a middle ground where logic and the human spirit can meet and commune in search of truth.

Unfortunately, it didn’t have much effect on the Spanish Inquisition and it probably won’t do much for those who lead the one in the name of science, either.

The smarter we try to get, the more isolated and ignorant we become.

Mike, don’t you think you are too hard on science, and not hard enough on religion? there are countless bad houses of worship, and countless bad priests—wolves in sheeps’ clothing as it were.

I worry about the damage “the religion of scientificism” as William James referred to a certain dogmatic faith in science might do to human imagination. There appears to be a need by some to wield science and rationalism as bludgeon against anyone who chooses to view the world from obtuse angles or through different lenses swapped out according to need. Is the scientific method - a process in which subjective experience is necessarily removed - the only map we may use to navigate these strange and curious seas of feeling, thought, and existence? It’s as though we dare not dream beyond certain bounds lest we face condemnation, ridicule, and banishment by the high priests of the Cult of Logical Positivism.

I loved science growing up because of the sense of wonder it cultivated, the rigidness of its method, process of discovery. Now it feels as though science is communicated to the layperson as the sole arbiter reality and truth for all but the weak-minded, gullible, superstitious, or insane. Maybe it’s the way I see science taught in public schools, with too much textbook memorization of inert facts and not enough tabletop experimentation. Maybe it’s that the edges of science have moved so far away as to be inaccessible to anyone outside of academia or corporate-funded institutions. Maybe it’s just that I’m older and science for me has mapped out all the territory it can reasonably claim. Maybe it’s that Carl Sagan is dead and Brian Cox is a poor substitute. Whatever the root, it feels as though the religious scientificists among us seek to destroy the relevance of the human experience, to constrain the individual imagination, and to ultimately annihilate any possibility of finding meaning outside of the strictures of scientific rationalism.

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