Monday, December 01, 2008


It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.
Jonathan Swift, Irish novelist & satirist (1667 - 1745) --

I think that the above quotation is extremely profound.
I would love to know more about the context in which it was first spoken or written, by Swift.
At first glance it appears to be one of those maxims that is undoubtedly true. You know? You read it or hear it, and think “Hmmmm” or “Wow” and nod your head.
I myself do believe it to be true, for the most part. More true than not true.
But a trifle overstated.
I speak from personal experience.

It is the word “useless” that I would argue is a possible exaggeration, on Swift’s part.
There are very few things that are useless, really.
But in this scenario of “reasoning” someone from a former state of – for lack of a better word, unreasonableness -- not only is it not useless to attempt to do so, but it is entirely possible to be successful.
I know because it happened to me.

I am assuming that Swift is perhaps referring to someone who may be designating certain areas of their belief system [their “weltanshung” or worldview] to be answerable to “faith” rather than reason. Or even “belief” over “evidence.”
I once did this.
By that I mean I lived out a worldview not only based in faith, but also capped off with it. At the top and bottom of the pyramid of my worldview, faith sealed whatever was reasonable, in a state of insulation.
Yes, seemingly impenetrable.

In many ways, the entire premise of faith-based belief relies upon this impenetrable idea, right up front. In other words, there is no such a thing as adherence to “faith” without a commensurate rejection of reason. It’s an integral part of the deal.
And yet, for me, reason found a way in, or rather, it’s way out.
So, at an essential level, I must disagree with Swift.
It is not "useless" to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.
It is only difficult to do so.

Therefore, two questions I ponder tonight.
1) What is it that caused me to initially re-assess my faith-based convictions?
2) What would it take, for me to revert back to them?

When I come up with any transferable and hopefully coherent answers to these questions, I am going to write a book on the subject, entitled Gullible’s Travels.



Anonymous said...

interesting questions.

It made me think of why I became a Christian. To my 14 year old mind, it was entirely rational and based on this premise: IF what I heard at the church my grandmother dragged me to was right, it was in my best interest to believe it. If it was wrong, nothing would come of it because I would see through it.

And because, like everyone else, I couldn't prove the rightness or wrongness of the Christian message at that initial time, it made logical sense to me to believe in it.

After all, I thought, what do I have to lose by trying it out?

I survived on an argued rationalism and logic, supplemented with heavy heavy doses of many debates and apologetics texts, for the next 8 or so years.

It left me empty and devoid of any praise for the lifestyle of Christianity. By the time I was 21, I had seen through it. It was all on paper and not in my life and I was ready to throw in the towel.

I was at that point you describe perhaps when you ask your first question Cip.

For me the question is rather "What is it that caused me to eventually re-assess my rationally-based convictions?"

Everything changed for me one night in 1992...

Anonymous said...

Any book you write Cippy, I want to read!!!

Cipriano said...

I find this quite coincidentally interesting, Arukiyomi, your last line. Because for me, in late 1993 everything changed. It proved to be the beginning of a long journey [still being journeyed today] of what I guess I might call [as John Loftus does] a "deconversion experience."
For you perhaps this significant time [1992] was a "reconversion experience?"

Isabella K said...

I'd be very much interested to hear your thoughts on those 2 questions.

Back in my university days, I went to a party with a friend -- he cornered a theology student (intending to be a priest) in the kitchen and argued him out of God by the end of the night. We heard he packed his bags and dropped out. Great party.

Anonymous said...

Yes, interesting. But no, not REconversion. I'd never experienced conversion before that - never had a defining moment that entirely changed my life so that my value system was entirely replaced in an instant. It was a conversion that I've been exploring ever since.

Incidentally, Isabella, if a Christian had done that to an atheist at a party, wouldn't they be lambasted as a bigot?

What you shared is a good example of why it isn't religion that causes conflict. It's people's views on religion that cause it, and everyone has one of those, even atheists!

Rebecca H. said...

Interesting. As you know I stopped believing maybe about a decade ago, and I never, ever thought I'd be in that position. I'm still a little shocked at myself. I'm not sure I was reasoned out of belief though. Well, it was a little bit of reason, a little bit of an emotional pull. The idea of a transcendental God no longer made sense to me, and that was the reason part, but I also somehow just felt right to be questioning everything I'd believed in. It was sort of like I'd taken a leap of faith to ... no longer have faith. That's exactly what it felt like.