We need both the rational and the non-rational

By Giles Fraser
June 9, 2009

Would you wear deceased serial killer Fred West’s old cardigan? Yes, it has been thoroughly washed after his suicide. Sure, he committed his grisliest murders while wearing it. But that makes no difference to the lambswool, does it?

Tough one, eh? Hats off, therefore, to the experimental psychologist Bruce Hood, whose new book, Supersense (Constable), charts the myriad ways in which human beings are superstitious, often with out really appreciating it.

What fascinates me is his contention that atheists, despite their apparent commitment to living by reason alone, are often just as superstitious as the believers they castigate for this apparently heinous intellectual crime.

As Dr Hood argues, the resistance to wearing a hand-me-down from Fred West is not rooted in anything especially rational and yet it touches a repugnance as deep in irreligious people as in the religious. He calls it the “secular supernatural”.

Why, he asks, does Richard Dawkins so value objects once owned by Darwin? There are no purely rational explanations for the way these objects are prized and certainly they are not any more ob­viously rational than, for instance, the fact that some Christians value the thigh-bone of a saint.

Dr Hood’s contention is that few of us are as reasonable as we like to think. Moreover, he says, rituals rooted in what we would knowingly call the irrational can perform a valuable social function, binding us together in ways of which reason alone is incapable.

Indeed, to imagine a world in which only things acceptable to pure reason are deemed legitimate is to imagine the most desperately impoverished cultural and emotional (let alone spiritual) desert.

How, for example, would the 'pure' rationalist, having wiped the slate clean of our traditions and cultural assumptions, texture our lives with meaning? There could be no way of building up all the rich patterns of cultural life which tie us together, simply by the application of some set of acceptable first principles. This is why 'rational fundamentalism' is such a threat to human society.

Immanuel Kant gave us the word “transcendental” (not to be confused with “transcendent”) to describe something that is a precondition for the possibility of something else. For Kant, space, time, and causality were pre-loaded into us — preconditions for the possibility of experience.

I wonder whether Dr Hood is describing something about human beings which is transcendental, a precondition for the possibility of a certain sort of social experience. Fred West’s jumper: urgggh.

There are no deeper justifications. Yet, in these shared non-rational reactions, we express something deep about what human beings have in common. These common non-rational reactions are the foundations of human solidarity.


(c) Giles Fraser, currently Anglican Vicar of Putney in the Diocese of Southwark, is to be the next Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. This article is adapted from one in his Church Times column series, with acknowledgments.

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