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Why We Should Value (But Not Worship) Reason

02/13/2015 03:38 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

Like all people of faith, I am horrified by the murder of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad. And like all people who view themselves as thoughtful and reasonable, I am horrified that the murderer, Craig Stephen Hicks, saw himself as enlightened and rational.

At least according to his Facebook page, Hicks viewed Christianity and Islam as not just irrational, but evil, and like many people who are "anti-theist," Hicks expressed a great admiration for reason.

Yet this "reasonable" person killed three people -- and that fact should scare any of us who think pure rationality can make our world better.

Why? Because, as Professor Jonathan Haidt has noted, our brains are able to justify almost any belief we have, and convince ourselves that we are "acting reasonably." And reason alone doesn't lead to morality:

[M]any rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.

But if that were the case, then moral philosophers -- who reason about ethical principle all day long -- should be more virtuous than other people. Are they? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel tried to find out. He used surveys and more surreptitious methods to measure how often moral philosophers give to charity, vote, call their mothers, donate blood, donate organs, clean up after themselves at philosophy conferences, and respond to e-mails purportedly from students. And in none of those ways are moral philosophers better than other philosophers or professors in their field. (Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, 89)

Reason is crucially important, but in terms of making an impact on the world, it gets us only so far. Instead, morality arises when we feel connected to our fellow human beings -- and when we don't, that's when evil arises. As Haidt puts it, "Psychopaths reason but don't feel."

In other words, our emotions -- particularly our senses of connection, empathy and compassion -- are what will truly drive moral progress.

That's why Imam Khalid Latif's piece "When Hate Wins, We All Lose" in The Huffington Post is so important. As he reminds us, our society is made up of the way we treat individuals:

It's a shame that people have to be killed for there to be a recognition of their value as humans. #BlackLivesMatter, #MuslimLivesMatter, are not simply calls for self-empowerment on the part of specific minority groups. To me, they are calls for a recognition that with each death,with each Eric Garner, each Deah Barakat, each Rafael Ramos & Wenjian Liu, indifference is becoming more alive and in the process our shared humanity is dying.

So regardless of whether it was anti-Muslim sentiment or a parking dispute that led to this murder, what is clear is that Hicks did not value the lives of Deah, Yusor and Razan. There was no compassion, no care for the people they were and the people they could have become.

That's why Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, in an article in The New Republic, believes that "The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists" to recognize that atheists, too, can do horrific things in the name of their ideology:

Like any number of global faiths, New Atheism presumes its framework and considers its truth-claims to be either self-evident or demonstrable by whatever means it already assumes legitimate. Its id is a product of the cultural and political landscape in which the majority of its congregants find themselves, which is again true of the religions it nonetheless essentializes to particular texts, creeds, and dogmas. And, like any other religion, its adherents can take its reasoning too far, and cross the line into violence...

Perhaps this will be a moment of reflection for the New Atheist movement and its adherents. If nothing else, the takeaway should be that no form of reasoning, however obvious to a particular cohort, has a monopoly on righteousness. And no ideology, supernatural or not, has a monopoly on evil.

So yes, reason is a crucial skill for us humans. It allows us to understand the world and to ensure that our beliefs match reality. But while reason is necessary to truly create a just world, it is not sufficient.

Instead, we need to find the individual humanity in each person. To realize that each person's life matters. To realize that we are all responsible for the world we create. And to realize that relationships, connections, and compassion -- not simply reason -- are what will make our world more whole.

(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Winter 2015 series, "Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?")