Reason, Intuition, and Religious Tolerance

by Perette Barella

During a recent discussion with a friend, it became evident that they saw intuition as the opposite of reason, and cited my application of reason as a sign of a growing intolerance of religion in me. Thinking on this, I conclude that reason and intuition are about as opposite as male and female: while they are complementary, they are not truly opposites. Furthermore, in regard to tolerance of religion, it seems that the definition of “tolerance” is somewhat a matter of question: by my definition, discourse and civilly presented skepticism (typically based on the aforementioned reason) are not intolerant.


2. Reason vs. Intuition

The male and a female of a given species are substantially the same (same DNA biology, bone structures, etc.), yet one minor characteristic (the reproductive tracts) creates a sense of opposition. The situation is quite comparable to reason and intuition, which both serve us by providing explanations of the world around us. The difference is in the mechanisms, the reliability of the results, and when they’re applicable. Like the sexes, when put together, intuition and reason provide something greater than can individually; also like the sexes, the subtle differences erroneously lead us to think of reason and intuition as opposites, but they are not.

If we look back to one of the most well-known logicians, the fictional Sherlock Holmes, we find a man of pure reason. Holmes disdained intuition; it was a troublesome flaw1 . Intuition in Holmes’ mind was that which provided an explanation in lieu of data, with the caveat that once an explanation existed one would twist or fit the facts to support the theory, rather than allowing the theory to develop to fit the facts. It is a legitimate problem; despite the obvious fictitiousness of the Adam & Eve creation myth and having a sensible theory of evolution that needs no god, religious pundits are ever trying to retrofit god back into evolution with “intelligent design”. Because they posit that god exists and that he created things, despite the fact that there is a solid, evidence-supported theory that works well without him, they feel it necessary to reinsert him because of their dedication to their original theory.

But if we know of this problem, and are willing to commit ourselves to avoiding it, then I think intuition is very helpful. Intuition is that which provides us a direction when reason cannot. Holmes in one story shouts, “Data, data! Give me data!” His deductive abilities are paralyzed without information passively appearing (which may be best in his case– it’s bad when the private dick or police go about falsifying data to support their theories). But to a scientist, such a limitation would mean the end of the road for research; if the natural world didn’t willingly offer up evidence, you couldn’t study a subject. Intuition guides us into pathways that may or may not be correct, but in doing so prevents stagnation and provides a direction for experimentation and research.

It is there that reason so effectively complements intuition: left unchecked, intuitions about how the universe might work would pile up, much as religions have done with creation myths2 , and we’d end up with conflicting explanations that don’t have any credibility in reality. Reason and the scientific process allow us to test theories created via intuition, to validate our “gut” theories by designing experiments to test them and see if they hold water.

It’s in doing this that we separate the wheat from the chaff. Intuition comes from quick inspiration, but it’s not always right: intuition tells us the earth is flat, that the sun and moon circle the Earth, that the cosmos’ rate of expansion must be slowing, and that with a dominant market share Microsoft must create the best products. In all these cases, one would be wrong. Reason, careful experimentation and study of evidence can show in each of these cases that intuition provides a faulty perspective.

3. Religious Tolerance

Religion and some religious people have come to expect a reprieve from application of reason to their claims. Although this is most obvious among fundamentalists, liberal churches still often cling to a few irrational, core beliefs. Reason is sometimes seen as an unfortunate nuisance of confused scientists who don’t know their limits. Other times it is seen as persecution by scientists who don’t obey social boundaries. I conclude neither case is true.

When dogmatic claims are subjected to evidence and reason, they do not hold up as literal explanations for the universe and its workings. It is neither reason’s fault that it offers better explanations nor that it disproves religion’s claims of literalness. Rather, it is religion’s fault that it has (foolishly) claimed that its doctrine is literally true, rather than a fable to guide us. Such claims of truth have been a double-edged sword: they made religion a source of answers in its heyday, but now they have become point of weakness that can be utilized to show the outrageousness of religious claims.

It is because of this that some religious people demand, in the name of religious tolerance, that we stop pointing out their fables’ weaknesses. This is not “tolerance” in the sense that it typically used: “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.”3  Were I questioning in a way that directly impacted on their religious practice (i.e., attending services to espouse my position) then one could arguably claim intolerance, but this is not the case: they are simply using intolerance as an argument to silence dissent. I disagree with this use of “tolerance”.

Tolerance requires that if I’m hiring someone, I must not consider their religion or race as part of the criteria. It demands that if I’m employed by someone, that I treat the transgender or gay coworker with civility regardless of my feelings towards them. Tolerance does not, however, prevent me hiring, firing, or critiquing any member of the aforementioned classes on the basis of their actual competence in the workplace.

Furthermore, while it may not be politically correct, one could critique any of these categories on their own time and be within the dictionary’s definition of “tolerance”. One could hold a “white pride” rally, create an anti-Gay website, and protest sex changes as inappropriate and ineffective in a letter to the editor yet still be tolerant of these groups in the workplace and society. Any group which tried to silence such opposition would arguably be intolerant toward civil discourse and free speech, cornerstones of our society.

When religious discourse leaves the church, it chooses to expose itself to evaluation. When used to drive educational reform, describe how medicine works, tell us how our personalities develop, or divine what the future will hold, religion is overstepping its bounds and it becomes reasonable for me to step in and critique its claims. If people want to use religion as a means to judge their experience4 , they are welcome to. When claims move from being about experiences to details of operations, then religion is moving out if its territory– it is making claims about how things are or how things work instead of what experiences mean. In doing so, religion exposes itself to critique and abasement, and it deserves every bit of it: religion has already done plenty to hold back our knowledge, and it is not in our interest to let it do so anymore in the name of “tolerance”.

For those impatient for answers, religion often offers immediate explanations. The hazards of these are that they are often wrong. Rather than accusing reason for the problem, religious people should look at their own failings– the desire for any answer rather than correct ones, and the desire for their faith to be capital “t” Truth rather than metaphorical– as the source of the problem.

3.1. Digression: Anthropomorphizing the Universe

When I get a new computer, choosing a name is a big deal. I’ve had Selantia, Belandi, Newton, Mugenshi, Odayaka, Unixslut, uBastard, and Stefanie– every one of them has personality to me, and a memory not just of their capabilities but of the times and projects we shared together. There was a fondness for each, and often sadness and mourning when they were decommissioned, although I am aware (at least intellectually) that they were just machines.

If you read stories of old steam locomotive engineers, they too attribute personality to the machines– if a particular engine had a unique vibration at a particular speed was part of its personality. Ship captains often referred to their ships as “she”, and how many of us have given pet names to our cars?

It seems to be human nature to anthropomorphize any sufficiently complex thing, and the universe is no exception. It is easy to informally attribute existence to a “him” or a “her” without meaning it literally. Some would argue it’s a slippery slope from there into the aforementioned religiously-imposed stupidity. I do acknowledge the problem: when we treat the universe as conscious, it’s hard to fall into the trap of believing it too.

Nevertheless, I recognize the value of metaphor, ritual, and a feeling of connection to the universe. My personal representation of this is a beautiful woman who is symbolized by the moon and experienced through the lunar and seasonal cycles. It’s a Pagan ideal offering a philosophy for not just begin a victim of the universe that gave me life, but instead of taking part in the flow of time and the world around me.

I am, however, aware that this is not reality and in actuality just a model that is not correct, just like my computers aren’t actually alive despite my treating them that way. My model is a black box that I can use to make myself feel whole, and I needn’t know what’s inside– I can pretend whatever works for me. As long as I don’t start making claims about the inner workings of that box, or that the box contains capital “t” Truth, it can be a powerful– if slightly delusional– tool. Identifying with Pagan ways and practices offers, for me, a feeling of connection to Nature that doesn’t occur through rational processes, but that doesn’t make those ways and practices “True”.

4. Good theories vs. Bad Theories

Why is accurate knowledge so important? What is the harm in a few kooky ideas if they make us feel good?

The problem is that knowledge builds on knowledge. If we have an incorrect theory on the books, it leads us down incorrect pathways. If we accept the Bible’s creation myth of Adam & Eve, for example, then we can’t believe in evolution. We must therefore disregard everything derived from it: no longer are resistant strains of bacteria evolution in action, but instead they are god’s will and you must die if you get one. They are god punishing you for your behaviors, your sinfulness; or maybe, he’s punishing humanity for dabbling in things we never should have messed with– we should have just put up with the inconvenience of death by smallpox, and the crippling and life-shortening effects of Polio.

Interestingly, we can see the problematic effects of intuition at work in the above paragraph: if we are working with the theory that god is in charge of it all, and therefore in charge of the bacteria, we intuit that making stronger bacteria would be because he’s angry or displeased with us– with no actual evidence that this is the case. From there, we further suppose things we might have done to anger him, any one of which may or may not be the case, but seem like awfully trivial human concerns for the creator of the universe. From one falseness, leads error after error; from one unsupported speculation, more speculations and guesswork.

Admittedly, there are times that scientific theories are wrong. Newton’s Laws of Motion, for example, have been proven wrong and are supplanted by Einstein’s relativity equations. And although natural selection holds up, Darwin’s sketches about the “tree of life” hold no water in the face of further study of the fossil record.

In each of these cases, though, we’re making a refinement of existing knowledge. Newton’s equations are a very good approximation and work fine in everyday life; only on a huge scale or in nuclear physics do we need to bother with Einstein’s refinement. And while Darwin’s tree was dodgy, the rest of his theory has been reinforced by the same data that axed his tree. We have refined Darwin’s theory by identifying the correct and incorrect parts, and throwing away the incorrect ones.

4.1. Digression: Problems of Science

The scientific community is not immune from errors.

John Money’s biased research on Intersex children resulted in the mutilation of thousands of children’s genitals, and his dominant and aggressive stances actively discouraged those collecting dissenting evidence from presenting it, lest they be discredited by his fury. There was a long period, perhaps longer than it should have, during which Money’s theories were treated as gospel in many clinical and research settings. Nevertheless, concerns about reproducibility of his results were whispered between peers, and eventually the lid was blown off the John/Joan case that had “made” Money, and the truth began to come out. New studies are being done in light of this, and the knowledge base is gradually being corrected.

While Money’s motivation was probably fame, money is the conflict of interest for more scientists. Current laws allow academic researchers to be compensated by the companies they are doing work for, or to have a financial stake in the outcome; this bias has been the problem behind some of the dangerous medications that have made it to market.5 

Nevertheless, despite the political problems, conflicts of interest and power struggles, science and reason provide more accurate perspectives than untested intuition and religion. “One study does not a theory prove,” I say. Only when there are a number of studies showing agreement (and the reasons for any dissenting studies understood) should results be accepted as “truth”, or better yet, the best current, evidence-supported approximation of truth as we currently know it. And even when bad data does find its way into the knowledge base, it is over time isolated and corrected or refined.

4.2. Limits of Logic

Pure logic has its limits. It works well on collectible, verifiable data. It can’t, for example, explain why we experience consciousness the way we do. We know how nerve cells work, how the sodium and potassium gradients regenerate an action potential as it travels along an axon, how neurotransmitter release is triggered when the AP reaches the axon terminals, how dendrites on corresponding cells respond by creating analog chemical gradients that may or may not trigger action potentials in their respective cells– but none of this explains our dreams, why we find things beautiful (nor not), or the altered states of consciousness we can achieve through meditation, religious practice, mind altering substances, BDSM, or other means.

Nor can logic tell us whether or not god exists, although it can tell us that if he does exist, he has been neglecting his creation lately– because he hasn’t tampered with it in a long time. But if logic can’t formally prove or disprove something’s existence, does that mean it is so?

4.3. Logic vs. Reason

Russell’s Celestial Teapot6  suggests there are times that intuition, supported by rational application of probabilities, is an acceptable substitute for a pure mathematical or logical proof. The example shows us a difference between logic and reason: although it may be impossible to formally prove something with logic, we may nevertheless use reason to draw a conclusion.

If we apply this principle the world’s religions, we end up with the likelihood that all except the most liberal are improbable to the point, in my mind, of disproof.

But can I disprove an individual’s spiritual experiences? Can I disprove a given person’s experience of connecting with deity?

5. Experiences vs. Explanations

The questions are flawed. It is not I that has to disprove a person’s experience; in fact, an experience cannot be disproven, because it is simply an experience, neither true nor false. However, it seems that most often when someone has a spiritual experience, they immediately muck it up by attributing nonsensical explanations and by promoting it to others as “truth”. These claims are not immune from evaluation.

If someone wants me to accept that their experience involves, in literal fact, connecting to God, manipulating mystical energies, communing with an invisible spirit guide, or some other mystical experience, they need to provide proof to back up their assertion. The probabilities for better explanations of such experiences better suggest some kind of profound psychological experience, and discount aforementioned mystical possibilities as equivalents of the teapot.

I do not mean to disregard the value of experiences themselves. Having had spiritual experiences, I can testify that they are amazing– but I recognize they are a personal experience caused by scenarios I’ve encountered, often in altered states of consciousness caused by unusual experiences or created through meditation. No matter the insight, wisdom, beauty, or profundity they may offer, a spiritual experience is not “Truth”.

Whatever the explanation– a personal journey through one’s subconscious, a discourse with god, a connection to a collective unconscious given to us by our DNA, a shamanic journey, a visit to an altered state of consciousness induced through meditation, a motivational boost from a higher power (literal or metaphorical), or something else along these lines– the spiritual experiences can be quite powerful, and have a dramatic influence on a person’s life and perception of reality. This is what spirituality has to offer.

The best explanations, the most probable sources for such experiences fall into the psychological realm. The fantastical explanations are without support; they originate from intuition based on an (often intense) experience, and an individual’s inability or unwillingness to differentiate between a metaphorical and literal interaction with god.

In our desire for understanding the world we live in, we crave answers. Given the intensity of spiritual experiences, we’re all the more motivated to have an explanation for our encounter– and so we accept answers which are less than rigorous in their explanations:

  • that magick underlies the Tarot’s operations
  • that mystical energies flow through our bodies in meridians, allowing Reiki, Shiatsu, healing touch and other schemes to work
  • that magical ritual can be used to adjust our futures and the world
  • that astrology explains variation in our personality and skills and gives insight into our futures
  • keeping candles alight can help keep people healthy, pain-free, etc.,
  • that a God is necessary to make things go
Here are some better explanations for some of these:
  • I have found the Tarot fun to dabble in, but it is better explained as a storyline variant of the Rorschach test, a vehicle for accessing the subconscious or other desires and feelings we may not be able to directly admit to ourselves yet. Insistence on the mystical, other than in trappings, makes religion look silly.
  • Alternative therapies offer human contact that often isn’t present in our overwhelmed medical system. There is value in having someone that shows care and concern, even if they function via a placebo. Why do we need to wrap the placebo in false trimmings, and why are we so resistant to accepting a known placebo if it’s comforting and we enjoy it? We need to rethink our values on both sides of this equation.
  • Using a ritual to “make” something happen can inspire confidence, and help bring the conscious and subconscious minds into sync on achieving a goal. In this sense, I recognize the value of ritual and magic, although as I mention in Alternative Therapies & Imagination , temporary suspension of disbelief is adequate for achieving this goal. However, detailed theories about how energies may be raised and herbal properties used to direct the future are far-fetched fantasies that only serve to detract from religion.
  • Burning candles to mark dramatic events in our lives or others’ lives can be soothing and offer us something to do when nothing practical can be done. That a particular color or scent of candle is necessary to attract God’s attention to your matter and roust him into action seems questionable– it seems a lot more about us.
  • Astrology offers a quick, prejudice, generic opinion about another. Perhaps this is a short-cut to feeling we know someone, a way of "breaking the ice" and getting past the social awkwardness of meeting new people. Assuming for a moment that the positions of stars could have some influence on our lives, skills, and personality, how would that compare to our interactions with others, parents and upbringing, education, wealth or lack of it, experience with a given task, prior experiences?

    Viewed as a whole, the Zodiac is a complicated system and it becomes hard to judge. But compared a component at a time it falls apart: will the position of Jupiter at the time of my birth more or less effect who (or even the type of person) I will form relationships with when compared to the kinds of company I keep? Since friends will influence the places we go socializing, thus influencing who I meet, thus effecting who I might end up with to a larger degree.

    This comparison can be repeated for other combinations: lunar phase vs. parents and upbringing, birth sign vs. the neighborhood I grew up in, or ascention of Mars vs. my education. If on every comparison the tangible has more impact than the mystical, then how could the mystical impart more significance? It cannot, and with each comparison, astrology's overall potential diminishes toward nil. 7 

5.1. Spirituality vs. Religion

My friend Michael Bowman has often said, “Religion is the politics of spirituality.” I would agree; religion is that which takes personal spiritual experiences and attaches rules and dogma that we must obey, that we must submit to religious authorities, donate our money to them, and stop questioning their claims.

Likewise, it seems that when we have a spiritual experience, we immediately “muck it up” by attributing nonsensical explanations and by promoting it to others as “truth”.

God as a metaphor for the laws of nature, the big bang, Jung’s collective unconscious, or as an alternative name for the open-ended “higher power” that those in AA find so helpful is a reasonable thing. When God is turned into a bearded father figure in the sky who answers prayers, into the intelligent force driving evolution, or into even a beautiful woman who drives the turn of the lunar cycles and seasons, then the religious are choosing to paint themselves foolish and showing their intellectual limitations.

6. Conclusion: The Unfairness of “Tolerance”

The problem with tolerating religion via a “hands-off” policy is that it has an unfair advantage. If spirituality (theological or secular) was kept to the individual, there would be less of an issue. But since spirituality almost inevitably translates into religion, it creates a problem.

Religion is asking for the opportunity to promote itself without my being able to detract from it. How is that fair? Choosing to put religion into the public sphere promotes it, either formally via proselytizing and missionary work, or informally by offering religious explanations for phenomena we encounter. The same actions also open religion to critique, begging it to be evaluated against rational standards.

When religious ideas are presented in the pubic sphere, their proponents should expect exactly what is currently happening– that rational people will examine those ideas and subject them to reason.

Those that don’t want religion held up to scrutiny must remember that their actions are what bring attention and critique to it. If they don’t want their concepts and dogma to be treated this way, it is on their shoulders to protect it by remembering that experience is not explanation, by not presenting dogma as truth, and by not claiming that their models represent literal reality.

Related Reading

Alternative Therapies & Imagination (pseudotherapies.html)
Proponents claim alternative therapies such as shiatsu, acupuncture, healing touch, reiki, etc. are scientific in a way that we just don't understand yet. But does this hold up when compared to the physiological effects of a horror movie?
Science vs. Pseudoscience: Essential Differences (pseudoscience.html)
There are essential differences between science and pseudoscience, which are the reason our world has experienced such a deluge of pseudoscience recently-- and will probably continue to.
Evolution (evolution.html)
Evolution and Natural Selection: NOT equivalent to filling a bucket with parts and stirring.


  • 1.   Except for a “woman’s intuition”, her ability to judge a person’s character, which Holmes respected.
  • 2.   The Bible alone has two, one in Genesis 1 and a different one in Genesis 2.
  • 3.   New Oxford American Dictionary, Apple OS X v. 10.6.4 edition.
  • 4.   Some would claim that even in explanations science outperforms religion, although that does not change this argument.
  • 5.   FDA approval used to be somewhat more stringent, too, but was relaxed somewhat during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US in the 1980s because of the large number of people that were dying anyway. Although this was specific to AIDS medication at the times, I believe it was influential in the FDA becoming more lax about new drug approvals since then.
  • 6.   Bertrand Russell’s posited small orbiting teapot. It’s too small to see even with the biggest telescopes. Do you believe it exists?
  • 7.   Of course, believers will say my friends were already a result of my sign. But is my choice of friends more influenced by the phase of the moon, or the level of affluence of my family and the neighhorhood I grew up in?