Why athe­ists are not as ra­tio­nal as some like to think

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BELIEF - By Lois Lee

Many athe­ists think that their athe­ism is the prod­uct of ra­tio­nal think­ing. They use ar­gu­ments such as “I don’t be­lieve in God; I be­lieve in science” to ex­plain that ev­i­dence and logic, rather than su­per­nat­u­ral be­lief and dogma, un­der­pin their think­ing. But just be­cause you be­lieve in ev­i­dence-based, sci­en­tific re­search — which is sub­ject to strict checks and pro­ce­dures — doesn’t mean that your mind works in the same way.

When you ask athe­ists about why they be­came athe­ists (as I do for a liv­ing), they of­ten point to eu­reka mo­ments when they came to re­al­ize that re­li­gion sim­ply doesn’t make sense.

Oddly per­haps, many re­li­gious peo­ple ac­tu­ally take a sim­i­lar view of athe­ism. This comes out when the­olo­gians and other the­ists spec­u­late that it must be rather sad to be an athe­ist, lack­ing (as they think athe­ists do) so much of the philo­soph­i­cal, eth­i­cal, myth­i­cal and aes­thetic ful­fill­ments that re­li­gious peo­ple have ac­cess to — stuck in a cold world of ra­tio­nal­ity only.

The science of athe­ism

The prob­lem that any ra­tio­nal thinker needs to tackle, though, is that the science in­creas­ingly shows that athe­ists are no more ra­tio­nal than the­ists. In­deed, athe­ists are just as sus­cep­ti­ble as the next per­son to “group-think” and other non­ra­tional forms of cog­ni­tion. For ex­am­ple, re­li­gious and non­re­li­gious peo­ple alike can end up fol­low­ing charis­matic in­di­vid­u­als with­out ques­tion­ing them. And our minds of­ten pre­fer right­eous­ness over truth, as the so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Haidt has ex­plored.

Even athe­ist be­liefs them­selves have much less to do with ra­tio­nal in­quiry than athe­ists of­ten think. We now know, for ex­am­ple, that non­re­li­gious chil­dren of re­li­gious par­ents cast off their be­liefs for rea­sons that have lit­tle to do with in­tel­lec­tual rea­son­ing. The lat­est cog­ni­tive re­search shows that the de­ci­sive fac­tor is learn­ing from what par­ents do rather than from what they say. So if a par­ent says that they’re

Chris­tian, but they’ve fallen out of the habit of do­ing the things they say should mat­ter — such as pray­ing or go­ing to church — their kids sim­ply don’t buy the idea that re­li­gion makes sense.

This is per­fectly ra­tio­nal in a sense, but chil­dren aren’t pro­cess­ing this on a cog­ni­tive level. Through­out our evo­lu­tion­ary his­tory, hu­mans have of­ten lacked the time to scru­ti­nize and weigh up the ev­i­dence — need­ing to make quick as­sess­ments. That means that chil­dren to some ex­tent just ab­sorb the cru­cial in­for­ma­tion, which in this case is that re­li­gious be­lief doesn’t ap­pear to mat­ter in the way that par­ents are say­ing it does.

Even older chil­dren and ado­les­cents who ac­tu­ally pon­der the topic of re­li­gion may not be ap­proach­ing it as in­de­pen­dently as they think. Emerg­ing re­search is demon­strat­ing that athe­ist par­ents (and oth­ers) pass on their be­liefs to their chil­dren in a sim­i­lar way to re­li­gious par­ents — through shar­ing their cul­ture as much as their ar­gu­ments.

Some par­ents take the view that their chil­dren should choose their be­liefs for them­selves, but what they then do is pass on cer­tain ways of think­ing about re­li­gion, like the idea that re­li­gion is a mat­ter of choice rather than di­vine truth. It’s not sur­pris­ing that al­most all of these chil­dren — 95 per­cent — end up “choos­ing” to be athe­ist.

Science ver­sus be­liefs

But are athe­ists more likely to em­brace science than re­li­gious peo­ple?

Many be­lief sys­tems can be more or less closely in­te­grated with sci­en­tific knowl­edge. Some be­lief sys­tems are openly crit­i­cal of science, and think it has far too much sway over our lives, while other be­lief sys­tems are hugely con­cerned to learn about and re­spond to sci­en­tific knowl­edge.

But this dif­fer­ence doesn’t neatly map onto whether you are re­li­gious or not. Some Protes­tant tra­di­tions, for ex­am­ple, see ra­tio­nal­ity or sci­en­tific think­ing as cen­tral to their re­li­gious lives. Mean­while, a new gen­er­a­tion of post­mod­ern athe­ists high­light the lim­its of hu­man knowl­edge, and see sci­en­tific knowl­edge as hugely lim­ited, prob­lem­atic even, es­pe­cially when it comes to ex­is­ten­tial and eth­i­cal ques­tions. These athe­ists might, for ex­am­ple, fol­low thinkers like Charles Baude­laire in the view that true knowl­edge is only found in artis­tic ex­pres­sion.

And while many athe­ists do like to think of them­selves as pro science, science and tech­nol­ogy it­self can some­times be the ba­sis of re­li­gious think­ing or be­liefs, or some­thing very much like it. For ex­am­ple, the rise of the tran­shu­man­ist move­ment, which cen­ters on the be­lief that hu­mans can and should tran­scend their cur­rent nat­u­ral state and lim­i­ta­tions through the use of tech­nol­ogy, is an ex­am­ple of how tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion is driv­ing the emer­gence of new move­ments that have much in com­mon with re­li­gios­ity.

Even for those athe­ists skep­ti­cal of tran­shu­man­ism, the role of science isn’t only about ra­tio­nal­ity — it can pro­vide the philo­soph­i­cal, eth­i­cal, myth­i­cal and aes­thetic ful­fill­ments that re­li­gious be­liefs do for oth­ers. The science of the bi­o­log­i­cal world, for ex­am­ple, is much more than a topic of in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity — for some athe­ists, it pro­vides mean­ing and com­fort in much the same way that be­lief in God can for the­ists. Psy­chol­o­gists show that be­lief in science in­creases in the face of stress and ex­is­ten­tial anx­i­ety, just as re­li­gious be­liefs in­ten­sify for the­ists in these sit­u­a­tions.

‘Do’ moral­ity

Clearly, the idea that be­ing athe­ist is down to ra­tio­nal­ity alone is start­ing to look dis­tinctly ir­ra­tional. But the good news for all con­cerned is that ra­tio­nal­ity is over­rated. Hu­man in­ge­nu­ity rests on a lot more than ra­tio­nal think­ing. As Haidt says of “the righ­teous mind,” we are ac­tu­ally “de­signed to ‘do’ moral­ity” — even if we’re not do­ing it in the ra­tio­nal way we think we are. The abil­ity to make quick de­ci­sions, fol­low our pas­sions and act on in­tu­ition are also im­por­tant hu­man qual­i­ties and cru­cial for our suc­cess.

It is help­ful that we have in­vented some­thing that, un­like our minds, is ra­tio­nal and ev­i­dence-based: science. When we need proper ev­i­dence, science can very of­ten pro­vide it – as long as the topic is testable. Im­por­tantly, the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence does not tend to sup­port the view that athe­ism is about ra­tio­nal thought and the­ism is about ex­is­ten­tial ful­fill­ments. The truth is that hu­mans are not like science — none of us get by with­out ir­ra­tional ac­tion, nor with­out sources of ex­is­ten­tial mean­ing and com­fort. For­tu­nately, though, no­body has to.

Athe­ists are just as sus­cep­ti­ble as the next per­son to “group-think” and other non­ra­tional forms of cog­ni­tion.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.