Are atheists more rational?



I find it easy to criticize most forms of theism because I consider any claim to the existence of a benevolent and supernatural deity to be unprovable and self-contradictory. Criticizing atheism is more difficult because the burden of proof lies with those who make a claim rather than with those who challenge it. Most people consider this obvious in the case of the Loch Ness Monster, but they somehow manage to overlook it where God is concerned. Perhaps, this is why a lot of what passes for an attack on atheism is really an attack on the character and personality of atheists. For example, we’re often accused of being arrogant, immoral, intolerant, and argumentative, and some of us are, but our detractors paint us with too broad a brush. Even so, I consider it likely that, as a group, we really do differ from theists in various ways, although my thoughts about this are mostly based on my own observations, and can’t therefore be taken as gospel. In this post, I want to discuss one of those ways: how atheists regard rationality.

I think it safe to say that nearly all atheists are rationalists inasmuch as they hold that beliefs based upon logic and evidence are more likely to be true than are beliefs based upon authority, intuition, emotion, and mysticism. For instance, when I recently wrote about my fear of death, an atheist friend offered an argument reminiscent of that of Epicurus who said,

“If I am, then death is not. If death is, then I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”

I find this argument to be as flawless as it is meaningless, but without intending to disparage my friend, I will go further and say that it is irrational to ascribe to rationality the power that many atheists imagine it to have. Surely, David Hume (pictured) is well-considered to be the epitome of rationalism in the modern sense of offering arguments that are rigorously logical and evidence-based, yet even he wrote that,

“Reason is…the slave of the passions.” 

I suspect that some of the atheistic emphasis on rationality comes from the fact that atheists want to distance themselves as much as possible from those whom they consider credulous or superstitious, and this leads them to judge left-brain activity as superior to right-brain activity. I think it might also be true that most atheists are left-brain oriented by nature, and, like all people, they tend to regard as superior those attributes that they find within themselves.

The fact that I am a right-brainer seems to be a minor liability among atheists because so much of what right-brained people think about is relative and imaginative rather than sharply defined and logical. This is why I am attracted to the liberal arts rather than to math and the sciences (at least in any depth). I often see this in my relationship with Peggy whom is my superior at understanding math and science, whereas I’m her superior at understanding religion, symbolic literature, and philosophy, things that often strike her as arcane, convoluted, nitpicking, and even nonsensical. My right-brainedness might also explain why I’ve have had a much harder time letting go of religion than most atheists.

I also differ from most of the atheists I’ve known in that they assume a correlation between rationality and happiness. I would challenge them to prove this because I’ve seen no evidence of it. For example, my friend, Walt, is irrational about money in that he never saves, and he only cares about how much something costs so he’ll know if he has enough money to buy it. Years ago, he had a desperate need for money, so he borrowed from me. I assumed that he would learn from the experience and become more rational, but it was not to be. One day, he and I were talking about our differences, and he argued that he would feel less anxiety if he were abandoned penniless in the middle of a foreign country where no one spoke English than I would feel if I were abandoned in the same country with a million dollars in the bank, and he was right. All my providence regarding money doesn’t make me happier (although I would definitely be unhappy if I were broke).

Likewise, Walt doesn’t worry about his house when he’s away from home despite the fact that he has done nothing to protect it from burglars. I’ve put a lot of thought and work into making my house unappealing to burglars, yet I still worry, although again, I would worry more if I hadn’t taken these measures. Despite Walt’s irrationality about various things, he is happier than I as can be seen in the fact that he's more cheerful, confident, generous, and spontaneous. Even so, I wouldn’t trade places with him because I’ve seen so many bad things happen in his life that never would have happened to me.

My point is that I see rationality as a tool that enables us to accomplish things that we couldn’t otherwise accomplish and to avoid mistakes that we couldn’t otherwise avoid, yet it’s not a tool for happiness, and even someone like Walt can employ it as well or better than I when he feels the need, so it’s also not an even/or proposition. This is why some very smart people who are rational in every other way can still base their lives upon irrational beliefs (e.g. religion, excessive optimism, excessive pessimism, or an unrealistic sense of self-confidence), and why people who pride themselves on rationality in regard to these things, can still behave irrationally in other areas (e.g. money, relationships, health-care, and managing their emotions). As I see it, ours is simply not a rational species, and this includes atheists. To quote Hume again, this time in full: 

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” 

Another problem with rationality that many atheists appear to overlook is that it either cannot produce, or is limited in its ability to produce, love, purpose, art, music, and literature, and it’s also powerless to give us an appreciation of these things, yet without them, we would be little more than machines. As it is, we are all composed of two cerebral spheres, and some people—to their detriment—are overly dominated by the right, and others—to their detriment—are overly dominated by the left, and each group devalues the other. This makes them blind to the influence of the other sphere on their own behavior as well as blind to how they sabotage the gifts that the other sphere has to offer. I think it likely that differences in cerebral orientation are like differences in sexual orientation in that whatever you’re born with is permanent, and your job isn’t to change it but to use it wisely in order to be the most balanced person you can be.

18 comments:

Joe Pereira said...

Thought-provoking post, Snow. Made me realise I must have a pretty balanced righ-left use. I'm artistic and emotional, yet guided by reason and logic.

As for the fear of dying, my only concerns are: possible pain in the transition and not wanting to hurt my loved ones left behind.

Snowbrush said...

I had an insight, Joe, that I added after you read the post: "My right-brainedness might also explain why I’ve have had a much harder time letting go of religion than most atheists."

"I must have a pretty balanced right-left use."

I never feel balanced because I don't even know how I would recognize balance within myself if it were staring me in the face. I know that I "feel" emotional a lot more than I "feel" rational, but then does it "feel" rational TO feel rational?

"As for the fear of dying, my only concerns are: possible pain in the transition and not wanting to hurt my loved ones left behind."

You might as well be talking Chinese as far as I'm concerned because while I fear the same things you do, I am also horrified by the thought of eternal non-existence, and I don't understand how anyone can not be, although I believe that a lot people aren't because the possibility that they're all lying seems even more fantastical.

Elephant's Child said...

Eternal non existence sounds fine to me. Some days even tempting. What is it about it that horrifies you?
I don't know anyone who is rational all of the time about everything. I think all of us have areas where we would fail that test - if test it is.

lotta joy said...

I always preferred working with numbers. They are static, never changing, and that is how I'd prefer my life to be. I love a comfortable rut and get in turmoil over any bump in the road. I never felt at ease around other people because they represent bumps in the road, aren't static, and constantly causing turmoil. I think my right brain is at war with my left brain. I want a close friend, but I'm not willing to put effort into (what I see as) their constant need for entertainment and adventure. I'll never find someone like myself, because they're hiding in their rut and hoping the doorbell doesn't ring. I wrote this with humor, but the truth of the matter is I'm a loner who would love to have a friend, but only when convenient.

And my comment seems to have nothing relevant to your post! Sorry.

rhymeswithplague said...

"...my thoughts about this are mostly based on my own observations, and can’t therefore be taken as gospel."

Hahahahaha! Good one, Snow!

Joe Pereira said...

Snow, but I know my energy and DNA will stay and continue forever more, a kind of eternal existence :)

Paula Kaye said...

I am never sorry when I stop by your blog. We all have to have our beliefs and find ways to bring comfort to ourselves. I only wish that others would just allow each of us to believe what we want to believe. I have so many, many questions about religion but I find comfort in believing...and that is all that matters to me. I am currently struggling with the pain versus death issue at my house. It is never a cut and dried decision...

PhilipH said...

I think therefore I am.

I don't think therefore I'm Hovis.
(brown-bread ... work it out).

I once found it impossible to envisage oblivion, nothingness and it troubled me. Now I'm a lot older it comforts me.

Surely most people would find "everlasting life" intolerable. No rest from all the turmoil that life brings forth more and more and will never cease as long as homo sapiens exist.

Also, go back some 200,000 years when man did NOT walk this earth. Where were "we" then? Nowhere, in 'nothingness'.

As far as left/right brain goes, when I was training to be a COBOL programmer the teacher claimed that artists, poets and writers were far better programmers than mathematicians! Work that one out.

Finally, I'm an atheist and rational, except when emotion kicks rationality out of touch.

Snowbrush said...

"Eternal non existence sounds fine to me.... What is it about it that horrifies you?"

Thank of all you will lose when you no longer exist. For example, you'll lose me and everyone else who cares about you. You'll lose the fragrance of flowers, the blue of the sky, the taste of food, the stimulation of a good book, the love of a pet, all of this plus your thoughts, your history, your potential, and your dreams. Lastly, you'll leave behind a legacy of grief in the hearts of those who miss you. A life that goes on forever makes sense to me. A life that, on the scale of eternity, occupies infinitely less time than the briefest spark that is thrown from a fire isn't so much a gift as an anomaly. We grow, we mature, our maturity is finished by age thirty, and we immediately we start to deteriorate. We continue to learn and to, hopefully, grow in wisdom--this against the backdrop of a world that is tragically flawed--only to lose all our knowledge and wisdom to death or, worse yet, senility, in a few brief decades. There's something absurd about that. You write of death as an escape from all that is bad, and there is indeed a lot of bad to escape from, but there is also a lot of good to hang around for even if I do sometimes lose sight of it. Maybe what you want isn't so much death as a relief that you can find in no other way. I know that this is the case for me. I never, ever want to die. I simply don't want to suffer.

"I don't know anyone who is rational all of the time about everything."

Only an idiot would say otherwise, so if something I wrote seemed to suggest that I believed that, let me know what it was, so I can change it.

"I wrote this with humor, but the truth of the matter is I'm a loner who would love to have a friend, but only when convenient."

I thought your analogies were brilliant. You might consider the effect of illness on your ability to give yourself in friendship. I have been astounded by how isolating physical pain has been in my life. I used to be a social person, but I'm also an introvert, and having spent years now avoiding most social interactions because I didn't have the energy for them, I have come to dread them to the extent that I simply can't bring myself to do anything but stay home except with people whom I already know, and require need less energy. I'm sure it is true of you that your life would be a whole lot different if you weren't seriously ill, dreading your next medical bill, and thinking that maybe your move to Florida might not have been such a good idea after all. All this, plus worrying about, and feeling isolated from, your religious sister whom is now a long way from you. It might be easier for you to seek friendship if you felt that you had more to offer, or do I project too much?

"Hahahahaha! Good one, Snow!"

I wish you could say as much about the post itself, not that I ever entertain the slightest fantasy that you'll agree with me, but I would like it if I thought you saw my point(s).

Elephant's Child said...

Thanks for responding to my comment. No, I don't want (alive or dead) to cause pain to people. However, the temporary nature of existence is something I have always accepted, without question. When life is overwhelming as a relief, at other times because I can't see any justification for me to be a permanent fixture. A question of space? A question of relative worth? Going away to think about it some more.

Snowbrush said...

"Snow, but I know my energy and DNA will stay and continue forever more"

I'm very glad that you find satisfaction in the thought that your energy and your DNA will remain after you yourself have gone.

"I am never sorry when I stop by your blog."

Thank you. How sweet. It made me smile.

"I only wish that others would just allow each of us to believe what we want to believe."

The Supreme Court sure isn't helping with its decision that government meetings can include uniquely Christian religious observances.

"Surely most people would find "everlasting life" intolerable."

But as I asked in my response to Elephant Child, is it everlasting life that's intolerable, or the thought of having all of the problems of this life continue forever? I think it likely that my fantasy of what everlasting life would be like is different from yours because I envision it as a state of perpetual growth in which the problems and limitations of this life are solved. This view might well come from all those years I spent hearing about heaven, so those who didn't grow up as I did would just naturally picture everlasting life as being a little like the movie Groundhog Day. Whatever the cause, I never picture eternity as tiring but rather as a series of happy challenges, either that or a state of timelessness like when you're so engrossed in something that you forget about who and where you are because you've become one with the task. Indeed, if my image was only of getting older, more decrepit, and more sickly, while wars, famines, taxes, and natural disasters continued, maybe I wouldn't want to live forever either, although I think it likely that if someone offered me a pill right now that would enable me to live forever, I would probably take it quickly before I had time to back out simply because I don't want to die before my full potential is realized, and where there's life, there's hope. I'm embarrassed to admit how much my fantasies regarding everlasting life resemble heaven, but since we are dealing in fantasy, I guess I'm free to frame it as I please. The nearest I ever came to a NDE (near death experience) was when a nurse gave me a hefty dose of morphine, and I lost the desire to breathe. Rather than seeing this as something that would result in death, I saw it as a liberation, a gateway into a life without the needs and problems of this life, and maybe that too framed my fantasy of what "life-after-life" would be like.

Charles Gramlich said...

Rationality is not a vice, as some would have us believe.

Although most of the atheists I know trumpet the rule of reason, I don't see much evidence that they are in fact more rational than non-atheists. The rational consideration of whether there is a god or not is only one small aspect of the overall use of reason in a life. Do atheists also invest their money more rationally, choose their TV viewing more rationally, interact with people on a personal level more rationally? I'm afraid I don't see the evidence. Humans are not primarily rational, they are primarily emotional. All humans. Most of us then use our rationality in service to our emotions. This is why it's important to draw a distinction between Atheism, the belief that no God exists, and anti-theism, which is the belief that religion is inherently evil. Atheism is a rational approach to the world. Anti-theism is just as irrational as theism.

Linda said...

I don't think that I am more right or left brain dominated. According to various tests I have taken for various reasons, I have a balance between the two and can switch at will to use my brain the way it needs to be used. As one psychologist who tested me said, "You can do anything you want to do."

However, my lifelong training has resulted in a right brain that has more muscle. The left brain is not more inept, just used less in earlier days so that when I made it strong, it was torture to me to make my brain do what I knew it could and must do.

Right-brain activity gives me the greatest joy. Left-brains activity makes my head hurt if the activity goes on too long. But, I am very good at left brain tasks. Continued

Linda said...

second part
My grad school professors were thrilled at what I did with literature--new observations. My science and math professors were stymied by my inability to do the geometry and algebra and higher maths I needed. One said I had a superior knowledge concepts and grasping new concepts that math-minded people could not understand.

When I taught GED with my MA in English/Language Arts, I was ill trying to teach algebra and geometry until I used the Language skills I possessed to develop mnemonics. All the right-brain students learned algebra and tell me they can still do it because of mnemonics.

I can do mental math faster than post people can. I was looking at a garment marked $19.99 and the clerk said it was 25% off. I said, "$15" immediately. She was stunned. My earlier math problems and present lack of knowing how to do trig were not my inherent problems. I was taught in an age when girls not knowing math was no big deal.

So, the dichotomy in my skills is not a brain function or preference problem.

I want to live forever. I just don't want to miss my children's lives. I like learning. I am quite sure, also, that I will never see them again. But, even though that makes me cry right now, I see no sense in comforting myself with the silly idea that we will meet elsewhere.

My pain and disability stop me from being more social. I am the shyest person I know, but people are shocked when I say that because people say I am an extrovert. Actually, some me say they love it because I talk because they cannot think of anything to say. Oh? I ask them questions, sometimes I am just silly and they laugh and talk.

Linda said...

third comment

I have no hope of seeing my mother ever again, and that makes me sad. If I decide to go to the delusional side in order to be happy and hopeful in regards to seeing her that is not rational at all. But, we often lie to ourselves for whatever reason.

It is very understandable to me how you miss religion and all its trappings. I miss the people and the singing and the sense of belonging. But, the preacher and the religious and spiritual talk cause me to mock people aloud. That makes me unpopular. If I hold in my opinion, I become very stressed. So, the one church dinner that is lunch suits me. There is good food, enough non-delusional people, and music.

Actually, I don't mind sharing a meal with delusional people, as long as they quit telling me I should just pray instead of having surgery on my spine, that I would have died last year of bronchitis if it had not been for prayer. I become ill and tell the baby ripped from the praying mother's arms must have been a sinful infant or God just did not listen to the wailing mother's prayers. Then, I practically go insane when the person says god works in mysterious ways, that we don't know why he took that baby.

I have a group of friends in B'ham that includes various combinations: atheist, theists (born again ones and casual believers), Unitarians, anarchists, socialists, communists, PhDs, homeless people, professionals, homeless, gay, transgendered, dedicated heterosexuals, the mentally ill. We all get along. We all speak our minds. We debate and leave as friends, although a bit tense on some occasions. Only the hardcore, born-again believers will never listen or consider their friendship with the person speaking. They only wildly quote scriptures or leave abruptly because they fear corruption.

Okay, maybe I got off track a bit. But, we mostly get along and are a rational group of people who have each (probably) irrational mind holds on some of our issues.

I think as a child I never really believed but just wanted to be with my mother after death, did not want to suffer in hell. But, as I grew a bit older, and then attended a Bible College for two years, I really did not believe as strongly as I "should." I taught my children well and that included doing what is right because it is the right thing to do whether anyone is watching or not. I must admit I told them God knows everything they do.

Now, I just know all the Bible stories well enough to be able to use them for Lit Crit. I am good at it. That made for good grades in graduate level English courses.

Linda said...

fourth comment
You do realize that using commas is a left-brain activity? So, the act of creating poetry or writing short stories involves lots of left-brain tasks.

Do NOT judge my ability to put in commas or periods tonight, as I have a temp. Yep, spent the July 4th getting two shots and four prescriptions. Fun day. My car ac went out two weeks ago, and the fumes and grass mowing present along with heat almost destroyed me. Actually, I never edit comments, but should.

PhilipH said...

Chas Gramlich: I think you are spot on with your comment. Well put.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

I to am balanced left right... good in math and science. Good at art and prefer it...