Why Atheists are Not as Rational as Some Like to Think

File 20180924 85755 lffuqk.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Richard Dawkins, author, evolutionary biologist and emeritus fellow of New College, University of Oxford, is one of the world’s most prominent atheists.
Fronteiras do Pensamento/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

By Lois Lee, University of Kent

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 realise 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 fulfilments 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 non-rational 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 scrutinise 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.

Children’s choices often aren’t based on rational thinking.
Anna Nahabed/Shutterstock

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% – 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.

Science can give us existential fulfilment, too.
Vladimir Pustovit/Flicr, CC BY-SA

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 centres 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 sceptical of transhumanism, the role of science isn’t only about rationality – it can provide the philosophical, ethical, mythical and aesthetic fulfilments 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.

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 fulfilments. 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.The Conversation

Lois Lee, Research Fellow, Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is Religion a Universal in Human Culture or an Academic Invention?

People give names to persons and things, and then suppose that if they know the names, they know that which the names refer to.

– Keiji Nishitani


Brett Colasacco | Aeon Ideas

If anything seems self-evident in human culture, it’s the widespread presence of religion. People do ‘religious’ stuff all the time; a commitment to gods, myths and rituals has been present in all societies. These practices and beliefs are diverse, to be sure, from Aztec human sacrifice to Christian baptism, but they appear to share a common essence. So what could compel the late Jonathan Zittell Smith, arguably the most influential scholar of religion of the past half-century, to declare in his book Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (1982) that ‘religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study’, and that it has ‘no independent existence apart from the academy’?

Smith wanted to dislodge the assumption that the phenomenon of religion needs no definition. He showed that things appearing to us as religious says less about the ideas and practices themselves than it does about the framing concepts that we bring to their interpretation. Far from a universal phenomenon with a distinctive essence, the category of ‘religion’ emerges only through second-order acts of classification and comparison.

When Smith entered the field in the late 1960s, the academic study of religion was still quite young. In the United States, the discipline had been significantly shaped by the Romanian historian of religions Mircea Eliade, who, from 1957 until his death in 1986, taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School. There, Eliade trained a generation of scholars in the approach to religious studies that he had already developed in Europe.

What characterised religion, for Eliade, was ‘the sacred’ – the ultimate source of all reality. Simply put, the sacred was ‘the opposite of the profane’. Yet the sacred could ‘irrupt’ into profane existence in a number of predictable ways across archaic cultures and histories. Sky and earth deities were ubiquitous, for example; the Sun and Moon served as representations of rational power and cyclicality; certain stones were regarded as sacred; and water was seen as a source of potentiality and regeneration.

Eliade also developed the concepts of ‘sacred time’ and ‘sacred space’. According to Eliade, archaic man, or Homo religiosus, always told stories of what the gods did ‘in the beginning’. They consecrated time through repetitions of these cosmogonic myths, and dedicated sacred spaces according to their relationship to the ‘symbolism of the Centre’. This included the ‘sacred mountain’ or axis mundi – the archetypal point of intersection between the sacred and the profane – but also holy cities, palaces and temples. The exact myths, rituals and places were culturally and historically specific, of course, but Eliade saw them as examples of a universal pattern.

Smith was profoundly influenced by Eliade. As a graduate student, he set out to read nearly every work cited in the bibliographies of Eliade’s magnum opus, Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958). Smith’s move to join the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1968-69, he admitted, was motivated in part by a desire to work alongside his ‘master’. However, he soon began to set out his own intellectual agenda, which put him at odds with Eliade’s paradigm.

First, Smith challenged whether the Eliadean constructions of sacred time and sacred space were truly universal. He did not deny that these constructs mapped onto some archaic cultures quite well. But in his early essay ‘The Wobbling Pivot’ (1972), Smith noted that some cultures aspired to explode or escape from space and time, rather than revere or reify them. (Think of the various schools of Gnosticism that thrived during the first two centuries CE, which held that the material world was the work of a flawed, even malevolent spirit known as the demiurge, who was inferior to the true, hidden god.) Smith distinguished these ‘utopian’ patterns, which seek the sacred outside the prevailing natural and social order, from the ‘locative’ ones described by Eliade, which reinforce it – a move that undercut Eliade’s universalist vocabulary.

Second, Smith introduced a new self-awareness and humility to the study of religion. In the essayAdde Parvum Parvo Magnus Acervus Erit’ (1971) – the title a quotation from Ovid, meaning ‘add a little to a little and there will be a great heap’ – Smith showed how comparisons of ‘religious’ data are laced with political and ideological values. What Smith identified as ‘Right-wing’ approaches, such as Eliade’s, strive for organic wholeness and unity; intertwined with this longing, he said, is a commitment to traditional social structures and authority. ‘Left-wing’ approaches, on the other hand, incline toward analysis and critique, which upset the established order and make possible alternative visions of society. By situating Eliade’s approach to religion on the conservative end of the spectrum, Smith did not necessarily intend to disparage it. Instead, he sought to distinguish these approaches so as to prevent scholars from carelessly combining them.

Behind Smith’s work was the motivating thesis that no theory or method for studying religion can be purely objective. Rather, the classifying devices we apply to decide whether something is ‘religious’ or not always rely on pre-existing norms. The selective taxonomy of ‘religious’ data from across cultures, histories and societies, Smith argued, is therefore a result of the scholar’s ‘imaginative acts of comparison and generalisation’. Where once we had the self-evident, universal phenomenon of religion, all that is left is a patchwork of particular beliefs, practices and experiences.

A vast number of traditions have existed over time that one could conceivably categorise as religions. But in order to decide one way or the other, an observer first has to formulate a definition according to which some traditions can be included and others excluded. As Smith wrote in the introduction to Imagining Religion: ‘while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterised in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious – there is no data for religion’. There might be evidence for various expressions of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and so forth. But these become ‘religions’ only through second-order, scholarly reflection. A scholar’s definition could even lead her to categorise some things as religions that are not conventionally thought of as such (Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance), while excluding others that are (certain strains of Buddhism).

Provocative and initially puzzling, Smith’s claim that religion ‘is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes’ is now widely accepted in the academy. Still, Smith reaffirmed his own critical appreciation for Eliade’s work in two of his last publications before his death in December 2017, and one of the final courses he taught at Chicago was a close reading of Patterns. Smith’s aim was never to exorcise Eliade from the field. His intention was instead to dispense with the temptations of self-evidence, to teach scholars of religion, whatever their preferred methods or political-ideological leanings, to be clear about the powers and limits of the decisions that they need to make. The student of religion, Smith said, must be self-conscious above all: ‘Indeed, this self-consciousness constitutes his primary expertise, his foremost object of study.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Brett Colasacco

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.