January 4, 2012

Irrational Atheists

IrrationalAs atheists, many of us aspire to be more rational. And yet, we are still human. We are still prone to the same biases, prejudices, and cognitive errors known by cognitive scientists to be part of how our human brains function. While some atheists may be more rational than our religious counterparts on the question of gods, not all atheists arrived at or maintain their atheism through rational means. And once one sets aside the question of gods and examines other topics, one finds little evidence that atheists are any more rational than religious believers.

Intellectually, I know that what I wrote in the paragraph above is true. But emotionally, I have a hard time with it. I don't want it to be true. I want to think that we are more rational than we really are. I want to believe that there are no sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise moronic atheists. I want to think that atheists are somehow above making the same mistakes religious believers make. But I know better. We all know better.

Every one of us makes mistakes. We make stupid, irrational decisions that end badly. We don't always learn from our experience. We sometimes get stuck and repeat destructive patterns without realizing what we are doing. But we do this because we are human. Expecting atheists to consistently rise above the inherent limitations of our human brains is not only irrational; it sets us up for one hell of a frustrating life where nobody (including ourselves) will ever meet the standards we set.

One of my hopes for the atheist movement is that we will begin to distinguish between aspirational goals (i.e., ideals for which we strive) and realistic expectations. Both are valuable, but confusing them leads to misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

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