April 7, 2013

Reason, Emotion, and Atheism

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
On many atheist blogs, including this one, one can expect to encounter the notion that reason and faith are opposites. In the context of atheism, I suppose that makes sense. Faith is anything but rational, and reason needs no faith. But it is helpful to remember that the opposite of reason in some circles (particularly in the field of psychology) is not faith but emotion. This raises a question in my mind: Do you think that emotion is undervalued among atheists? I think it may be, at least if we focus on what we find in in much of the atheist blogosphere.

I bring this up now for a few reasons. First, I wonder if the preference for reason over emotion which is evident in much atheist-oriented material may be a bit off-putting to some. Might it lead some to feel unwelcome? From a strategic standpoint, it seems like we atheists ought to make sure that we are becoming overly sterile or academic in our discourse. This can sometimes happen when reason is placed above emotion, and I will acknowledge that it is a trap I fall into with some regularity.

Second, I find myself wondering if the relative value of emotion vs. reason might be one of the factors that has contributed to some of the conflict among atheists. I regularly see people, women in particular, being criticized for being too emotional or for relying too heavily on emotion. While I certainly think that relying on our feelings as if they provided a reliable indicator of reality can be problematic, I recognize that how we feel still yields relevant information and that strong emotions are often essential in motivating behavior (e.g., activism). There is a difference between harnessing the energy provided by one's feelings and engaging in highly reactive decision-making, but it is not always easy to distinguish between them without inferring too much about what may be going on inside another person.

Third, I raise the subject of emotion for a personal reason: I have noticed a gradual shift in my writing over the last year or so that I cannot really explain. I used to write with far more emotion than I have been lately. Part of this may have something to do with my feeling less angry about a variety of things these days, but I do sometimes miss the sort of posts I used to write from more emotional places. I am not sure if I've become too cautious, too numb, or something else.

In the end, I think we all need to recognize that emotion is an important part of the human experience and that attempts to minimize its influence in the interest of reason may have some negative effects. I suppose that the key is that we learn to recognize the manner in which our feelings influence us and can guard against what may be irrational decisions without attempting to banish our emotions to the periphery.

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