Lois Lee, a religious scholar whom I’ve written about before, is the lead investigator on a big Templeton grant, or, as The Conversation describes her in erroneous spelling, “Principle [sic] Investigator on the Understanding Unbelief programme.” Templeton gave her and her co-PI Stephen Bullivant (also a religious scholar) nearly three million dollars to study the nature and variety of “unbelief”. While the grant summary pretends that this is a dispassionate inquiry into the origin and nature of atheism, I wrote at the time that giving the grant to these two was “like asking creationists to direct a sociological study of why so many scientists accept evolution.”
And indeed, it’s clear from Lee and Bullivant’s writings that their study is tendentious. It’s not a rational inquiry into atheism, but rather an attack on atheism, and, in Lee’s latest article in The Conversation, “Why atheists are not as rational as some like to think” (click on screenshot), she positively celebrates irrationality. Note that the obligatory picture of the Satan Atheist accompanies the article:
I’m not sure I want to dissect this egregious and lightweight piece; it’s best summed up by saying its thesis is this: “Atheists are irrational, just like religious people.” In other words, “You’re just as bad as we believers are”: not a very persuasive argument. In fact, Lee adduces no strong evidence that atheists are just as irrational as believers. Rather, she uses a series of arguments, many of which rest on opinion rather than data, e.g. “some atheists are irrational” or “many atheists don’t arrive at their nonbelief through reason or science, but because they’re indoctrinated by their parents.
Who would deny this? Certainly not all atheists arrive at their stand by reason, but many of them have enough rationality to think “there’s no evidence for religious beliefs”, which is all the rationality you need to reject religion. You don’t have to be rational in every aspect of your life. Further, Lee fails to mention that religious belief is completely irrational—in the sense that there’s no evidence supporting the existence of Gods or the factual (and conflicting) assertions of the world’s many religions.
So yes, perhaps to some people “atheists aren’t as rational as you’d like to think”, but so what? What matters is not whether atheists are 100% rational, or whether some of them become atheists for reasons other than reason, but whether the claims of religion are true. That crucial issue isn’t discussed. Lee’s purpose here is simply to criticize atheists rather than to examine whether atheism can be seen as it truly is: a rational response to a lack of evidence for gods.
Here are a few of her assertions that I’ve summarized in bold (Lee’s direct quotes are indented):
Atheism is a sad way to live. Here Lee begins her celebration of irrationality, which I take to be osculation of religion (I’m betting she’s religious):
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.
That I don’t get. Why does atheism “not make sense” because it’s “sad”? And of course many of us nonbelievers are not sad at all. We fall in love, enjoy friendship, beauty, books, art, and food. What we don’t do is proselytize or believe in divine fairy tales. What we have here from Lee is a knowingly distorted indictment of nonbelief.
Many atheists arrive at nonbelief for non-rational reasons.
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.
. . . 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.
My response is “so what?” Many atheists give up religious beliefs as adults, not children. And again, the main issue for me is whether it IS rational to be an atheist, not how you come to be an atheist. Of course not everyone gives up or rejects faith for the same reason.
Atheists purport to think scientifically and love science, but not all of us are that way.
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.
Yes, of course not all atheists are completely rational in everything they do. But some are more rational than believers, especially in the crucial area of embracing superstitions. And any believers who see “scientific thinking as central to their religious lives” are, I submit, deluding themselves.
I’ll give one more quote and pass on:
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.
Check out that link. It doesn’t really show that “rationality is overrated” but that “gut instincts can be correct and we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them.” But “gut instincts” can also be the result of rationality, whether conscious but not pondered at length, or unconscious but either the result of evolved ways of thinking or unconscious ways of thinking that have been adaptive in the past.
In the end, I’d like to see Lee justify the rationality of theism. Is there any scientific evidence for gods or the divine? If so, where is it? Templeton, of course, doesn’t care: their purpose here is to cast aspersions on nonbelievers.