Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rationalization and Reason in the Atheist Community

Anybody who has debated religion has seen this tactic.


The person you are arguing with takes an objection, misinterprets it to create an objection he can answer, answers his own pretend objection, and then declared victory.


Well, this form of rationalization is not just a problem for those who believe in one or more gods. It is a human tendency - something we are all prone to do from time to time. We hear an objection. We do not like being wrong. Consequently, we give the objection an interpretation that would make it consistent with the proposition that we are not wrong.


None of us are immune.


You do not acquire an immunity to this form of irrationality just by declaring that one is an atheist. There is a tendency among some atheists to think, "I deny the existence of God. Therefore, I am super-rational. Therefore, I do not make mistakes of reason. Every conclusion I adopt is adopted based on the best evidence and valid inference."


The human brain does not work that way.


What brings up this topic is the American Atheist response to objections about the sign put up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - the one that showed an image of a slave and the text, "Slaves, obey your masters."


The criticism against this sign is that it was poorly designed. In order to understand what the sign was about one had to #1# take the time to read all of the text, and #2# be fully aware of the history that motivated putting up the sign.


Against #1# - drivers are supposed to be paying attention to the road, not reading the fine print on a billboard.


Against #2# - most people cannot even tell you the name of their representative - let alone tell you what bills were passed by the legislature that year.


Face it - the authors of the billboard understood what it said precisely because they brought all of the necessary history and background assumptions with them. However, a billboard is not an instrument for writing messages to oneself. It is a tool for communicating with others. To communicate with others one MUST design one's message in a way that pays attention to the background knowledge that the READER will bring.


This is an essential part of effective communication - and it is the part that tripped up the authors of this sign.


However, the American Atheist statement answering the criticism says the following:



AMERICAN ATHEISTS OFFICIAL STATEMENT: We want to thank everyone for sharing their opinions with us about the "Slaves, Obey Your Masters" billboard. While we certainly respect the opinions of those who disagree with our tactics, we respectfully disagree with that opinion. We are unapologetic about the billboard and stand behind it 100%. There will be no apology from American Atheists for saying what needed to be said: sometimes the truth is offensive.


Note that the statement does not address the criticism in any way. The statement concerns two things. The first is tactics #putting up a billboard that highlights statements in the Bible that call into question the claim that it the work of a morally perfect being#. The second is "what needed to be said."


I, for one, have no objections to either of these things.


Neither did anybody else that I am aware of who brought in objections from the atheist perspective.


The objections were that the sign was poorly constructed so that it did not communicate the message that the American Atheists wanted to communicate. While they are perfectly within their rights to stand behind what they wanted to say 100% - and I would stand with them on that. What they did say missed that goal by a good country mile.


It was a billboard telling blacks that, as slaves, they should obey their masters - an entirely outrageous statement for anybody to make. It came out that way because of the poor communication skills of those who made it - those who designed it. The authors thought it said one thing - when in fact it said something else entirely.


But, in order to preserve one's pride, refrain from admitting to a mistake, and declaring oneself too perfect to have ever done something that might call for an apology, the American Atheists sought to twist this criticism into criticism it could answer.


The main point I want to draw from this is that there is nothing in being an atheist that makes one immune to these types of mental gymnastics - particularly when those mental gymnastics are called into play to protect the ego or to shield valued beliefs. We might have avoided those pitfalls with respect to a belief in God, but they wait for us elsewhere.


It is particularly problematic when the atheist gets self-righteous over people for pulling the same type of logical games that the atheists themselves are guilty of. That is hypocrisy. That is not a virtue.


Some might think that this discussion is "accomodationist". However, that would be a mistake. I am not saying that we should forgive the theist because we make the same types of mistakes ourselves. Instead, I am saying we should condemn ourselves when we make these types of mistakes because they are just as bad when we make them as when those we criticize make them.


We owe it to ourselves and to others to do better than this - to recognize and avoid these mental gymnastics.


In this regard, I do have more hope that atheists will take steps to combat these habits than I expect from theists. Theists have embraced the idea of abandoning reason whenever it conflicts with the ego or challenges a cherished belief. Atheists - to a large degree - hold that reason should triumph over ego and cherished beliefs.


At least among atheists there is some hope of pointing to an error such as this and having a somewhat better chance that the atheist will say, "I promised to be rational and base my conclusions on reason and evidence - not make up evidence and distort reason to shield my cherished beliefs. I guess I should be watchful of those kinds of traps and make sure that I do not run into them."


This is not a call for accomodationism. This is a call for holding ourselves up to the same standards that we demand - in a non-accomodationist way - of others.


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