Emotion is not a cognitive tool


Oh, we get email.

A lot of it is simple enthusiastic “thumbs up!” fan mail from atheists around the globe, who’ve discovered the show on Google or YouTube. Big hug to you lot. A surprising amount is from atheist wags with a surfeit of spare time, who think it would be fun to Poe us and see if we catch them out (we usually do, but it’s still funny). Some are challenges and demands from Christians to be guests on the show, where they promise to clean our clocks with their ironclad arguments for God, usually backing it up with the requisite playground taunts (“…of course, I understand if you’re reluctant…”) as if trying to make us insecure about our manly manliness were some sort of exploitable chink in our armor or something. These guys we politely invite to call any time they please: 4:30 – 6:00 PM CST Sundays, just make sure you dial in within the show’s first 15 minutes to be assured a place in the queue…

I’ll be dealing with one of those writers soon. But here’s a nice theist email we got just tonight, that I responded to as an exercise in pointing out just where the rationality of atheism and the irrationality of theism clash most profoundly. It’s the old “appeal to other ways of knowing,” a falling back on emotion over reason that is an all too common refrain in Christian misology. With only minor edits, here’s the letter with my replies included.

The writer, who doesn’t identify him/herself, begins…

I have been listening to your show on the internet. It is very interesting. I cringe when people get so upset at you. I like how you can put them on mute so they will listen because you often make very good points.

Without getting to much into everything, can I ask you Why? Why would you not want to believe in a God who is wise, creative, and loving? I know most people don’t see him that way. They see him as the Old Testament God who zaps people when they disobey, but if you really study the Bible this is not true. He is long suffering.

Whether this god that believers wants us to believe in is wise, creative, loving, vengeful, long suffering, or a Miley Cyrus fan (and one thing we always see is that believers define God in a way that makes God most appealing to them personally, which is why this person’s God is kind and long suffering and the God of, say, Donald Wildmon is a total homophobe and the God of white supremacists is a racist), none of God’s supposed character traits matters. Describing a being for which we have no credible evidence in appealing ways is not in and of itself evidence. Reassurances that a being is a really really nice being does not validate belief in its existence.

See, you might as well ask, “Why wouldn’t you want to believe in a loving and sweet magical pink flying unicorn who will give you rides to the Candy Mountain?” The same answer applies: What is the sense in embracing such a belief?

In the next paragraph, our writer offers emotional reasons, predictably enough…

I understand the desire to want proof that you can touch, feel, taste, multiple, divide, equate. However, you can not understand the unknown Creator solely on science because He is more than science. He is personal and emotional. Just as we are capable of reason, we are also capable of emotion. So you can not figure out God only using reason and discount your emotions.

Copy…Edit…Paste…

“However, you can not understand the Magic Pink Unicorn solely on science because He is more than science. He is personal and emotional. Just as we are capable of reason, we are also capable of emotion. So you can not figure out the Magic Pink Unicorn only using reason and discount your emotions.”

Do you begin to see what’s wrong with this argument?

There are several things a believer needs to consider, if he really wants to hold onto an argument like this when trying to persuade unbelievers.

First, why should God hide himself behind some kind of reason-dampening cloaking device? The simple question “Does God exist?” is epistemologically no different than “Do unicorns exist?” It is a question that simply pertains to whether or not something — in this case, a deity’s very existence — is a factual proposition. There is a reason people consider evidence and reason valid tools for distinguishing true claims from false claims: these tools work. And if God gave us our reason in the first place, then why — to quote Ben Franklin (I think it was Franklin) — would he want us to forego its use?

If you are relying on your emotions rather than your reason in making decisions about what is true or false, how do you determine the difference? How precisely do emotions help to establish facts? Our writer doesn’t explain how, choosing simply to insist that emotions must take precedence over reason in deciding to believe in God. I happen to agree with that. It’s just that I recongnize that exercise as an indicator of the pure irrationality of religious belief, whereas believers seem to see it as something positive.

But here’s the thing. Say that our humble correspondent encounters someone from another religion, who believes in a different God. And let’s say this non-Christian theist gives exactly the same argument for his God. “Just rely on your personal emotional feelings, and you’ll realize my god is the true god!” Does our Christian think he’s right or wrong? If wrong, how does he propose to demonstrate that? After all, the non-Christian theist has the exact same emotion-based rationale for his beliefs as the Christian has! Will he now propose that his emotions are somehow “truer” and more reliable than the non-Christian theist’s, because his led him to Christianity’s God and the other guy’s didn’t?

In such a circumstance, face it. Christian’s got problems. He’s got no viable means to show his God-belief is any more valid than the other guy’s, because they’re both bypassing reason and the need for evidence in order to trust their emotions.

Simple fact that many theists have a hard time with: REALITY IS NOT THERE TO SATISFY YOUR EMOTIONAL DESIRES. Everyone has emotional insecurities to deal with in life. But it’s the smart person who recognizes that dealing with those in a rational manner is part of the lifelong process of growth. There’s no growth in covering up your emotional weaknesses and neediness under a security blanket of beliefs.

A second point to consider, and this one involves studying the Bible more closely:

When you say we cannot rely on evidence or our reason and senses to know your God exists, remember the story of Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus. The Bible is full of stories in which God is revealing himself directly and unambiguously to his followers: disembodied hands writing on walls, etc. But in Saul’s conversion story, God reveals himself in the most direct possible way to a man who was not merely an unbeliever but an active persecutor of Christians. Hell, God forced himself upon Saul. So why, suddenly, when regular folks like us ask for evidence of God’s existence, he’s this being that we just can’t know through our reason, but have to rely on our emotions, etc.? Fer pete’s sake, if direct physical revelation was good enough for Saul, why not us?

Can I ask you, if you were born but never saw your father because you were stolen at birth and raised by a group of women, would you still not have a father even though you know nothing about him, have never seen, touch or heard him. You could chose to tell yourself that you have no father, because of the evidence, but you would be missing out on a loving father who longed to see you, talk to you, be with you.

Sorry, but that’s a lovely exercise in Analogy Fail. For one thing, unless this group of women kept me locked in a closet all my life, they’d have a hard time keeping me from finding out that, from a standpoint of plain old biology, babies are made when a man and woman have do the nast-ay. So it would stand to reason I had a biological father out there, about whom I’d likely bec
ome curious. I’d have to find out the full circumstances of my life at that point: was I kidnapped or given away? Did my biological father really love me, and if so, has he been looking for me or not? And you know what I’d have to employ in order to learn these facts about my life? That’s right, my reason. I’d have to dig up the evidence of my past. My emotions might play a part in determining how dedicated and involved I got in the search, but they alone would not be the tool that ultimately revealed the facts to me.

We could get into the whole debate about the laws of science and how do they come into existence without intelligent design but I will never prove and you will never disprove God absolutely.

Yes, well, that would be another short discussion, as it would be quickly pointed out that fundamental physical laws would have to exist in the first place in order for an intelligent designer of any kind to exist. But no matter. Just remember, it’s not our job to “disprove God absolutely”. All that it’s necessary for us to do is give sound reasons for our skepticism. The burden of proof for any claim, whether it’s a God or a flying pink unicorn, always rests upon the person claiming the existence of the thing in question. And since our writer confesses he cannot provide that proof, allow me to say in a friendly way that 1) it’s not like I didn’t see that coming and 2) his admission constitutes a sound reason for me to remain a skeptic.

I’m okay with it if this fellow’s/lady’s religious beliefs provide emotional comfort, though I can assure you that, if one day, realization comes that such “security blanket” beliefs do not in fact contribute to personal growth and that real emotional contentment lies in accepting one’s reality, for better and worse, and learning to make your life today the best it can be, it will be a great day for him. That’s just my view, but I think I’ve got good evidence for it.

Our writer wraps up on a pious note.

God tells us that He will prove this one day. Every knee will bow He says. But for now He tells us to love one another. And so I end this with love and wish you blessings and peace in whatever you choose to believe. Just don’t sell yourself short, you are a child of God, created in His image. You are beautiful and perfectly loved by God and not so perfectly by some of His creation.

That’s sweet and all, but frankly, if God exists, and he’s a big boy, he can tell me that himself.

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t know if Franklin said something similar, but the quote was from Galileo. “I do not believe that the same God who endowed us with reason and intellect intended for us to forgo their use” (or something like that).

  2. says

    Superb posts like this one should be ‘stickied’ somehow, as an easy-access reference for theists new to the discussion. It would facilitate the conversation greatly if both parties started one step on from the start by knowing the first response. Many people don’t desire to continue a discussion after the first exchange for various reasons (boredom, desire to proselytize but not listen, realization of their own arguments’s inadequacy).By urging visitors to read the basic arguments and responses put in a conversational manner, many of the actually uninterested wouldn’t have to waste their time.

  3. Name says

    Something that’s helped me debate with Christians is this: The moment they open their mouth to argue their faith they are making two very large assumptions. 1.) Their holy book is true and correct and 2.) Their particular interpretation of this holy book is true and correct. Usually when you point these things out their argument right away becomes exposed as based almost solely on emotion, which is all but useless to determine what is true and what is not true.Great post, Martin. I think you encapsulated a lot of good ideas here.

  4. says

    Quite nice Martin, not that I’m surprised of course. :)I deal with the emotional argument, or at least state of mind via fellow family members who are not really christian so much as, well, new age (ish). This strange realm consists of almost entirely emotional feel-good-ness, and seems to ignore, if not abhor critical thinking and anything based in not airy fairy science. I’m still looking for an approach to communicate with her somehow.Nikohttp://kingofdeprecation.blogspot.com

  5. says

    “Why wouldn’t you want to believe in a loving and sweet magical pink flying unicorn who will give you rides to the Candy Mountain?”Because I don’t want my freaking kidneys stolen.

  6. says

    Ing wins! :-)I have a good friend that had doubts about his beliefs when we met for the first time. He had let go of any notions of a personal, all-good, all-powerful god, but was still hanging on to a vague belief in “something more”.We got to know each other and at some point in time I pointed out to him that he wouldn’t let go of the notion of “something more” purely because it was a security blanket that simply made him feel good, and that “feel good” shouldn’t be the basis for acceptance of something as true.He thought about that, recognized that it was precisely what was happening and finally let go. He’s much happier now. :-)

  7. says

    First, why should God hide himself behind some kind of reason-dampening cloaking device? Damn it! I knew we should never have signed that treaty with the Romulans!God tells us that He will prove this one day. Every knee will bow He says.Yes, but he also says, supposedly, that on that day, it will be too late to become obsequious, and it’s the eternal furnace for most of us.Actually, this fellow isn’t offering a very good argument from the theist’s side. Huston Smith (a philosopher of religion who is as far from being a fundamentalist as a theist can be) generally argues it more along the lines of intuition, claiming that our civilization has fallen into the trap of “scientism” (which he defines as the belief that only science can tell us what is “true”). He feels that science and intuition are equally valid means of apprehending different facets of reality.I’m okay with it if this fellow’s/lady’s religious beliefs provide emotional comfort, though I can assure you that, if one day, realization comes that such “security blanket” beliefs do not in fact contribute to personal growth and that real emotional contentment lies in accepting one’s reality, for better and worse, and learning to make your life today the best it can be, it will be a great day for him.I’m not so sure about this – that is, I’m not sure it would work that way for everyone. I’m friendly with an Orthodox rabbi and his wife. I find all the jumping through hoops they have to go through – dietary restrictions, ritual observance, etc. – one gigantic pain in the ass, but I can’t deny that the whole enterprise seems to bring them a great deal of joy. On the whole, they’re very happy people. I’m quite certain they wouldn’t find as much joy or meaning in life if they had to give up these beliefs in the face of undeniable evidence.Of course, in order to believe, they have to indulge in a tremendous amount of denial. They have to give God a free pass on the Holocaust, Darfur, female genital mutilation… . I find it extremely selfish, and it’s come between us.

  8. says

    I really enjoy these posts where real emails are dissected and critiqued just like the callers on your show.Don’t eat too many of Satan’s testicles over the weekend!

  9. says

    …civilization has fallen into the trap of “scientism”……science and intuition are equally valid means of apprehending different facets of reality…Hmmm….he may be far from being a fundie, as you say, but from what you paraphrase here, Huston Smith still seems to stink of language trickery that is the hallmark of idiot religious apologetics.

  10. says

    Hmmm….he may be far from being a fundie, as you say, but from what you paraphrase here, Huston Smith still seems to stink of language trickery that is the hallmark of idiot religious apologetics.Nah, he really doesn’t. I’m simplifying; he’s more articulate. He’s really rather a remarkable guy. He was, I believe, the first to introduce the American public to the concept of comparative religions, outside of the academic arena. He had a program on PBS in the fifties or sixties. He taught at MIT and Berkeley; an updated version of the textbook he wrote is still in use. I think we tend to be hypersensitive because we have to spend so much time mud-wrestling with fundies. We’d disagree with Smith, but his arguments aren’t idiotic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>