Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great when atheists and skeptics criticize each other, and point out each others’ mistakes in reasoning. That’s supposed to be one of the cool things about us: we don’t have any sacred cows, we’re willing and indeed eager to question and be questioned, and to change our minds if we’re mistaken.
But I’ve been noticing a type of disagreement cropping up in atheist conversations, and it’s bugging me. It’s when atheists and skeptics criticize each other’s rationality… about entirely subjective questions.
I’ve seen atheists argue that it’s irrational to enjoy drinking. Follow sports. Care about fashion and style. Love our pets. And it’s bugging me. I think it’s pointlessly divisive. I’m fine with being divisive if there’s a point to it — I want us to debate our differences, I don’t want us to march in lockstep — but pointless divisiveness, not so much. And I think it’s a mis-application of the principle of rationality. The “more rational than thou” attitude towards subjective matters is, ironically, not very rational.
Let me start with a premise: Yes, rationality is the best way of determining what is and is not most likely to be true in the external, non-subjective world. What causes rain? Why do people get sick? How did life come into being? Do we continue to live after we die? These are questions with answers. The answers are true, or not, regardless of what we think about them. And the best way to find those answers is to suspend/ counteract our irrationality and our cognitive biases, to the best degree that we can, and gather/ examine the evidence as rationally and carefully as we can. Flashes of irrational insight can sometimes point us in the right direction… but to determine whether that really is the right direction or a ridiculous wild goose chase, rationality is the best tool we have.
But not all questions are questions about the external, non-subjective world. Some questions are subjective. The answers aren’t the same for everybody. If you enjoy drinking/ sports/ fashion/ pets, then you do. If it’s true for you, then it’s true.
Yet atheists and skeptics often treat these subjective questions as if they were objective ones… and scold one another for being irrational when some else enjoys different things than we do.
Two things have gotten me thinking about this. One is Julia Galef’s excellent talk at Skepticon 4, “The Straw Vulcan: Hollywood’s Illogical View of Logical Decision-Making.” Her main thesis was that the form of rationality that’s commonly depicted by Hollywood as hyper-rational is actually not rational at all: it’s a caricature, a straw-man version of rationality. But she also pointed out that many atheists and skeptics buy into these “straw Vulcan” myths about rationality. She argued that it’s a myth to think that obviously pragmatic goals, such as money, are the only rational goals to have. And one of her central points was that emotion is actually necessary for reason to work: without emotion, we have no way of deciding what we should care about and which goals we should be rationally working towards.
The other is a conversation I had on Facebook the day after Christopher Hitchens died. I’d posted an update saying, “Atheists around the world are getting soused tonight. This makes me oddly happy. Sort of a diffuse global community of drunkenness. I’ll be joining them soon myself.” And a commenter (who will remain anonymous unless they choose to self-disclose, since there’s a somewhat higher expectation of privacy on Facebook than there is on blogs) expressed irritation and bafflement at the atheist community embracing drunkenness, since it was anti-rational. When I asked, “What’s irrational about pleasure?”, they replied that pleasure was fine — unless the way of reaching it made you unable to think clearly.
Now. There are some good, rational arguments against drinking: against excessive drinking, at any rate, and against the degree to which alcohol permeates our culture. It can hurt people other than the one doing the drinking (drunk driving, an increased tendency towards violence, etc.). It can impair judgment: it can lead people to decisions that feel good in the short term but make them unhappy in the long term. It can be addictive: it can cause great unhappiness to one’s self and others, and still be stubbornly difficult to stop. I have alcoholism in my family. I know all this.
There are some good arguments against drinking. But “drinking makes you irrational” isn’t one of them.
There are plenty of experiences in life that make us behave irrationally. Falling in love. Singing. Riding a rollercoaster. Dancing all night. Playing with children. Playing with kittens. Jumping into an ice-cold pool. Eating an enormous, lavishly delicious meal. Having sex. Being gobsmacked by art. I’m sure y’all can think of more.
And they are some of the finest, deepest, most meaningful experiences life has to offer.
Let me give a specific example. Ingrid and I recently adopted three kittens (a fact no doubt known to most of you, since I can’t seem to shut up about it). From a purely pragmatic standpoint, this was an entirely irrational act. Cats are expensive. Cats are time-consuming, kittens especially so — and neither Ingrid nor I are exactly loaded with spare time. (If I’m blogging less than usual these days, it’s at least partly because kittens are a serious time suck. The one sitting on my chest and batting at my666666666666666666663y keyboard right now will attest to that.) Cats, and especially kittens, require significant re-arranging of our lives, in some cases leading to a fair degree of inconvenience. And, not at all trivially, I am allergic to cats. In order to be around them and not be in misery, I have to be on meds around the clock — and even with the meds, the allergies are quite noticeable. I even considered, after our last cat died, whether we should take a break from cats for a while, and give my allergies a break.
I considered it for about three days. And then I decided I was being ridiculous, and that we should definitely adopt new kittens, as soon as possible. I even said to Ingrid, “I think we should examine this question carefully, look seriously at our concerns about time and money and other issues, and think rationally about whether this is really the best time for us to get kittens. And then I think we should get kittens.”
Because we love having cats. Because having cats is one of the great pleasures of our life. Because after Violet died, coming home every night to an empty house seemed sad and off-kilter and deeply wrong. Because having kittens makes us laugh uproariously, every single night. Because having kittens makes our hearts burst with love. Because for me and Ingrid, the cost/benefit analysis of “time/ money/inconvenience/ allergies” versus “cuteness/ entertainment/ snuggling” falls squarely on the side of cuteness and entertainment and snuggling. It’s not even close.
Now, if you think that maximizing time, money, convenience, and/or physical health are inherently the most important goals we can reach for, then yes, adopting kittens — three of them, no less — was clearly an irrational act. But if you think that time, money, convenience, and/or physical health are means to an end, and that the ultimate reason for pursuing them is the pursuit of happiness… then it makes perfect sense. Having kittens makes me happier than not having kittens. The benefits outweigh the costs.
And yes, that’s an entirely subjective evaluation. I could make pragmatic arguments in favor of pet ownership: there’s some evidence that it reduces stress, and so on. But that’s not really relevant. Even if none of that stuff were true, I would still own cats. They make me happy. And when I’m talking about my own personal happiness, the subjective evaluation is the only one that matters.
What’s more, when it comes to subjective matters, irrationality and impulsiveness can be their own reward. In my experience, anyway. The rush of adventure, the excitement of jumping in feet-first, the exhilaration of being carried away, the transcendence of feeling overcome by the universe… these are pleasures in and of themselves. I don’t want my life to be totally overtaken by them… but I don’t want my life to shut them out, either.
Now. I can hear the objections already, from the progressive believers and the faitheists and the “if religion makes people happy, it makes sense to believe in it” crowd generally. “If that’s true about owning kittens,” they’ll say, “then why isn’t it true for believing in God? How can you defend making subjective decisions about what makes you happy based on irrational emotions and impulses… and still argue that people shouldn’t believe in God because there’s no good evidence for it?”
That’s where the “subjective/ objective” distinction comes in.
The question of whether God or the supernatural exists is not a subjective question of what’s true for us personally. It’s an objective question of what’s literally true in the real, non-subjective world. Any given god either exists, or doesn’t. And when it comes to questions of objective reality, rationality is the best tool we have for understanding it. We’ll probably never understand it perfectly — but we’re getting better and better approximations all the time. Including the increasingly undeniable conclusion that there is no God and no supernatural, and the physical world is all there is.
And I would argue — I have argued, and don’t have space to make the whole argument again here — that our lives are improved, and our happiness is increased, by applying rationality and skepticism to questions of what’s literally true in the real, non-subjective world. I would argue that self-deception about what is and is not really true is a harmful habit: that we need to understand reality, so we know how to behave in it and can make better decisions about which causes will lead to which effects. And I would argue that, when people claim that they don’t care whether the things they believe are true, they’re usually full of shit.
So yes. I care about reality, and I care about rationality. And if I have flaws in my reasoning about God or the soul or the afterlife, about vaccines or the historical Jesus or the failure of deregulation in the financial industry… then by all means, tell me about it. I’ll do the same for you.
But if I get pleasure from drinking or sports, fashion or kittens… please don’t try to argue that I’m being irrational. If you do, then you’re being irrational. And I’m sure as heck going to tell you about it.
Apropos of nothing: I’m on Twitter! Follow me, @gretachristina .