The other day while perusing a few of my usual skeptical and atheist haunts online, I came across a conversation that seemed rather out of place; two individuals were having a serious discussion about the plausibility of extraterrestrials having constructed the pyramids. The cheerleader for the aliens had linked more than a few YouTube videos, conspiracy theory sites, and a book or two into the conversation, and appeared for all the world to be a die-hard ‘ancient aliens’ enthusiast. “Really?” I thought to myself, and then moved on.
A couple of sites later – again one deeply aligned with the atheist movement – I read another conversation; this time the topic of discussion was the “weather-controlling” abilities of the U.S. HAARP program. Specifically, the debaters were arguing whether HAARP was responsible for all of the ‘weird weather’ this summer, or just the droughts that have been punishing parts of the United States. “Or how about none of it?” I muttered to myself, clicking away from the site, “Jackasses”.
Throughout the rest of the day’s online browsing, I stumbled across even more of these conversations – some focussed on aliens or the paranormal, others centred on 9/11 conspiracies. In each of these discussions, I noticed individuals – many of whom had proudly been displaying their atheist bona fides – abandon reason entirely and plunge headlong into logical fallacy after blindingly obvious logical fallacy. But these flights into fancy weren’t the real source of my growing frustration; after all, flights of fancy can lead to remarkable places. No, the primary source of my angst was the fact that I knew from previous browsing, discussions, and even a debate or two that these same people were often the first to write theists (and believers of all sorts) off as ‘delusional’, irrational, or ‘crazy’. If only there was a word to describe someone condemning another person’s behaviour while behaving in the same way themselves…
“Hey, aren’t theists crazy? I mean seriously, who the hell is dumb enough to believe in a zombie-saviour who was his own father and who kicked the first humans out of paradise for taking the advice of a talking snake? How pathetic! By the way, have you checked out my latest YouTube video? In it I proved that the stories in the Bible were actually the mythologized accounts of ancient alien visitors who came to earth, saved the genetic information of every life form from a catastrophic comet strike (that caused the Flood), and then repopulated the earth with genetically modified clones!”
Stories like these – anecdotes, if you will – are an indication that just because a person is an atheist, a secularist, a humanist, or a skeptic, it doesn’t mean that they are entirely rational. Because they aren’t. We aren’t. We evolved as paranoid animals whose brains were constantly seeking patterns in the world around us – patterns that might indicate a potential threat. Our brains trick us into seeing monstrous shapes in the skeletal branches that bang on our windows at night, because while the vast majority of the time the branches are just that, there is always the chance that the banging might one night be caused by a predator and if we ignore it, we die. Our paranoia and our pattern-recognition mechanisms allowed us to survive where a more reasoned “don’t be afraid, those shapes beyond the fire aren’t really sabre-tooth cats” kind of attitude might have doomed us. We have to train ourselves to think rationally about things – or we at least need to train ourselves not to fall victim to the kinds of cognitive biases, and ‘gut’ level thinking that have been with us since our species first evolved.
We are, in other words, hypocrites for the most part – if we are the kinds of people who deride others for being ‘irrational’. Because we are irrational too. Why do theists frustrate me? It’s certainly not because they’re being irrational – that’s just normal*. More importantly, ‘irrationality’ isn’t something that’s going to be going away any time soon. Those of us who align ourselves with the skeptical movement recognize that the process of training ourselves to become less irrational is a life-long endeavour, and most people will never even start. No, theists frustrate me because around that point of irrationality, many of them have constructed moral systems and social institutions that are repugnant to me. Irrationality per se isn’t the problem; the systems and practices constructed around the irrational belief are. I have an irrational fear of needles, which in itself isn’t really a problem. If however, I use that irrational fear to construct an organization aimed at the merciless annihilation of all pointy objects, then we’ve got an issue. In the same vein we shouldn’t be railing against the ‘irrationality’ of theists; we should be railing against those theists whose irrational belief in a supernatural all-father lead them to do and say objectionable things. Mocking people for being irrational is silly; it’s like mocking people for using language.
So what’s my point? Well, it’s this: We’re all irrational – just in different ways, at different times, for different reasons. The primary difference I see between atheists and theists is which irrational beliefs we compartmentalize. Many Christians compartmentalize their faith in order to insulate it from criticism and doubt. Some atheists compartmentalize their beliefs in homeopathy, naturopathy or chiropractic, or aliens in the same way. And as we’ve seen in the last few months (years), many atheists and skeptics alike seem hell-bent on compartmentalizing their privilege in similar fashion. “Sexism isn’t really a topic of skeptical inquiry.” “Atheism and feminism have nothing in common.” “Sure, some atheists might hold racist beliefs, but that’s neither here nor there. Better to have them in here fighting alongside us than have them out there fighting against us.” “I feel comfortable and welcome at skeptical gatherings (and you should too, and if you don’t, then that’s your problem).”
The often brutal online and in-person debates that have been taking place within the skeptical and atheist communities lately are, to me, a prime set of examples of the kind of compartmentalization I have been talking about. It is reasonable to have simple and clear codes of conduct at large gatherings of mostly-strangers; it is reasonable to ask for a modicum of self-restraint or consideration when posting in large online communities. It is unreasonable – irrational – to argue against such policies, given the explicit purpose of most of these gatherings is to build community and recruit new members. It is irrational to desire the growth of one’s movement while behaving in ways that absolutely stymie that effort. It is irrational to condemn religious communities for opposing social equality, while at the same time making one’s own community uncomfortable and unwelcome to marginalized groups. By shutting our beliefs about race, gender, class, able-ness, etc. away from scrutiny or critical reflection and refusing to engage with them, we are choosing to instead pretend that our beliefs are entirely unproblematic – that they are completely rational and therefore correct – which is as irrational as it is troubling.
* For an interesting (and troubling) look at the irrationality of human decision-making, check out the book “Risk”, by Dan Gardner.