Critical Thinking and Atheism

A commenter on my previous mentioned that someone holds that view that critical thinking leads to atheism and then to a “progressive” (that is to say, what we would call a politically liberal) world view.  I don’t know if the person they mentioned actually holds that view, but that is not important here, there are more than a prominent atheists who seem to hold it.

I have to say that I disagree entirely, and find this view very problematic.

First of all, thanks to confirmation bias, we all like to think that the critical thinking WE is, in fact, critical.  But the thinking THEY do, is not.  Adopting the idea that we atheists are the critical thinkers amounts to an ad hominem attack on theists.  This is problematic for several reasons.  The first, most obvious one is that by doing so we are committing one of the most obvious relevance fallacies.  So much for critical thinking.

But more importantly, the idea is not really true and is most likely counterproductive for our cause.  There are plenty of highly educated, thoughtful and yes, critically thinking theists out there.  There are lots of Biblical scholars who take a critical approach and still keep their faith.  To accuse such scholars of “letting their faith dictate” their results is counterproductive.

It seems pretty psychologically true that if you attack the person, rather than their beliefs, they are much less likely to consider your reasoning.  Any discussion that starts with “You are a big, fat dope and here is why you are wrong,” is definitely not going to end well.

So, equating critical thinking to atheism is counterproductive and off-putting.  Critical thinking is (I hope!) content neutral and can be applied by anyone to anything.  Rational people can and often do reach different conclusions from the same general set of facts.  Plenty of atheists believe stupid things and plenty of theists can wield Occam’s razor like a rapier.

In the same way, I don’t feel that critical thinking and/or atheism leads to any kind of progressive, liberal or similar view of the world.

Again, pretty much the same critique applies.  Plenty of conservatives are thoughtful and highly intelligent.  William Buckley was certainly a critical thinker.  To the extent that we can agree that both conservatives and liberals are sincerely trying to create a better society, it is just that we disagree on methods, I think we would be better off.

I might want to qualify that last sentence by adding, “thoughtful liberals” and “thoughtful conservatives.”

And with that, I want to swing things back to my issue with MythCon.

Our favorite critical thinking school marm, Richard Carrier, decided to school both sides over this incident.  I’ll say one thing, he must be the fastest typist on the planet for the number of words he is able to squeeze into a blog post.

Here is how Carrier starts his defense (essentially) of inviting  “Sargon of Akkad” to MythCon:

Sargon of Akkad indeedis a shitperson. But that’s precisely the issue. He is massively popular in the atheist movement. We need to explore that. We need to confirm if he’s a lost cause. And more people need to know about his crap and his influence. He needs to be challenged. From a platform he doesn’t control. That’s what Mythicist Milwaukee is doing.

So far, so reasonable.  Then he says this:

He is someone we need to confront and study. And whose influence and reasoning and beliefs we need to understand. So we can better combat the stupidity and ignorance he is spreading to millions of viewers. Millions of fellow atheists.

Which is where my critical thinking kicks in.  How does inviting someone to speak at a conference do this?  The first thing we should “critically” do is verify Carrier’s statement here.  Millions of atheists are fans of this guy?  Millions?

Seems like what we need is not having this guy speak at a convention, but rather hire PRRI to surveying atheists and see what we think.  Are we progressive, regressive or all over the map?  Are the fans of Sargon the kind of people who go to freethinking conventions or Richard Spencer speeches?  Or maybe both?

We can study his reasoning probably much better from his YouTube channel than from a convention speech.  In fact, even though he didn’t “control the platform” there was certainly nothing keeping him from tailoring his speech to the audience, leaving us to learn nothing.  If we want to know why he is so popular on YouTube, we need to look at his videos.

If we want to then somehow inoculate his viewers so we can “So we can better combat the stupidity and ignorance he is spreading to millions of viewers. (quote from Carrier)”  We need to somehow get his viewers watching such corrective videos on YouTube.  Having him at a conference is not going to accomplish that.

Later in his post, Carrier continues to pile on Sargon and finally gets around to giving the best reason for NOT inviting him to a conference.  “Sargon’s argument isn’t even clever. It’s devoid of logic.” and a bit later (told it  was a looong post) he drives the final nail in the coffin.

Comparing Sargon to Carlin, Carrier says this: “[I]s the difference between the arguments made by the likes of Carlin, which are reasonable, nuanced, contextual, and respectful of the goal of human happiness, and the arguments made by the likes of Sargon, which are irrational, devoid of nuance or respect for the role of context…”

Or to put it more bluntly, Sargon is an empty sock in the wind, ranting about things he doesn’t fully understand.  And he doesn’t even do it well.  It is not so much that we disagree with him, he just says outrageous things off the top of his head to get views on YouTube.  I don’t avoid O’Reilly because I disagree with him so much, but mostly because he just makes up shit when it suits him.   Rush Limbaugh, same way, boring as hell.

It is still an open question for me as to whether there is a large group of people who primarily identify as “atheist” who are, say, regressive and Trumpian.  Richard Spencer identifies as an atheist, but I don’t think that is why his followers are with him.  Same may be true of Sargon, they may not be watching because he occasionally talks smack about religion.

On the same page we also have to ask how many who identify as atheist use that to inform progressive politics.  Perhaps atheists only want to hear about why Jesus probably was mythological at atheist conventions and will get their politics somewhere else.

Or not.  You can let me know in the comments!




  1. consciousness razor says

    There are lots of differences between saying critical thinking “leads to” atheism, claiming that it “causes” atheism, or that one should be “equating” them with each other.

    There is no fallacy in the notion that atheism, or for that matter liberalism or progressivism, is supported by critical thinking and evidence. So are the sciences, while we’re at it. It’s not a personal attack on climate change denialists (e.g.), nor is it fallacious in any way, to claim that the relevant evidence and analysis “leads to” or “supports” the conclusion that climate change is real. That’s just what it does. And if the truth hurts, then that’s what that does.

    It isn’t true that critical thinking must cause any person engaged in it to become an atheist, nor is it true that it is the only way to become an atheist. That’s of course not how things work, at least not in our messy little corner of the universe, in which there are complicated objects like people. I’d say pretty much any talk of causation is stepping into a minefield, but if people don’t actually make that step, then you haven’t helped by pushing them in.

    And of course they are obviously not equal or equivalent.

    But these strawmen from you are what’s fallacious. What’s not fallacious is the idea that good, reasonable, responsible, useful ideas can and should be based upon and supported by careful, critical thinking and reliable evidence. In other words, that’s the general type of approach we ought to endorse or aim for, rather than going about it in some radically different way, as many other people did and still do. If you have some alternative way of talking about the same thing, that’s fine with me; but then the motivation for your criticism has disappeared, because you’re merely misinterpreting some simple words and do have essentially the same views.

    If you really do mean that it isn’t something we could or should talk about, because in fact there’s some other very different type of story to tell, well then that would be another story…. That would need some argument/explanation, which you clearly haven’t given here, about why we should think that is so. (Presumably you haven’t, because that’s not what you’re trying to claim.)

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