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Atheism is rational: atheists aren’t

2012/06/21

There are a good number of people out there who like to promote the idea that atheists are rational. I think this is a terrible oversimplification and leads to problems when you apply it to the real world. Atheism is a rational position, but there are as many reasons to not believe in a God as to believe in one and some of the reasons are far more supportable than others. Common reasons to believe include being raised that way and not thinking about it much, liking the social institution of church (and not necessarily even paying attention to doctrine), a need to feel a sense of greater purpose, a smug sense of superiority to non-believers, not being able to imagine where the world came from, and not being able to imagine morality without a supreme moral authority.

Common reasons for disbelief include being raised that way and not really thinking about it, dislike of the social institution of church, a lack of a need to feel a greater purpose, a smug sense of superiority to believers, lack of any solid evidence for religious claims and moral objections to religious teachings. Only those last two are rational, and not necessarily even then. There’s also a great deal of diversity of belief among atheists. I’m a materialist who believes in the scientific method and reasoning to the most like explanation, as are most of prominent speakers on the atheist lecture circuit, but plenty of people don’t believe in God but do believe in karma, mind/body dualism, chakras, choprawoo, conspiracy theories and pseudo-scientific versions of racial and gender essentialism. I started thinking about this again because of this recent story, ably covered by Dan Fincke over at Camels with Hammers. Short version: a minor atheist blogger Leah Libresco has converted to Catholicism.

Before I get into why this doesn’t surprise me at all, I want to cover an interesting point about this story. Her blog gimmick is called “Unequally Yoked.” This is a reference to 2 Corinthians 6:14, which says, in the English Standard Version, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” Her blog gimmick was chronicling her experience as an atheist dating a Christian. The practice of dating unbelievers and trying to convert them is sometimes referred to as missionary dating. The only advice I’ve ever heard on the practice from any pastor, youth pastor, Christian advice columnist or any other semi-authoritative source is “don’t do it,” citing the verse above. Supposedly, you may think you can lead them to Christ, but in reality you are just immersing yourself in the secular world and building a life away from Jesus. This is how the devil wears you down. Also, there will be a terrible temptation to have sex, which would be horrible. If I were a Christian high-schooler who wanted to date that cute girl at school who didn’t go to church, I would definitely be telling my parents all about this case as proof that missionary dating works, albeit after they broke up in this case.

Many bloggers and net denizens have been surprised and hurt about Leah’s conversion. See the comments on the linked article for a good sampling. On one level, that’s understandable. The majority of American atheists used to be Christians. Hardly any prominent Christian spokespeople used to be atheists. C.S. Lewis (who she cites as an influence) is the only famous example that comes to mind.

Sure, they all have a story about how they used to be an atheist, but this usually only means a phase in their teens where they didn’t like going to church. People who were actually involved in the atheist movement becoming theists is very rare. The Catholic church isn’t exactly one of those harmless denominations of Christianity, either. On the other hand, I’d say her current views are no less rational than her old ones. She seems to have been one of those atheists who wasn’t religious because she wasn’t raised that way. Sure religion sounds a bit silly if you aren’t raised in it and its done plenty of things to court bad publicity, but she was never a counter-apologist or anything like that and didn’t seem to have prioritized a consistent, supportable worldview. As covered in the link above, she already believed in a supernatural dualism.

A lot of the reactions are focusing on disbelief that she actually found Catholic philosophy convincing. I think that these comments are based on several bad assumptions. Lots of Christians do believe this stuff, so it’s self-evident that the justifications are sufficient for many people. Unless she was well-versed in the problems with Catholic philosophy or psychologically averse to accepting it or committed to a particularly rigorous skepticism, I don’t see a reason why she would have to be different. She seems to have been a bit averse due to their moral teachings, but the other factors don’t apply to her at all.

Many of the comments about how horrible Christian philosophy is are referring to conservative protestant doctrine. I can see why Catholicism would seem very similar to fundamentalist protestantism to most atheists. On most of the issues where religious folks and atheists frequently clash, they are very similar. Both oppose  gay rights, abortion, reproductive rights in general, secular education, “smut” in the media and many other things near and dear to our heathen hearts. They look quite different from the inside, though. The church services, doctrines and philosophical underpinnings are all only vaguely similar. Catholics have had almost two thousand years to work out something that sounds fairly consistent. They are not Biblical literalists and in many ways, draw more on Aristotle than on the Bible for their most basic ideas. She did not have to accept creationism and the contradictions in the Bible are irrelevant. I doubt the people she talked to spent much time convincing her why birth control is bad, either.

The most important point is that this did not happen in a vacuum. She didn’t convert to Catholicism because a priest gave her a good philosophical pitch and she said, “Gee, I never thought about it that way.” Contrary to what many cradle atheists seem to assume, religion is not a set of propositions that people believe because they think there’s good evidence. What very few responses address that a lot of the groundwork was laid while she had a serious long-term relationship with a Catholic. For most of us, our beliefs are formed less by rational evaluation of evidence and more by our biases and what’s convenient to believe. We may think we have evidence, but our reasons are actually post-hoc rationalizations. If this weren’t true, we’d all be on the same page when it came to religion and politics. It’s much easier to believe than idea that’s in your interest than one contrary to your interest. Religion does a lot to make itself attractive, like giving people apparently easy answers to all the questions, which sounds like it was the main draw for her. She didn’t need so much need proof as something that met a minimum standard to allow her to think she was being rational.

Atheists are not part of a team. It’s not a worldview or a philosophical paradigm. We have nothing in common besides lacking a particular kind of belief. Leah’s new beliefs are more dangerous than her old ones, but they aren’t any less justifiable. If anything, they are slightly more. Her Catholicism has only slightly less in common with my atheism than her atheism did. While it’s not good that the Catholics gained another member, we shouldn’t be surprised that plenty of people manage to not believe in God, at least initially, without being committed to critical thinking.

P.S. WordPress spell-check tells me that “protestant” is not a proper noun, but “protestantism” is. I am assuming this is incorrect.

edited to fix a major factual error (I somehow missed that she broke up with her boyfriend) and some writing-style issues.

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