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PSA 2: Atheism is not hyperrationalism that extinguishes wonder from the world

May 4, 2009

I just wanted to make another public service announcement…many people think that atheism is this hyper-logical, hyper-rational worldview that extinguishes wonder from the world…and I’d just like to say that this just ain’t so.

We start our tale in my last article Wherein atheists baww at unaffiliateds who become religious. There were a few comments from Seth R (of Nine Moons fame) that seemed a little critical (but he seems to be that kinda guy). I tried answering some of his comments, but it wasn’t until I mosey’d on down to Chantelle Marie’s latest blog post about faith that I fully saw the angle he was coming from.

Seriously, read that last link to Seth’s full comment…it’s a long one, but it’s pretty crucial to this post.

If I could summarize Seth’s contentions, I guess I would use his words:

However, I’ve started to come to a certain conclusion about our modern society. It seems oppressed by what I call “the tyranny of the rational.” Unless things can be proven, unless it all makes some sort of airtight logical sense, we aren’t really allowed to “go there.” We always have to second-guess ourselves. What if it’s all fake? What if I can’t really prove to myself that this is the real thing?

Modern society demands that you throw out any notions that you can’t really prove, and embrace the “freedom” of not being bound by “silly myths.”

But why do we have to live our lives by these kind of rules? Isn’t it OK to just be a little intuitive once in a while, rather than logical?

yet…this is where I disagree with him.

While there are many atheists who want to point to atheism as the “most rational” choice or the “most logical” choice or whatever, I think, as I’ve said repeatedly, that atheism is such a mere position that it should be clear that atheism is not by itself logic, reason, or science. It is not necessitated by these views and these views aren’t necessarily atheist. Yes, some people, while looking at science may come to a conclusion that they think atheism is right, but this reflects the thought process of the individual and not some quality of atheism or science or reason or whatever.

So, I’d like to challenge the assertion that atheism and modern society represent the tyranny of the rational. I would claim that even in atheism, we are not saying, “Oh, you can’t prove it, so you have to throw it out.”

What I’d say is that there is a play of objective and subjective, and we relate to both of these through experience. Many theists (Seth gave an anecdote) like to make an appeal to something that they think science or reason or logic or whatever doesn’t have a “full grasp on” — like love and attraction.

It would be silly to suggest that atheism suggests that love must be ignored because it is so emotional and not all that rational. Atheism is not about being a robot. In fact, because love is experienced, and experienced subjectively, we still rejoice it. This is the proof to the pudding.

However…when we are explaining love…we must be careful. We *could* be idealistic and put all sorts of lovely expectations about love. Oh…we have ONE TRUE LOVE! And love will last forever! And love is supernatural and mystical and extraordinary!

We could do that.

…But when we make these expectations, we may also be setting ourselves up for disappointment. What we call attraction or love, for example, is rather complex, from what we know scientifically or rationally. But we don’t have to be robotic believers in science and reason to understand that sometimes, the “spark” can die. Sometimes, we can fall out of love. This is experienced subjective reality. So, if we have had all of these expectations about love…they end up undue. Egads…it wasn’t the one true love. It didn’t just last for ever. (And, in actuality, it is something hormonal, chemical, and, well…natural.)

Does this mean love isn’t real or that it is “just” chemicals spurting in the brain? No. Rather, it behooves us to treat it as it actually is instead of puffing it up. We can recognize that these are great feelings subjectively. But objectively, they are an interplay between our consciousnesses and our physical chemical processes (which the jury is out on how those interplay). So, it would be prudent to be realistic. Even when we are in love, we have to BUILD a relationship. We have to BUILD trust, BUILD friendship. Love is an active verb, right? And if we don’t puff love up, then we can actually recognize it as more special, because we are appreciating it for what it is and what we experience rather than the IDEAS we have puffed it up as (but which are unrealistic).

I feel when people say atheism is “logical” or “rational” or whatever words they use, I think they are actually referring to this realistic expectation.

Now, about experience. I think that where atheists and theists often miss seeing eye to eye is because we do have different experiences, as I touched upon in Wherein atheists baww.

I think I understand what Seth’s analogy is. Faith is an experienced emotion like love. So, *I* would not dare presume tell someone that their faith is trash, because this is akin to saying their experienced emotion…their subjective reality is a lie. And I think many people make such an offensive claim sometimes because they are insensitive to others’ subjective realities.
But why do I focus so much on subjective realities? This is because I believe that faith, like love, are personal things.  I disagree with theism and religion because I do not believe we can take one’s personal subjective experience and then extrapolate a Universal Truth from it. After all, some people experience faith. Others don’t. Some experience it for one religion; others for completely different (and mutually exclusive religions). So, I recognize the emotional reality of spiritual experiences, but to me, these do not seem to point to the objective existence or truth of a god.
So I think Seth has some honest worry…if I do any proselytizing as an atheist (hah! the idea of a mormon mission put me off of that), I would want people to consider that perhaps their subjective experiences, as great as they are, are not necessarily indicative of a universal objective reality, in the same way if I am in love with one person, that doesn’t mean everyone should or will or can be in love with the same person. So, if that suggests that people should “second-guess their spiritual experiences,” then perhaps that is what that means.

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  1. Not quite…

    You see, I didn’t claim that love is simply an experienced emotion.

    I used the analogy of how I ended up with my wife, but it wasn’t some emotion that just “happened” to me. For a large part of our dating relationship I never could figure out if I was “in love” with her or not. In fact, I had a lot of angst from trying to constantly figure out “do I love her?”

    Finally, I had to just slow down for a second and think things over a bit.

    Is she a nice girl?
    Is she going to be a good mother?
    Am I attracted to her physically?
    Do I get along with her?
    Can I live with the downsides?

    When I realized the answer to all those questions was “yes,” it occurred to me that I was really getting bothered about nothing. My initial instincts were good. This girl was a good match.

    After that, whether I was “in love” or not was really beside the point. I had CHOSEN her, and that was really the only thing that mattered. I had committed to this. Nine years later, I stand by my initial impression.

    So, I would disagree with your classification of faith as solely an experienced emotion.

    Maybe it is for some. But for me, it was more of a deliberate choice than anything else. Parts of it were, in fact, very rational indeed. Almost mercenary actually. But the initial intuitive jump was not rational at all. I had no real reason for it that I could logically hash out to anyone else. If someone had asked me if I was making the optimal choice, I couldn’t have told them. If someone had asked me to justify why this girl instead of another, I would have been at a loss.

    But I’ve always been a primarily intuitive person. I’ve always based my important life decisions largely on instinct. So it was with my marriage and so it is with my faith. After the initial impression, it was just a matter of asking if I could live with the downsides. Once I determined that I could, it was time to commit.

    Pretty simple.

  2. I dunno. I guess I just got the wrong message about it.

    It seemed RATHER clear from the comment how you really felt all throughout the process. I mean, I guess I can’t tell much from your story, but if you’re really going to suggest that you could “not figure out if you were in love with her or not,” then…I dunno. Perhaps a different question would be that do you (verb) love her rather than are you in love.

    Your questions that you asked, the process that you went through…this all seems very much like the things I would say are necessary for relationship-building — these are the things that take them down from ideal magical land and make them into a pragmatic, realistic working relationship. These are things that I say that if you had not done them, you might have easily created unrealistic expectations that could have worked against you. For example, can you imagine the many couples that don’t ask, “Can I live with her/his downsides?” and how much of a disaster could come from such impropriety?

    In short…I don’t see how this refutes my classification of faith as an experienced emotion. In fact, I don’t see why you disagree with me at all.

    Your deliberate choice wasn’t faith. Your deliberate choice isn’t the emotional whirlwind of falling in love. Your deliberate choice was to love (verb)…a very realistic course of action that takes, as you pointed out, commitment. But you decided this after a very reasoned, cautious and realistic slowing down of things…after asking those questions.

    What if your conclusion was: I am not physically attracted to her? What if your conclusion was: I cannot live with this downside? She is not a nice girl? She will be a terrible mother? If you had not taken a realistic approach and discerned these things, you perhaps could have been taken down the wrong path.

    What you call the “initial intuitive jump”…I call that experienced emotion. You claim that I negate or nullify or downplay this…but I do not. I only point out that as even YOU tell your story, I don’t see anything that suggest that you only went off that initial intuitive jump. It was tempered.

    So, even though you claim you could not have logically hashed it out to anyone, you seem to have done JUST fine to me. Because…and this is critical…everyone understands the role of experienced subjective emotions like you faced. Everyone understands that. No one is berating you for this.

    So, I’m going to need a clarification on why we disagree…why would you think atheism to be hostile to this kind of process?

  3. The main point I’m getting at is that faith is not an emotion that you experience.

    It is something you do. It is a choice. It is this choice that enables everything else.

    Some things about me choosing my wife made sense to me. But a lot of it did not make much sense to me. Notably, the ultimate question of whether she was the right one, was a complete blank. I had no idea, and none of my rational arguments could make any leeway on that question.

    I didn’t choose my wife for logical reasons. The logical reasons helped me to not reject her, but they were not the prime reason I chose her, or why I have stayed with her for nine years (just had our anniversary last week). I chose her because intuitively and instinctively, it felt correct. Afterwards, the rational negotiations started – and ended well. But it was not those negotiations that produced the strength of the marriage. That was produced by our commitment – our choice of each other.

    Likewise, faith is a principle of action, choice and power. It’s not bolt of lightning from the sky.

  4. Did you or did you not say that when you first met your wife, “there was an immediate physical attraction?” Did you or did you not say that you found it “extremely appealing that she was obviously interested in” you? Did you or did you not say that “it took [you] almost a half hour during the long drive to work [your]self up to holding her hand” and that as you did, you thought, “that’s it, Seth. Now you’ve put your foot in it. You’ve committed, and you’ll have to marry her.”

    Are these not emotions experienced? Are these not intuitions that placed heavily in your decision? It don’t think I can speak for you, but it seems RATHER CLEAR that but for these emotions, you never would have passed go.

    And none of these emotions were chosen. NOT A SINGLE ONE.

    I understand that you had to commit. I understand that you had to mutually choose each other. But don’t be so coy and blind. I don’t even understand how you read the story and I read the story, and we come to different conclusions. Even *you* admit that “intuitively and instictively,” what you did “felt correct.” What are intuition and instict? Where do they come out? Are they not experienced emotions? You’re trying to say that these things were part of your “principle of action, choice and power. But THEY WERE NOT.

    Let’s say we were going out. Yep, it’s Vermont, and they’ve got that gay marriage thing going on. It would never work out! Because even though I’m sure you’re a great guy and I hope I’m not too terrible of a guy myself, all of the things you described as “intuition” with your wife simply wouldn’t happen between us. NOW, if you’re saying that it’s all action, choice, and power, then fine, you can say that you could conceivably go along with it anyway. Of course, you do have that choice to make.

    BUT IT WOULDN’T BE THE SAME! The relationship, no offense to you or me, wouldn’t be made of the same stuff that your relationship with your wife is. Because that desire to maintain the relationship, the trust in that relationship, the feeling of good will that makes you want to make it work out, would not work the same way.

    This is why I say that faith is not merely a choice of action, choice and power…and I think that with your analogy to romance, it most certainly operates in a similar way.

    You only pass the floodgate with both because of an inclination, an attraction, an experience, a burning in the bosom, whatever! If these things aren’t there…as you say, you could force your way through…you could, even without the wherewithal to believe…say you do anyway. Just as you could, even without the wherewithal of attraction, say you love someone anyway (but then again, love is a rather flexible word in english). But this isn’t extraordinary or wonderful at all. This is painful. This isn’t satisfying, and it never becomes satisfying.

    Don’t misunderstand me. When I say that faith or love is an experienced emotion, I don’t say that’s all it is. I agree with you that you DO have to commit, you DO have to act, and you have to put power behind it. Because, as we *know*, after the honeymoon period, things *can* look dimmer if you aren’t prepared to commit.

  5. I imagine we probably aren’t that far apart on this.

    Certainly there are different aspects of the relationship that all worked together. But I’ll have to think some more on it.

  6. I mean, I don’t know why, but it just seems strongly to me that you don’t want to concede this point (even though you really do, from the way you tell your story and also the way you talk about the role of “intuition” and “instinct”) because you still want to have an idea of atheism or the modern world or whatever as being “hyperlogical” or “hyperrational”….and then you can say, “look…this choice of mine completely is incompatible with your mindset, and it’s the best choice I’ve made in my life, so your mindset could not have allowed that.”

    I don’t understand why you do this. I think, ultimately, I have shown that not only can your experiences be explained in my frame of view (but then again, maybe you’re talking to the wrong person…because I don’t think things are ‘hyperrational’ or whatever…and I don’t think that’s what atheism is about), but they make a lot of sense in my frame of view because as humans, we know the experience of humanity. Furthermore, I think I have shown a discerning tool that I believe you have used and I believe that everyone uses — we don’t JUST go out and act and commit to everyone and everything. We have floodgates — initial emotions to the subject…and then our processing and analysis (and even though you may think these words are too “rational,” I try to establish that analysis INCLUDES emotions and other touchy-feely experience…because that is integral to natural human experience) of the subject…and then going for it.

    EDIT: this comment was actually written as you were writing yours, so it’s not really a reply to yours…and yet, it fits the bill too.

  7. vagabondsaint permalink

    I know many atheists, and I quite like them. They seem to be good people who simply don’t require a millenia-old book for guidance on how to be a good person.

    And, if they have no other redeeming value, they have this: they never start wars or persecute millions over their religion.

    Maybe the world would be a better place with more atheists. . .or those that are like my roommate, an “apatheist” (she doesn’t know if there is a God and doesn’t care).


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