Irrational Thinking

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by Patrick Appel

A writer at the Economist's politics blog is upset by Dish readers equating certain atheists with fundamentalists. Certainly religious fundamentalism is a greater danger presently – it has greater political clout and contains a far larger portion of the population. That said, Robert Wright made good points yesterday about the unconscious "adversarial instincts" of some atheists. (Several readers took issue with his post and made some worthwhile criticisms. I will try to air them soon.) Atheism as fundamentalism in reverse might not be a very helpful label, but recognition that we are all vulnerable to cognitive biases is worth pointing out. Here's some more of the e-mail Bob Wright excerpted that argued the "New Atheism" is not about God or religion but rationality:

The real-world implications of the "New Atheists" ideas are not insulated from the same dogmatism and intolerance that they decry.

Robert Wright pointed at Hitchens' hawkishness and was in turn pointed to PZ Myers' dismissal of his ideas, and I would also direct him to this post where Myers, one of the more rhetorically intemperate of the 'New Atheists,' takes Hitchens' war-mongering bellicosity to task. Hitchens zeal on, say, the Iraq war, I would argue is clouded by unwarranted certainty.

To get back to my original point about rationalism, the religious aspect is only the one most pertinent to today's issues. Hitler came to power on a wave of nationalism, and the strains of communism have brought about more death than any religious war. But these too were a product of anti-rationalist thinking. Hitler's ideas on Teutonic supremacy had little basis in reality and in fact stretched back to the mass politics and antisemitism of the late 19th century. North Korea has elevated Kim Jung Il and his father into god-figures, and the Soviet Union famously and most disastrously rejected natural selection and genetics on ideological grounds as a "fascist science" and poured its agricultural resources in furthering bogus Lamarckian Lysenkoism.

A believer makes a related point:

At the heart of atheism’s concerns is that irrational thinking creates problems in the world. They claim that religion is the primary source of irrational thinking. The trouble is that even if every person on earth suddenly became an atheist today, we would still have to have to deal with the irrational thinking of politicians, sociologists, historians, economists, philosophers, doctors, scientists, business leaders, ad infinitum.  Pride, vanity, stupidity, laziness, and prejudice taint every human endeavor and it will take more than mere rationality or the scientific method to eradicate these influences. It takes humility, openness, and deep compassion to find the truth behind all our foibles. 

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