by Patrick Appel
A reader writes:
I think the atheist rationality argument is not really being made in good faith here. Atheists argue that rationality is the desired result - but we are fully aware that irrationality is a human condition that none of us (including Hitch) are immune to. But when confronted with our own irrationality, we need to recognize it and try our measured best to address it. Will atheists be irrational? Absolutely, but that's not an argument against atheism. Atheists don't pretend to be perfect any more than believers do.
Believers have a sort of mixed goal. It's incredibly unfair to say that they reject rationality, because if they did, they'd never be able to do math, buy groceries, drive a car, or walk down stairs. But they certainly do embrace abandoning rationality when they have come to accept that it should be abandoned.
That's what it means to 'believe' or to 'have faith'. It's not necessarily an embrace of irrationality, but a willingness to abandon the pursuit of rationality, be it God, angels, ghosts, unicorns, the tooth fairy, all the way down to incredibly pedestrian things such as evil, fate, and bad luck. Where atheism itself quietly breaks down is out here at the tail. Lots of atheists broadly reject the existence of any God, but casually embrace concepts such as 'luck', which at its core isn't actually any different than just believing in God. Pointing that out is usually a pretty reliable litmus test for a true atheist vs an anti-theist.
What atheists chafe against is the arbitrariness of what rational pursuits do and don't get willingly abandoned by religion. Is evolution really so terrible a concept that many Protestants feel the need to consciously reject every effort to approach the subject rationally in order to retain their standing in the church? Why are the birther's claims (contrary all evidence) that Obama wasn't born in Hawaii any less valid than the claim that Jesus was the product of immaculate conception? Those that embrace the latter will gladly ridicule the former, but why? Why shouldn't we accept the birther's claims as broadly, vociferously, and blindly as we should accept a virgin Mary? Why hold one up to a rational test but not the other?
These are the things that mystify atheists. It's not the irrationality (which we also suffer from) but the absolute and arbitrary rejection of efforts to address irrationality when confronted by it.
No one claims to be free of irrational thinking. The entire letter by this believer addresses a straw man, which is sadly typical. Atheists are obviously aware of irrational thinking outside the bounds of religion. Some of them even study it. The field of behavioral economics provides many examples of human behaviors that are predictably irrational: that is, we can predict exactly how an average person's behavior will become irrational in some settings. Pointing out irrational thinking on the part of an atheist, like Hitchens, entirely misses the point, in the same fashion that criticizing the investing decisions of a Bigfoot skeptic misses the point. The skeptic may make irrational investment choices, but that doesn't invalidate his observations regarding the quality of evidence for the existence of Bigfoot. And this is patently obvious, though it somehow escapes many of your readers.
One more, from the other side of the divide:
My problem with the loud atheists is that I don't recognize what they are attacking as having anything to do with the faith that I was brought up in. I was always taught that there is no proof of the existence of God; that belief is an existential choice, an intentional exception to judging all things by rational data (i.e., the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen"). Thus I was always confused by denominational claims that God is a rational fact, provable by human intelligence -- and if that is what the atheists are attacking, well then welcome to the club, but you are 500 years behind the times.
As for whether religion is helpful or hurtful overall, I can't hear a message that doesn't make room for the fact that I have seen reminders of religious belief make an immediate and important difference for the better in people's lives. For instance, I have seen people who were losing or had just lost loved ones, and been with them when they heard words from their faith tradition that spoke of all things being in God's hands, and seen them draw strength from that to deal with their loss. So, yes, religion has to answer for the crusades. And atheists have to answer for having no meaningful words of hope to provide in crisis.