Are Atheists as Rational As they Think They Are?

In my last post I gave a horrifying end of the world scenario and noted that it was the same as what atheists believe is going to happen to all life during the heat death of the universe. This had been prompted by this quote from Christopher Hitchens:

…to the old theistic question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ we can… counterpose the findings of Professor Lawrence Krauss and others, about the forseeable heat death of the universe…. So, the question can and must be rephrased: ‘Why will our brief ‘something’ so soon be replaced with nothing?’ It’s only once we shake our own innate belief in linear progression and consider the many recessions we have undergone and will undergo that we can grasp the gross stupidity of those who repose their faith in divine providence and godly design. (Christopher Hitchens as quoted by Skeptic Michael Shemer in Scientific American, Nov 2010)

Skeptic Michael Shemer (who quoted Hitchens) then goes on to say, with nary a hint of irony.

The dialectical usefulness of clear logic, coupled to elegant prose (layered on top of the usual dollop of data), cannot be overstated and should be considered by scientists as another instrument of persuasion in the battle for ideas. (Michael Shemer in Scientific American, Nov 2010)

Why would anyone in their right mind fight for this idea given it’s logical conclusions? (In my last post.)

They are literally arguing that Theists are being irrational because they believe in “linear progression” (apparently eternal progress) rather than the (in their view) more rational belief that life is pointless and will end in very bad ways and that nothing we do matters in the long run.

How could they make such an argument?

But we know why, don’t we? Because the human brain isn’t capable of thinking in terms of millions or billions of years! This future is no more real to them than it is to a Theist.

But wait! Doesn’t that mean Shemer’s call for greater rationality was based on a failure of rationality?

18 thoughts on “Are Atheists as Rational As they Think They Are?

  1. I’m a little confused. Are you saying that atheists are actually irrational for believing in the heat death of the universe, because our brain is incapable of rational thinking on that time scale?

    All atheists believe that their own death will be the end, so they face oblivion every day. But many of them seem to hold up rather well, even with that bleak world view.

  2. I’m more than a little confused. Is someone saying that theists are irrational because Gad destroys worlds, and eventually all civilizations end? That atheists have no hope, because everything will eventually die?

    Is there a way to bring this down a notch or two to make it easier for the easily confused to understand?

  3. The answer to the question in the title is “Generally, no.” Neither is anybody else. Humans are naturally machines of rationalization rather than rationality.

    But since you mentioned atheists in particular, there’s a fun little book called The Irrational Atheist by Christian libertarian Vox Day. Instead of using faith-based arguments to attack the arguments of several prominent “High Church” atheists, he simply dismantles their arguments on their own terms.

  4. Bruce,

    At least I don’t feel lonely in being muddled by the point here.

    I want to get a clarification from you regarding one of the points you seems to be making here (and in the previous post with the Shermer quote). Are you saying that a rational atheist should abandon the pursuit of “the good life” (whatever that is to them) for themselves and their children because the impending demise of humanity/earth/life/democrats means it’s all for naught?

    Have you read Collapse by Jared Diamond yet?

  5. Historically, Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian” may the best known defense of Atheism. As you read it, you feel a need to channel Ayn Rand and shout “check your premises.”

    If you look at his argument under the sub heading “The Moral Problem,” you can quickly see the premise problem. Russell states, “There is one very serious defect in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not believe myself that any person who is profundly humane could believe in everlasting punishment.” The rest of the argument flows from this premise.

    If you accept the premises of various Athiests, you generally will come to and accept their conclusions as a logical construct. If you do not agree with them, the arguments do not hold.

  6. Frank,

    You actually understand it. Shemner and Hitchens are arguing Theists are irrational based on their arguments. Their argument being that since all life is going to die out (in really painful and horrific ways) and all is pointless anyhow there can’t be a God. Not much of a rational argument once you think about it.

  7. Frank,

    I guess the train of thought is lost if you haven’t recently read the previous post.

    You actually understand it correctly. Shemner and Hitchens are arguing Theists are irrational based on their arguments.

    Their arguments are that since all life is going to die out (in really painful and horrific ways — though they skip over that part) and all is pointless anyhow there can’t be a God. Further, they assert that Theists are wrong to assume that the sky is the limit when it comes to progress. Apparently even rational progress.

    I don’t know about you, but it’s not much of an argument. If the theists are deluded they are way better off for it. So you’d rationally want to be irrational.

    Of course Nate is also right: atheists claim things like this but don’t seem at all depressed over it. The reason is that they minds can’t really comprehend a horrific heat death a billion years from now. For all intents and purposes, unless we imagine it much closer in time, we can’t really take it seriously at all. In short, they are also — at some level — deluding themseles.

  8. It would help if these guys would come up with a microphysical basis for a non-subjective version of the second law of thermodynamics, because there isn’t one. Known microphysical laws are time symmetric, the second law isn’t.

    Or how about come up with a plausible theory for how the universe started out in a ridiculously low entropy state in the first place? People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

  9. I tried to improve the OP to make it more clear even if you hadn’t just read the previous post.

  10. Greg,

    No, that wasn’t my point. My point is that if atheists are right, they are ultimately protecting themselves through a process very similar to (I’d say the same as) religion. Essentially denial of reality. (In this case, refusal to follow things through to their logical conclusions.)

    The afore mentioned Betrand Russell is a prime example of this.

    I avoid Jared Diamond as his scholarship is based on entirely false epistemology. He’s basically wrong about everything but through very good narrative fallacy creates the illusion of knowledge.

  11. Those are two very strong statements.

    Humor me for a moment and elucidate which reality the godless heathens are denying.

  12. It is more logical to believe that mankind will destroy themselves if left to their own devices. If there is no God, we will not wait a few billion years.

    Glenn

  13. I think it takes a bit of arrogance to be an atheist. An atheist says that there cannot be a god. It’s a big universe and I think that’s a pretty idiotic belief. There is so much that we cannot possibly know. An agnostic on the other hand, admits that he does not know. I will readily associate with agnostics. I don’t have time for closed-minded, militant atheists who sneer and demean others for their beliefs.

  14. But many of them seem to hold up rather well, even with that bleak world view.

    Ergo, atheists are not as rational as they think they are.

    I avoid Jared Diamond as his scholarship is based on entirely false epistemology. He’s basically wrong about everything but through very good narrative fallacy creates the illusion of knowledge.

    OT, but I’d love to hear more about this sometime.

  15. Maybe I’m just not approaching this as rationally as I ought to, but I don’t understand why, even on my most rational day, the eventual destruction of everything at some unknown point in the future would have any effect on the way I live my quotidian life.

    What am I missing here? (Let’s concede that I’m in double trouble here, if the Shermers have it right, there is no hope, if the Mormons have it right, I’m in deep trouble, too… Should I be depressed about this in some way?)

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