Sunday, April 3, 2011

Are Atheists Deluded?

You will hear at times the allegation that atheists are "just as deluded" as anyone else--or some variation of that theme.  First and foremost, remember that this is usually a variation of the "atheism is just another religion" canard and is subject to the same refutations.  (See also this post.)  The best way to approach someone who makes this type of assertion is first to get him to explain what he means because he may not even realize the implications himself.

The speaker is probably motivated by one of two underlying assumptions.  The first is the idea that solipsism can be taken seriously and that atheism is necessarily an assertion of 100% certainty about the existence of god.  In that case, the person is almost certainly making the "atheism is just another religion" argument.  Read my posts on that, which are linked above.

The second is that human nature is such that we all delude ourselves more or less to the same extent and that religion is just one of those delusions.  (The second category may overlap the first because the person who makes that assertion may tell you that atheists replace religious delusion with the delusion that they are more rational than the religious, which probably means that he thinks atheism requires 100% certainty and that we are deluded for thinking we can ever have that.)

While I agree that atheists can be deluded, I do not agree that we can be just as deluded as the religious.  No matter what our foibles we have at least one great delusion less than the religious.  We do not believe that we have an invisible friend with magic powers who bends the rules for us and helps us smite our enemies and who will give us immortality.  Or, more generally, we do not believe that the existence of a celestial magician is a serious theory of cosmology.

For atheists to be "just as deluded as the religious", one or more of the following false statements would have to be true:

1. All delusions are the same: equally illogical, harmful and far reaching in their effect on the deluded and his actions.

This one is patently untrue.  Not all delusions are equal.  Some are more illogical than others, some are more harmful than others, and some are more far reaching in their implications than others.  Some, such as most religions, are all three.

2. Any person who manages to rid himself of a delusion will replace it immediately with another of equal quality.

Undoubtedly, atheists can have delusions, new and old.  For the most part, I have never heard of or noticed atheists immediately adopting a new grand delusion once they dropped the delusion of religion, except in those instances where atheism and communism were adopted as a package deal.

I consider communism, because of its false assumptions about human nature (i.e., that we are altruistic angels at heart, or can be taught to be such) to be similar to religion.  It is not, however, of the same order of magnitude as religion.  Religion also often makes false assumptions about human nature, along with many other, sometimes grander, false assumptions.

Sometimes people make the assertion that atheists are deluded because atheists think they are more decent and rational than the religious.

Almost everyone makes the assumption that he or she is good, thoughtful or rational. That assumption applies to the religious and atheists alike, so I see no reason to believe that atheists are in a class by themselves in this regard.  I am sure some atheists are a bit deluded on that point, but atheists as a group are trying to be rational and objective, even to the point of questioning themselves and not just others--which is a the best deterrent to delusional thinking.

This is diametrically opposed to the attitude of the religious, who usually see irrational thought as something to be embraced and attempts at rational, objective thinking as literally sinful. The fact that atheists are imperfect at their objectivity is simply a reflection of their imperfect nature as humans--an imperfection shared at least equally with the religious, not a justification for equating them with the avowedly delusional religious folk.

3. A person who is deluded about anything, even a small thing, is effected (in his thoughts and actions) in the same degree by his
delusion as all other deluded people, even those with multiple delusions or multifaceted delusions. (A person with x delusions, some
of which differ in quality from the others, is just as deluded as a person with x - 1 delusions, where the one delusion removed is
obviously the grandest of all those in the set "x".)

What this means is that one of the possible implicit assumptions that might cause you to make the ridiculous statement that "atheists are just as deluded as the religious" is that regardless of the number or quality of a person's delusions, being deluded in any respect renders one "fully deluded" such that the comparison you asserted could be made.  Specifically, an atheist's delusion that he is more rational than he actually is would render him "just as deluded" as someone who thinks he is immortal and that he has an invisible friend with magic powers who will bend the laws of the universe to favor him and punish his enemies.

A person who tries to be objective and rational will almost always be less deluded than one who makes no such attempt, so I don't think the comparison is valid as long as one is comparing individuals who are roughly comparable in terms of their overall cognitive abilities.  Even assuming that atheist are somewhat deluded as to their rationality, the idea that this is comparable to religious delusions is nearly as ridiculous as the notion that all delusions are equal. 

4. All thought is delusional and it is pointless to try to improve oneself and one's world view by trying to train one's mind to be objective.

Our imperfections of perception and cognition do not amount to delusions. We are using the best tool we have in the best way we can. Delusions occur when we cease trying to do that and embrace flights of fancy that are not based on perception.  If you meet a person who thinks that all thought is delusion and that we can't get past it to "true" reality, challenge him or her to go jump off a tall bridge or building to test the theory and get back to you with "proof".  After all, it's just a delusion.

Some assert that the irrational and violent part of our nature controls us.  I happen to agree with this to an extent, but not with those who take an absolute approach to it.  People are not all equal in this regard.  (I have never heard of a trait, especially a mental one, that all humans have in precisely the same degree.)  Are we all the same height?  It makes as much sense as insisting that we all have precisely the same level of intelligence or that we all have equally good reflexes.

There are numerous studies that show that some individuals have greater powers of rational thought than others and that some individuals have greater objective powers of observation and assessment.  (Oddly enough, I remember reading of one such study that found that depressed people were more likely to have an objectively accurate view of the world and their lives than people who weren't depressed.  In other words, ignorance--or delusion--really can be bliss in the short run.  In the long run, however, it can be a disaster.  See also this post and this post concerning the harm caused by religion.)  In fact, this is so well established that it is often an unspoken assumption in any study involving the cognitive abilities of a group of study subjects.

This last possible assumption of those who maintain that atheists are "just as deluded" grows, often directly, from the mistake made by those who take solipsism seriously, which I have previously discussed.

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