Atheism and Dogmatism

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 1, 2010 in General Atheism

I suspect a greater portion of atheists are committed to reason and evidence than are religious believers. Still, I am reminded every day that we atheists are not particularly more rational than believers.

Denying the gods does not allow one to escape rampant human bias. Theism is merely one symptom of our mostly non-rational and irrational primate brains – there are many other symptoms that atheists rarely escape. We, too, are often dogmatic. We, too, abandon reason and evidence to support opinions that just “feel right” to us.

I was reminded of this a few hundred times during the week when I asked atheists to explain what was wrong with my Sexy Scientists post. A few people gestured toward a kind of argument, but it was clear they were more interested to condemn me than they were to work through the logic of the ethical issues at play.

Most of my critics made little attempt to understand what I had said. Instead, they blatantly misrepresented my stated positions so that they could smear me.

Others admitted freely they didn’t care about the arguments involved, they just knew that they knew that they knew I was wrong. Others made non-substantive, hand-waving comments about how I was acting out of male privilege and then, ironically, accused me of hand-waving (though I had responded directly and in detail to arguments made by my critics and at least one prominent feminist philosopher).

Read the comments on this subject at Pharyngula for a lesson in dogmatic atheism. They demonstrate a method for showing that atheists are dogmatic: Attack an atheist’s dogma – especially about a complicated subject like morality and feminism – and count the number of respondents who show a serious interest in arguments and evidence over emotion and dogma-defending.

Zak suggests another example:

If you want to see a great example of dogmatic atheists, go to Dawkins’ website, go to the forums, and suggest that Jesus existed. Madness ensues.

I don’t think atheists need to rise to a higher standard to make religion fade away. That will happen anyway, as knowledge and morality leave religion behind. I just wish atheists would embrace a higher standard for themselves.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark August 1, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Haha, this comes off as pretty embittered. But I agree with you.

  (Quote)

Kip August 1, 2010 at 6:50 pm

I’ve been following Dan Ariely’s writings and talks for a while. I think it’s good for us to realize how we are all “predictably irrational” so that we can try to compensate.

  (Quote)

Hermes August 1, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Religions will change, but I don’t see them going away. Same for the spot that theism shares with others, though those other aren’t all backed by a mystical fervor.

As for the current group of atheists that honor evidence and reason, there will be a levelling. That said, it’s hard to out do a large percentage of beliefs and claims held by the religious theists. If we want people who honor evidence and reason, those should be promoted to the general population.

  (Quote)

Justfinethanks August 1, 2010 at 7:10 pm

I think this is probably most profoundly illustrated by a commenter who claimed on your Seven types of Objectification (Part 2) post that the very act of carefully considering arguments consisted of “intellectual diarrhea,” and you should just stop it and apologize already.

That goes beyond irrationality. That’s plain anti-rationality, where the very act of carefully thinking something through (especially if the conclusion is supposed to be “obvious”) is offensive.

I mean, even most creationists aren’t that bad. They come to irrational conclusions, but I have yet hear one argue that even carefully considering the possibility that creationism is false is an immoral or wrong thing to do. They might like to, but I suspect they might be too ashamed as coming off as blatantly anti-intellectual.

It’s a little depressing that some atheists don’t seem to share that shame, especially when sexism comes up.

  (Quote)

Zak August 1, 2010 at 7:19 pm

If you want to see a great example of dogmatic atheists, go to Dawkins’ website, go to the forums, and suggest that Jesus existed. Madness ensues.

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 1, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Kip,

Exactly. This is actually at the center of Michael Bishop’s and J.D. Trout’s new epistemological project announced in Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment.

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 1, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Zak,

Really? Maybe that would be another good test…

  (Quote)

ShaneSteinhauser August 1, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Zak,

Very insightful of you. Next point out all the documents that say there was a Jesus. Just like how christians scream METAPHOR! at whatever is inconvienent mythicists will scream INTERPOLATION! at whatever they don’t like.

  (Quote)

Andrew August 1, 2010 at 8:40 pm

This morning’s xkcd is relevant. =)

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 1, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Andrew,

Indeed!

  (Quote)

Bill Maher August 1, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Luke,
PZ Myers is a caustic douchebag, so don’t feel bad. I find it ironic when scientists are hyper-modernists but turn into Foucault when it comes to gender issues. I consider myself to be pro-woman (I’m pro-choice, etc), but “feminists” get super butthurt over the dumbest things because they have the potential of being offensive even if they aren’t. Their commitment to reason goes completely out of the window when issues like this come up.

  (Quote)

Hermes August 1, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Andrew, LOL!

  (Quote)

Brice Gilbert August 1, 2010 at 10:12 pm

Maybe this is me seeing what I want to see, but isn’t that xkcd arguing against your position?

By the way is there evidence for Jesus? Like the Jesus in the bible (minus the miracles obviously). And is this evidence from the time he was alive? I’m not trying to start anything I actually want to know. I hear conflicting things.

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 1, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Brice,

Yes, that’s the idea. The point is this:

Maybe I’ve provided a good analysis of the situation, and shown that atheists are dogmatic. Or maybe I’m just looking for a way to feel superior. Take your pick, but I suspect both are true.

  (Quote)

Alexandros Marinos August 1, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Hey Luke,

You might want to transfer the mouseover text from XKCD also, it’s usually half the joke, moreso in this case.

  (Quote)

Beelzebub August 2, 2010 at 12:40 am

It’s possible that much of the response to the Sexy Scientist case was not a demonstration of irrationality but rather a simple difference of opinion. I can understand your objection to a person saying “I’m not interested in discussing it, you’re just wrong,” but there’s nothing inherently irrational about not being able to rationally identify right or wrong, but saying instead that I “believe” you are wrong (or right), and I dislike (or condone) your behavior. One of the telltale signs of religious irrationality is the obsessive compulsion to designate everything as either right or wrong, even when there is no convincing moral calculus to show us the way. Incidentally, Deacon Duncan is beginning a very interesting (but very slow, one post a week) review of Mere Christianity on Evangelical Realism, and his post this week discusses this issue.

  (Quote)

Beelzebub August 2, 2010 at 12:45 am

Sorry, here’s a Link.

  (Quote)

Hansen August 2, 2010 at 1:18 am

Funny that you felt you had to point to Pharyngula when you could just as well have pointed to the discussion posts for this very subject on your own blog. They contained plenty of the irrational and emotional responses needed for you to make your case. Also, I seem to remember that you found some of the discussion at Pharyngula so useful that you included it in your final apologetic post.

I’m sorry but I just find this kind of stereotyping rather tiresome to put it mildly. I suspect that many of your readers, like me, also enjoy reading and occasionally commenting on Pharyngula. Please don’t fall into the trap of certain other bloggers and think that you can raise your own profile and credibility by bashing some other group.

  (Quote)

James Onen August 2, 2010 at 2:03 am

Thanks for this post Luke. I feel your pain.

A few weeks ago, I tried having a discussion with fellow atheists in my freethought group on whether or not “patriotism” was a meaningful and useful concept. I hold the sceptical position with regards to this proposition, and I was hoping for a fleshed out, meaningful debate with my peers based on logical arguments, since I personally took the trouble to provide logical arguments to defend my objections to “patriotism”. Let’s just say I wasn’t granted the same courtesy. I was quickly dismissed as a “non-patriot” who was simply “ashamed of his country”. Most of them unquestioningly (and without sufficient justification) treated patriotism as a good in and of itself – and I was told that people were just “supposed” to “love” their country, period.

I was disappointed and shocked that they were unwilling to apply the usual intellectual rigour and – most of all – IMPARTIALITY with which they usually tackle issues to do with religion. Of course, I could very well be wrong – and patriotism might in fact turn out to be a meaningful and useful concept. Maybe it is. The point is, I wasn’t trying to get them to agree with me – I wanted to hear from them structured arguments demonstrating why they thought I was wrong, and I didn’t get any.

So, yes, I think some atheists can be just as dogmatic as theists – and sometimes even more so (depending on the issue being discussed). Your post is therefore spot on. I think we can, and should, aspire to be better – and above all, CONSISTENT.

  (Quote)

Beelzebub August 2, 2010 at 2:20 am

These two comments since mine sort of illustrate the point. Patriotism can be both a good and bad attribute; there are useful and terrible consequences to it. So how do you deal with the ambiguity of concepts that can be both good and bad? As reaction to religious determinism, atheism seems to think it has to come up with an equivalent black and white system to delimit what is permissible from what is proscribed. So the bad assumptions that suffuse religious doctrine invade our own territory.

The problem stems from the fact that “wrong” and “right” in situations like Sexy Scientist are extremely context sensitive, and the Internet is not context sensitive. When you post to the web you post to the world. You post to all perceptions of your presentation. Presently there is no possible way to know how your message will be perceived. It’s fundamentally a communication problem. The best advise I can offer is to proceed conservatively, and that probably means to be careful about “Sexy Scientist” presentations.

  (Quote)

Eric August 2, 2010 at 6:22 am

All this really says is that atheists are just as human and capable of the same failings as anyone.

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 2, 2010 at 6:38 am

Hansen,

If you think I’m stereotyping, then you misread my post. I used qualifiers like ‘many’ and ‘most’, and I didn’t mention P.Z. at all.

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 2, 2010 at 6:39 am

James Onen,

Yup, that sounds very familiar!

  (Quote)

MauricXe August 2, 2010 at 6:44 am

tbh I don’t understand all of the whining about the sexy scientist post. If it makes everyone happy, just make one with sexy guys.

  (Quote)

mitero August 2, 2010 at 7:15 am

Some, perhaps most (not all) atheists I know are simply obnoxious religious people who do not believe in God/Gods. They do not really change WHO THEY ARE when they become athiests, it is just that their obnoxiousness is now pointed in the other direction.

  (Quote)

Hermes August 2, 2010 at 7:19 am

Mitero, those are the ones who you notice. For others, obnoxiousness requires effort and patience. :-}

That said, I don’t see why someone should radically change their personality when moving from a belief in deities to one without. I’d be surprised if there was a huge change.

  (Quote)

Martin August 2, 2010 at 7:39 am

If you want to see a great example of dogmatic atheists, go to Dawkins’ website, go to the forums, and suggest that Jesus existed. Madness ensues.

Oh, I did even less than this on Dawkins’ forum. I dared to suggest that belief in God is rational because social animals desire an alpha leader of the pack. Note, I was making a very obviously non-theist suggestion; a naturalistic explanation for God-belief.

I was attacked pretty viciously.

Atheists can scream at the top of their lungs that they can’t be dogmatic because they don’t have a position, but evidence says otherwise.

  (Quote)

Mike Caton August 2, 2010 at 8:14 am

There’s an upside of everyone having irrational beliefs of some kind, whether or not they’re about supernatural entities. I’ve found that recognizing that we have them too makes it easier to approach theists less smugly and more positively. It’s also additional motivation to continually improve ourselves.

  (Quote)

smijer August 2, 2010 at 8:32 am

Luke… a suggestion. I think you would be better served to illustrate issues of this sort without calling up controversies you were personally involved in.

I have not read or cared particularly about the threads where everyone discussed sexuality. I read several posts from you complaining that commenters were not using reason and argument properly to critique what are essentially moral questions.

It may be, as you believe, that there is an objective moral universe from which all moral issues can be derived and argued through empirical reason. Or, it may not. That issue is controversial.

Sure, proper skepticism and a proper scientific outlook requires empirical study and rigorous reasoning to evaluate propositional claims about the real world. It is fair game to criticize those who eschew it (for instance) in cases related to a factual dogma (the status of Jesus, historically, for instance) while sitting on the high horse it provides on others (theism, for instance).

But it isn’t clear that empirical study and logic carries the same epistemological weight for notional morality. Rather than berating those who eschew it for claims that they do not consider to be factual about the real world – claims they believe instead to reflect subjective values – is premature. Instead you could first convince them to agree with you that morality is objective and subject to the same principles as natural reality.

The tone and manner in which you answer critics who are operating from a different set of assumptions than you (or not), who are making cogent arguments (or not) will influence the degree of respect you will command, and how well your answers to those critics are received.

  (Quote)

Hermes August 2, 2010 at 8:39 am

Agreed Mike. The difference I try to keep in mind that what I believe is not the same as what I know. Ideally, my beliefs should be informed and change based on what I know, but that as long as they are beliefs I’m not going to claims they are on par with knowledge but are below knowledge because they are less rigorously supported.

Even then, I hold what I think I know tentatively but not flippantly. What I think I know is a fact is not trivially discardable and neither is it relativistic; all things being equal, there aren’t mutually exclusive facts.

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 2, 2010 at 8:42 am

smijer,

Not a bad suggestion.

Yes, I know it’s controversial that objective moral value exists. I was only arguing with people who agreed on that point, and made moral assertions of their own.

  (Quote)

Jeff H August 2, 2010 at 10:04 am

Attack an atheistic dogma – especially about a complicated subject like morality and feminism – and count the number of respondents who show a serious interest in arguments and evidence over emotion and dogma-defending.

I understand what you’re trying to say here, although I hesitate to call this “dogma” (which generally implies a top-down institutional approach to beliefs). I get the same sort of sense, though, that certain topics are sort of “non-negotiable” for many atheists, but I have a hard time putting my finger on why that is and what makes it the case.

You seem to gloss over how you are defining what an “atheistic dogma” is – what is it about something like feminism or gay rights or whatever else that turns it into an atheist dogma? Perhaps this could be a topic for a future post?

  (Quote)

cl August 2, 2010 at 10:41 am

Luke,

Great post. I encounter irrational atheists all too often and honestly, I think they’re in a worse position than irrational theists. The irrational atheist fosters his or her own irrationality alongside the idea that they are committed to reason, rationality and evidence – and so to the trained eye, these types come off looking like hypocritical fools. I notice the trend is more prevalent among the deconverted.

Jeff H.,

I see what you mean, and I might be willing to claim that “mantra” is a more accurate word here, but there is certainly a “top-down” flow of information from the atheist intelligentsia. It may not be as organized or codified as the religious dogmas, but when we have newbie atheists parroting Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et al. verbatim and that without challenge, don’t you think that’s a bona fide example of dogma? The only difference I can see is that religious dogma can be called “official” whereas atheist dogma not as much so. There’s less centrality amongst atheists.

  (Quote)

Ralph August 2, 2010 at 10:51 am

Luke,

I think all the arguments have been fleshed out re: the Sexiest Scientist post. I’m curious if you’re going to take back your apology, because I think you should.

  (Quote)

Eric August 2, 2010 at 12:08 pm

“Attack an atheistic dogma – especially about a complicated subject like morality and feminism…”

“Atheistic dogma” is a very loose term here. There is nothing about feminism and liberal morality that requires a particular position on god belief.

Not accepting a supernatural claim based on insufficient evidence is not the same as accepting on faith a supernatural claim based on insufficient evidence. I think this is what people mean when they say atheism is without dogma. It’s like saying science has no dogma because it’s fluid and always subject to change based on new evidence and argument. That doesn’t mean that scientists can’t be “dogmatic” about their views. Of course they can, they’re only human. They’re invested in a worldview and get defensive about it sometimes.

Religion (mostly) has dogma in it’s blood. In order to subscribe to a particular religion you have to accept certain beliefs dogmatically to the exclusion of all contradictory evidence. Strictly speaking this is not what atheism is about. Alas, atheists are people too who have worldviews they get defensive about sometimes. This often regresses into emotional argument rather than reason based argument.

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 2, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Eric,

You are right. I should have said “atheist’s dogma” not “atheistic dogma.” I’ve changed it now.

  (Quote)

Rick B August 2, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Justfinethanks,

I agree that there was quite the storm over whether Luke’s Sexy Scientists post was aptly characterized as sexist. Without reopening the debate on sexism, I’d like to say you read a lot more into my comment than I wrote, and certainly interpreted it differently from my intent.

I’m not a philosopher, and nor do I have the patience to always reason like one. I did take issue with the practice of decontextualizing the objectification. This is what I intended to mean when I said “intellectual diarrhea,” but there was, admittedly, quite a lot of room for interpretation.

I’m not sure the rest of what I wrote is actually that indefensible. At that point in the argument, it had been fairly clearly articulated the why and how of the post’s sexism, and what the effects might be. Did Luke carefully consider all the arguments for atheism and against Christianity before his apostasy? Or do we really need all the data before issuing advisories over a chemical that’s pretty clearly carcinogenic in rats?

What I was saying was that to take action when only all the data are in is to take no action ever. Indeed, Luke’s series on objectification continued [continues?] after removing the post. I was attempting to raise the pressure to take action even with incomplete data, which I think is the reasonable and rational course of action in quite a few cases.

I did come on strong, and I meant to be somewhat offensive. It was an attempt to encourage action and discourage what I perceived to be fruitless discussion.

  (Quote)

mkandefer August 2, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Rick B,

A practical, and I agree with the provisional nature of agreeing that it was probably wrong to do, and then proceed with the investigation. However, do you still consider the discussion fruitless? Do you see merit in trying to analyze things from an ethical framework, and get at the root of the justifications for our moral claims?

  (Quote)

ShaneSteinhauser August 2, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Brice,

The best evidence for Jesus’ existance that we have comes from Josephus and Tacitus. Read for yourself.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus#Arabic_version

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacitus_on_Jesus

  (Quote)

Scott August 2, 2010 at 5:44 pm

How dare you post an XKCD comic without its alt-text!

“‘But you’re using that same tactic to try to feel superior to me, too!’ ‘Sorry, that accusation expires after one use per conversation.’”

  (Quote)

Rick B August 2, 2010 at 6:00 pm

mkandefer,

I thought the discussion needed some time and thought, but the discussion did not seem to be progressing towards any philosophical argument. Indeed, the lines of debate seemed to be drawn, and people took one side or the other without contributing to anyone’s understanding. At least, that was my perspective.

We absolutely should be fleshing out the moral and ethical bases of our claims about sexism [or any other matter of import]. But we shouldn’t let the lack of an iron-clad argument deter us from taking action.

I, for one, am not sure if morality is anything but a human construct. Like gods, quite a few people believe in morality’s existence, but few agree on a single description of it, let alone what its prescriptions are.

  (Quote)

Matthew D. Johnston August 2, 2010 at 6:17 pm

@ShaneSteinhauser – It is difficult to establish that Tacitus and Josephus were recording anything of historical value about Jesus beyond what his followers were saying about him at the times they were writing. Josephus was writing in the 90′s A.D. and Tacitus in the 110′s A.D., so they were hardly contemporaneous with Christ or his apostles, and there’s no reason to suppose they had sources independent of what Christians of this era were saying about Him. They can certainly verify a few things about what late first-century Christians believed, but we already know this stuff – we have their writings.

The best evidence we have for Jesus’ existence, whether we like it or not, are the Gospels and Paul’s epistles.

  (Quote)

Hermes August 2, 2010 at 6:30 pm

ShaneSteinhauser, along those lines, the Josephus references are rejected by theologians. Both Tacitus and Josephus wrote after the events and concentrated not on Jesus but on what other people said about Christians.

Does this mean that Jesus was not a real person — miracles or not? No. It doesn’t lend much support to the claims about him, though, including his actual existence.

So, what do we know? Not much. What can we say with some confidence? It is plausible that there was a Jewish rabbi that the NT stories were roughly structured on. That person probably was not named Jesus Christ, though they may have been given an honorific using those titles. The NT itself is not a historic record so care should be said about what can be known about the accuracy of the NT. That’s the best the evidence will allow.

  (Quote)

JS Allen August 2, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Love the xkcd cartoon; great post!

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment

{ 3 trackbacks }