Rationality is Rare, for Believers and Atheists Alike

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 11, 2010 in General Atheism

The Christian Delusion is finally out! And it has some great endorsements. I’ll review it when I’ve finished it, but first let me quote my favorite part so far, from the chapter by Valerie Tarico on “Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science”:

I like to think of myself as fair-minded and reasonable. In fact, I pride myself on “following the evidence where it leads, whether I like the conclusion or not.” Integrity and truth seeking are near the top of my wanted-virtues list.

The problem is, research on human cognition suggests that I am neither fair-minded nor reasonable. None of us are. And it’s not just a matter of sloppy thinking. Our brains have built-in biases that stack the odds against objectivity, so much so that the success of the scientific endeavor can be attributed to one factor: it pits itself against our natural leanings, erects barriers across the openings to rabbit trails, and systematically exposes faulty thinking to public critique. In fact, the scientific method has been called “what we know about how not to fool ourselves.”

…The way things actually work is somewhat embarrassing. The fact is, we distort reality in a host of ways – many of which are extravagantly self-serving. We take undue credit for successes, and blame failures on external circumstances (attribution biases). We even revise history so that, in hindsight, our failures were simply to be expected because of the challenges we faced (retroactive pessimism). We retain meomries of when we were kind, funny, personable, and clever, better than memories of when we were boorish and mean. On average, we expect to live ten years longer than average. And virtually all of us who believe in heaven think we are going there. To put it bluntly, each of us is the protagonist in a custom-made Hollywood movie with the best possible camera angles…

One of the strongest built-in mental distortions we have is called confirmation bias. Once we have a hunch about how things work, we seek information that fits with what we already think. It’s like our mind set up filters – with contradictory evidence stuck in gray tones on the outside and the confirmatory evidence flowing through in bright and shining color.

…Bias is our default settings, and most of the distortions happen below the level of conscious awareness. Understanding this may let us be a little more sympathetic toward otherwise smart, decent people who hold beliefs that make us cringe. It should also make us wonder about our own blind spots.1

This is a major part of my “message” at Common Sense Atheism.

We humans are not, for the most part, rational creatures. Non-rationality and downright irrationality are part of the human condition, not just the religious condition. We atheists are irrational, too.

giraffe fucks donkey

  1. Pages 50-53. []

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman April 12, 2010 at 12:40 am

That is a great quote!


Beelzebub April 12, 2010 at 3:11 am

What matters is whether a person is devoted to reason or wary of it. You can be stupid, you can be wrong, you can even be subconsciously dishonest, self-deluded. What bugs me most about religious people is the impression I get that they’re actually aware of their own self-deceit but stick to it anyway because they see it as the only option they have given the emotional and existential realities of existence. And I can’t stand that — because there’s no excuse for lying for comfort.


Marco April 12, 2010 at 3:22 am

Great post, priceless pic!! I cried!


Ken Pulliam April 12, 2010 at 3:33 am


I have been thinking a lot about this lately and Valerie is right. A book that I recently came across that is fascinating is by neuroscientist, Richard Burton entitled: On Being Certain: Believing You are Right Even When You are Not. It is a real eye-opener.


John D April 12, 2010 at 4:55 am

My two favourite books on this topic are:

Tom Gilovich How we Know what Isn’t So
Stuart Sutherland Irrationality


Ben April 12, 2010 at 7:44 am

Do we really need another Loftus book?


Sabio Lantz April 12, 2010 at 7:04 pm

As you know, Luke, this is a major theme on my blog too. As I started blogging and visiting Atheist sites I noted many who are hyper-rationalists in that they were ironically and self-righteously blind to their delusion of pure rationality.

It was those Atheists that stirred me to record my own “Supernatural” experiences. Experiences that, with only minor tweaks in my worldview/philosophy, could easily be interpreted as supernatural. Since then I have found many atheists willing to confess their irrationality. It is the first step to taking the log out of one’s own eye.

Thanks for this post on that. What have been some of your deepest weird irrational experiences? Have you posted on them ever? I think it may be useful to distinguish between mere cognitive illusions and altered states — but I am not sure.


lukeprog April 12, 2010 at 7:11 pm


I mentioned two of them here.


Sabio Lantz April 12, 2010 at 7:27 pm

@ Luke
I re-read those — I do remember them. They were strong emotional places for you. Did you also have visions, hear voices, see ghosts, speak in tongues or things a bit more altered?

BTW, is that a picture of you (at the end of the post) down on your knees with arms uplifted — if not, it sure could be.


lukeprog April 12, 2010 at 7:57 pm

No, it’s not a picture of me. I suppose I’ll write more about my supernatural experiences some day.


Nate F August 5, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Ha ha ha ha! Thanks!

But I have a question — wouldn’t what Valerie Tarico says also apply to everyone including atheists like us?

Just wondering out loud.



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