Studies show atheists not so rational after all

Dr. Joel McDurmon | October 3, 2018

(American Vision) – In reading up a bit for my debate with an atheist coming up in November, I came across a recent article, “Why atheists are not as rational as some like to think,” by Kent University religion professor Lois Lee. In a calm, surgical way she dismantles the myth that atheists are the rational ones over against us people of faith.

One of the things I like about the website The Conversation is its civil and more academic approach to journalism. Founded specifically because most public discourse has grown polarized, partisan, and hostile, it tends to be more academic, not pandering to the prejudices of one polarized reader base; and yet it is written on a popular level for the average reader. I enjoyed these aspects of it recently when writing about the dramatic increase in self-referencing rhetoric from both Obama and Trump (hint: Trump is actually worse than Obama on all counts, if you can believe it).

Bringing these values and this perspective to the world of atheism proves very enlightening—the very thing so many atheists claim to have and claim religious folk don’t. But real facts matter. Even if you’re the one claiming to have the facts, and reason and logic, on your side, the truth will eventually catch up with you.

Dr. Lee begins her piece,

Many atheists think that their atheism is the product of rational thinking. They use arguments such as “I don’t believe in God, I believe in science” to explain that evidence and logic, rather than supernatural belief and dogma, underpin their thinking. But just because you believe in evidence-based, scientific research – which is subject to strict checks and procedures – doesn’t mean that your mind works in the same way.

When you ask atheists about why they became atheists (as I do for a living), they often point to eureka moments when they came to realise that religion simply doesn’t make sense.

The irony, however, is that many religious folk say the exact same thing about atheism. Many are religious precisely because atheism doesn’t live up to its marketing in terms of reason and sense. But this will not be settled by a battle of anecdotes. What do actual studies show? Does science itself support the atheists’ claims?

Dr. Lee offers the conclusion she is about to demonstrate:

The problem that any rational thinker needs to tackle, though, is that the science increasingly shows that atheists are no more rational than theists.

The science to which she refers is golden on many fronts. It shatters many facets of the pretense many atheists have enjoyed for too long. For example,

  • Atheists are just as likely of following “group-think” or other non-rational influences or prejudices.
  • Atheists turn out to be just as likely as religious people to follow charismatic leaders unquestioningly (think: guru, expert, cult leader, dictator, etc.)
  • Atheism turns out itself to be a belief system, subject to being adopted or cast off for non-rational
  • Atheist parents pass on their beliefs the same way many religious folks do: through assumed culture and traditions, not necessarily reasoned argument or rationality.
  • Many religious folk—particularly Protestant Christians—make science more central to their lives than many atheists.
  • Many atheists today openly elevate non-rational thought above science, which they see as secondary, limited, or even problematic.
  • Some branches of atheism, like transhumanism, are virtually religions in themselves, blurring the lines between science and science-fiction with certain applications of fields like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and others.
  • Even more traditional atheists nevertheless end up experiencing or using their atheism in non-rational ways usually associated with religion: finding meaning and comfort, or a bulwark in times of stress or anxiety.
  • Atheists rely on intuition and emotion instead of reason and logic no less than religious believers.

Dr. Lee’s comments on childrearing are particularly interesting:

Some parents take the view that their children should choose their beliefs for themselves, but what they then do is pass on certain ways of thinking about religion, like the idea that religion is a matter of choice rather than divine truth. It’s not surprising that almost all of these children – 95% – end up “choosing” to be atheist.

When viewing religious folk whose children turn out to be religious through similar processes, many atheists would say those children were “brainwashed.” Yet, it turns out that they do the very same thing to their children.

After reviewing all these points of data, Dr. Lee concludes, “Clearly, the idea that being atheist is down to rationality alone is starting to look distinctly irrational.” She adds,

Importantly, the scientific evidence does not tend to support the view that atheism is about rational thought and theism is about existential fulfilments. The truth is that humans are not like science – none of us get by without irrational action, nor without sources of existential meaning and comfort.

It is true that Dr. Lee herself seems to suggest many of these traits are the product of how we allegedly “evolved.” I would disagree with that, but the points themselves remain true despite how either of us believes we arrived at this point.

Dr. Lee herself quotes secularist Jonathan Haidt as saying that “we are actually ‘designed to “do” morality’ – even if we’re not doing it in the rational way we think we are.” The language of “designed” conflicts with the language of “our evolutionary history” she uses elsewhere. This conflict exposes how atheistic or rationality myths affect certain lines of inquiry even more deeply than even she seems to realize. Our rationalistic and non-rationalistic aspects alike are all part of a design, for we are created in God’s image.

Of course we’ve seen all of this before: studies have also shown that the part of the brain most associated with reason and logic is associated with religious belief, and the lack of using that part of the brain correlates with an increase in atheism.

What Dr. Lee’s review of the science shows, in fact, is that the harder many atheists run from the reality of that Image within them, the more they demonstrate the truth of it. It is this very Image which, though hijacked, denied, and suppressed, provides hope for even the most unbelieving among us.

Don’t forget to come see the debate in November!