Arrogant Atheists Anonymous

Question from Aaron:
Hey guys,

I’ve been pretty solidly atheist for about two years now, and one attribute of religious perspectives that irks me is the arrogance they exude. Such arrogance is often entirely unintentional, but to proclaim knowledge about something that is entirely unprovable does require at least some arrogance on a believer’s part. One of my favorite aspects of atheism and skepticism is the admission that most things, even seemingly solid scientific fact, cannot (and should not, in my opinion) be stated as 100% certain.

Unfortunately, this arrogance that I myself formerly had as a devout religious person is difficult to get away from. I live in a particularly religious region of the US, and I often find myself feeling somehow superior to, or wiser than, the religious people around me because they believe in something that makes no sense to me. I don’t voice such opinions, of course, and I try constantly to remind myself that there is always the possibility that my convictions could be flawed or wrong, but it can be very difficult NOT to feel this way, particularly when the religious perspectives fly directly in the face of science or logic (which feels like most of the time).

Any ideas for reigning in arrogance and keeping myself grounded?

Answer by SmartLX:
Here’s a mantra for you: Being right doesn’t mean you’re smart, and being wrong doesn’t mean they’re dumb. Whatever wacky fundamentalist beliefs you may come across in your area, there are bona fide geniuses and high-level academics (not necessarily the same thing) who believe exactly the same things and work to defend them in the public square. There are also some real boneheads who are in complete agreement with you on this particular topic.

The reverse is also true, of course; there really are intelligent atheists and proudly ignorant and uneducated believers. A large majority of studies even suggest an inverse correlation between intelligence and religiosity. However, you cannot reliably apply a population-wide correlation to individuals. Any given believer could be one of the smart ones.

So, how can smart people get something like this completely wrong, and not see why? It can have a lot to do with the foundations of their reasoning. An argument or line of reasoning can be valid and sound given its premises, but actually completely wrong if one or more of the premises is false. You’ll find that for many believers, the existence of God is itself a premise rather than a conclusion. (I therefore suspect that many arguments for God are originally formulated backwards, e.g. “God made life, so…1. life exists, therefore 2. God exists.“) It’s a premise because it’s drummed into believers from early childhood, or particularly intense “religious experiences” have made them emotionally invested in the idea, or in a few cases they’re getting paid to advance a particular view.

It’s not like this for everyone though. People may have correct, reasonable premises and still reach the wrong conclusion through flawed reasoning. There are a huge number of logical fallacies that are easy to apply (indeed, difficult not to apply) and will not be obvious or even visible to many.

There’s also the possibility of cognitive dissonance. If a particular conclusion is desired, then even if one avoids making an appeal to consequences (see the list of fallacies), one will subconsciously be more accepting of poor logic that reaches that conclusion. Two real world examples:
1. Software pirates: “Those who take goods without paying are thieves. I take software without paying. Therefore, I…am NOT a thief because software isn’t real goods, and everybody does it, and information should be free, and…”
2. Prison rapists: “A man who has sex with men is homosexual. I’m having sex with this man. Therefore I…am NOT homosexual, because this man is now a woman. I’ve made him my bitch.”

I’ll leave you to imagine how religion can inspire this kind of mental swerving to avoid the unthinkable.

There are any number of ways to get something important completely wrong, and many have nothing to do with intelligence or the other innate qualities of individuals. You’re entitled to be confident (not certain) that you’re right, but if you’re right it implies only one thing about those who disagree with you: not that they’re stupid, or ignorant, or mad, or lying, but that they are wrong. If you think it’s worth correcting them, go for it, but there is no good reason to be judgemental purely on this basis.

3 thoughts on “Arrogant Atheists Anonymous”

  1. Hi,

    I think the best way to deal with this is the scientific model itself, no theory is perfect, it must be tested and revised, and continued to be. There are countless stories of academics working for years on something only to have it disproved, often the response is delight, as this now opens up new and interesting avenues to explore. Where theists instead of revising their theories will just keep them and either redefine what they mean (usually claiming the last attempt never existed), or totally ignore the evidence.

    Start from the point of view your conclusions are quite probably inaccurate and work to test and refine them. And most important of all embrace being wrong when it happens. This is what being a critical thinker is all about.

  2. I am 72 years old and went through the usual childhood brainwashing about god and religion. It worked, untill about age
    35 when I started questioning the logic and reasoning of the whole scenario. This questioning occured because I started an intense study of the bible and religion and its origin in an attempt
    to learn more of the bible and its teachings. I believe for the most part that the instructions on how people should treat one another
    and strive to be good and resist evil are valid. But man invented
    god, not the other way around and so he also invented the laws on how we should live. I believe the bible is a good source of information on a lot of subjects, but I reject entirely the supernatural aspect of it. Darwin had it right, and All any person who truly wants to know how we came about and the origin of all species on this planet has to do, is to first throw away the emotional blinders religion has placed there and open thier minds and thier eyes to what is on display for everone to see. Evolution is a fact. Not a fantacy like religion or the belief in some supreme being that can bring you back from the dead. In this whole universe there is only us to help each other, to love each other and to cherish our humanity. The day we can learn to throw away all religion and the belief that some god is going to come and bail us out of our troubles, and start depending on ouselves to do what is right will be a good start in the right direction.

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