The Course of Reason

Ignorance, not stupidity

January 11, 2012

A friend of mine, EBK, posted this image on Facebook, with the following caption:  

“I made this because it seems every time I speak out against religion, especially Christianity, someone assumes I am attacking them personally; calling them dumb or crazy or whatever… I don’t look down on you if you are a Christian. I just *disagree* with you. I still ♥ you”

 

I think there is something very important here that it’s about time we look at in detail: the difference between ignorance and stupidity.

Ignorance and ignore come from the same etymological root, the Latin present participle ignorans, from the verb ignorare, which means ”not to know, to be unacquainted; mistake, misunderstand; take no notice of, pay no attention to,” etc. It ultimately comes from the Greek word gnosis, “knowledge,” with an opposing prefix.

In modern English, the word “ignorant” simply means “unaware” or “uninformed” (source).

Stupid, on the other hand, comes from the Latin stupere, a verb meaning to be benumbed, astonished, or stupefied. In modern English, it means “slow of mind” or “lacking intelligence or reasoning power” (source).

These are very different things. All children, by definition, are ignorant. Clearly, not all children are stupid: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Johann von Goethe, and Marilyn vos Savant were all children once, too.

Why do Christians (and Muslims, and people of all religious stripes) become so offended by the mere mention of the word “atheist”? Why do religious people act like we are slapping them in the face, just for existing?

I have a few hypotheses. The first one comes from Greta Christina, who framed it brilliantly in a talk this past summer about the worthwhileness of debating religion. In her words, “We see religion as an idea, as a hypothesis. They see it as an identity.” That Jesus is the son of God, to Christians, is not simply one hypothesis of many about who Jesus was. It’s not a belief for Christians; it’s who they are. They don’t say, “I believe Christianity”; they say, “I am a Christian.” When they hear us say, “I am an atheist,” they don’t hear, “I disagree about who you think Jesus was,” which is what we think we’re saying. They hear, “Your life is a lie.”

Think of it this way. Say that you’re a guy, and you’re seeing a woman. Say that she tells you she’s pregnant. You talk about it & decide to keep the baby, and one day, when the little tyke is 7 years old, you find out that you’re actually not the biological father. Say that you find this out because another guy appears on the scene and says to you, “Hey, that kid you think is yours? He’s actually mine. You’re not his dad; I am. Get a paternity test if you don’t believe me.” How might you feel about this?

After getting over the initial shock, and confirming his claim with a paternity test, you might think a bit more about his statement: “You’re not his dad; I am.” Is that really true?

Well, it depends on how you define “dad.” After all, what does it mean to be a dad? If you were there through the pregnancy, if you were there at his birth, if you helped decide what to name him, if one of the kid’s first words was “Dada” referring to you, if you threw him 7 wonderful birthday parties, if you were the one who taught him how to read, if you were the one who taught him how to play Scrabble, took him on vacations, if you were the one who read him bed-time stories, changed his diapers, took him to his first day of school, etc, well, yeah, I think it’s fair to say that you are his dad.

The feeling you’d get if someone said, “You’re not his dad” is the same feeling Christians get when we say, “Jesus was not really a god.” Just because it turns out someone else provided the sperm doesn’t make you no longer a dad to your son. And just because Jesus wasn’t really a god doesn’t make someone no longer a Christian. It’s an identity. Telling a Christian that Christianity isn’t true is like telling the dad of a 7-year-old that he’s not really a parent. It might in fact be “technically” true, but it’s not something in which you can examine the evidence and accept as simply as, “Oh, okay. Guess I was wrong, then.”

When I believed Christianity was true, Jesus was very real to me. I prayed to him, I loved him, and I [thought that I] felt his love for me back. I understand now that I was deluded and that these feelings were all in my head, and that I was talking to thin air when I prayed. But at the time, before I was ready to hear it, if you had told me that Jesus died a long time ago and couldn’t hear me, I would have felt that you were calling me a fraud, not that I was simply mistaken. And nobody likes to be called a fraud, even though that’s not actually what we’re saying.

The second hypothesis is that most religious people simply do not know what the word “atheist” means. An atheist is someone who lacks faith that gods exist. That’s it. It doesn’t mean we hate your god; it doesn’t mean we think your god is a meanie poo-poo head, and it doesn’t mean that we are selfish and so in love with sinning that we have decided to disobey your god. We simply don’t believe your god is real. We feel exactly the same way about your god as you feel about unicorns and fairies. Sure, there are lots of old stories and legends about unicorns and fairies, and there are some people out there today who are kooky enough to believe they’re actually real. There are some people who actually claim to have seen or even interacted with them. Little kids tend to like these stories because they’re cute and fantastic… they’re fun. But we adults know better; we know that no one has really ever seen one, even if they wholeheartedly believe they have, and we know that if they really existed, someone probably would have documented it by now. We don’t deny that they could exist, but that’s not a good-enough reason to believe that they do exist.

 

There is a third word that I’d like to address in this post. That word is “irrational.” While atheists do not think that religious people are “dumb” nor “crazy,” we DO think they are irrational. Now, I want to be very clear in what I mean by that, because I can understand how it might sound insulting if you don’t take it the right way.

I want to say firstly that everyone is irrational in one way or another. We cannot avoid it; it’s just the way our brains work. I am deluded, and so are you, regardless of whether you believe gods exist or not. Our brains are irrationality factories. Irrationality is simply ”lack of accordance with reason” (source). Some of us have fewer irrational beliefs than others, and when we use critical thinking correctly, we can help identify our unreasonable beliefs, and by acting upon these discoveries logically, we can minimize them in our thinking. But we all make mistakes in our thinking; it’s just part of being human. Our irrationality increases when we are in states of heightened emotion, which is why it’s so important to remain calm during debates and during emergencies. We literally think better when we take a deep breath and approach a problem without letting our emotions take over. (Taking a deep breath increases your oxygen saturation, the percentage of hemoglobin binding sites in the bloodstream occupied by oxygen. When our bloodstream has plenty of oxygen, our brains literally function better.)

As I wrote in my article yesterday, it is unreasonable to believe in miracles. By definition, a miracle is the least likely way something can occur. To borrow from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Say you’re considering the miracle claim that Mary conceived without having sex. Is it impossible that she was lying? Is it impossible that she never claimed to be a virgin, and that part of the legend was added later? (Remember, neither our earliest New Testament writer, Paul, nor our earliest Gospel writer, Mark, mention a virgin birth at all). Is it impossible that she was drugged and sexually assaulted without her knowledge? Seeing as we cannot eliminate any of these three alternate explanations as impossible, it would be unreasonable and improper to rule them (and literally all other possible natural explanations) out and conclude that something miraculous – by definition, the least likely possible explanation – occurred. Believing something unreasonable is the very definition of irrationality.

So, why is it bad to be irrational? Well, often, it’s not really that bad. Sometimes it doesn’t matter at all. Say that you have an irrational belief (unwarranted based on available evidence) that you have an above-average ability to get along with companion animals, when in fact, you ability is about average. This is called illusory superiority. That’s probably not a belief that’s going to have any real effect on your life. But there are lots of irrational beliefs that people have which do have real effects on their lives. For example, what if you have an illusion of superiority about your driving ability? In one study, 93% of respondents said they had above-average driving ability (in reality, approximately 50% of people have above-average ability, and approximately 50% of people have below-average ability). This false belief could actually get you into lethal trouble, if, say, you decide to go drive to the grocery store during an ice storm, despite warnings on the news to avoid driving except in case of emergencies.

There are many other situations where it’s bad to be irrational. For example, the US government recently funded a $666,000 study through the National Institues of Health to see if prayer can help AIDS patients under controlled conditions. (It doesn’t). According to GiveWell, for less than $1,000, you can save someone’s life in a third-world country. Because of opportunity cost, that means that approximately 670 people are dead because we thought it was more important to to see if prayer has a statistically-significant effect on AIDS patients’ health (again, it doesn’t).

Let me say that again: About 670 people are dead, because we wanted to see if talking to yourself has magic powers.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s important to test ideas that show some promise, even if they seem wacky. That’s how scientific progress is made. It’s important to test wacky ideas repeatedly, if they show some promise, for the same reason. And prayer does show promise. Maybe people throughout history and today, billions of them, believe that prayer works. If it did absolutely nothing, we probably would have figured that out by now. Prayer does not do absolutely nothing. Itactually does a lot: It can lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, improve morale, and several other pretty cool things. One thing to note: We’re talking about meditative prayer, not intercessory prayer (prayer on behalf of someone else), and these effects are for the person doing the praying. Intercessory prayer, under proper testing conditions, does nothing to help the patient (that is, when they don’t know if they’re in the control group, or if they’re actually being prayed for). Do we really need yet another study establishing this?

Yes.

Why?

Because educated, trained professionals still believe it.

But we are making progress. Two years ago, a pilot who prayed as his plane was crashing (instead of following emergency protocol), killing 16 people, got 10 years in jail in Italy. Three months ago, a nurse in the United Kingdom lost her license and was fired for praying to Jesus (instead of following emergency protocol) when a baby in her care suffered a heart attack. Apparently, the nurse begged for Jesus to help the baby 20 times before the mother told her to “shut up.”

Science is a slow, steady process. We are getting there. As advocates of critical thinking, our goal is conquering ignorance. Studies like this help us demonstrate to people that they are wrong. And although it’s frustrating, time-consuming, and costly, when the data is solid, and when we show these results to people who disagree, we’re creating cognitive dissonance. And we know from our own experience that cognitive dissonance is like a game of Jenga.

 

Piece by piece, science pulls out falsehoods, and you can ignore it, dig in your heels, pretend it’s not happening, make excuses, blame someone else, get angry, call it unfair, or accuse science of taking the magic away, but sooner or later, the laws of physics win, and the tower of delusion comes crashing down. Reality does not care what you wish to believe; reality only cares what is.

The best thing about ignorance is that it’s something we can help fix. Don’t write off religious people simply because they haven’t accepted the reality of what we can and can not know. Don’t assume that they know the history of their own books, or the way probability and logic and induction work. Take your time, explain, help. Direct them to resources (see all the links below for some good starting places). You are not going to change anyone’s mind in a single conversation, but as Greta Christina said, it is worth debating religion, because every time you do, it’s one more block in the Jenga tower of delusion. Think about your own de-conversion, if you used to be religious.

There’s an old saying, that overnight success usually takes about 10 years. If someone has been religious for a long time, remember the story about the guy who found out he wasn’t really his son’s “dad.” It might not be that foundation-shaking 2 months into the pregnancy, but if someone has been a dad (a Christian, a Muslim, etc) for 15 years, it’s not going to unravel after hearing one simple fact, or listening to one specific argument. Be patient, follow up, offer links, offer books, offer videos. The information is there; they just need to know what and where it is, and take time to absorb it.

It took me an entire year to come to grips with my atheism, and now, just two years later, I’m vice president of my campus atheist group. If you’d have talked to me four years ago, when I was a worship musician, I would have said, “I’ll pray for you.” I was not stupid; I just didn’t know better. But I was not a lost cause, and neither are millions of other future atheists out there. Stay positive, and stay confident! The facts are on your side.

Until next time,

Dave

This post originally appeared on the MU SASHA blog.

 

 

About the Author: Dave Muscato

Dave Muscato's photo

Dave Muscato is Vice President of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics (MU SASHA). He has appeared in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, and Entertainment Weekly, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, and Howard Stern. Muscato is a junior at the University of Missouri majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin. Muscato posts updates to the Official SASHA Blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is DaveMuscato.com and he can be reached at mail@DaveMuscato.com.

Comments:

#1 Caitlin (Guest) on Wednesday January 11, 2012 at 3:27pm

Absolutely wonderful article. Thank you for your eloquence.

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