The Course of Reason

Atheist Humility

August 14, 2011

One thing that annoys me about the atheist movement is the idea that being an atheist makes you a beacon of rationality. We’re “brights,” which means that we have things figured out. And yet in any discussion (especially online) with an atheist, you’re bound to catch them espousing views that are not supported by evidence, or poor/fallacious reasoning. This is even more pronounced when you engage an atheist in a discussion about some topic unrelated to religion or science.

This issue has been discussed before on the blog, but I think it’s important enough that it is worth looking at again, especially because of some recent discussions I’ve had regarding politics have been very illustrative of this problem. Some may claim that it’s not fair to hold atheists to the usual standards during a political discussion that I would hold them to during a religious discussion. I couldn’t disagree with that sentiment more. As freethinkers and skeptics, we need to be prepared to defend all of our beliefs with good reasoning and evidence. There’s no opting out of that in certain areas of our lives.

Politics is especially important to look at through the lens of skepticism, because it is clearly one of the least critically examined subjects in American discourse. In most political discussions ideology and pre-existing biases will trump facts very quickly, and when misconceptions are not corrected, they are allowed to be passed on from person to person, which exacerbates the problem. And this is one of the major problems that we are facing right now in the United States - false information is passed on from person to person, from politicians to their audiences, and from the media to everyone, and they are not corrected.

If and when religion is eliminated (I’m not holding my breath), I believe this will be the role for the freethought movement. Just because a person is an atheist, that does not make them a skeptic – which leaves room for work in other areas. And just because someone is a skeptic, that does not mean they are immune from irrationality, using poor arguments, or holding beliefs that do not stand up to the evidence. So I close asking two things of the secular movement. First, we’re usually very good about this, but a dose of humility would go a long ways. Atheists are not a superior race of philosopher-kings, and as a movement we need to recognize that we can be (and are) wrong sometimes. The second thing I would ask is that secularists be as careful as possible about what beliefs we hold. Outside of religion, I’m sure each of us holds beliefs, even now, that would not stand up if they were challenged. That we hold those beliefs is not a problem, because it is nearly unavoidable. What is a problem is not acknowledging that we hold beliefs like this, which prevents them from being corrected. The problem is not applying the same level of scrutiny to our own beliefs as we do to the religious beliefs of others. And that is something we can work on. 

This post originally appeared on the UNI Freethinkers & Inquirers blog.




About the Author: Michael Dippold

Michael Dippold's photo
Michael Dippold is a junior at the University of Northern Iowa studying economics. He also serves as the Director of Finance for the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers & Inquirers, and loves almost everything about the atheist movement.




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