Saturday, August 02, 2008

On rationality

One frequent trope employed to criticize atheist and scientists is to declare that because we support and promote rationality, and denounce and condemn irrationality, that we are implicitly condemning human emotion, will, passion and preference, mocking literature, fiction, culture and art. It is to say that only an emotionless Mr. Spock would gain our approval.

(Never mind that the tension between pure dispassionate logic and human emotion was central to Spock's character, with human emotion usually endorsed. And never mind that even a pure-blooded Vulcan prefers dispassion, and his preference is a emotional phenomenon.)

This sort of criticism fundamentally trades on the fallacy of equivocation.

I'm not going to spend any time arguing the "correct" definitions of "rational" and "irrational". At the end of the day, usage dictates meaning: if enough people use a word for a specific meaning, that meaning is ipso facto legitimate. If the listener can use the context to determine which meaning the speaker intends, then the equivocal, ambiguous definitions do not pose a semantic problem.

So of course "rational" can mean unemotional and dispassionate. (And "rational" and "irrational" have other meanings, especially a technical meaning in game theory). But it does not necessarily mean unemotional.

If one actually reads atheist literature, and does not merely employ an obviously tendentious interpretation, the meaning of "rational" in atheist literature refers to a very specific sense of the word: it is rational to adopt only true and justifiable beliefs about objective reality. Likewise it is irrational in this specific sense to adopt false or unjustifiable beliefs about objective reality.

Emotions exist. Preferences exist. Literature, culture, art, ritual, group identity, all exist, and the human emotional and "spiritual" responses to these activities exist. An atheist and scientist would be irrational in this sense to reject these phenomena, since they do in fact exist, and their existence is trivially justifiable using scientific methodology.

Religion does not go wrong employing ritual and other arbitrary cultural practices. Religion does not go wrong in simply making ethical claims — everyone has standing to make ethical claims — nor does religion go wrong in expressing and promoting ethical claims using literature and metaphor. Every human being (with only the rarest exception) is a member of some culture. Every culture uses arbitrary ritual and practice to establish and reinforce cultural identity. Every culture makes some ethical claims, and the vast majority of cultures express those claims to some extent using literature and literary metaphor. The vast majority of atheist writers, amateur and professional, famous and obscure, recognize these obvious truths about human society.

Where the religious (and not only the religious) go wrong, however, is in treating these arbitrary practices and preferential ethical claims as truths about objective reality. Worse yet, the religious — and only the religious — justify holding these claims as actual truths on the flimsiest and most ridiculous of justifications: That these truths are justified on the say-so of some magical sky fairy, or some schizophrenic prophet, or some ancient barbaric culture, or some incomprehensible metaphysical bullshit.

When someone tells you that atheists reject preference, that atheists reject culture, that atheists reject emotion, that atheists reject acting on the world to influence it to their preference, when someone tells you that atheists reject the ordinary, natural characteristics that make us human beings, they are either lying or they are monumentally stupid. Either they have not actually looked at how atheists themselves actually describe themselves (and they're implying that they have done so) or they have looked and misrepresented what we say. They are either too stupid to know what to read, too stupid to read and understand, or simply lying; we must decide which is the most charitable interpretation on a case-by-case basis.

Atheists are human beings, and we say and believe that we are human beings, nothing more and nothing less. If you prick us, do we not bleed?

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