As everyone knows by now, I’m a very rational person, I’m a “thinker” and not a “feeler”. This tends to piss off all of the “feelers”, the people who are convinced they have to be intimately and emotionally involved in every situation they come across. That’s not to say that emotion is never the way to go, certainly there are many, many instances where emotion is clearly applicable, but not every situation. I get really tired of people whining that you can’t be rational all the time, but refuse to acknowledge that the reverse is also true, you can’t be emotional all the time.
At issue here is the difference between empathy and sympathy. On the one hand, you have the overly-emotional, the people who empathize with everyone. They place themselves in the position of everyone else around them, they try to feel what other people are feeling, they feel down when others are sad and elated when others are happy. They react vicariously through the emotional state of others. Empathy is a wholly emotional response.
Then you can look at sympathy, which is what I do. Sympathy is a much more rational response. It is understanding what another person is going through, it is comprehending their feelings, but not sharing in them yourself. It always shocks me how many people on the atheist side are empathizers, how, usually outside of their atheism, they simply are not rational in any way, shape or form. It is even more puzzling to see atheists who are extremely rational and critical in their atheism, they know exactly what is wrong with religion, they know where the evidence leads and they follow it to it’s logical conclusion. So why does this not apply to other areas of their lives?
I’ve talked before about the bizarre concept that many theists, and unfortunately many atheists, have, that just because someone is rational in one area of their life, that they must automatically be rational in every area of their life. Theists attempt to use this by listing scientists, usually scientists in the Middle Ages, who were also religious, thus somehow demonstrating that religion is rational? No, it makes no sense, but when atheists attempt the same thing, by holding up their rational behavior on religion and claiming that somehow rationalizes their emotional behavior on other things, it makes no more sense, yet far too many people fall for it.
There is a reason that we need to differentiate being a skeptic from being skeptical about specific topics. If you are a skeptic, that means you apply skepticism to every aspect of your life. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be emotional, where emotions are applicable, it just means that you cannot be an irrational lunatic and think that you’re being a skeptic. Likewise, simply being skeptical only applies to certain elements of one’s life. You can be skeptical of religion, but buy into anti-vaccine nonsense, Bigfoot, ancient aliens and be a 9/11 Truther.
Getting back on topic, there are a lot of known and well-understood psychological effects that tend to produce the kind of overly-emotional responses I’ve talked about. Taking just a handful of them, we find:
Bandwagon Effect – Humans like to go with the crowd and if we’re not careful and cognizant of this fact, we will often follow the crowd to do things we otherwise would not do. I think this is extremely common in atheism, in fact, when you get a small group of vocal advocates for a position and lots of people “leap on the bandwagon” and buy into the claims made because they don’t want to be “left behind”.
Confirmation Bias – We tend to agree with people who agree with us, if we find ourselves in a group that feels strongly a certain way, even if we don’t feel that strongly, we tend to modify our position to be closer to the group. It tends to make us feel more comfortable about what we think and more sure that what we think is true. On the other hand, we tend to reject those people, groups and ideas that make us uncomfortable about our already-existing ideas. We tend to think they are worse people for rejecting what we think is true, without bothering to find out which position is actually so. A great example of this is religion. The religious largely dislike the non-religious, they even dislike people who belong to different religious groups. Why? Because it makes them feel uncomfortable that someone can reject the beliefs that they find so valuable.
Current Moment Bias – People tend not to pay too much attention to the future, preferring to focus on the physical and emotional comforts of the immediate moment. It tends to cause irrational thinking where people will choose what makes them feel good right now, over a long-term plan that improves their overall situation in the future. For example, there was a study done in 1998 where people were asked to make a grocery menu for the coming week. 74% of participants put fruit at the top of the list. However, when it came to making a list just for today, 70% put chocolate at the top of the list. A rational response would be to choose the greater overall good, even if it occurs in the future. An emotional response is only to think about what makes you feel good right now.
In-group Bias – This is similar to confirmation bias, it deals with the desire to belong to a group and to be accepted by a group. Often, when joining a group, one’s beliefs and desires will change to reflect the general beliefs and desires of the group, simply so it is more likely that the group will value their presence and membership. It is thought that this bias has a lot to do with oxytocin, the chemical in our brains responsible for forming closer bonds with family, friends and loved ones. Unfortunately, it has a down side, that being it causes people to mistrust people not in their in-group. We’ve seen this in atheist circles quite recently, with the whole Atheism+ nonsense and the claims that, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”.
Negativity Bias – People have a tendency to pay more attention to bad news than they do to good news. This is theorized to be a part of our biology, we do not have the ability to examine every bit of information we come across every day so we focus on the bad because we perceive it to be more important and essential to our own survival. However, it also makes us emphasize the bad and form opinions on the number of bad cases we are cognizant of and not the vast majority of good cases that the brain tends to ignore. This is common, for example, in the radical feminist movement where they pay attention to all the cases where rape occurs, yet entirely ignore the overwhelming majority of cases where it does not.
Observational Selection Bias – This is the case where people suddenly become aware of a specific thing and then, when they see it everywhere, are convinced that it has become wildly more common. When you buy a car, you tend to start seeing the same car everywhere you look. I think this is also common among feminists, especially people who have just started thinking about feminism. As soon as they are made aware of the claims of sexism, etc., those cases of sexism start appearing everywhere, confirming the original claims. Of course, the fact is, there are many, many, many more cases where sexism isn’t an issue and the cases where sexism is actually present are not appearing in any greater quantities than they have in the past, in fact, they appear in lesser quantities, the individual just hasn’t paid attention to them in the past.
Post-Purchase Rationalization – This is also known as the Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome, it results when we realize that we have made a bad purchase, or a bad decision, yet we work to rationalize and justify it so that we begin to think it was a great idea all along. Psychologists tell us that it is a desire to remain consistent and committed to a decision that we have made, to avoid a state of cognitive dissonance. This becomes applicable when we make bad decisions or buy into irrational ideas, but we refuse to give them up because to do so would mean we were wrong in the first place, so we cling to things that we shouldn’t so we’re not made to feel bad about our decision making process.
Projection Bias – People tend to assume that everyone around them, in fact, everyone everywhere, thinks just like they do. We are unable to truly get into the heads of other people, therefore it is often the case that people will simply assume that everyone has the same wants, needs and desires as you do. That’s not necessarily the case though, as I’ve talked about before. Many atheist women assume that all Muslim women are forced against their will to wear burkas, they hate the fact that they have a lesser standing in Muslim societies, etc. While that might be true of some, it certainly is not true of all and the idea that we ought to force them to comply with our own culture, feelings and desires really is absurd.
Unfortunately, I can identify all of these in the atheist community, just about everywhere I look. This is a problem and people need to recognize it as such. If we are going to claim to be rational people, we need to understand our personal failings and make a move to correct them. So many atheists are not skeptics, no matter what they claim. They are simply skeptical of religious claims, and honestly, not much else. That’s not something to be admired. It’s not something to be proud of. It’s a personal failing and personal failings need to be addressed.