Mar 9, 2009

Atheist Intervention: Intellectual Vanity

Yes, I'm talking to you smarty-pants. It's time to talk about your self-idolatry as a cognitive bias.

We all start out innocent enough. We're on an adventure in honesty, attempting to carve out a truly objective and reasonable view of existence. It's not surprising that many find their way to a comfortable seat in the club that is agnostic atheism: the disbelief in a supernatural creator. It can take quite a bit of struggling to get into this particular group, especially considering where many of us come from. You may have grown up in a religious household where atheism would have been tantamount to rape, but you lingered on, allowing your curiosity and intellect guide you. Regardless of your path, you made it.

But becoming an atheist isn't going to solve all of your problems. If you had low self-esteem before, you may very well still have low self-esteem even now, as a free thinker. Unlike god, atheism doesn't make unrealistic promises about what might happen upon conversion/deconversion; that's not how we roll. It's damned common in this world to allow self pity to inspire feelings of inferiority, which lead to overcompensation. That's why we're all here. Let's begin:

Boyfriend/girlfriend: You know I love you, baby, but every time anyone talks about religion you instantly deem yourself an indisputable fountain of perfect knowledge. It's getting on my nerves.

Atheists are very rarely religious in their atheism; very rare are "strong atheists", people who flatly deny the existence of god regardless of the evidence. Most of us are agnostic, choosing to pragmatically view all available data and make an informed decision based on a rational interpretation of that data. Since there is no verifiable evidence supporting the existence of god or supporting the nonexistence of god, we remain at null theory, or a place of being unconvinced of god's existence. Basically, the answer is "probably not". The problem, though, is so many atheists preach their beliefs with just as much unhealthy certainty as theists, forcing themselves from a reasonable agnostic stance to an unsupportable stance of certainty. Don't let yourself fall victim to strong atheism.

Father: Son, I know you don't approve of our going to church, but could you stop pretending I'm a fundamentalist? I believe in evolution and I don't even know what an ontological argument looks like.

We all know the arguments backward and forward. We can all recite Epicurus for memory and we can explain exactly where that idiot from Growing Pains weren't wrong in describing the evolution of the eye. Why do we know these arguments? Many atheists have been required to defend themselves to unprovoked and angry questioning by theists, and have helped to construct brilliant answers to the odd questions that we're asked. That hardly means that every theist is going to come at you with intelligent design arguments, though. I know it seems like theists are on a united front against reason and science, but they're not. If you decide to go off on every theist you see with a barrage of "god of the gaps" or "confusing cause and effect" arguments, you're not defending yourself. All you'll do is alienate people.

When I was a boy, my grandfather told me never to discuss politics or religion in mixed company. He was a very smart man. If some nutter corners you with a stupid argument, please, go right ahead and calmly apply a thick coating of reality. Don't attack people without provocation, though.

Best Friend: Sometimes you're going to be wrong, and it's not the end of the world. I get that you like to argue, but being right isn't about competition, it's about the facts.

Now we cut to the heart of the situation. You've done a damned good job finding your way to atheism. You should be proud that your objectivity has led you to a more logical position. Still, you're not always going to be right about everything. Atheism isn't a magic ticket to omniscience, in fact it's basically admitting to yourself that you don't know shit. Atheism is a statement of humility in the face of the true amount of knowledge there really is in the universe. It's a beautiful thing. Don't cheapen it with know-it-all-ism. You don't even know the beginning of anything and neither do I, so let's hit the books, look through the microscopes and telescopes and utilize the scientific method and Occam's Razor.

There was a post on Reddit a month or two back on something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Essentially, the hypothesis was that "people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it". The experiment essentially demonstrated that people who aren't agnostic are likely more incompetent than their agnostic counterparts. Think about that for a minute.

If you want to change, the first step is very simple: admit that not only are you not the smartest person on earth, but even the smartest person on earth really isn't all that smart. Your worth doesn't have to be tied up in always being right regardless of the facts, you can be right by dealing in facts, and you can be humble in the face of being wrong and expand your understanding with new facts.

Now, about your drinking...