Atheism: Reason vs Emotion

Atheists often wave the banner of “reason” as if they are the only tribe who values reason. Yet many atheists are realizing that they don’t have a monopoly on reason. VJack at “Atheist Revolution” just posted “Irrational Atheist” confessing how theists and atheists alike share biases. My impression was that VJack use to be more of a “hyper-rationalist” (believing the unadulterated reason is possible and is the hallmark of atheists) but he appears to have softened up.  Hyper-rationalism is mistaken because the common sense notion of “reason” which we inherited from the Greeks is wrong.

Every thought, even the ones we may call “reason”, are accompanied by emotional states — in fact, emotional states often precede and stimulate thought. We have all seen, heard or read people as they attempt to use logic and reason while they are raging angry. And anger, like fear, hatred, jealously, apathy and other emotions gleefully activate our brain’s bias switches — biases that all of us share. These biases turn reason into rationalization.  Rationalization is probably the vast majority of what we are actually doing when we feel we are using reason.

Thus, when having a discussion, sometimes it is perhaps more useful to focus on our emotional states than on our logic.  Emotions are what add value or weight to our ideas and our logic — we need to understand this critical principle.  Thus, ironically, the emotion of equanimity may aid a reasonable dialogue much more than reason. Sometimes I wonder if cultivating emotions would be a more fruitful endeavor than cultivating reason. Again: the common sense notion of reason is mistaken — thinking is always accompanied by emotions.  Cultivating our emotions may be the quickest way to further reasonable dialogue

Preemptive Caveats:

  • Of course I think cultivating logic and bias filters are also critically important.
  • I am not idealizing any particular emotions. I realize that even supposedly negative emotions can be useful.

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

9 responses to “Atheism: Reason vs Emotion

  1. DoOrDoNot

    Yay, verily, yay.
    I think it is unfortunate that often in these conflicts emotions are viewed as lower class citizens. As you mentioned, they are part of the total human experience and often inform and motivate us in important ways. Although we generally don’t want to be overwhelmed with emotion to the point of shutting down our frontal lobe, we need to allow ourselves to be informed by our emotions. For example, one major reason I began the reevaluation of my religious beliefs was that I could no longer ignore my feelings of anguish and horror over all the billions of people my religion told me were going to hell. That began a 3 year (and counting) intensive study and reflection period for me which has included a great deal of reason.

  2. Like DoOrDoNot, my eventually rejection of religion started out as an emotional response to what I perceived to be a moral injustice done by God when re-reading the story of Moses and the Pharaoh.

    I think that you are right that emotions have been downplayed and that a truly effective argument would be one that combines logic/reason and emotion. Humans are not Vulcans.

  3. Quote: “Sometimes I wonder if cultivating emotions would be a more fruitful endeavor than cultivating reason.”

    I’m going to copy that one into my journal so I don’t lose it. It’s a striking thought, and I suspect it’s very good advice. Now, to figure out how to apply it!

  4. @ DoOrDoNot :
    (1) You said, “we need to allow ourselves to be informed by our emotions.”
    We can’t help but be “informed” by our emotions — they are our primary drivers for all actions.
    (2) I think a lot of us were stirred, like you, by dissatisfaction with exclusive soteriology in Christianity. I have since learned there are some Christians who fortunately don’t buy into it at all.

    @ Befuddled2 :
    It was fun to hear how the actual Biblical story tipped you over the edge. For me, it was the homestay families in India and Pakistan. I couldn’t begin imagining them damned for their beliefs — I knew I had made a mistake.

    @ Paul Sunstone :
    Glad you enjoyed. Indeed, practicing cultivation is difficult without a support tradition. I use Buddhist teachings for that. One could make one’s own system, I imagine. What do you imagine using?

  5. I agree about the part where emotion and reason overlap significantly. Everyone has his/her own personal biases, and any sort of reasoning will be heavily influenced by his/her personal values, and I do understand

    However, I would say that even then, we should try to limit the influence of emotion and biases when discussing a topic, which I suppose can be done by distancing ourselves from the topic at hand, and try to act as an uninvolved third party.

    There’s a reason why people taking both sides of an issue often fail to have reasonable discussions, be it about abortion, religion, immigration, etc. When one gets emotional about a topic, it’s really hard to understand the other side’s view and get a holistic understanding of the issue. I speak this from both from observation and personal experiences.

    Note: Yes, yes, I’m back to blogging. This time for real. Really.

  6. @ Darren

    We can not “limit” emotion.
    We can “limit” certain types of emotions, but emotion ALWAYS accompanies thoughts.

    If you will see by my post, this is my main point. SO, the question is how do we culture these desirable emotions.

    You mentioned “distancing” ourselves: But it matter is this is by using the emotion of equinimity or apathy or sympathy …
    You mentioned: “limiting emotions” and by this, I imagine you mean “destructive emotions”.

    So, the questions for you are:
    (1) What emotions do you feel need to cultivate?
    (2) How do you cultivate these?

    Welcome back to blogging !

  7. Sabio,

    I certainly agree with your point that emotions are inseparable from thoughts.
    What I meant is that when thinking or discussing something, we would be able to “reason” better and come up with more logical thoughts if we were not in a “heightened state of emotion”.

    For example, when one is very passionate about his/her point of view during a discussion, it would be very hard for him/her to think clearly about both side’s points and arguments, as he/she would be focused on convincing the other side.

    However, if one keeps calm, he/she would probably have a clearer view of what is being discussed.

    So I guess to answer your question, I think we should cultivate the emotion of calmness (am I getting this right? To be frank, I’m still a little confused). As for how, I don’t really know yet.

  8. “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal” -Robert Heinlein

  9. Great quote, Luke. Heinlein (“Stranger in a Strange Land”) changed my life. Or, that is a rationalization that my life changed while reading Heinlein.🙂

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