Whenever there is discussions on theism (in this case, I will be talking mostly about Christianity) and atheism, the opposing parties tend to claim that the other side is irrational and subject to sloppy, uncritical thinking. In this blog post, I am going to go through a few critical thinking concepts and see how each side holds up. I am going to base my assessment off one of the best critical thinking book I have read, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” by Thomas Kida. The benefit of using this book is twofold. First, it doesn’t mention anything about atheism or religion to begin with (so there can't be claims of stacking the deck). Second, it highlights six main points, which means I don’t have to go through dozens of fallacies, etc. Basically, this will keep things relatively short and simple. The six “problems in thinking” that the book discusses are:
1 - We prefer stories to statistics.
2 - We seek to confirm, not question our ideas.
3 - We rarely appreciate the role of chance or coincidence.
4 - We sometimes misperceive the world.
5 - We tend to oversimplify our thinking.
6 - Our memories are often inaccurate.
1 - Are atheists or theists more likely to prefer stories to statistics? While both sides no doubt fall for this, when it comes to the topic at hand, theists dominate. This is most easily demonstrated with the belief in prayer. If you ask a theist for evidence of prayer, you will get a number of anecdotes.1 However, what you will not get is references to studies. This is not because studies haven't investigated prayer--quite the opposite. A number of studies have investigated prayer, but every well controlled, large scale study has shown prayer to have no effect. The most recent (and largest) of these studies was funded by the Templeton Foundation (a group that seeks to harmonize science and religion), so any attempt to claim that the study was run by atheists who somehow skewed the results is no good.
I can’t think of any example where atheists tend to prefer stories to statistics, at least in this context. For myself, I have been accused of being biased to the evidence simply because I prefer the statistics. So I think the clear winners (or losers?) are the theists.
2 - Next, we seek to confirm our ideas, rather than questioning them. While atheists are no doubt guilty of this (reading only one side of an argument, for example), theists blow the atheists out of the water. For example, the Talbot School of Theology has a statement of faith that proclaims, “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind.” Incredible! And Talbot is not the only school that has subscribes to such an idea. Likewise, the father of the creationist movement, Henry Morris, stated that “When science and the Bible differ, science has obviously misinterpreted its data.” All creationist organizations would agree with both statements.
Stating that your view is 100% true from the get go, and any appearance of it being wrong is an illusion is pretty incriminating. I can’t think of any atheist, atheist group or even science organization that dares to claim it is 100% right, and any appearance of being false is an illusion. Even Richard Dawkins stated that on a scale of 1 to 7 (in terms of certainty of God not existing), he was only a “6 but leaning towards 7.”2
So while seeking to confirm your view is no doubt a human problem, and isn’t specific to theism, the theists take it to a whole new level, and unashamedly at that.
3 - We rarely appreciate the role of chance or coincidence. Humans find patterns in randomness all the time, and it is the basis for most psudosciences like ESP and astrology. Penn Jillette has pointed out that an event that has a one in a million odds of occurring, happens six times a day in New York City! In terms of appreciating these sorts of odds, how do theists and atheists fare? Well, theist's belief in miracles tips the scales. Whenever you hear of “miracle” stories, they are almost always about something that was just too improbable to happen without the assistance of the divine. Unfortunately, these miracles (often medical) are only about things that have a small chance of happening anyway. Cancer (for example) sometimes goes into remission. It’s not common, but it does happen. I guarantee that almost everyone who has been diagnosed with cancer has had at least a few people pray for them. Of course, a large number of the cancer patients will not be so fortunate as to have the cancer go into remission. Of the lucky few who do, some may attribute their good fortune to the prayers of their friends and family. Of course, this is just a misunderstanding of statistics
The atheists, on the other hand, don’t have anything in particular that they misperceive as meaningful (in fact, they are often chided as NOT seeing things like improbable healings as meaningful). So again, the theists are the guilty party.
4 - Often, we misperceive our world. That is, we see things that aren’t there. Things like mass hysteria, hallucinations and the will to want to see something in particular are all areas of this problem. Where do theists fall in regards to these? We have to look no further than bleeding statues, faith healers and other supposed miracles. In the early 1900’s more than 10,000 people claimed to witness the sun jumping all over the sky. However, they were also told to stare at the sun (looking away will cause an after image, making it appear that the sun was moving), and reported it as a miracle. There are many stories of people wanting to see a miracle, and basically denying commonsense to hold on to the belief in it.
If there is something similar that applies to atheists, I am not aware of it.
5 - Next, oversimplified thinking. This breaks down into a lot of areas surrounding how we are bombarded by information, which leads to either “analysis paralysis” or a false understanding of a situation. Unfortunately, as far as this discussion is concerned, none of that is relevant. And because of that, I can’t claim one party is more guilty than the other, so I am going to drop this one.
6 - Memories are not that great. Memories aren’t like a videotaped recording of what happened. They are so easily corrupted and influenced that it truly is amazing. Now, how does this relate to our topic? As for modern theists and atheists, it doesn’t so much. However, in the context of holy books, it is very relevant. The Christians believe that their holy texts are basically reliable. However, at least with the Gospels (the most important part!), they were written 30 to 70 years after the fact. And they weren’t written by eyewitnesses, or even friends of eyewitnesses. They were orally transmitted by friends of a friend of a friend of a friend, for decades, crossing over into a different language, before finally written down.3 Are we really to believe that these stories accurately reflect an event? You have to deny all of what science has taught us about how memories work in order for the gospel miracle stories to be even remotely believable.
As a close-up magician, it is truly amazing how much a trick can change in someone’s mind over the course of a few hours. Often times I would have someone come up to me, describe a trick their friend told them about (which I performed earlier), and want to see it. However, the trick described was not a trick I knew. As far as I could tell, was impossible! How much less accurate would the trick have been three decades later, being recalled by at least a fourth generation recipient of the story who speaks another language?
The fact that Christians have to base so much (all?) of their beliefs on things that are based on undoubtedly inaccurate memories means they take the cake for this final section. As far as I can tell, there is nothing regarding faulty memories that atheists would be necessarily prone to, or that they rely on.
Atheists win. Of course, I am biased and it is possible I have fallen for a confirmation bias, and can only recall examples of theists making mistakes in judgment and conveniently forgot examples of atheists doing such things. However, I have taken quite some time to write this post, racking my brain for relevant examples of atheists making one of these six mistakes in thinking. But if I have missed any, I hope someone will point it out!
Some people also might also deny my conclusions. To those who do, I ask “how do you explain other religions with similar beliefs?” For example, if prayer only really works for Catholics, why do Protestants, Mormons and even Muslims believe in it? And why is it that they all use the same rationale?
Ultimately, I think that if one truly wants to be a clear, honest and critical thinker, being religious is going to hold you back. As we can see, basically all of it rests on fallacious thinking.
1. When confronted with the results of a prayer study, Bob Barth (director of the Silent Unity prayer ministry) stated that "We've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works."
2. The God Delusion, pg. 50.
3. Jesus and his followers spoke Aramaic, but the Gospels were originally written in Greek.