Nigel Warburton: Emotion is the Motion…

Nigel Warburton

This piece first appeared in Humanitie Magazine, in the Autumn 2013 edition 

Nigel Warburton: Emotion is the Motion…

Some atheists dream of a day when no one believes in supernatural powers: a world without gods and religion. If everyone was an atheist, then we could focus on the present and the future of humanity, get beyond superstitious taboos, persecutions, and the whole slew of irrational prejudices that spring from that source.

That’s the dream.

It’s there in John Lennon’s lyrics for ‘Imagine‘. But is this uniformity of unbelief a realistic possibility? It’s worth pausing for a moment to think how some people believe this might be achieved. Many of us assume that the best way to convert people to atheism or at least agnosticism is to present them with good arguments and the best evidence that there is no God and that religions are human inventions.

Get them to recognise that natural evils, such as childhood dysentery, malaria, and cancer, or the suffering and deaths that result from earthquakes, floods, and storms, defy religious explanation: show them the history of cruelty, of wars, genocide, torture, murder, rape, and ask them to explain how a benevolent God could possibly allow such abominations to flourish.

Is free will so valuable that the intense suffering of innocents is an acceptable price to pay for it? Teach Creationists about the processes of evolution and the genetic, fossil, and geological evidence that supports it. Show point by point where they are going wrong in their explanations. Tease out the inconsistencies in religious teachings and present the more plausible explanation that these are the products of well-meaning but deluded human beings, not messages from gods.

This barrage of arguments and evidence, we like to think, will eventually get through to those in the grip of religious thinking if only they’ll follow what is being said and overcome their intransigence. Yet that is surely naive. Current psychological research, such as Daniel Kahnemans and Jonathan Haidt’s suggests that far from being the rational assessors of evidence that we like to imagine ourselves, most human beings most of the time are swayed by emotions and intuitions of which we are scarcely conscious: the reasons we give for our beliefs are frequently simply post hoc rationalizations for what we arc inclined to believe anyway.

Supposed supporting beliefs arc rarely the causes of our judgments. In Haidt’s image, wc should think of the rational tail that imagines it is wagging the dog. Most cognition, he argues, occurs automatically, and is not conscious. Conscious thinking that changes behaviour is hard work, unusual, and few have the energy or inclination to indulge in it much. In many areas of our lives we arc instinctive dogmatists rather than reasoners, even though we kid ourselves otherwise.

We rely most of the time on reactions that have evolved to help us deal with complex situations swiftly, rather than on cool assessments of argument and evidence. Yet we tell ourselves after the fact that we acted on the basis of good reasons.

Perhaps, then, most atheists are being over-optimistic when they emphasise the role of reason and sound arguments in changing beliefs. If Kahneman and llaidr are correct about how rarely such reasoning is the cause of belief change, then we should be focusing on religious intuitions and emotions rather than on arguments.

In another of Haidt’s images he describes our predicament as like that of a rider on an elephant. The rider is the conscious rcasoncr, the elephant the intuitive emotional powerhouse of our actions. It’s the elephant not the rider that is most likely to steer people towards atheism and away from the morass of religion.

Nigel Warburton is a freelance philosopher, podcaster, writer. He is the author of A Little History of Philosophy etc. and interviewer for Philosophy Bites podcast.

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