Rational Versus Emotional Arguments

This is a follow-up to my original post supporting atheism, Why Atheism.

One of the problems in the theism and spirituality debate I’ve encountered is the problem with rational versus emotional arguments. So far I’ve seen the arguments mostly being waged on the rational side. These are the arguments that point out how incredibly unlikely a god exists, or holy books being literal truths. But emotional arguments have merit.

As a reasonable person, I’m a fan of rational arguments. I think most people are. When you go to a doctor, you want medicine that has undergone trials to ensure its safety. If you are building a bridge, you want engineers to make calculations that it won’t collapse. I wouldn’t go on a rollercoaster unless someone had done tests to ensure I wouldn’t get flung from it at high speeds.

Rational arguments are critical for practical domains. People who don’t use rational arguments for practical matters are deemed superstitious at best and downright crazy at worst. I wouldn’t trust someone who said a bridge would hold up because he has a “gut feeling” about it.

Abstract, Emotional Arguments

The problem is when you get to increasingly esoteric subjects. Most reasonably intelligent people I know subscribe to the rational argument that evolution is the mechanism for creating diversity in life on this planet. But few people (most studies claim 5-10%) claim that God himself, does not exist. I am in a minority.

God is one of the most abstract subjects there is. Believing in god or not believing in god will (in practical, not divine) matters have little difference. Great scientists, businessmen and most politicians have been theistic. Belief in a personal deity doesn’t have a huge consequence for whether you are going to make tax cuts or how to run a controlled experiment.

I’m sure a few atheists believe that religion is poisoning the world. But I’m also sure that many bible-thumpers feel atheists are spreading immorality. Those are strong opinions, and I’m not going to argue them. But let’s, for a moment, assume that an atheist and a theist need to live the practical matters of their lives (sleeping, eating, earning a living) in much the same way.

God is an Emotional Subject

Religion and politics are supposed to be the two taboos of polite conversation. Because they are incredibly emotional subjects. Belief or disbelief are core assumptions you make about the world.

I don’t believe those assumptions are equally valid from a rational standpoint. I’ve never been indoctrinated into any religion. Nor was I given any coaching as a child to disbelieve God (spiritual matters were not discussed at my dinner table). But coming from a standpoint of neutrality, I can see how evidence and logic make it far more probable that a god doesn’t exist.

But, in your heart, you don’t really care about rational arguments for a god. As I’ve already mentioned, belief or disbelief has virtually no consequence on practical matters. Unlike the bridge builder or pharmacist, believing what you want carries little earthly consequence with the world.

Emotional Arguments For (and Not For) a God

What the debate about God is really about emotional arguments. Faith, rather than truth. Atheist scientists and academics (trained to rely on rational arguments) quickly dismiss the emotional arguments. I don’t want to do that.

For myself, choosing not to believe in a God was only partially based on the rational argument. But it was based more thoroughly on the idea that not believing in a God could allow me to live a better life and offer a better life to the people I serve. I felt there was an emotional benefit in anti-faith.

That is really the crux of the argument from believers. That there is an emotional (if not rational) benefit for faith. I happen to agree with the opposite, but at least in this domain we can have an intelligent discussion about the issue.

I feel sorry for believers trying to argue their positions. You can tell that they deeply feel they are right, but can’t provide any rational evidence that doesn’t sound like garbage to an atheist. The objective evidence for a god is laughably weak, with logical and ontological arguments being circuitous and meaningless.

Philosophical and Practical Uncertainty

Some theists try to claim that you can’t disprove god, therefore, atheism is a form of faith.

This claim is based on what I’m going to call, philosophical uncertainty. Philosophical uncertainty is the amount of doubt that underlies anything we deem to be true. There cannot be an absolute truth because there is always a certain degree of uncertainty that undermines any piece of evidence we collect.

Philosophical uncertainty leaves the possibility that we are living the Matrix right now. Or that there is a flying spaghetti monster. That the universe is a computer simulation. That the universe didn’t exist until ten seconds ago when it was randomly generated along with memories in your brain.

Practical uncertainty is the domain of rational arguments. It offers that we need to be skeptical, but we must also be empirical. That certain forms of evidence and logic are deemed to have a low enough practical uncertainty that we can accept them as “truth.”

If I hit you over the head with a pipe, five minutes later you could rationally argue that I injured you. There is philosophical uncertainty here. It may not have been me, but a visibly identical body double. I could claim that the universe did not exist until two minutes ago so the memory and stinging pain are a result of a random variation in the formation of our two minute universe.

Philosophical uncertainty is useful to mention, since it always exists. But it cannot be used in the domain of rational arguments. Otherwise, no argument can be decided upon and “truth” is meaningless.

Practical certainty contains non-scientific arguments. Logical conjectures based on reasonable assumptions may have higher degrees of practical uncertainty, but not so much as to invalidate them. My basis that God doesn’t exist isn’t because He is unscientific, but because most logical evidence I have seen makes him highly improbable.

I don’t have time to continue with the rational arguments for atheism since this post is about how they aren’t the key issue. But if you are interested, I suggest looking at The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins which goes over most of them.

God Was Always About Faith

Theism is about faith. Believing because the emotional arguments for God sound better than disbelief. The idea that a loving, omnipotent being is trying to help you. That the world is beautiful and has purpose. That there is a moral code encoded into the universe itself and is not just a flimsy add-on by mankind.

My post, Why Atheism, is about presenting the alternative emotional arguments. That I see how atheism (or pantheism/rational spirituality) have viable emotional alternatives to theism. That not believing in a god can be just (if not more) meaningful, beautiful and wonderful.

Albert Calmus once said that, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” I don’t want to engage in a rational debate, because there never has been one. I want to talk about what makes life worth living. Because that is what we care about.

  • icedragon

    Hi Scott, great follow up post

  • Andre du Plessis

    Good stuff. A lot of people belief that you have to be in a religion to be spiritual. I actually belief that a religion curbs spirituality as you can only work in the framework of your current religion. Thats why many people switch religions as they try and find the correct spiritual niche, not really understanding there is another option. But I understand a lot of people also has a sense of security in a religion. They also tend to think that all the people in their religion can’t be wrong, and if they are then at least they are not alone. It does take courage and self stabilization to break away from a doctrine, and most people are not up to the task.

  • John Mark Rozendaal

    My reading of Christopher Hitchens’ very emotional screed, “God Is Not Great” convinces me that the essential philosophical problem of today is not god (nor suicide, nor ethics), but epistemology.

    I worry about god-believers because the basis for god-belief is not one that they would accept for any other area of knowledge. I worry that this kind of mental contradiction, compartmentaliazation can actually make people mentally ill. (Losing contact with “reality” is what shrinks call “psychosis.”)

    The public debate over whether global warming is happening would have come to its present level of consensus ten years earlier if the media and politicians in the U. S. had a more consistent epistemological approach. But our detrmination to give respect to people of faith has caused the media to treat Intelligent Design and other boondoggles on a par with science, exactly like trusting bridge-building to people who rely on their instincts.

    Regarding Camus’ question: I have not been able to figure out any strong rational reasons for or against suicide. So I follow the rules of debate and allow the status quo ante to prevail. I go on living.

  • Scott Young


    I also believe the study of epistemology is critical to this problem. But I think more than information gathering, it is the fact that humans are “belief machines” more than anything else, that creates problems.

    Humans are very adept at theorizing. Worse we have few failsafes to ensure our empirical accuracy. We also have biases such as the confirmation bias, narrative bias and poor probability standards that make our theories prone to errors but difficult to fix.

    Science has built-in fail safes, but as a result it is slow to conclusions and doesn’t fulfill the human desires to know.

    And I definitely go on living. 😉


  • ZHereford

    As a theist, I will go one step beyond belief and say that I have an intuitive ‘knowingness’, understanding of, and a connection to God. Whether anyone else believes in, or cares about whether God exists or not, is of no consequence to me.

    To me, more things make logical sense, whether anyone can prove them or not, that a ‘Higher Intelligence’ exists. As humans, our understanding and ability to explain anything, is puny in the grand scheme of things.

  • ZHereford

    p.s. We can believe, theorize and speculate ’til the cows come home, however our perceptual apparatus is consensually limited, therefore a sense beyond our typical senses is at play when it comes to intuitively understanding our existential existence.

  • Harveen

    I think the word uncertainty is the key here…. uncertainty is the necessary condition for faith. You can’t have faith without it-If you had certainty you would have no need for faith. No doubt the existence of God, without empirical evidence is based on faith, indoctrination, dogma, etc. But, if you don’t have empirical evidence of something, does that mean it does not exist? You’re saying God needs to be rationalized? Isn’t the very essence of God supposed to be that He does not need to rationalized. He is simply omni-omni? Or is that the part that is not rationalizable (is this a word?)

  • Scott Young

    ZHereford and Harveen,

    My point is simply that most theistic arguments that God exists fail rational scrutiny. There is an uncertainty that allows God to exist, but rational arguments certainly create room for doubt.

    That said, humans are believing machines and we are quite good at formulating internal hypothesis without rational means. That is why I am arguing for atheism from an emotional, not just a rational perspective and why I believe we can have a meaningful discussion about it.


  • @Stephen

    Interesting post. As a person of faith, I have often wondered why people put so much energy into explaining why they do not believe in God. Talk of “proof” or “evidence” being required for a person to believe, or for Faith to survive rational scrutiny seems a bit selfish to me.

    I believe in God without any empirical knowledge, I practice my Christian Faith in my daily life and relationships/interactions with others. In the book of Matthew, chapter 22, Jesus is asked about the most important of God’s laws. Jesus replies that the most important is to love God, and is quick to add that the second most important is to love others as yourself. Everything else is derived from that.

    I would submit that this is a pretty good philosophy for anyone, and an atheist can leave out the “love God” part and still get along just fine. Yet I suspect that the atheist has a need to validate the origin of his love for others with Reason, rather than Faith. The difficulty is that we are talking about Love, and there is no rational explanation for Love.
    Why should a mother love her child? Reason has no place in the discussion. The lengths to which people will go because of Love cannot withstand rational scrutiny.

    Yet these things happen every day. God is Love, it is as simple as that.

  • Erika


    You say Yet I suspect that the atheist has a need to validate the origin of his love for others with Reason, rather than Faith.

    I ask, why do you think this? Why should an atheist need to justify everything rationally any more than a religious person? I am an atheist, and I have no need to justify everything rationally. Why do I love people? Because I do. I feel no need to rationally justify it.

    Implying that atheists must always be rational implies that you think one cannot be emotional without a belief in God. Why do you think this? Does believing in God justify emotions? If so, aren’t you just falling into the same rationality trap that you accuse atheists of falling into? You say atheists cannot love without rationalizing their love, but then you are implying that your rational for love is that there is a God who told you to love.

    Where rationality comes in, for me, is determining whether or not a particular belief is a good one that I should keep or one that I should work to change. I do not need to justify that I love someone. I do need to justify that that love is a good thing to continue. If I were to continue passionately loving someone after he was married, I would feel that I needed to change that because I can see that that love has the potential for negative effects.

  • Sam

    @Stephen: “Yet I suspect that the atheist has a need to validate the origin of his love for others with Reason, rather than Faith.”

    No need, as Erika explained, but no great difficulty either.

    “The difficulty is that we are talking about Love, and there is no rational explanation for Love.”

    Yes there is.

    “Why should a mother love her child?”

    That’s actually the easiest one to explain. Anyone with a decent understanding of evolution should realise that. (Hint: It’s all about the genes, not individuals.)

    “Reason has no place in the discussion.”

    Ha! I’d like to see you *try* to defend that stance rationally. Okay, seriously though, no valid argument can have an imperative conclusion (whether selfish or altruistic) without an imperative premise. So where do these motivations come from? Instinct. Emotion.

    I find it weird that so many people assume that selfishness is somehow the default state of a mind. So much bad sci-fi has been written with selfish robots – shouldn’t they be programmed to serve? And evolved beings are programmed to serve their genes – whether it’s an ant sacrificing itself for the security of its nest, or a human helping a family member.

    What about love for people we’re not related to? Well, firstly, evolution hasn’t really caught up to how often people in cities run into complete strangers, and secondly – humanity isn’t really all that genetically diverse. By the standards of some species, we’re all practically siblings anyway.

    “God is Love, it is as simple as that.”

    Really? You seem to have some respect for the book of Matthew. How about chapter 10, verses 35 and 36? “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”

    If Dr Bowdler had rewritten the Bible, he would have been the best prophet ever.

  • brownleroy

    Everybody has his own arguments for their position, as theist or atheist, because arguments (rational or emotional) always ready to support someone position.

  • Jamal

    Thanks Scott. Really beneficial post.