- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Rational Versus Emotional Arguments

This is a follow-up to my original post supporting atheism, Why Atheism [1].

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 [2] 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 [1], 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.