When Are Atheists Irrational? October 11, 2008

When Are Atheists Irrational?

Javier met his new college roommates and they are atheists… but they don’t seem to be as intellectual as the atheists he is used to meeting.

In an email, Javier writes:

… For example they are not very knowledgeable on any form of politics and their critical thinking skills, along with their spelling and English skills, are elementary at best… from my own personal experience I have found all the atheists I met to be of a higher intellectual standing. Is it an oxymoron to be a “dumb atheist”…?

It is surprising to me to hear about atheists who are not concerned with politics or current events. It seems if you’re capable of coming to the conclusion God may not exist (especially when coming from a religious family), you’re probably interested in thinking critically about other issues as well.

But I’m sure we all know atheists who don’t fit that mold.

It’s not about whether you agree with them or not. But to find an apathetic atheist?

That’s rare, no?

What examples do you have of atheists who aren’t interested in, shall we say, “intellectual pursuits”?

(No names, please… descriptions will be fine.)

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  • Carl

    I can imagine that in the USA, that to be an atheist requires quite an active decision, so to be apathetic and ‘dumb’ about it is rather uncommon.

    But here in New Zealand, it is probably the norm. Most people would describe themselves as ‘not religious’, but they’re just as uncritical, gullible and foolish as everywhere else. It’s just that religion doesn’t dominate our culture the way it seems to other countries.

  • I know lots of atheist children who are as apathetically indoctrinated and mindless as Christian/Jewish/etc. children.

    I find it comforting that ignorance isn’t solely the domain of religion.

    I also think that a (relative) minority doesn’t display the whole Bell Curve of intelligence or demographic qualities.

    For example, I’m a non-Jew married to a Jewish man and I’m from a small town in the South.

    I thought ALL Jews were doctors or lawyers!

    And the demographics in THIS country are skewed toward Jews being more affluent.

    But in Israel? There are (of course) Jewish garbage men, bums–you get the picture.

    So in a truly atheist state, do you think there would be a more well-balanced society intellectually, etc?

  • Joe L.

    Well, it was/is bound to happen at some point. We, as atheists, can’t complain that “our group” isn’t bigger than it is, but then try to keep it as an exclusive, MENSA-members only. Like it or not, even if or when a majority of intellectuals or “smart people” come to their senses about religion, for the numbers to grow more, atheism will have to branch out into the unwashed masses, so to speak.

    It’s a strange commentary, though, that we live in a world/country where the default state is to believe in an invisible man in the sky who listens to your thoughts, and to not believe that takes some kind of leap-of-intellectualism.

    Concerning Hermant’s question – I have a group of friends at work who are all atheists. We didn’t mean for it to be that way, but it just kind of worked out that we were drawn together for other reasons – mostly demographic, went to the same college, same age, etc – and over time it emerged that every single one of us is atheist. We’re all smart people, working as engineers. And most of us do enjoy intellectual discussions on politics and religion and such, but there are a couple guys who are just not interested in talking about it. Yes, they are atheist, but they just don’t feel the need or desire to talk about religion or politics or anything like that. They feel like it is just another part of who they are, but they just aren’t interested in exploring/arguing/endlessly pontificating over it like many of us.

  • penn

    I think the atheists that hang out in the atheistosphere are generally those you have put a lot of thought into it, and their atheism is important to them. But, a lot of atheists just weren’t raised with religion, or were and it just didn’t take. We always make the argument that every child is born an atheist, so why should it surprise us that some people revert to their default settings without much thought.

    The most active atheists also seem to be those that had the hardest time in admitting they are atheists. But, a lot of people I’m sure just didn’t buy this god business and gave up on it without much fanfare.

  • Given the % of atheists who are libertarians, the existence of stupid atheists is not news to me.

  • I agree with the other commenters — it’s a sign that atheism is hitting the mainstream.

    And, while critical thinking can certainly lead to atheism, that’s not the only path to get there.

  • llewelly

    Is it an oxymoron to be a “dumb atheist”…?

    Of course not. Of all the millions of kinds of irrationality humans are subject to, atheism addresses only one.

    It’s not about whether you agree with them or not. But to find an apathetic atheist?
    That’s rare, no?

    Not in my experience. All of the atheists I have met off-line are sure that politics is not important, that voting is useless, that writing politicians is a joke, and when someone discusses bigotry toward atheists, they seek to end the discussion as swiftly as possible. They say ‘I don’t believe in all that crap [religion] but I don’t want to argue about it.’ Living along Utah’s beautiful (but sometimes smoggy) Wasatch front, I’ve met dozens of atheists of this sort. Most of them are of average intellect and education – or a little better – and their most intellectual pursuits are Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft – but they don’t want to talk about any issue that is even slightly political, and they have no idea what is going on in politics.

  • Daniel

    Looks like we have our very first example of an “ignorant atheist” in Abbie just above.

  • Sarah

    I’ve not had a belief in a god for about 10 years but I wasn’t interested in politics or current events, or any intellectual pursuits until last year really. It’s not that I wanted to be dumb, I just found it all rather depressing (the politics/current events part) and raising three kids didn’t give me much time for intellectual pursuits. Besides, my husband kept up with all of that so I just let him fill me in. I wasn’t stupid, but I wasn’t trying to know more about the world around me either. I was friends with a family who were more clueless than I was. I think they slapped atheist on as another “cool” label that made them different. I found them to be unbearably dumb after a while. Last year I just decided keeping my head in the sand wasn’t for me anymore but I can still see why one would choose to do it. There are some days, like in the past few weeks, when I wish I had no idea the state of our nation because it’s a lot less stressful. My kids are older now and it’s as much for their benefit as it is for mine that I know and understand what’s going on in the world.

  • I see a lot of people who are very practically minded shedding their belief in those things which seem to not really matter in the long term. They know that there is no practical value to believing in a god, so they don’t.

    This tends to cross-apply to politics and other realms of knowledge as well. If they have not seen a good reason for including something in their worldview, they don’t bother. They saw that over the last twenty years it hasn’t mattered in the least what political party was in charge, their lives remained the same in terms of day to day reality. So they don’t really care much about politics. Similarly with academics, etc.

    Gods are for the impractical, and you don’t have to be particularly “intellectual” or interested in academic pursuits to see that.

  • Adrian

    Seriously, leave the bible belt & explore the rest of the world.

    Go to Europe or even much of Canada and you’ll meet a lot of atheists that were just born that way, never really thought about religion and never had to think about it. They’ll have silly beliefs like anyone else. Because of the fears of witchcraft, few Christians get involved with New Age, so kooky beliefs about crystals, crop circles, or even aliens are held by many atheists. Conspiracy nuts are also often atheist.

    While atheists have shed one superstition, doesn’t mean we’re all super-rational.

  • I didn’t get even remotely interested in politics until I was around 30. I think that is natural.
    I think young atheists today are different from middle aged atheists (like me) collectively.
    For me, atheism was gradual (and many atheists of my generation needed to do more thinking before one realized that God isn’t needed to explain anything), but now with the internet, and discoveries about science, the “argument” for atheism can be apparent, even to a borderline illiterate.

  • wwyoud


  • SarahH

    I know plenty of people who are apathetic on all fronts: religious, political, intellectual.

    Some of my in-laws are like that, and I’d certainly say that many of them are atheists (they don’t believe in or worship any gods) but don’t really care to discuss it either.

  • wwyoud

    There is nothing wrong with being an atheist yet not wanting to make that the foundation of every interaction. And it shouldn’t require one to display exceptional logic and education on all topics to be qualified as an atheist. There are many average people who have common sense, but little formal education, who can see that religion doesn’t make sense; it’s rarely a epiphany, but rather a natural conclusion – a “well, duh” moment, if you will.

    I have stopped reading most atheist blogs regularly (except this one) because I’m tired of the constant warfare; I pop in every two weeks or so, look for something practical or new, and skip the repetitive rest.

    The general mood of class/religious disdain (often outright prejudice) has gotten old; as long as atheism = elitism, it will never win those masses who feel something’s not quite right with religious belief, but can’t find a comfortable source of information to learn more without a master’s degree – maybe from a redneck, gun-toting, land-loving atheist :).

    I still work toward related issues such as separation of church and state, and sometimes wear a t-shirt with a cute slogan. I am grateful to those people who are immersed in the atheism agendas, because they are an information resource for me. But, I have many religious friends and acquaintances – we have a lot in common, and that includes most political views, social views, what to do for fun, etc. I found the constant degrading of religious folks in many blogs was impacting my friendships, changing how I viewed them; once I stepped back, I realized that my friends no more let religion guide their every thought and action than I should allow atheism to guide mine. We are a much happier group now, and they can see my atheism for what it is–just another valid belief that a normal, functional middle-class person can have without becoming radical, or a pain in the arse.

  • mikespeir

    Sadly, there are atheists who are unbelievers for convenience’ sake only. A lot of these call themselves atheists for reasons of conscience; or, rather, for lack of conscience. The want to “get away” with activities that are hurtful, and a god who looks over their shoulders would be inconvenient. Deep down, they might believe, but they report themselves as atheists, and would dearly like to be. Who knows whether they truly believe or disbelieve? Still, they’re not likely to pursue the intellectual side. Their reasons for being–or wanting to be–atheists weren’t intellectual to begin with and aren’t now.

  • Jacob Dink

    It makes sense. As Hume (quite rightly) insisted, we are not dispassionate reasoners. Our emotions slope the field of our reason, so it seems more likely that there are just certain types of people that are more inclined to atheism, whether they arrive at it very rationally at it or not. I think a lot of the commenters on Dawkins’ site are gung-ho atheist idiots. It’s too bad.

  • mikespeir

    Another point. It’s one thing to say that one has arrived at atheism via the intellect and another to be an atheist “intellectual.” There can be negative connotations to “intellectual” that don’t apply to us all. (We’re not all eggheads, devoid of the common human emotions.) Even positive connotations may not apply. (We don’t all spend our days in overtly intellectual pursuits.) That doesn’t mean we don’t have sound intellectual reasons for not believing in deity.

  • I’ve met more than a few atheists who came to enlightenment by way of Marilyn Manson rather than science or reason. These are the “fuck god” kids in high school who thought it was cool to draw anarchy symbols all over the cover of their notebooks.

    If you ever wanted to solve the mystery of why popular opinion of atheists is so raw, blame these assholes.

  • I’ve discussed the disconnect between rationalist/intellectual Atheists and Atheists by faith at DangerousIntersection.org: Atheism Doesn’t Preclude Woo.

  • Some atheists I know are atheists because it’s “cool” and “rebellious” to do so. They didn’t really ever think it out, and they’re just following the punk or emo movement, trying to be “dark” and “alternative”. It’s rather stupid.

  • Stephen

    My idiot brother-in-law and his wide claim to not believe in god. However they do believe that people don’t die. I am not sure what they rhino does happen. He is probably one of the least critical thinking people I know: tries all the fad alternative medicines, buys as seen on tv gimmicks all the time, uses illegal and abuses prescription drugs, etc. It is also lively that he is on wellfare and is “raising” two daughters.

    My sister-in-laws husband, a serious catholic, said “oh so you are just like Jeff?” when I told him I was an Atheist. It made me ill. I still need to email him.

    So what is a more reasonable term for someone who doesn’t believe in gods but beleive a bunch I other psudoscience and superstitions?

  • on October 11th, 2008 at 10:14 am, Adrian said:

    Seriously, leave the bible belt & explore the rest of the world.

    Go to Europe or even much of Canada and you’ll meet a lot of atheists that were just born that way, never really thought about religion and never had to think about it.

    I am actually considering moving to Canada. Religion, debt and war: That is the USA today.

  • It’s a well-known fact that most atheists are completely invisible. Haven’t you ever thought about the implications of this? It means that all the atheists you are ever likely to meet are a non-representative sample of the whole. It is entirely predictable that there are a ton of apathetic atheists out there whom you will never meet, unless, say, you room with them.

  • Jumping on the “atheism-getting-mainstream” bandwagon, if there is one. The majority of Sweden’s population are atheists, probably, but they’ve never thought about it and they probably couldn’t really tell you why they have the opinions they have. When a belief is the default, no intellectual activity is required to have it.

  • Sea

    Since atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in gods, I think it makes perfect sense that some atheists aren’t concerned with politics and such. The connotation of the word atheist seems to have grown to include rationalism, humanism, etc., but those are independent concepts. A subset of atheists are bound to be irrational since all we share is a very narrow aspect of our metaphysical views, and even then there are differences in individuals.

  • I only became an atheist to get chix! 😀

  • cautious

    Given the % of atheists who are libertarians, the existence of stupid atheists is not news to me.

    To be honest, this comment made me lol.

    Much like the atheist/vegetarian conversation happening elsewhere on this blog, just because someone is a Bright doesn’t mean they are in any manner bright. Assuming that people who have similar thoughts to ours (“Oh! You think gods are fake too?”) agree with us on everything else (“You also think Rush is heavy metal? OMG will you be my BFF?”) or even came to their thoughts in similar ways is not a reasonable assumption.

    While it’s cool to think that atheists are all smart, highly attractive, and are snappy dressers, such a statement is a stereotype, and deserves to be squashed just like any other stereotype.

  • mikespeir

    The majority of Sweden’s population are atheists…

    Björn Ulvaeus is an atheist. Yay ABBA!

    Okay, I’ll slither back into my hole now.

  • ash

    Q: What examples do you have of atheists who aren’t interested in, shall we say, “intellectual pursuits”?

    A: England

  • I’m not very interested in politics at all. Is that really so surprising? The mere lack of faith, and an affinity for critical thinking, does not in any way entail an interest in politics.

  • Daktar

    ash Says:
    October 11th, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Q: What examples do you have of atheists who aren’t interested in, shall we say, “intellectual pursuits”?

    A: England

    Well if tersely said, Ash. Here in Britain, with an estimated 30% agnostic/atheist rate, it seems far more likely that you’d find an apathetic atheist or an agnostic not particularly interested in finding out which side is right.

  • Tim Nailer

    It sounds like Australia is a bit like Canada and Europe. We have plenty of apathetic atheists. That’s not to say that they’re apathetic about everything, just the question of god’s existence. I actually think this is as it should be. It seems much more sensible to be passionate about politics (or even sport) than refuting creationists’ claims. Obviously that’s not the case everywhere but the creationist lobby just isn’t a huge political force here.

    FWIW, I reckon the real stupid atheists are the ones with the scientistic bent, the ones that say that if a question can’t be answered empirically then it’s meaningless. Fortunately, there’s not too many here at FA, but they’re rampant elsewhere in the atheist blogosphere.

  • The existence of “Joe six-pack” atheists means we have won the war. Yeah!

  • Milena

    I do know a few atheists who had no political interests whatsoever. One of them would actually shush me whenever I started talking about politics, or discussing issues I found important. We don’t really talk anymore, though.

  • FWIW, I reckon the real stupid atheists are the ones with the scientistic bent, the ones that say that if a question can’t be answered empirically then it’s meaningless.

    Did someone say scientistic bent? Wait no, we’re just talking about the straw man version. Yeah, good thing there aren’t any of those around, huh?

  • Spork

    Bill Maher is a homeopothy-swilling nutbag. Yes, you can be an atheist and be dumb as a post.

  • Lynx

    Two of my cousins, though not idiots, could hardly be called intellectual, and I don’t think they spend much time on politics or religion.

    You yourself laid the groundwork by saying “you have to be able to come to the conclusion that god doesn’t exist (especially if you’re coming from a religious family).

    My family is entirely atheist. My cousins were brought up atheist. They never had to come to any conclusion about god, such a being was entirely absent from their lives. They live surrounded by secular people, so they have never been particularly challenged to defend their beliefs. So sure you can be incurious and be an atheist, especially if you’re coming from an atheist family.

  • Ngeli

    I used to be an irrational atheist in discussions. I irrationally assumed that there is not much difference between the USA and Europe. And when my language-skills are concerned… let’s just say that they beat the German of those, whom I argued with. I learned though.

  • Spork

    And when my language-skills are concerned… let’s just say that they beat the German of those, whom I argued with.

    With whom you argued…

  • Kirsten

    I think the one that wrote that in a atheistic state, you would certainly find dumb atheists is very correct. That’s the fact of the Scandinavian countries, for instance Norway, where I live. And I think that is a healthy sign, that atheism isn’t longer an elite thing, but a “philosphy” also of “common people”. It means that the society as a whole has developed into a more seculare society. 🙂

  • SarahH

    With whom you argued…

    Aww… that’s mean. Mean, bad atheist! 😛

    There’s always more to learn, I guess.

  • Jonathan Dolias

    I’ll admit it. I’m a 24 year old atheist in Chicago. I pay attention to the news as far as I listen to NPR and the BBC on my commute to work and evening news, although I’m not sure how much of it I absorb. I usually have a book by my bed, although I don’t read as often as I’d like. I wouldn’t say I’m Capt. Intellectual, nor would I say I’m stupid. I just figure myself to be a rather plain, ordinary, run of the mill fella’ who doesn’t believe in a higher power. I’m alright with that.

  • Given that atheism is nothing more than lack of belief in God or gods then atheists can, of course, come from any background and have a vast range of intellectual abilities. That said, anyone who self identifies as an atheist is likely to have reached that conclusion through careful thought and some degree of debate. That shows at least the capacity for seeing more than one side of an argument and holding multiple factors in the mind in reaching a conclusion. There are some people who just can’t manage this, sadly.

    In North America there is also a correlation between the standard of education and religiosity. Less religious states have better educated people. There is also a correlation between scientists in top jobs and lack of religious faith.

    Not that a correlation proves anything in itself.

    I would enjoy reading a study of the relationship between IQ and religiosity. I’d hope that my group would win but I suspect that we are as dumb as them.

  • Polly

    What some of these responses tell me is that there are a lot of unwitting atheists out there just ripe for the picking by proselytizing churches. A few superficial arguments at a particular time of life and these “atheists” are liable to turn religious in no time.

  • I think it may have something to do with if one was raised Atheist. I have a friend from high school who is an atheist; I would really like to be closer with her, but she’s a lot like the roommates mentioned. But she’s 26, still going through her 4 years of college…very very slowly while staying at home. When you’re raised without gods, you never have to “think about it”. Either that or its the only backlash against one’s parents/society.

    It could also just show how much of a minority we are not!

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