Brief Angry Atheist Rant About Angry Atheist Rant About Angry Atheist Rants

Someday, I will give a post a title and it won’t be a sentence long.

Ozy wrote an angry atheist rant, about half of which was meta. I am not responding to the meta part. This is a brief angry atheist rant. I am responding to this:

My radical position is that you should not believe things that are factually incorrect. Even if believing them makes you feel nice. Even if it makes you a better person. Even if it connects you to your community and your ancestors. (You can go to the rituals without believing in God, anyway.) Even if some other people over there believe factually incorrect things sometimes too.

I feel like having to justify why believing things that aren’t true is bad is like having to justify why hitting people who don’t want to get hit is bad. It… is? Duh? But the number of otherwise intelligent people who say “they’re nice and they aren’t hurting anyone, what do you care?” suggests otherwise.

The doublethink necessary to believe things that aren’t true hurts your ability to figure out what’s true and what’s not. Not necessarily; humans are very good at compartmentalizing and often, say, take “I feel it in my heart” as adequate on matters of theology but not on matters of medicine. But in aggregate turning off your critical thinking and rationality sometimes hurts your ability to be rational.

If you believe things that aren’t true, you’re going to make decisions based on the false things you believe, and decisions made based on inaccurate information are usually bad decisions. If you believe apricot pits cure cancer, you might skip chemo. If you believe there aren’t any cars on the street when there are, you might cross and get hit by an SUV. If you believe all-nighters improve your grades, you might flunk an exam. If your map says that Disney World is in Michigan, you will never get to meet the Mouse. For that matter, look at basically any atrocity in history, nearly all of which were caused by people believing untrue things (usually “this group of people is inherently evil,” “God said so,” or “our ludicrous political system totally works”).

Our shared culture, that of LessWrong, values truth a lot. We have the Litany of Gendlin and the Litany of Tarski and all those other ideological claims disguised as obvious truths in order to better induct people into the cult (it’s possible that they aren’t particularly well-disguised, I was inducted into this cult when I was 12). We tend to hold it as self-evident that the true thing is the correct thing to believe. The post quoted above just made a bunch of unsubstantiated claims based on ideology and limited personal experience. “Believing false things is bad because, well… duh” is not the sort of claim you can assume is true because it’s obvious. “In aggregate turning off your critical thinking and rationality sometimes hurts your ability to be rational” is a claim for which you’d need evidence. It’s obvious because you read Overcoming Bias/LessWrong, or perhaps because you read Bertrand Russel, or perhaps because your parents told you so when you were a child and you see it as too obvious to question.

You can value truth as a terminal goal, but that is a strong claim. It is not something you just say because duh. You don’t know that religion is harmful in general. As far as I can tell, becoming very good at valuing truth has harmed me. “Value truth” as a meme is a good one, but like most such memes, it is not meant to actually be implemented. Religious people don’t follow their religions, and if they did it would be a horrible mess incompatible with civilization as we know it (possible exception: Islamists). (See it’s okay for me to make claims based on deductive reasoning because my ideology doesn’t say you can’t do that. My ideology says that the world is too complicated and the state of social sciences is too, well, unscientific to do anything else.) It might make sense to go around saying that we what can be destroyed by truth should be. It does not make sense to actually destroy everything that can be destroyed by truth (there is also my finite-time argument but I am not going into that now because brief).

Humans are really, really complicated. You can’t expect that truth-optimizing will actually be optimal for them. There are the obvious points where truth is useful. If you deny physics, your planes won’t fly. If you find a new useful truth, you can use it to build cool things and make a ton of money. Religion is not such an obvious point. Religions have been under selective pressure for hundreds or thousands of years. For most things, the best version of it or solution to it hasn’t been tried. It’s possible that a future super-religion will incorporate not being built on lies. It’s possible that atheism in its current form is in fact the best existing religion—although of course it lacks a lot of elements of community and ritual and enforcing morality/cooperation and making people have lots of kids (which I am not sure is a good thing because I can’t really wrap my head around valuing human lives, but presumably) and pointing to atheist income levels or IQ or something similar is heavily confounded by the people who can become atheists in a religious world. However, neither of these are self-evident. Religion does things, and assuming that you can just throw all of them out because it’s not factually true is naive; note that current atheists are still surrounded by culture, which is overwhelmingly religious and full of religiously based memes without context. What is “don’t brag about charity” for? It’s for proving that you’re really doing it for God and not to gain status. I’m not a utilitarian, but you are, Ozy. If religion is useful, people should be religious, even though it isn’t true.

EDIT: Alyssa Vance (http://rationalconspiracy.com) points out that while believing what everyone else believes will lead to having similar outcomes as them, sometimes doing unusual things is necessary, and in that case truth is very important because you don’t know what you don’t know.