Why atheists are not as rational as some like to think (2024)

Many atheists think that their atheism is the product of rational thinking. They use arguments such as “I don’t believe in God, I believe in science” to explain that evidence and logic, rather than supernatural belief and dogma, underpin their thinking. But just because you believe in evidence-based, scientific research – which is subject to strict checks and procedures – doesn’t mean that your mind works in the same way.

When you ask atheists about why they became atheists (as I do for a living), they often point to eureka moments when they came to realise that religion simply doesn’t make sense.

Oddly perhaps, many religious people actually take a similar view of atheism. This comes out when theologians and other theists speculate that it must be rather sad to be an atheist, lacking (as they think atheists do) so much of the philosophical, ethical, mythical and aesthetic fulfilments that religious people have access to – stuck in a cold world of rationality only.

The science of atheism

The problem that any rational thinker needs to tackle, though, is that the science increasingly shows that atheists are no more rational than theists. Indeed, atheists are just as susceptible as the next person to “group-think” and other non-rational forms of cognition. For example, religious and nonreligious people alike can end up following charismatic individuals without questioning them. And our minds often prefer righteousness over truth, as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has explored.

Even atheist beliefs themselves have much less to do with rational inquiry than atheists often think. We now know, for example, that nonreligious children of religious parents cast off their beliefs for reasons that have little to do with intellectual reasoning. The latest cognitive research shows that the decisive factor is learning from what parents do rather than from what they say. So if a parent says that they’re Christian, but they’ve fallen out of the habit of doing the things they say should matter – such as praying or going to church – their kids simply don’t buy the idea that religion makes sense.

This is perfectly rational in a sense, but children aren’t processing this on a cognitive level. Throughout our evolutionary history, humans have often lacked the time to scrutinise and weigh up the evidence – needing to make quick assessments. That means that children to some extent just absorb the crucial information, which in this case is that religious belief doesn’t appear to matter in the way that parents are saying it does.

Why atheists are not as rational as some like to think (1)

Even older children and adolescents who actually ponder the topic of religion may not be approaching it as independently as they think. Emerging research is demonstrating that atheist parents (and others) pass on their beliefs to their children in a similar way to religious parents – through sharing their culture as much as their arguments.

Some parents take the view that their children should choose their beliefs for themselves, but what they then do is pass on certain ways of thinking about religion, like the idea that religion is a matter of choice rather than divine truth. It’s not surprising that almost all of these children – 95% – end up “choosing” to be atheist.

Science versus beliefs

But are atheists more likely to embrace science than religious people?Many belief systems can be more or less closely integrated with scientific knowledge. Some belief systems are openly critical of science, and think it has far too much sway over our lives, while other belief systems are hugely concerned to learn about and respond to scientific knowledge.

But this difference doesn’t neatly map onto whether you are religious or not. Some Protestant traditions, for example, see rationality or scientific thinking as central to their religious lives. Meanwhile, a new generation of postmodern atheists highlight the limits of human knowledge, and see scientific knowledge as hugely limited, problematic even, especially when it comes to existential and ethical questions. These atheists might, for example, follow thinkers like Charles Baudelaire in the view that true knowledge is only found in artistic expression.

Why atheists are not as rational as some like to think (2)

And while many atheists do like to think of themselves as pro science, science and technology itself can sometimes be the basis of religious thinking or beliefs, or something very much like it. For example, the rise of the transhumanist movement, which centres on the belief that humans can and should transcend their current natural state and limitations through the use of technology, is an example of how technological innovation is driving the emergence of new movements that have much in common with religiosity.

Even for those atheists sceptical of transhumanism, the role of science isn’t only about rationality – it can provide the philosophical, ethical, mythical and aesthetic fulfilments that religious beliefs do for others. The science of the biological world, for example, is much more than a topic of intellectual curiosity – for some atheists, it provides meaning and comfort in much the same way that belief in God can for theists. Psychologists show that belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety, just as religious beliefs intensify for theists in these situations.

Clearly, the idea that being atheist is down to rationality alone is starting to look distinctly irrational. But the good news for all concerned is that rationality is overrated. Human ingenuity rests on a lot more than rational thinking. As Haidt says of “the righteous mind”, we are actually “designed to ‘do’ morality” – even if we’re not doing it in the rational way we think we are. The ability to make quick decisions, follow our passions and act on intuition are also important human qualities and crucial for our success.

It is helpful that we have invented something that, unlike our minds, is rational and evidence-based: science. When we need proper evidence, science can very often provide it – as long as the topic is testable. Importantly, the scientific evidence does not tend to support the view that atheism is about rational thought and theism is about existential fulfilments. The truth is that humans are not like science – none of us get by without irrational action, nor without sources of existential meaning and comfort. Fortunately, though, nobody has to.

Why atheists are not as rational as some like to think (2024)


What is the rationale for atheism? ›

For the most part, atheists have presumed that the most reasonable conclusions are the ones that have the best evidential support. And they have argued that the evidence in favor of God's existence is too weak, or the arguments in favor of concluding there is no God are more compelling.

What is the difference between an atheist and a rationalist? ›

Almost all rationalists are atheists or agnostics. There has been a long link between rationalism and scientific method. There is also a long tradition of philosophers who have approached philosophical and ethical questions from a rationalist perspective.

What are the arguments for atheists? ›

Arguments for atheism range from philosophical to social and historical approaches. Rationales for not believing in deities include the lack of evidence, the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations, the rejection of concepts that cannot be falsified, and the argument from nonbelief.

What do atheists not believe in? ›

Atheism is one thing: A lack of belief in gods.

It is simply a rejection of the assertion that there are gods. Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system. To be clear: Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.

Is belief in God rational? ›

According to classical foundationalism, belief in God is not rational unless it is supported by evidence or argument.

What do atheists think is the purpose of life? ›

Life can be worth living in itself, even in difficult times, and there is no need for it to serve any other purpose.

What is the deeper meaning of atheist? ›

Atheism is a critique and a denial of the central metaphysical beliefs of systems of salvation involving a belief in God or spiritual beings, but a sophisticated atheist does not simply claim that all such cosmological claims are false but takes it that some are so problematic that, while purporting to be factual, they ...

Is atheist a free thinker? ›

A freethinker, according to Russell, is not necessarily an atheist or an agnostic, as long as he or she satisfies this definition: The person who is free in any respect is free from something; what is the free thinker free from?

What is an atheist perspective on God? ›

They do not question that God exists; they deny him in other ways. An atheist denies the existence of God. As it is frequently said, atheists believe that it is false that God exists, or that God's existence is a speculative hypothesis of an extremely low order of probability.

Do atheists have rights? ›

Yes. The First Amendment prohibits the government from punishing citizens for professing and exercising their religious beliefs—including a lack of religious belief. So how are atheists, who by definition do not have religious beliefs or exercise a religion, protected by the First Amendment?

What do atheists think about suffering? ›

Atheists might go even further and say that suffering is proof that God doesn't exist at all. Some people believe that suffering happens because of karma, the belief that all actions have consequences in this life or the next.

What are three facts about atheists? ›

Being an atheist means that you believe the balance of evidence shows that God does not exist. This is not the same as saying that you are 100% certain God does not exist. Atheists are found in the clergy. Atheists believe morality is independent of God.

What do atheists believe in after death? ›

Atheists believe that there is no God and no life after death and that death is the cessation of the existence of the individual. Agnostics & atheists have reported having near-death experiences.

Do atheists drink alcohol? ›

Finally, no differences in percent days abstinence and drinking intensity were found between atheist and agnostic versus spiritual and religious clients, but clients unsure about their God belief reported significantly higher drinking frequency relative to the other groups.

Which celebrities are atheists? ›

NameDatesKnown as / for
Guy Harrison1963–Author
Amber Heard1986–Actress and model
Christopher Hitchens1949–2011Author/Activist
George Hrab1971–Musician, podcaster
3 more rows

What is the main reason for atheist? ›

The most simple reason why somebody might not believe in a god is that he or she doesn't see any persuasive reason or evidence to believe. They don't feel the need to believe in a god to explain the world around them. Nor do they believe a god is necessary for human beings to lead good, happy, and meaningful lives.

What is the justification of atheism? ›

Atheists have criticized the traditional arguments for belief and have tried to justify positive disbelief by arguing that the properties ascribed to this being are incoherent, and that the amount and severity of evils in the world make it quite likely that there is no such all-powerful, perfectly good being in control ...

What is the objective of atheism? ›

They do not question that God exists; they deny him in other ways. An atheist denies the existence of God. As it is frequently said, atheists believe that it is false that God exists, or that God's existence is a speculative hypothesis of an extremely low order of probability.

What is the root cause of atheism? ›

Many people are atheists because they think there is no evidence for God's existence - or at least no reliable evidence. They argue that a person should only believe in things for which they have good evidence. A philosopher might say that they start from the presumption of atheism.

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