OOC - some examples would be nice :)

I think a lot of the people that fall into this camp (at least those that I know of) are people that have just recently deconverted - they've just been through a major life-change involving religion and therefore are understandably entranced with the whole process as it is particularly meaningful to them.

Alternatively, they are reacting against some heavy prejudice that they have had to suffer through - or have some loved ones that are particularly "afflicted" and want to see something done to prevent it happening to others.

Sure, there are other big, important things out there... but one man's meat is another's poison, and all that.

I think it's easy enough to say that there are bigger problems out there... when we are looking at it from the perspective of having been atheist for a long time. but some people have just had their world cave in - everything has been upturned. They no longer have that huge big safety net underneath them that tells them that everything is going to be alright in the afterlife. Maybe they've just discovered that they've been wasting one seventh of their life in church when they could have been out there exploring his beautiful world that we live in or spending quality time with their kids... it may seem like nothing important to you, but it's a Big Thing to some people.

PS - I am also inclined to agree with you that there are better things the time could be spent on... but that's "better from my perspective" and it's not mine that counts.

This comment seems to be influenced by an association fallacy.

The fact that someone has suffered doesn't imply that they are rational or irrational.

If you acknowledge evidence that someone is being irrational it doesn't mean you have to deny they have any positive qualities or be unsympathetic about their problems.

9Vladimir_M9yWell, whenever I open this topic, giving concrete examples is problematic, since these are by definition respectable and high-status delusions, so it's difficult or impossible to contradict them without sounding like a crackpot or extremist. There are however a few topics where prominent LW participants have run into such instances of respectable opinion being dogmatic and immune to rational argument. On example is the already mentioned neglect of technology-related existential risks -- as well as other non-existential but still scary threats that might be opened due to the upcoming advances in technology -- and the tendency to dismiss people who ask such questions as crackpots. Another is the academic and medical establishment's official party line against cryonics, which is completely impervious to any argument. (I have no interest in cryonics myself, but the dogmatic character of the official line is clear, as well as its lack of solid foundation.) This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, listing other examples typically means opening ideologically charged topics that are probably best left alone. One example that shouldn't be too controversial is economics. We have people in power to regulate and manage things, with enough power and influence to wreak havoc if they don't know what they're doing, whose supposed expertise however appears, on independent examination, to consist mostly of cargo-cult science and ideological delusions, even though they bear the most prestigious official titles and accreditations. Just this particular observation should be enough to justify my Titanic allegory.

Reasons for being rational

by Swimmer963 2 min read1st Jul 2011183 comments


When I found Less Wrong and started reading, when I made my first post, when I went to my first meetup….

It was a little like coming home.

And mostly it wasn’t. Mostly I felt a lot more out of place than I have in, say, church youth groups. It was hard to pinpoint the difference, but as far as I can tell, it comes down to this: a significant proportion of the LW posters are contrarians in some sense. And I’m a conformist, even if I would prefer not to be, even if that’s a part of my personality that I’m working hard to change. I’m much more comfortable as a follower than as a leader. I like pre-existing tradition, the reassuring structure of it. I like situations that allow me to be helpful and generous and hardworking, so that I can feel like a good person. Emotionally, I don’t like disagreeing with others, and the last thing I have to work hard to do is tolerate others' tolerance.

And, as evidenced by the fact that I attend church youth groups, I don’t have the strong allergy that many of the community seem to have against religion. This is possibly because I have easily triggered mystical experiences when, for example, I sing in a group, especially when we are singing traditional ‘sacred’ music. In a previous century, I would probably have been an extremely happy nun.

Someone once expressed surprise that I was able to become a rationalist in spite of this neurological quirk. I’ve asked myself this a few times. My answer is that I don’t think I deserve the credit. If anything, I ended up on the circuitous path towards reading LessWrong because I love science, and I love science because, as a child, reading about something as beautiful as general relativity gave me the same kind of euphoric experience as singing about Jesus does now. My inability to actual believe in any religion comes from a time before I was making my own decisions about that kind of thing. 

I was raised by atheist parents, not anti-theist so much as indifferent. We attended a Unitarian Universalist church for a while, which meant I was learning about Jesus and Buddha and Native American spirituality all mixed together, all the memes watered down to the point that they lost their power. I was fourteen when I really encountered Christianity, still in the mild form of the Anglican Church of Canada. I was eighteen when I first encountered the ‘Jesus myth’ in its full, meme-honed-to-maximum-virulence form, and the story arc captivated me for a full six months. I still cry during every Good Friday service. But I must have missed some critical threshold, because I can’t actually believe in that story. I’m not even sure what it would mean to believe in a story. What does that feel like?

I was raised by scientists. My father did his PhD in physical chemistry, my mother in plant biology. I grew up reading SF and pop science, and occasionally my mother or my father’s old textbooks. I remember my mother’s awe at the beautiful electron-microscope images in my high school textbooks, and how she sat patiently while I fumblingly talked about quantum mechanics, having read the entire tiny physics section of our high school library. My parents responded to my interest in science with pride and enthusiasm, and to my interest in religion with indulgent condescension. That was my structure, my tradition. And yes, that has everything to do with why I call myself an atheist. I wouldn’t have had the willpower to disagree with my parents in the long run.

Ultimately, I have an awfully long way to go if I want to be rational, as opposed to being someone who’s just interested in reading about math and science. Way too much of my motivation for ‘having true beliefs’ breaks down to ‘maybe then they’ll like me.’ This is one of the annoying things about my personality, just as annoying as my sensitivity to religious memes and my inability to say no to anyone. Luckily, my personality also comes with the ability to get along with just about anyone, and in a forum of mature adults, no one is going to make fun of me because I’m wearing tie-dye overalls. No one here has yet made fun of me for my interest in religion, even though I expect most people disagree with it.

And there’s one last conclusion I can draw, albeit from a sample size of one. Not everyone can be a contrarian rationalist. Not everyone can rebel against their parents’ religion. Not everyone can disagree with their friends and family and not feel guilty. But everyone can be rational if they are raised that way.