When I first discovered atheist discussion groups online, I was thrilled. Finally, it seemed I would have a chance to talk with like-minded people about how it just makes sense that there is no god, about our perspectives on morality and humanism, and in general about the liberating qualities of being a critical thinker.
Imagine my disappointment, then, to discover how many atheists are not, in fact, critical thinkers. I lost count of the times I have seen self-proclaimed atheists subscribing to conspiracy theories, discounting the efficacy of vaccination, claiming to have seen ghosts, questioning whether the earth has been visited by extraterrestrials, or just generally putting forth some other nonsense and asking others to weigh in. When the conspiracy theorist is provided with or reminded of evidence that supports the official finding for whatever event he or she proposes has been covered up, the response is that “I am skeptical,” as in, “as opposed to you.” When the pseudo-science believers are admonished on the absence of evidence for their claims, the response is “I have an open mind,” as in, “I am a free thinker while you are not.”
What people seem to be missing in this discussion is that there is a very distinct difference between being skeptical and being blind to evidence, or between having an open mind and simply being credulous. Skepticism is a part of critical thinking, it’s true – simply accepting all conventional wisdom or information from authority without question is antithetical to critical thought. However, the act of rejecting valid evidence simply because it conforms to conventional wisdom or originates from a source of authority isn’t so much being skeptical as it is being cynical or prejudiced. When theists do this we call it cognitive dissonance. Hello, pot? I’d like you to meet kettle.
Then there is the subject of open-mindedness. This too is touted as a requirement of all good atheists, with the intention, I assume, of encouraging us to never cling to any particular belief too tightly lest today’s truth be overthrown by tomorrow’s new evidence. Being open to new information is a fine quality when it leads one to learning, re-assessing previously held positions, and self-discovery, but accepting all ideas as equally valid without a frank and thoughtful consideration of the available evidence (or lack thereof) hinders rather than advances human progress. The more detritus must be sifted through, the more difficult it becomes to weed out the good ideas from the not so good ones.
What concerns me most about this situation is the lack of self-awareness within the atheist community that we are as susceptible to the frailties of our human brains and hearts as the theists to whom too many of us feel so superior. When the same person who mocks Christians for believing in the resurrection of Jesus goes on to say that we never landed on the moon or that 9/11 was an inside job or that couldn’t it be possible that ancient civilizations were seeded by aliens from other planets, there is an incongruity that is not just hypocritical, but that undermines the atheist community in general because of its double standard. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that atheists can or should claim superiority over theists for any reason, or that we must put our intellectual house in order so that we can justifiably do so. What I am saying is that if atheism is the logical conclusion to an objective assessment of the available evidence as it relates to the existence of god, it behooves us all to apply that same thought process to the rest of the world around us. This manner of thinking benefits everything from public policy to science-based medicine to child-rearing and beyond. If we concern ourselves less with labels – if we worry less that accepting evidence will mean we aren’t skeptics, or that if we dismiss certain ideas out of hand we aren’t open minded – and instead we simply employ reason and rationality, we can make the world a better place.