Darwin and Tversky explain why atheists can’t win an argument

You can’t blame somebody for acting the way they were built to act.

The human brain is capable of seeking truth, but that is nowhere near its primary concern. Evolutionary theory is quite clear: traits that are adaptive will tend to survive, and those that aren’t–particularly if they use precious resources, will not. 

Cognitive and social scientists have fleshed that out in terms of how the brain functions. Seeking truth is among those functions. But it is hardly the top priority. For example, it is often more important to believe we are right than it is to be right. “Confirmation bias” explores this tendency. It is often more important to believe what our social circle believes than it is to find out what is true. That’s “herd mentality.” It is often more important to win an argument than to discover something new. 

Kahneman & Tversky observed that it is more common for humans to use reason and logic to reinforce what we already believe than to use them to discover truth. (I think it was K&T, I can’t find the source.)

I would add that these tendencies are likely more pronounced when the matter at hand is abstract and of no immediate survival value. Getting the answer factually right to “food vs. poison” has tangible survival value. Getting the answer factually right to “God vs. no-God” has zero tangible survival value. It is more important, from a survival point of view, to answer the latter question in a manner that (among other things) doesn’t disrupt your social connections.

So fellow atheists, consider this: It doesn’t matter if you are right. Nobody will accept your arguments unless the conditions of their life make it favorable for them to do so. So relax, and enjoy a good quote or three:

“An adopted hypothesis gives us lynx-eyes for everything that confirms it and makes us blind to everything that contradicts it.” –Schopenhauer

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside or rejects[.]” –Francis Bacon

“I know that most men—not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever, and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic problems—can very seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as to oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty—conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives.” –Tolstoy



Is it rational to expect people to change their minds based on our arguments, when science tells us that isn’t the way people are built? If not, would it be wise for that understanding to inform how we interact with believers? If so, how?


Do you agree with the above characterization regarding how the human brain works? Could that help explain why we atheists are so misguided?

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