The New Humanism


Love is Stronger than Logic

Sarah Hippolitus

Persuasion requires emotion too.

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by Sarah Hippolitus

"Our message to the theist is a very painful one to hear

Think for a minute about the deep love you feel for a family member, your best friend, or your lover. Every day this person is in your heart and your thoughts. You are so grateful for the meaning and joy this person brings into your life and would do about anything for them. You take great pride in nurturing this relationship. Your love is so strong that you couldn't imagine your life being the same without them. In fact their death would inflict tremendous sorrow and loss upon you—it would be just as if a piece of you had died.

What if someone told you this love you have was irrational? Not only shouldn't you love this person, but the person you love doesn't even exist—you are making him up (you idiot). But this is what the atheist is saying to the theist, no matter how respectful the language.

I recently had a very touching experience with two young women, one Christian and one Muslim. I was attending an event where four atheists on a panel were speaking to an audience consisting of about sixty atheists and a handful of religious people. The Muslim woman frequently asked questions about atheism and defended her religion. She was so genuine and diplomatic—she never got snarky, never raised her voice, and—most admirably—never abandoned the room during the whole two hours of atheism self-congratulation. She actually got a round of applause for her bravery and great attitude. (A few Christians couldn't manage civility and shouted smug rants about how we ought to save our souls before storming out of the room.)

Like others, her resistance to the rational arguments against God struck me as frustrating, but then she said something that changed my whole attitude towards her. She said, in front of this whole audience of outspoken atheists, that she had some terrible things happen in her life and her faith is what got her through each day. Someone in the back said, "You are stronger than that." Then the conversation went back to rational arguments for atheism. I took the opportunity to raise my hand to ask that we go back and address her concern. The tone in the room softened. There was a psychologist on panel, and I was right to think he might be helpful here. He tried to make her see that it was her own strength of character, actions, and efforts that got her where she is, not a supernatural force. The panel jumped in by appealing to her emotions instead of logic.

This experience confirmed a purely psychological point that I want atheists to understand (for those who may overlook it): our message to the theist is a very painful one to hear, and it is inescapably offensive no matter how it's delivered.

I think that many (not all!) atheists are desensitized to the often immensely strong emotional attachment that a believer has to one's God and/or religion. But those who need a reminder should not overlook this. In a sense, the atheist threatens to kill the theist's beloved and sever a deeply cherished relationship, but that is totally unacceptable. And why shouldn't it be? And what is an atheist to do?

We often view the value conflict between the theist and atheist as one of "faith versus reason" in that the atheist rightly embraces reason and rejects faith as a viable path to knowledge. I think what we have instead is something slightly different—a conflict between emotional and logical reasoning. That is to say, reason itself encapsulates an emotional dimension as well as a logical one. The culturally purported dichotomy between reason and emotion doesn't exist (neuroscience confirms their entanglement). Ironically, I think that this non-scientific way of thinking has made many atheists less understanding, and therefore less tolerant, of the religious worldview.

Religious people often use reason over faith when forming beliefs about the world, but where deep emotions are concerned, faith takes charge. When it comes to the big important things in life, such as health, career, and relationships, emotional reasons notoriously override logical ones. This is why I've come to think that faith should be understood as a means to an end—emotional fulfillment for the believer. And that is what the atheist has to speak directly to.

I used to think the reason why I could never convince a theist her error was because faith pushed an otherwise functional reason aside. How disgraceful and intellectually irresponsible—believing without sufficient evidence! Now it seems to me that the reason a religious believer holds onto their faith in God is not for a lack of "reason" (believers are generally rational, intelligent people) but because of two factors:

(1) One's greater general attraction towards emotional reasons, as opposed to logical ones.

(2) One's having stronger emotional reasons to believe in God than to not.

Now, we are all emotional beings. However, people have higher and lower tolerances for the ideas that we are evolved from a primordial soup, have only one life with all its trials and tribulations, and then perish for all eternity. This discrepancy of toleration for such notions is a manifestation of (1). That is to say, some people tend to value emotional reasons more than logical ones. Key emotional reasons seem to be a strong (albeit misguided) belief that life must have a transcendent meaning to be meaningful, along with need for a transcendent morality for one to be "truly" moral (i.e., moral in the "right, godly way"). Meaning and morality have profound emotional significance, and when one believes that transcendence is a necessary requirement for achieving them, this can cause (2). Finally, (1) and (2) easily lead to the desire for a relationship with God and for religion.

The reasons that the passionately religious have for their beliefs are impregnable by logical reasoning alone. If an atheist wants to do more than just criticize religious belief, and succeed in deconverting believers, it is prudent for the atheist to also appeal to a religious person's emotions. For example, it would be more effective to discuss the problem of evil in a way that exposes how the moral standards we hold ourselves up to are not met by God himself. The emotional impact of forcing a believer to confront an immoral God is much stronger than any impact from debating an ontological or cosmological argument.

Not only must we hit a believer with emotional force, we must deal with the ensuing loss of a relationship. We must provide an emotionally acceptable alternative to fill the emotional void left by giving up God and/or religion. We need to explain how morality is intact without God (naturalistic ethics is more moral!) and how life has just as much meaning without God (one finite life arguably has more!). If you are dealing with a passionate religious person who is not already questioning his faith, cold hard logic—no matter how air-tight—is ultimately impotent.

Religious persons' reasons are emotionally motivated, so you can't just change their minds with reasons that don't have emotional content. You can only rely on this approach with believers who aren't so emotionally attached, who already doubt, who are genuinely concerned (at the expense of their emotional security) with whether what they believe logically coheres, i.e., who value logical reasoning over emotional reasoning. For those believers more inclined to emotional reasoning, an atheist should employ a strategy of arguing better emotional reasons for surrendering God and religion.

The metaphor of being in love is helpful here—we've all been in a romantic relationship that has gone bad. We remember this bizarre war between the "heart" and the brain—we knew there was no future, that it wasn't right to be with the person anymore, but yet, in spite of knowing all twenty-five reasons for why it's best to break up, we couldn't do it. We weren't ready. In such a situation where emotional reasons have a stronghold over logic, we don't finally end the relationship because "our reason conquered emotion"; rather the emotional reasons to break up finally outweighed the emotional reasons not to break up. It is only until the balance shifts, until we find better emotional reasons to move on, that we can make the right decision as to what is in our best interest. Again, no matter how intellectual we are, when it comes to love, we are emotional first, logical second.

To Atheists: we are saying more to the theist than "Don't believe." We are saying "Don't love." Love is a crucially important ingredient in this whole "god thing." We are telling a religious person who they should love; worse—who they shouldn't love. Worse still, who they love doesn't even exist! Let's just appreciate how it would feel to have someone challenge the love we have for our best friend, our lover, our mother. If we appreciate this, we will increase our understanding of and sensitivity to the religious perspective. Consequently, we'll be in a position to argue more effectively, including believers who easily get offended.

The message here is not "Don't confront or debate theists because you will hurt their feelings." I say go ahead and debate (I'm a philosopher), but just recognize the emotional power you are up against. Have books like "The God Delusion" and "God is Not Great" converted some people to atheism? Sure…but what kind of believers? I think it's reasonable to say that many of these converted people already doubted their faith before they opened the books. How plausible is it to suppose a passionate Christian reads "The God Delusion" and then becomes an atheist because he is so impressed by such fine logical reasoning?

Taking greater care with our message to believers is more likely to result in a win-win for the believer and the atheist. We may get the theist to not only doubt their faith (without making them cry—read on), but also replace it. In order to persuade, we must recognize and match emotional reasons along with logical ones.

After the event, the Muslim woman came over to me and thanked me for what I said. Then the sweetest face approached me—a young woman with tears in her eyes. She was a Christian who came over to meet me and the Muslim woman. (I think they may have been the only two religious people in the room at that point.) She thanked me for what I said. I awkwardly asked her what she thought of the discussion. Choked up, unable to hold back her tears, she said, "It was hard to listen to." The only atheists they wanted to talk to was me and the psychologist because we spoke most directly to their emotions. I was taken aback by the level of appreciation they both had for my simple acknowledgment of the emotional depth of their beliefs. There is a basic psychological principle at work here: If you think someone doesn't understand your feelings, and where your motivations lie, you aren't likely to be receptive to, or even understand, what they have to say. Interestingly, the Muslim started asking me some of the same questions she asked the atheist speakers. Perhaps she thought that my sensitivity to her feelings would help me explain things in a way she'd understand. I was happy to try. What if more atheists did the same?

Perhaps someday these women will leave God behind. I'm just glad they know that an atheist can partially understand where they are coming from, someone who doesn't think they are irrational just because they haven't come to see better emotional reasons for accepting the naturalistic worldview. Atheists trying to deconvert believers must make emotional reasons just as compelling as logical arguments. Let's all try to speak more to the human heart.

Comments (now closed)

m. l. wahrman

29 Dec 2010 · 02:38 EST

incredible insight....bravo


29 Dec 2010 · 10:05 EST

Excellent article and very well written!!


29 Dec 2010 · 11:19 EST

So does that mean that most arguments with theists should have emotional bases in order for us to be able to make inroads, or would it be more prudent to take our current arguments and find areas in which they appeal to emotion?


03 Jan 2011 · 11:28 EST

Thank you for this article =)

Janie Rose

03 Jan 2011 · 12:12 EST

Your insight about one's "faith", coming from an atheist, is refreshing and non-defensive. It's a terrific article. Thank you Sarah.


04 Jan 2011 · 03:44 EST

Let me get this straight... you're claiming it wasn't God that helped this woman through her tough time because the group said so? Or is it because the biased psychologist said so?

James Croft

06 Jan 2011 · 09:15 EST

Thank you for this fantastic article. There is a key point in here for atheists who want to be effective in persuasion when talking with religious individuals: people are unlikely to be persuaded by your argument if you cannot demonstrate that you understand, at least to some degree, where they are coming from. We atheists and Humanists often fall down on this point, as it is frequently so difficult to really get inside a theistic worldview. You do a wonderful job here helping us come to terms with this necessity, and even helping us achieve it.

Sarah Hippolitus

09 Jan 2011 · 14:27 EST

All - Sorry for the delay in responding. I truly appreciate you taking the time to comment on my essay. Your praise is humbly appreciated! @AY - Both. @Luke - Yes, I should be clear: her belief in God did play an important causal role in getting her through her hard times, but God himself didn't. That's the distinction I wanted to make. So my claim is that just because her belief helped her, for her to know she gets through her pain by virture of her own strength and courage, without supernatural assistance, is actually more helpful for coping because this is the reality and God's existence/help is a falsehood.

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