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atheist-reasonsI found this piece on Stumbleupon, I believe. As far as Memes go, I actually kind of like this one. And by ‘kind of” I mean ‘really’ …kind of.

You see, I look at this meme, and a part of me wants to shout; “Yeah Boyeeee!” (…preferably in the face of some believer who has just suggested one of the alternatives). It’s damned frustrating to deal with that kind of commentary. You know how it goes; “The only reason you don’t believe is blah blah, blah…” …Blech! Seriously I’ve heard that line way too many times (and apparently so did someone else). So, it’s nice to see a bold affirmation that one’s own judgement really is the basis of, …well, ones own judgement!

…as opposed to some dismissive third person narrative.

Still, I wonder, would this look any different from any other religious perspective? If I asked for ‘Reasons I believe in God’, used the exact same sentence for the red color, and then made just a few strategic changes to the decoy list (Peer Pressure, Social Conformity, Afraid of Death, Raised That Way, Mental Disturbance, Haven’t Really Thought About It), I imagine we could present this to a few believers and generate exactly the same sense of vindication that I feel looking at this meme right now. “Damned right,” I can just hear them saying about that red line. …some might even add a “Praise Jesus!” or something like that, but my mind’s ear just doesn’t really want to go there.

Seriously, …yuck!

My point is of course that trivializing generalizations are a stick in the side of lots of folks, not just atheists. This is just the tip of the iceberg, a larger problem looms beneath the surface. And no, I didn’t just choose that image, because I live in Alaska; I actually thought about it and decided that it would be the best metaphor I could… well, anyway… the point is that this is part of a larger problem.

In the classic formulation of the problem, humans seem to possess a nearly universal tendency to explain other people’s actions (particularly those we don’t like) as a function of some consistent feature of their own personality while explaining our own actions in terms of situational factors. This tendency has generally been described as the Fundamental Attribution Error, or alternatively, as a function of Actor-Obeserver Asymmetry. What does this mean? Well, it means the reason you didn’t pay your bill on time this month is because of those unexpected medical expenses, the repair bill for the car, and well, it was little Johnny’s birthday, and you had to get him something… (You know the story). The reason your friend didn’t pay you the money he owes you? Well, he’s just a lazy bastard!

Okay, so that’s classical attribution theory, at least if you add a little salt to the vocabulary. Recent studies have shown that this basic contrast between situational versus dispositional explanations doesn’t quite explain the full range of data on this topic. Not to worry, a replacement theory is available, and it seems to illustrate the same point, albeit with a little less flair. The folk-conceptual theory approaches this same phenomenon by suggesting that people apply a range of different folk models to explain their own behavior and those around them. Depending on just how much one identifies with a person whose behavior they seek to explain, he/she is likely to adopt radically different descriptions of the behavior in question. One of the variables, for example is a difference between offering a reason for a behavior as its explanation and offering a history of reasoning as its explanation.

Case in point?

Saying; “I don’t believe in the Christian God, because the problem of evil renders this notion incoherent,” or conversely, saying; “I believe in God, because aspects of DNA coding appear to be irreducibly complex, and hence they require more of an explanation than chance evolution could provide.” What both of these explanations for a belief have in common is that each serves to explain a belief and at the same time to advance an active case for it. Conversely, saying “That guy Johnny, well he believes what he believes, because he has a deep fear of death (or Hell).” This latter sort of explanation describes a stage in a causal chain of behavior, one which doesn’t actively make much of a case for Johnny’s beliefs. In fact, the explanation undermines his credibility. The bottom line here is that we are looking at two different types of explanation, and the choice of which type to offer depends an awful lot on the disposition of the speaker towards the behavior/belief in question.

People thus have different ways of explaining behavior that they value and behavior that they don’t, and those differences serve more to shift the narrative around our feet than they do to set up a straight-forward evaluation of the issue. I really do think this is the key to the problem addressed in that meme above. People use dismissive explanations for beliefs they don’t identify with while presenting the reasons for beliefs they do identify with in terms of their own judgements.

You can see this consistently in the sphere of religious and philosophical discussions wherein you and I can supply all manner of thoughtful reasons for the judgements we’ve made, but that guy over there? Well, you know where he was raised and how his parents are! And all those people in the church on the corner? Well, they just have to believe in something; it fills a void somehow; they really are just brained washed aren’t they!?!

…and so on.

I’m including you in the good and thoughtful narrative of course, dear reader, but that’s just because you are reading my blog. When you’re gone I’m going to tell my other friend that you just had a traumatic experience.


The bottom line is that it’s difficult to disentangle the full range of human motivation, and when we do this for religion, the tendency is to do it in a way that privileges one’s own judgement while trivializing that of others. Folks we identify with can enjoy praise by association, and those that we don’t, well damn them anyhow, right? They really need to learn to think for themselves!

So, why do I like this meme? Well, it took me down that path just now, and lucky you, I brought you along for the ride. I guess this is yet another instance of ‘liking’ something not quite meaning that I agree with it.

This meme is a good answer to half of the actor-observer bias.

…and it’s a damned good illustration of the other half.

I suppose that is something of a win-win situation.