How deluded are you?

Atheists are fond of describing religious believers as deluded. I know and sympathise because I do so myself. People who believe in religions are deluded. They are not the only ones, of course, and there is a whole slew of fantastical beliefs that people routinely profess which only a sadly deluded person could possibly accept.

People are not deluded only with respect to the supernatural but in other areas as well. Have you never responded to an offer that you knew was “too good to be true” and turned out to be precisely that? Or take politics: do you support a particular party through thick and thin, never doubting that it is the only party that is fit to govern? Then you are severely deluded. Practically a basket-case.

Or do you believe that you can clear the wax from your ears with Hopi candles or that turning over your silver at New Moon will bring luck for the ensuing month? Such silly little fantasies don’t do any good but possibly don’t do much harm, either (apart from scalding your ears with hot wax), but what of the greater delusions?

We atheists, wearing our rationalist hats, like to think we are clear-eyed and clear thinking, led by experience, not by self-serving myths; that we are, in a word, realists. But is this true? Can any of us lay our hand on our heart and swear that this is completely and absolutely true? Of course not. Atheists, freethinkers, rationalists – call us what you will -, we are as prone to delusion as the common run of humanity. The hope is that we know this, acknowledge it and do our best at all times to see through the delusion instead of clutching it to our bosom and worshipping it.

One of the greatest sources of delusion is words. This of course puts us in a grave situation because we rely on words not only to express our thoughts but also to think them in the first place. It is so easy to be carried away by words, not only other people’s but also our own. How often, in an argument, for example, have you become inflamed by your own rhetoric and ended up saying things you should never have said and that you truly regret saying, because you temporarily believed your own words, despite knowing them to be false?

Modern politics has given us a basketful of words and phrases. Two of these are “spin” and “being economical with the truth”. Both mean deliberately setting out to delude people, usually us, the public. This is at its most cynical when the perpetrators don’t really expect us to believe what they say but to act as though we do. The whole ID card debate is based on this, the idea that the government can get us to behave as though ID cards will protect us from terrorists, prevent benefit fraud, etc. etc. when the government itself has admitted that it will do none of these things.

“Disinformation”, “spin”, “economy with the truth”, etc., all represent great dangers because they delude us and cloud reality, confusing us and sending us off on the wrong track, like sheep panicked into running over a cliff by the howling of wolves. It is enough that others seek to delude us; we must not join in the game by deluding ourselves.

But how are we to avoid this? It is not easy, I agree. I believe that logic and critical thinking should be taught in school so that children learn at an early age to see through the deceits of politicians, quacks, evangelists and all manner of snake-oil salesmen. It’s unlikely to happen, though, because government, industry and commerce have a vested interest in keeping us gullible. We are going to have to teach ourselves.

Fortunately, there are clear-eyed, clear-thinking people out there. My hero A.C. Grayling is one but there are others too. We must learn from their wise words but also watch our own. Next time you hear yourself say “I don’t believe I just said that!” take the lesson and take it to heart.

Only bigots never learn from their mistakes and never change their minds when they are wrong.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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10 Responses to How deluded are you?

  1. jonolan says:

    LOL Atheism is – in it’s modern, Dawkins-esq incarnation – just as much of a religion as anything that theist use. It takes faith, not logic to be an atheist.

    Logic would dictate a strict agnosticism, since we can neither prove nor disprove a godhead. We’re inside the system and can only poorly extrapolate causal sources from their secondary effects.

    Of course my opinions are quite slanted since I wrote a quite similar post on my own blog. Out of politeness I won’t link to it here (bad form don’t you know?) but you might want to stop by a read it; the comments have been interesting and mostly flame-free.

    Well written post, BTW!

  2. SilverTiger says:

    Incorrect, Jonolan. Atheism does not require faith – just the opposite. The atheist accepts only that for which there is adequate evidence.

    I don’t think you can have read Dawkins’ The God Delusion sufficiently attentively. You could try Julian Baggini’s little book Atheism which covers all the arguments in a non-polemical way and has the virtue of brevity.

    Agnosticism is as irrational as religion because it accepts that there might be a god when there is no reason to think this. It is the classic stance of the fence-sitter.

  3. jonolan says:


    Atheism requires faith because the atheist denies that for which there is no adequate evidence against. Are the Gods? We don’t know and can’t prove it either way.

    Those “fence-sitters” are the only ones operating on pure logic and evidence. All their rest of us operate on faith and conviction.

  4. SilverTiger says:

    Then you must believe an awful lot of silly things simply because their existence cannot be disproved. If I assert that a green one-legged kangaroo who recites Shakespeare sonnets lives in Epping Forest then by your lights you must accept that this is possible because no one can disprove it. You have to accept any ridiculous nonsense that I throw at you.

    Agnostics are simply people who cannot quite give up the idea that there might be a god. This shows muddled thinking, not clarity.

    Last time I looked there is no reason to postulate a god in the first place and therefore I see no reason to waste my time debating the issue. If you do have evidence, then please post it on your blog. You will create a sensation, believe me.

  5. Big John says:

    I was going to write a serious comment backing you up Tiger, but I’m now a bit short of time as I’m off to Epping Forest with my tape recorder. 😀

  6. SilverTiger says:

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,
    Thou lovely hopping thing, so greenly fair…?

  7. emalyse says:

    Don’t you think both points of view can easily package themselves with lots of heel digging dogma that does neither ‘side’ any favours. Atheism (and at the extremes it is in danger of becoming an ‘ism’) needs to stop assuming that a counter point is the product of a state close to idiocy. I’m a humanist by instinct and it’s is often the lack of a humanist core that can alienate me from both the dogma and self righteousness of both religious belief and of late some of the attempts to argue or debate an atheist viewpoint.
    It’s understandable as when people care about things (politics, religion, Mac or PC) then things can get heated when it becomes hard to understand why the other person lives the way they do.I would argue that keeping a seat free on the late bus of agnosticism is also a realists prerogative as life tells me (so far anyway) that I can never be 100% certain of anything (least of all that this illusion of life isn’t just a figment of mine or somebody else’s imagination.Maybe I’m deluded in my own way because of my own misinterpretation of my own life experiences.We all are to some extent.

  8. SilverTiger says:

    We do not condemn a perfectly reasonable philosophy because someone somewhere has carried it to extremes. If we do that, then no viewpoint can ever be held.

    If people want to be religious, that’s their own business, as far as I am concerned, provided always that they do not inflict the religion or its consequences on the rest of us. The current fad for being “offended” and demanding redress is one obvious way in which the religious can and do inflict the consequences of their religion on us.

    There is no place for agnosticism in a rational world. If you accept agnosticism then you have to accept anything that anyone proposes without any good evidence, from the Loch Ness monster to a god that demands amputation of thieves’ hands. Too many “liberals” fail to understand this point. Agnosticism in not open-minded; it is the first unravelling of reason.

    The fact that we are all deluded, at least potentially, was the central thesis of my post. What matters is not that we can be deluded but that we make our best efforts to see through the delusion. Voluntarily subscribing to a fantasy view of the world (e.g. a religion) effectively disables you from seeing through delusion.

  9. I missed this post somehow and now am rather late.

    I have always avoided groups, cliques, clans – because to join them you are giving up something of yourself, committing yourself to the ideals of others. It’s also because I am an anti-social person who hates to listen to others wax lyrical about stuff that might not interest me. I do not believe in God or any other religious icon but I also do not wish to label myself “atheist” because that makes me part of a group again. I don’t need a label to think what I think or do what I do.

    With regard to my children, the only lesson I really try to drum home to them is to be as unsheeplike as possible – to not follow others without being sure it is what they themselves want to do. If they can resist peer-pressure and take the time to think through even small things before doing them, then I think they will do OK. And mostly it seems to work – one of them finds it much harder than the others, he is more eager to please, less sure of his own opinions. If a religious sect came a-calling looking for recruits, it is him I would lock away, I would have no fears for the others!

  10. SilverTiger says:

    I don’t think that calling yourself an atheist does make you part of a group. “I am an atheist” nowadays means “I do not believe in gods or other supernatural beings, realms or influences.” It is a convenient shorthand. How else do you say all that? (Other than by saying nothing, of course.)

    I don’t like the word “atheist” for reasons I have explained elsewhere but I think I am stuck with it, since “humanist”, “freethinker”, “rationalist”, etc. don’t necessarily cover the ground but introduce other implications.

    I don’t belong to groups, movements or associations, either, but I have opinions and think it reasonable to express them. Saying I am an atheist expresses one set of my opinions. It does not make me a member of a group.

    Learning to think for oneself is extremely important. It is a grave weakness of modern British education that it neglects this. I suspect that this neglect is not accidental.

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