Rationalist Dogma

Greta Christina

We rationalists love to think we don’t have dogma. We love to think that we’re open-minded freethinkers, considering every idea based on evidence, reason, and solid-but-flexible morality.

We’re wrong. I want to talk about just a few examples of rationalist dogma, dogma that supposedly serves rationalism and freethought while actually undercutting them.

“We should always be willing to listen to people who disagree with us.”

Disagree about what, exactly? Whether women are inferior and born to serve men? Whether black people are subhuman? Whether gay people are destroying the moral fabric of humanity? Do we really need to listen to any of that?

Some ideas are beyond the pale. Some ideas are dehumanizing. When we treat them as simple disagreements that people should listen to, we’re making these ideas seem reasonable.

What’s more, insisting that we listen to disagreement presumes that we haven’t been. Trust me—it is impossible to be a woman without hearing that you’re inferior to and are born to serve men. We hear it thousands of times, hundreds of thousands, from the day we’re born until the day we die. Telling us we have to listen even more if we want to be good rationalists is telling us to open ourselves up to a barrage of contempt and abuse.

And rationalists using this dogma are wildly inconsistent about it. When a street preacher with a bullhorn tells them God’s judgment is at hand, they don’t say, “I disagree, but tell me more.” They get on with their lives. They’ve considered this idea and rejected it, and without some extremely convincing evidence, they’re not going to consider it again.

Uncharitable translation of this dogma: “When I disagree with you, you should listen.”

“The best response to a bad idea is a good idea.”

Whenever people say this, I have to wonder what world they’ve been living in. Bad ideas beat good ones all the time. Ideas often flourish if they cater to people’s greed, irrational fear, in-group identity, desire to feel right and superior, or short-term self-interest. Good ideas that require work, long-term thinking, self-examination, or even a small amount of self-sacrifice will often wither and die—or struggle simply to stay alive.

What’s more, when we calmly debate bad ideas, we’re giving them a certain amount of credibility and a wider platform. We’re making them seem like ideas worth debating within the mainstream of acceptable thought. (We understand this with some issues: we have serious discussions about whether we should debate creationists for exactly this reason.) And this bit of dogma assumes that people have infinite time and energy for fighting bad ideas.

Good ideas are often an effective response to bad ones. We’ve all changed people’s minds, and had our own minds changed, by good ideas. But that’s not the only tool in the toolbox. Here’s another good one: open, passionate contempt. People often decide what they believe, not based on evidence and argument but based on what other people believe. When the people around them are homophobic, they think it’s acceptable. When the people around them are pro-LGBT—and when they treat the acceptance of LGBT people as an obvious norm and treat homophobia as a vile absurdity—people are more likely to be pro-LGBT. If we want to change minds, it’s very powerful to show that decent people find some ideas simply unacceptable.

Uncharitable translation of this dogma: “If you’re not winning, it’s because your ideas are bad.”

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

This is a great idea in theory. When we expose bad ideas and give them platforms and microphones, people will see how bad they are—right? But see above. Bad ideas often flourish. Good ideas often don’t win.

When we give platforms and microphones to bad ideas, you know what happens? More people hear them. If the ideas tug at people’s fears or desires, more people will accept them. Shining the light on bad ideas makes them more visible to more people.

A powerful and distressing example of this, and one with effects that reach all of us, is online discourse. For years now, thousands of online discussion sites have been unmoderated—or barely moderated with few guidelines and little enforcement—on the principle that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and social pressure will drive out bigots and trolls. What happens is exactly the opposite. Terrible people deluge the spaces with terrible ideas; decent people with good ideas leave these spaces, beaten down by the abuse and exhausted from arguing against ugliness and bad faith. And of course, this is a vicious circle. The proportion of bigotry and hatred in these spaces goes up and up—making bigotry and hatred seem even more common than it is and reinforcing the worst and most extreme examples of it. And of course, these spaces become platforms to spread the ideas and a place for their proponents to organize. Sunlight isn’t a disinfectant here. Sunlight creates a warm, welcoming space for the infection—a social infection that we’re all dealing with. These online spaces are one of the main breeding grounds for the so-called alt-right, giving real political power to misogynists, extreme bigots, and actual Nazis.

Uncharitable translation of this dogma: “You should give your platform to people with repulsive ideas.” (Or else, “It’s okay to be cheap or lazy and not do the work of moderating your spaces.”)

You may have noticed a common thread among these pieces of dogma: “The best. Always.” What makes them dogma is absolutism. They’re brought in like a hammer of judgment. They don’t shed light on a disagreement. They shut it down.

There are germs of good ideas in all these bits of dogma. Sunlight is one good disinfectant. Good ideas are one good response to bad ones. It’s often good to listen to people who disagree with us. But we need to recognize that these are simply some ideas among many. We need to consider them with nuance, recognize that they’re appropriate in some contexts and not others. When we replace nuance and context with absolutism, we turn ideas into dogma.

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is an author, blogger at The Orbit, and speaker. Her latest book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).


When we replace nuance and context with absolutism, we turn ideas into dogma.

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