Finally, a Psychological Explanation for Why Angry Athiests Are So Annoying

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For some (loud, argumentative) people, science isn’t just a collective endeavor to understand the world. It’s a moral system: To be unscientific is to be unethical, and they’ll be happy to tell you all about at the next housewarming party.

As that brand of atheistic evangelism exhibits, rationality taken to an extreme itself turns into ideology. In a new paper for PLOS One, psychologists Tomas Ståhl, Maarten P. Zaal, and Linda J. Skitka investigate that phenomenon, which they call moralized rationality (MR). People high in moralized rationality, the researchers say, consider it a virtue to form and evaluate beliefs based on reasoning and evidence, and a vice to rely on “less rational processes.”

Having a concept like this matters because, if political science has taught us anything, trying to change someone’s mind on an issue is largely a matter of framing it in a way that makes sense for their moral foundations — like how positioning climate change as a violation of the Earth’s sanctity opens up the ears of conservatives. The key thing about MR is realizing that even the committed empiricists among us may be bringing moral commitments to the conversation, rather than playing things coolly neutral.

The researchers — hailing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Exeter in the U.K. — did a number of experiments to test MR. As Nathan Collins noted at Pacific Standard, they started with a scale to measure a person’s level of MR, asking volunteers to rate their agreement with statements like “it is morally wrong to trust your intuitions without rationally examining them.”

In one of the experiments that followed, 262 participants recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk were presented with a hypothetical scenario: a doctor (Richard) was presented with a devoutly Christian patient (Mary) with diffuse symptoms. In both narratives, Richard told Mary to pray for her health. In one version the doctor did so in order to harness a placebo effect; in the other, he did so because he thought that God answers prayers. The higher people scored on MR, the more upset they said they were about the prayer prescription and the more they wanted Richard punished.

The most compelling experiment examined people’s “moral foundations,” a theory that’s gained lots of steam over the past couple years as a way of showing how liberals and conservatives have different ethical priorities — liberals care more about fairness and reciprocity, while conservatives emphasize loyalty and purity. In this experiment, 311 volunteers filled out the MR quiz and then read descriptions for fictitious charities that embodied different moral foundations: Project Compassion, for “care/harm”; Justice for All, for “fairness/cheating”; Giving Back to our Heroes, for “loyalty/betrayal”; In the Line of Duty, for “authority/subversion”; and Worth the Wait, for sanctity/degradation. The sixth charity was Skeptic Alliance, described as “an American nonprofit organization devoted to preventing the spread of pseudoscience, superstition, and other kinds of irrational beliefs.” As you might predict, people who scored high on moralized rationality were more likely to say they would volunteer at or donate to Skeptic Alliance over the other nonprofits. For some, rationality is a moral conviction, to the point that it guides impulses around activism, at least in the case of this study.

Seeing rationality as a moral grounding sheds light on why debates between angry atheists and true believers get so heated — it’s conviction versus conviction. “More specifically, these results suggest that they may be motivated by their conviction that it is morally wrong to rely on beliefs that are not backed up by logic and evidence,” the authors write. “To the extent that this is the case, it could also help explain why their argumentative style frequently comes off as angry and intolerant.” As usual, the Onion may have captured it best: “Guy In Philosophy Class Needs To Shut The Fuck Up.”