Skepticism, Atheism, and the Good Life

Image courtesy of Exsodus at

Image courtesy of Exsodus at

Where do we find the good life? The ancient Greeks, our earliest philosophical forebears in the West, thought the highest aim of reason was to answer just this kind of question. Nowadays we often think of reason as allied to the twin aims of (1) scientific skepticism, that is, following the results of consensus science as our best route to knowledge of the world, and (2) naturalistic atheism, the lack of belief in God or other supernatural entities.

This alliance has I think led people to believe, or at least assume, that the best sort of life is that of the rigorous, skeptical atheist: the person who takes no BS, and who is obsessively careful about what they believe.

Emotion or Belief?

But who really leads the better life: one who is legitimately controlled in his actions, slow to anger, with few desires, friendly and open, and yet who has certain false beliefs about science? Or one who is who is accurate in his beliefs about science but quick to anger and irritation, desirous of much?

Similarly, who leads the better life: a theist who is liberal in views, undogmatic, simple in desires and slow to anger? Or an atheist who is greedy, prejudiced, and irritable?

Each has advantages and disadvantages, we may say. The correct knowledge of science helps one to navigate a world of consumerism and complex health care options with greater success: the knowledgeable will avoid those products and services which are based on false studies or empty marketing. They will avoid wasting time on hopeless projects, such as that of finding Bigfoot, or UFOs. They will be more prone to work for political solutions to important problems such as global warming, or child vaccination.

On the other hand, one’s success in engaging with science will likely be curtailed if one ordinarily displays irritability and selfishness. Some of our more prominent science defenders have dealt with significant public backlash for an inability to curb such anger.

Similarly, one may say (although this is somewhat less amenable to evidence-based argumentation), the atheist avoids wasting time in meaningless ceremonies on Sunday. But many years working with secular atheists leads me to realize I would often rather spend time with a liberal Christian than an illiberal atheist. Lack of belief in a God or gods guarantees little.

It would be best to be both accurate in one’s beliefs and controlled in one’s actions, of course: to be both knowledgeable and wise, as it were. But if someone put the proverbial gun to your head and asked you to choose knowledge or wisdom, which would it be? I have no doubt that many skeptics and atheists would unhesitatingly claim to want to continue as skeptics and atheists, damn the greed and anger. But this I think is due more to what psychologist Robert Cialdini termed the “consistency principle” than to a clear survey of the options. We like to be consistent in our beliefs. What this means in practice is that when we are publicly identified with a particular position, be it a bet on a racehorse or an affirmation of a view about epistemology, we are more likely to cling to it than when we are not so publicly identified. Many internet skeptics and atheists cling very strongly to that self-identification.

Anger and greed are painful and ultimately debilitating emotions. It is true that they energize us to action, but it is energy that ultimately does not work to our best interest. Anger divides us from others, hardens disagreement, and provokes further anger. Greed tends to isolate us from others with whom we see ourselves as in competition for resources; it holds out the false hope that ownership brings happiness.

While the ignorant person is misdirected when it comes to particular topics, such as science or religion, the unwise person is misdirected in a more general sense. Their every action is liable to be tainted, even that which is ostensibly correct in a scientific or (anti-) theological sense. Great scientists do themselves no favors by being crabbed or avaricious.

On the other hand, the wise but ignorant may at least be pleasant, friendly, and happy. And those who are slow to anger, without pretense or ego, may be quicker to learn and discard false beliefs than those who cling to them as prize possessions. Wisdom will tend to weaken attachment to false beliefs, in the face of evidence. It is, however, very difficult to argue someone out of greed or anger.

It is not just that we set the bar low in aiming for knowledge and not wisdom. It is that we aim at the wrong end.

The person skilled in scientific knowledge may indeed come, by that route, to know that certain actions are likely to make themselves and others happier (viz., kindness, charity), and that other actions are likely to make themselves and others unhappier (viz., anger, greed). It is further possible that such a person may use this knowledge to become wise. But while this is a theoretical possibility, I think on balance it is unlikely; it would constitute, after all, only a very small part of the scientific endeavor. Science is too large for any to master it completely.  As well, the state-of-the-art in science is a long way from spelling out precisely the route to happiness, if indeed the notion of happiness is even scientifically tractable. The psychological study of the good life is in its infancy.

Looking to History

Think of some paradigmatically wise people, such as Socrates or the Buddha. Neither were by modern standards knowledgeable about scientific matters. Both, as it happens, believed in rebirth and supernatural entities. But nevertheless both led lives of admirable kindness and selflessness. Indeed, looking at both historical figures we can begin to see how wisdom is not bound to the advances of knowledge: it is a characteristic along a different path, at an angle to knowledge as it were.

A person living in a cave ten thousand years ago could have been wise. He could not, by modern standards, have been scientifically knowledgeable.

I do not mean to suggest that skepticism and atheism should not be pursued as reasonable and skillful methods for apprehending the world. They are indeed both reasonable and skillful: we should be naturally skeptical in all our pursuits, and indeed skeptical of claims to wisdom. Scientific knowledge is good: in the fullness of time it may, indeed, point us the surest route towards wisdom. But it would be a mistake to take the simple accumulation of scientific knowledge as an adequate answer to the age-old question of how to live a truly good life.



Robert Cialdini, Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, Rev. Ed. (New York: William Morrow, 1993).

No Comments

  1. Mark Knickelbine on April 11, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    I certainly agree that skepticism alone is not the basis for growing happiness and attenuating suffering. I would add one caveat, one that is especially keen for me after reading the work of Ayyan Hirsi Ali. Given religion’s usefulness for establishing in and out groups, ruling society by shame, stirring irrational hatred, and generally closing down critical thinking, I believe that moving toward a society in which religious skepticism were more prevalent would help create conditions in which values like compassion and respect for human rights could grow. Atheists may not be better, happier people simply by virtue of their unbelief; but they are at least a bit more immune from entire classifications of suffering and cruelty. Someone who firmly believes that they must suffer through a life of abuse because God commands it has little hope of living a better life.

    • Doug Smith on April 11, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      Thanks, Mark. Agreed that certain religious views and practices, such as the ones you note which are typical of fundamentalist religion, are unskillful in many ways. Fortunately many believers are not fundamentalist; they are moderate. I think it is not really the belief in God or gods that is so much the problem as the rigid ideological fundamentalism.

      Ideological fundamentalism can also be a problem for atheists (and atheist Buddhists!), although we see it less today.

      • Mark Knickelbine on April 12, 2016 at 8:47 am

        Perhaps, but as we can see in the case of religious violence perpetrated by both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, it is the moderates who help facilitate the radicals by refusing to condemn their beliefs. Moderates maintain the illusion that irrational belief in human-made mythology is acceptable so long as it doesn’t stir up trouble. So we see the phenomenon of the children of moderate, secular Muslim families in Europe and the USA becoming radicalized and going off to join ISIS. Whether it leads to abuse or not, religion is always on some level about believing that “a man should not lean unto his own understanding,” and this latent concept is what is so useful when it’s time to stir up irrational behavior.

        • jscottanderson on April 12, 2016 at 5:23 pm

          I don’t think “refusing to condemn” is a failing at all. The failing is in providing a coherent alternative. When young people see the world as people with “winners” and “losers” they obviously want to be the former, but most liberal traditions don’t address the real crux of the matter which is founded on this illusion that one might choose a “right” side and thus be a “winner”. Having been raised in a liberal protestant tradition I felt dissatisfaction with what seemed like empty parables and was drawn to the idea of something radical like being “saved” by letting go of everything and turning my life and will over to Jesus Christ. While this failed for me, in retrospect I was pretty close there. It is clinging that was at the root of all the conflict in my life. I think fundamentalist approaches are appealing on that basis, but the clinging is simply replaced with a group-sanctioned clinging.

          • Mark Knickelbine on April 13, 2016 at 12:11 pm

            jscott, I take your point about providing an alternative, and this is what Muslim reformers are trying desperately to conceptualize now. But my larger point is that the notion of religious revelation trumping reason and rationality is always latent in any religious context, and is therefore available to be exploited (such as when non-observant secular Muslims are radicalized).

  2. Jennifer Hawkins on April 11, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    Great article.

  3. Robert M. Ellis on April 12, 2016 at 1:28 am

    Good to see you addressing these issues, Doug. I agree with you that wisdom is more important than specific scientific knowledge, but I’m surprised that you don’t make more use of the scientific evidence available about what constitutes wisdom and its opposite (what I’d call dogmatism or absolutism, and that I assume is related to your ‘rigid ideological fundamentalism’). Cognitive psychology, for example, tells us a great deal about the distortions that can intervene in preventing us from learning from experience. Then brain lateralisation in neuroscience gives lots of evidence about why people adhere to rigid positions. All of that suggests that, more broadly, dogmatism is not specific to religion (although of course it’s often instantiated in religion), but is a feature of human brains and a side-effect of our cognitive abilities.

  4. mufi on April 12, 2016 at 7:51 am

    Doug: For any skeptic or atheist who has sharpened his/her teeth in online battles with religious fundamentalists, this seems a particularly hard lesson to learn.

    That said, I’ve always felt like a novice in the (scientific) knowledge dept. It took a bit longer to realize how much of a novice I am in the (philosophical) wisdom dept., as well.

    Thank you for writing down and sharing this important piece of wisdom.

  5. Gregory Clement on April 12, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks very much Doug for an interesting and stimulating article. That said I think you are presenting the alternatives a bit unfairly. You write as though there is some kind of conflict between wisdom and knowledge. You think it is better to be wise than knowledgeable and I’m sure you are right, but you seem to be smuggling in the idea that wise people are unlikely to be knowledgeable and knowledgeable people are unlikely to be wise. A nice Christian is likely to be happier and better company than an unkind atheist. So what? This is not an argument against atheism. Why would we imagine that Christians are likely to be wise and atheists lacking in wisdom?

    I think you conflate knowledge and rationality. A rational person would readily admit that their knowledge was limited and imperfect. They do however have a good method of correcting errors and acquiring new knowledge.

    I don’t think wisdom and knowledge occupy such water-tight compartments as you imply. Your notion of wisdom seems to include knowledge of how to do things: how to manage ones own emotional life and how to relate appropriately to others. Rational enquiry and scientific investigation have a part to play in helping us to develop these skills. People with very odd beliefs (knowledge claims, we might say) may be lead to behave in ways that it is hard to see as wise. They may feel that their god wants them to act in ways that most people see as cruel or crazy.

    So, how to live a good life? Listen to the ideas of wise people both ancient and modern. Use sceptical reason to test out their ideas in your own life. Learn from them but never, never allow yourself to be seduced by soothing nonsense.

    • Doug Smith on April 13, 2016 at 5:21 am

      Thanks for the reply, Gregory. I certainly understand why you might have thought I was highlighting a conflict between wisdom and knowledge, in that I was trying to contrast them. However I assure you that was the farthest thing from my mind. Wisdom and knowledge are allied virtues, much like say courage and kindness are, or equanimity and generosity. And indeed wisdom is made more effective when it is combined with knowledge.

      Reason, as you note, is a separate case; one I think that is more closely allied to wisdom than knowledge. The Buddha and Socrates were generally very rational, very interested in argument and evidence, but not very knowledgeable by contemporary scientific standards.

      Another issue that I did not touch on is the difference between general (one might say) ‘lived’ knowledge, knowledge of how to live properly in the world, and scientific knowledge. A person in a cave might have a great deal of lived knowledge even while knowing nothing at all about science.

      Certainly agree with all you say about folks with odd beliefs, and about using skeptical reason properly.

      • Gregory Clement on April 13, 2016 at 11:08 am

        Doug, we are in complete agreement and have nothing to argue about. What a pity!

  6. jscottanderson on April 12, 2016 at 5:34 pm

    I highly recommend the book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn. He helped me greatly with my underestimation of those who seem ignorant in light of present knowledge. The world we inhabit is a world changed by all that has come to pass and we err in imagining that we somehow are more correct than, for example Socrates or Gautama. The nature of a revolution is that the world is recreated. Gautama certainly understood this. When we study the teaching we are witnessing the wisdom of ages.

  7. jscottanderson on April 12, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    P.S. Thanks Doug. This has provided me with food for contemplation.

  8. Michael Finley on April 13, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Once again, Doug, a nice, truly thought-provoking, piece.

    I think it is very important to recognize that “wisdom and knowledge are allied virtues.” I’ve said around here that “Buddhism is a Humanism.” I begin to think that maybe it would be better to say “Humanism needs Buddhism” (apologies to another French sloganeer whose name I forget) — that is, the kind of wisdom that can be found in secular Buddhism (not exclusively, of course) complements scientific, atheistic knowledge.

    A scientific world-view clears away a lot of misunderstanding about the way the world works, including about our own nature — and besides, once you’ve learned that the sun is a ball of hot gas, it’s hard to go back to worshiping it — but it’s not enough in itself to find the good life. Probably this is much the same as you’ve suggested. I just want to stress the extent to which I think “knowledge” can be, at least for us moderns, a foundation which is completed by the kind of “wisdom” you are talking about.

  9. Denzel on May 6, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    I often find my self intimidated by such an erudite and learned crowd, but I hope I can contribute at a more “gut” level. I spent over 25 years managing health care professionals who were known to butt heads. When asked for my thoughts, I would often ask”would you rather be right or do right?” This may be one point of the article……sometimes ya gotta be right (life and death). But most of the time if people try to do right, we can together find a way to a compassionate wisdom that people need to navigate some very hard decisions.

    • Mark Knickelbine on May 10, 2016 at 7:36 am

      Denzel, I think you make an excellent point. Engaging in philosophy about ethics is a useful exercise, but ultimately when we have to make moment to moment decisions, going with your gut — in fact, going with all the places in the body that reverberate emotionally, such as the solar plexus, the heart, and the throat — is the best real-time guide to what’s motivated by compassion and what isn’t.

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