The Wall Street Journal has a piece about some research that demonstrated that, contrary to what might be expected, atheists tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians. Of course one could quibble that a belief in many evangelical Christian tenets involves a belief in the paranormal and in pseudoscience, but you still get the drift nonetheless.
Prompted by this article, David Friedman suggests that high levels of irrationality amongst atheists may result from the fact that whilst science answers problems to do with explanations of reality, it nonetheless fails to offer any answers as to how to make sense of life or how to answer questions about what we ought to be doing and why.
"People (non-believers) responded, I think, in one of two ways. One was to retain a serious belief in the religion and reject those parts of modern science that they found inconsistent with it—in its more extreme form, the fundamentalist option. The other was to give up serious belief in the religion and adopt some substitute: Environmentalism, Liberal politics, Marxism (as in "liberation theology"), Objectivism, New Age superstitions."
Of course (given the hero status that I normally accord to Dr. Friedman), this posing of two seemingly all-inclusive alternatives left me with a couple of restless nights as I tried to conduct a mental inventory for irrational beliefs, and naturally enough it is often hard to tell which of one's theories are blatantly irrational, (particularly at 3 o'clock in the morning), but I eventually decided (tentatively) that if you (tentatively) think that all ideas are potentially wrong and that you attempt to act only upon your seemingly most appropriate theory at the time, you don't fit either of the Friedman's alternatives precisely.
Yet where does such a position leave one with regard to deciding how to make sense of life, or how to answer questions about what we ought to be doing and why?
Well, I think it wrong to think that science doesn't offer answers to these questions. Morality may be most accurately derived from explanations of reality with the use of reason and logic. For example, as far as science has shown so far, there is no evidence for life after death, and the most consistent explanations tend to point to the idea that "this is it", we have but one chance. But how could one derive answers as to how to live from with such knowledge? Well, either you can say "Ok, no point, I give up" and jump off a bridge asap, or "OK, I'll rattle along, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" or "I will strive to live every moment well." Should one happen to commit to survival, then the last would seem to make the most sense and actually I'm extraordinarily lucky enough to see plenty of examples of human beings who strive to be as rational as possible and who manage this with superb skill.
Yet for those of us who are less adept, how is one to do this?
Actually, I'm not sure if the late Dr. Randy Pausch was a religious believer, but he nonetheless offered plenty of great suggestions as to how to live well for any practicing atheist in his Last Lecture and here.
(eg: he suggests ways of achieving a great attitude towards brick walls, he sensibly suggests "don't let tomorrow wreck today" and "I'm dying and I'm having fun", plus he has an eminently sensible theory that will be familiar to most home educators which he dubs the "head fake".)