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 IAmAnAtheist » 2Q


To begin your process of introspection and philosophical growth, you need to ask yourself two questions — what I call 2Q. These questions are based on philosophical concepts you already agree with, so you should have no trouble accepting their validity.

During the course of each day, as issues of philosophy, morals, and opinion come to mind, apply these two questions to them. If the answer to each question is “no,” then you are well on your way. If either answer is “yes,” then odds are that your opinions are in need of further consideration.

Q1: “Does My Philosophy Contradict Itself?”

You should not have two beliefs that contradict each other. That just makes sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that you might think it’s silly to even consider — how could you have two beliefs that contradict each other? In the real world, this happens more often than you might expect.

For example, your philosophy may contradict itself if:

Sometimes contradictions are more subtle. For example, you may be contradicting yourself if you believe in freedom of thought but chastise your teenage child for questioning something she was told in church. Or you might think that stealing is wrong but justify some little thefts as “not really stealing.”

This first question — Q1 — is usually the easiest to ask yourself. Just take a mental step back from the topic at hand and ask yourself if your opinion on this matter contradicts your opinion on related — even loosely related — matters. It can be applied to politics, personal relationships, moral issues, religious philosophy, or pretty much any topic you come across where an opinion is needed. If you find that your philosophy contradicts itself, then you are committing what I’ll call a “Q1 violation.”

Q2: “Would I Condemn Another for Reasoning as I Do?”

If you are reasoning in a logical, rational way, then you shouldn’t have any problem with other people reasoning in the same way, right? For example, if you think that your child should not be allowed to wear a shirt with a certain slogan on it because it offends you, then you shouldn’t criticize another parent who doesn’t want their child to wear a shirt with a slogan that offends them. But what if the slogan the other parent objects to doesn’t offend you? It doesn’t matter. You might argue that the other parent shouldn’t be offended (that’s a different subject), but you can’t argue about how they’re acting on their feelings since you are doing the same thing.

As you can see, this second question — Q2 — is a little more abstract than the first, and it may take a little practice before asking it becomes second nature.

Ask yourself Q2 any time you are drawing a conclusion. If you might consider someone wrong if they were reasoning in the same way, then you have committed what I’ll call a “Q2 violation” and need to reexamine your thinking.

Because the second question is a little esoteric, a couple more examples might be helpful.

Let’s say it’s election time and there are two candidates, A and B. You decide to vote for A because something about the way B acts strikes you as insincere. Now let’s say that you have a friend who is voting for B because something about A’s appearance makes her feel like A is sneaky. Can you criticize your friend’s thinking? No. Even though you are reaching different conclusions, you and your friend are reasoning in the same way — you are both voting against a candidate because you don’t like the feeling you get from that candidate. You might discuss whether your and your friend’s feelings about the candidates are valid, but you can’t condemn how those feelings are being used unless you are willing to change your own thinking.

Another example: Let’s say you keep kosher and won’t eat at Bob’s Diner because they don’t keep their meat and dairy products separate. You have your lunch at Ernie’s Deli instead. Now let’s say you invite your friend to lunch, but he won’t go to Ernie’s Deli because he’s a vegetarian and Ernie’s doesn’t use separate preparation surfaces for meat and vegetables (your friend won’t eat at Bob’s Diner either). Even if you’re not a vegetarian, you have to respect your friend’s reason for not eating at these restaurants because he’s following the same line of thinking you are, just with different premises.

Emotions, Intuition, Moral Sense, Faith, and Degree of Skepticism

You’ve got 2Q under your belt, but before you start putting the questions to use you need to know one more thing: 2Q is a great way to detect bad thinking, but that doesn’t mean that everyone using the system will reach the same conclusions.

The reason for this is that opinions are based on more than just reasoning. They are also based on emotions, intuition, moral sense, faith, and degree of skepticism (among other things).


Everyone has emotions. You love, you hate, you like and dislike. Some things make you feel creepy; other things scare you, thrill you, make you laugh, or fill you with inspiration. Your feelings are impacted by your life experiences, personal preferences, culture, genetic disposition, and tastes, and they are unique to you.

No two people have the same feelings, and you can’t say that one person’s feelings are more meaningful than another person’s feelings. You might think, for example, that it’s silly for someone to be afraid of cows because their uncle was killed by a cow, but that doesn’t change the fact that this person’s fear of cows is a real thing and should be treated as such. You might consider this fear irrational, and you might try to help them overcome it, but you can’t tell them that they don’t feel what they feel.


Intuition is the feeling that you suddenly know something — a sensation of knowledge, if you will. When we talk about a police officer playing a hunch or the feeling that there’s someone you can’t see in the room with you, that’s intuition.

Some people believe that intuition is knowledge sent from a higher power. Others see it as your brain reaching a conclusion based on knowledge not in your consciousness’ foreground — such as a barely heard footstep or recognition of a subtle pattern. Whatever you think intuition is, most people agree that it is not a source of compelling knowledge unless you have a track record of accurate intuition in a specific area.

So if you have a feeling that there is someone standing in the shadows, you might be justified to go check out the shadows. You would not, however, be justified to testify in court that you were not alone in the room. But if a firefighter with decades of experience tells you not to open a door in a burning building because something doesn’t feel right to him, you probably shouldn’t open the door.

Moral Sense

Most people have a moral sense — the feeling that certain things are right or wrong. Philosophers often appeal to the moral sense by asking how you would feel in a certain situation. For example, “Would you slap a baby to save a kitten?”

Moral sense should not be mistaken for morality, even though it is part of how we form our morality. There are times when our sense of right and wrong must be overridden by our intellect for the sake of reasoned morality. For example, you might feel a sense of moral repulsion at the thought of stabbing another person, but a nurse must override that repulsion when taking a blood sample.

Moral sense should be looked at carefully, much the same way intuition must. Some people believe that the moral sense is a gift from a higher power, some believe it evolved, some believe it is a product of our upbringing, and some believe it is a combination of these things. Because it may be difficult to identify the origins of moral feelings, care must be taken when assigning these feelings moral weight.


Faith comes in many forms, but for the moment we’re just concerned with the kind of faith that is characterized by belief without evidence. Pretty much everyone has faith in something; some people have faith in many things. Religious people might have faith in God or in cosmic justice. Even atheists generally have a certain amount of faith (that the universe is real, for example).

Your personal faith is going to have an impact on how you reason. For example, if you believe that there is a soul that survives after the body’s death, then you might reason very differently about the possibility that ghosts exist than would someone who thinks that death is the end of existence.

If you have faith, you will also automatically disagree with someone who has conflicting faith, even if their reasoning is otherwise identical to yours. But there is generally no way to say that one person’s faith is superior to another person’s faith (assuming that their faith is at least coherent and consistent.). If you can say that your reasons for having faith are better than someone else’s, then you’re not talking about belief without evidence any more — you’re talking about having a superior rational argument, and that’s a different animal all together.

Degree of Skepticism

Your degree of skepticism is a measure of how much evidence you need before you are convinced that something is true. On some topics, you will need very little evidence to prove something true — for example, if it’s a cloudy day and you hear what sounds like rain outside, you’ll likely say it’s raining even though there are other possible explanations for the sound. On other topics, no amount of evidence will suffice — for example, a mother might believe her child’s protest of innocence no matter how much evidence there is against him.

Some people have wildly differing degrees of skepticism. For example, you might believe that visitations by beings from other solar systems are highly likely, so any time you see something in the sky you can’t explain you assume it’s an alien spacecraft until it is proven otherwise. Or you might believe that alien visitation is so unlikely that you won’t believe extraterrestrials have visited earth until definitive proof is offered.

Another example: if one person thinks it’s highly likely that a creator god exists and one thinks it’s highly unlikely, both opinions have equal weight unless some kind of evidence can be offered.

You must be careful, though, if you find your degree of skepticism varying widely. For example, if you are not skeptical of evidence that agrees with you but very skeptical of evidence that disagrees with you, you may be experiencing a Q2 violation.

This post is based on an excerpt from Ask Yourself to be Moral, by D. Cancilla, available at LuLu.com and Amazon.com.

8 Responses

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  1. Written by 601
    on August 30, 2010 at 4:18 am
    Reply · Permalink

    “…or the feeling that there’s someone you can’t see in the room with you, that’s intuition.”

    The sense of another in proximity can be caused by a tempoary failure of the neurological system that partitions self from non-self (I can’t recall the formal name). But I would not call that intuition. A better example might be sensing the attention of someone whose past advice could be relevant to your current circumstances.

    • Written by sandra
      on October 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm
      Reply · Permalink

      Or just possibly you could be one of those people who remembers the penny that fell out of your wallet last week, where it landed, what side it landed on etc.

      So just by observation alone, that person very well could have a logical and reasonable reason to believe that there might be someone in the room with you that shouldn’t be there.

      I think, when you take away the fairy tale, magical intervention part of what the ‘subconscious’ is (meaning the trendy popular stuff that people do just because they think it looks cool or something) all you have are people who notice and take quick mental pictures of stuff and it gets put in the “back of their mind” until there is a reason for it to surface and serve a purpose.

      My two cents.

  2. Written by kent
    on September 10, 2010 at 11:52 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Maybe you’ll like this addition to your Q1 examples. My students used to find it helpful, as most of them (the non-vegetarians) could relate to it:

    “I have three conflicting beliefs:
    (1) I [believe it is OK to] eat bacon;
    (2) I do not [believe it is OK to] eat cats;
    (3) I believe there are no morally relevant differences between cats and pigs.

    Conclusion: I have conflicting beliefs, and if I am honest and rigorous it is my job to fix that problem.”

  3. Written by Kodanshi
    on September 11, 2010 at 3:56 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    These two Questions make for a magnificent first step towards living a consistent moral life. Very thought–provoking, and I shall put it to conscious practice forthwith. Thank you!

  4. Written by Synonymous
    on September 20, 2010 at 5:31 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    This is such a succinct debunking of many theistic philosophical systems! It’s what we should all aspire to is a lack of hypocrisy and a greater degree of empathy and altruism.

  5. Written by sandra
    on October 28, 2010 at 11:53 am
    Reply · Permalink

    I think I do not know the answer to any of the questions or examples posed.

    I think I probably violate q2 very often because I am uncertain about many things. Like the question, “would you slap a baby to save a kitten?”

    Though I am laughing because it is still funny, when taking the question seriously and there is an already defined criteria of what constitutes a slap, yes I probably would slap a baby on the bum or something (not really hurt them) to save a kitten. My reasoning is that “my” baby would get over it because as the mother, I know I could never really hurt my child.

    I would want to save a kitten as the expense of a swat on the bum of a child I don’t know because I know that “I” wouldn’t actually hurt the baby, yet it is not my baby. However, I would disregard the mother’s feelings about a swat on the bum to a her child if it wasn’t just a kitten and let’s say it was another child’s life, I would slap the baby.

    I really am not sure if it is right or wrong, I just know that on the other side there is a mother and there is a consequence that cannot be over come. That consequence being a child’s life and I do take into account that I might piss one mother off but it is far less devastating than a mother losing her child.

    I really don’t know what it makes me but I do feel like I am a moral person but I do have to make choices, some are simple choices, others are hard.

    To me, all I do know is that if my kid had to take a swat from a stranger to save a life, I would accept as reasonable just don’t ask me to answer any questions like, suppose that person who slapped your kid caused your child brain damage to save the other. Those are things I don’t know how I would react to and I don’t know that I could NOT feel guilty about inevitably, in some sort of way wish that it didn’t have to happen to my child, like to somehow mean that I think my child’s well being was more important than the life of the other.

    Really not sure if that makes me a hypocrite, human, stupid, selfish, unreasonable or bad. All I know is I would be grateful that the other didn’t die but resent that my child was inevitably dealt a really shitty hand.

    As for skepticism and faith. I don’t know about that either. I know what I don’t not believe or accept or think is in anyway shape or form valid as some vehemently proclaim to be the only truth.

    I do understand how some consider my thoughts ‘ignorant’ for saying those gods do not exist and they are made up but asking someone to disregard all evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt for me that it is all a lie is like asking me to approve of lies and I don’t approve.

    That goes against my ‘moral’ grain. As for aliens. I am skeptical, part of my says, it is NOT IMpossible and there is a bit of me that really wants it to be true but I wouldn’t go around ‘preaching’ that it is true but I would discuss the probability and evidence of it.

    If I saw a UFO, I would say I saw a UFO but to me, I take the term at its word. Unidentified Flying Object. I don’t believe there should be anymore to it other than saying exactly what I think.

    Yet much of that gets lost in the mainstream. UFO seem to always mean little green men, or when someone says UFO then they must be insane.

    Okay, sorry about my ramble, just good food for though.

  6. Written by Yasmin
    on October 6, 2012 at 2:22 am
    Reply · Permalink

    If most atheists actually lived by these rules I wouldn’t find them so irritating. However, what I find are:

    The Evangelical Atheist: This is the idiot who hates religions that proselytize, so he proselytizes against religion. That’s a violation of Q1.

    The “All Religions are like the one I have knowledge about” Atheist: This is the atheist who was raised, usually, in a predominant Christian society and she consistently goes back to arguments against Christianity, regardless of the religion she is faced with. For example, “Hinduism has so much misogyny in it, which is just like Christianity because of X….” This is a violation of Q2, because the same atheist would condemn a religious person if they criticized atheism via their own religious point of view.

    So in short, if you hate it when people try to convert you stop trying to convert me, and for the sake of rationalism please stop assuming that any issues you found with Christianity are also present in my religion. I have met my share of misogynistic atheists so it’s not as if I leave my beliefs I’ll live in a world full of magical unicorns and gender/racial equality.

    Oh and I’d love to have coffee with the person who wrote this article. It’s very well written and I think it’s a great tool for everyone, regardless of their faith.

    • Written by IDeclare
      on October 6, 2012 at 11:48 am
      Reply · Permalink

      It’s not just atheists — in my experience, most people don’t live by these rules, no matter what their religious beliefs are.

      (And thanks for the coffee offer!)

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