Friday, September 03, 2004

Which is easier?

Joe Carter of Evangelical Outpost doesn't like a lot of the things that I like. That's why I read him. I like getting an evangelical Christian perspective, because it's so different from mine. One thing he really dislikes is atheism, and its various sisters world-views like philosophical naturalism, methodological naturalism, philosophical materialism, physicalism, along with related views like Darwinism. In two of the most recent posts in a long line of criticisms of such views, Joe has argued that atheism is a dying perspective that requires more faith and intellectual work than theism, and is intellectually inferior to Christianity. Naturally, I disagree.

The first claim, that atheism is a dying world view, seems a bit peculiar to me. While atheism is more popular than ever among intellectuals, particularly scientists and philosophers, it has never really been prominent in the U.S. So, while atheism is thriving among a few relatively small groups, it's never really been "alive" in the general population. It's hard for a theory that's never been alive to die.

The second claim, that atheism requires more faith and intellectual work than theism, is understandable, given Joe's strong Christian beliefs, but difficult to defend without presuming those beliefs. I will admit that it is not easy to become an atheist in a culture that beats one over the head with religion on a regular basis. For this reason, it may be the case that it takes more work to become an atheist in the U.S., because one has to overcome the deeply-ingrained perspectives of Christian dogma. However, I can't for the life of me understand how it requires more faith to be an atheist. I admit that strong atheism, in which one specifically believes that the inexistence of God has been proven (through science or reason, for example) requires a lot of faith, and perhaps as much as theism. While science and reason provide structure for atheistic world views, they in no way prove the inexistence of God (negative existential are notoriously unprovable), and thus such a belief requires a leap of faith. There are many atheists, such as myself, who don't really consider the existence of God to have been disproved, though. We simply don't find the theism-atheism dichotomy interesting or instructive. For us, the concept of "God" holds no meaning in our life (aside from the obvious political and social implications of the beliefs of others), and therefore our disbelief is simply a pragmatic one. This doesn't require any real faith at all. It's not so much the belief that God doesn't exist as the absence of any belief on the matter whatsoever. We don't even have a position, because we don't find the question "Do you believe in God?" to be a valid or interesting one, at least philosophically. Some might call this position agnosticism, but that's to again phrase the position in terms of the atheism-theism dichotomy. We are not agnostics, because we don't wonder at all whether God exists or does not. We simply don't care. A friend of mine likes to call this position "apatheisim."

The third claim, that atheism is an intellectually inferior position to theism, is just an unwarranted generalization. Some atheists are stupid, and their atheism is as well. The same is true of theism. Unlike most organized theistic world views, however, atheism is not a coherent set of beliefs shared by all those to whom the label applies. My atheism is different from Madalyn Murray O'Hair's, as well as from Thomas Nagel's. The same can probably be said of most atheists. It stands to reason that some atheist world views really are inferior to some theistic world views, and that the reverse is true as well. Joe might be claiming something more specific than, "Atheist world views are inferior to theistic ones," though. He may be claiming that disbelief in God is intellectually inferior, and this, perhaps, makes most or all world views that flow out of this disbelief inferior. Joe's own argument for this belie his real reasons for feeling this way. He sees evidence for God's existence all around him, because he has started from the position that God exists. Others see no evidence for God's existence, perhaps because they started from the position that He does not exist. Depending on which perspective one takes, the other perspective looks intellectually inferior. Personally, I find theism intellectually inferior in general, because I think it too often clings to antiquated moral and philosophical positions. However, I don't think that theism itself is intellectually inferior to my atheism, and I can see no reason to think that my atheism is intellectually inferior to theism, unless I presuppose the theistic position. In the abstract at least, I think they are equally respectable positions, even if in practice, theism loses out.

To sum up, I think Joe's criticisms of atheism in these two posts fit into the category that most of his polemics against atheism and its sister perspectives. They present an interesting perspective, because they come from a strong evangelical Christian, but as intellectual arguments they are little more than tendentious personal rants. In this sense, Joe is no different from most of the atheists who criticize religion. They too tend to present unreasoned and biased arguments that would not hold water in a scholarly forum. Even so, I enjoy reading both. They're great windows into the minds of people who think differently from me.


Mark said...

Interesting note here. The fact that a belief in the supernatural is independent of one's knowledge of the natural world makes religion unattractive to me. (And a study of the natural world is certainly challenging enough).

cfg said...

The distinction you make between atheism, agnosticism and 'apatheisim' is an interesting one, and you've articulated it gracefully. I'm interested in the 'position' you hold. You place no importance on the question? Or is it just important from a social perspective?
A friend and I were discussing the points you raise and taking it further, asking what causes anyone to ever decide that any question is worth asking? I would argue that external circumstances must in general dictate the questions - would you agree? There are perhaps then some external circumstances which give more importance to the question of 'God/not-God' - maybe those near to death? Are there circumstances in which you would consider the question more important?
Sometimes I ponder a question simply because someone else has asked me, or I become interested because it's important to someone else. Clearly billions of people have considered this particular question..does that lend it any more importance?

Chris said...

cgf, the issues you raise are all interesting. I think what makes something, be it a question or an answer, important is the perceived relevance to one's life. Obviously, external factors, or things beyond your control can influence the relevance of particular things to one's life, as can internal ones. It may be, then, that many people find the question of god's being, because of its association with the question of the existence of an afterlife, more relevant when they are near death. I'm not sure that the fact that billions of people find theistic questions important lends it any personal relevance to my life, othe than that I am forced to deal with the answers that others have given to the question, and their socio-political consequences. But the prevalence of belief may make the question more relevant for others.

Duncan said...

What do you think of William James' view that the choice of whether to believe in God or not is a 'forced' issue ('either accept this truth or go without it') and that it is also a momentous (unique and life changing) issue?

A.C. van Rossum said...

It's apatheism, not apatheisim.

Anonymous said...

I find it contrafactual to claim that a) atheism is a dying perspective and b) atheism is thriving among a few relatively small groups.

See the American Religious Identification Survey (I would like to link it here but I don't know if all of the URL can be seen; the URLs in comments in other places seem not to survive) and especially the numbers in the No Religion Groups:

1990: 14,331,000 = 8,2 % of adult population
2001: 29,481,000 = 14,1 % of adult population

It seems that the growth of atheism is the fastest of all the "religions" barring Muslims and many a quite marginal group such as Sikhs.

So if this seems to you as "thriving among a few relatively small groups" I am puzzled. Then again you might claim that these people are not all atheists but at least I would disagree.