Friday, August 19, 2005

Ramblings on the State of Modern Atheism

Atheists divide into four groups (theists, of course, divide into a similar set of four; indeed, one finds a similar four on each side of almost any issue under discussion):

(1) Rational atheists
(2) Reasonable atheists
(3) Muddled atheists
(4) Irrational atheists.

What I am calling 'rational atheism' is serious reason-based atheism, i.e., what I have in a previous post called real Freethinking. These are people who have taken the trouble to be informed about the issues surrounding the question of God's existence, who have thought forcefully and seriously about them, and have come to the conclusion, on the basis of serious arguments, that God does not exist. Their numbers have varied considerably, but they have always been relatively rare; most people don't have the time or interest, and many of those who do end up on the opposite end. Reasonable atheists I call 'reasonable' because, despite not having done the same serious investigation of the matter, (1) they do have reasons for being atheists; (2) those reasons are of the sort that even a theist could say, "I don't agree, but fair enough" (sometimes, perhaps, even dropping the "I don't agree"); and (3) when it comes up, they are able to engage in rational discussion of the matter. (2) is the key one; and every honest theist who has discussed the issue with any significant number of atheists has come across such reasons. Thus some atheists have pasts where a theist can see that it's really not surprising that they are atheists; some have looked at some of the arguments and reasons, but while they may be sympathetic to some of them, they just in all honesty don't find them convincing; some have reasons for being an atheist that are interesting, but little more than vaguely suggestive. And so forth. Muddled atheists are those who fall short of being reasonable atheists in some way, but have some redeeming feature, so that you have to give them points for trying to be reasonable. The majority of atheists are either reasonable or muddled, and that's not surprising, I think; this is usually the case, whatever the position. Irrational atheists are those who, for whatever reasons, have made themselves simply incapable of discussing the matter rationally. (Note, by the way, that I didn't say that it was impossible to discuss the matter rationally with them. Whether you're a rational/reasonable theist talking to an irrational atheist, or a rational/reasonable atheist talking to an irrational theist, another's irrationality shouldn't be making you irrational, however reasonable your frustration may be. Always the question is: Why should you suddenly be irrational just because others are? There can be no good answer to such a question.) It is a curious feature that the atheists who insist most loudly that they are rational and their opponents irrational clearly fall into (4); I think this may be an asymmetry between atheists and theists, because the theistic analogue of (4) is usually the group that tries to insist that they're right to be irrational. Be that as it may, except in unusual circumstances rational and reasonable atheists don't repeat over and over how rational they are; they just go about being rational and reasonable. Likewise, they don't usually repeat over and over how irrational their opponents are. The situation isn't unique to atheism; on most issues one finds that the people who try from the start to label the other side as irrational are the irrational wing of their own position. It must be allowed that this isn't always the case; but it's almost always so. It should be noted, by the way, that the above division into four does not rigorously correspond to any pattern of intelligence or education; you find all four at every level. Some very simple, self-educated atheists are profoundly reasonable or even rational; and some very intelligent, well-educated atheists are astoundingly irrational on this issue, whatever they might be on other issues.

I confess I sometimes feel sorry for atheists; they used to be so rationally impressive and now we really have to hunt to find the genuine rational atheists. There are still some recognizable stalwarts, but it's really to the point where informed theists sometimes have difficulty taking atheism seriously anymore. Many of the old arguments that were given pride of place have been shown to fail, and those that haven't have often been shown to be difficult to defend. It could change in a moment, of course, (it's difficult to pin down causes, but one can with some plausibility argue that the primary causes here are social rather than rational) but at present the situation is very bad for atheism as a rational position, in the above sense. It's actually been this way for some time, and has been getting worse. And if you're inclined to be skeptical of my analysis, given the obvious potential for bias, some atheists are also inclined to recognize the problem. In fact, the best analysis of the situation, in the sense of getting straight to the heart of the matter is Quentin Smith's article, Metaphilosophy of Naturalism. (Smith, I think, has good claim to being one of the small handful of rational atheists; his work on the issue is well above par.) I don't entirely agree with the details of his analysis, since I'm not convinced there was ever a 'redefinition of naturalism', but much of it is certainly sound (he's quite right, for instance, about Hume partly giving away the store in discussing the ultimate foundations of science -- which I would argue is the real subject of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion -- within the context of natural theology), and all of it is well worth reading by everyone interested in the topic.

So where does it leave us? I think it leaves us (and by 'us' in this case I mean both theists and atheists) with the definite worry of a growing influence from atheists who are simply muddled, and perhaps also a worry that there might be a growing influence from people who are simply irrational. This does no one any good, even the muddled and the irrational themselves. The best hope of muddled and irrational people on any topic is to be outnumbered [this should be 'outweighed'; the issue is voice, not quantity--ed.] by reasonable people from whom they can pick up good habits (rational people, in the strict and limited sense noted above, drive the arguments that trickle down to others, but they are always too rare to make much difference on their own). Likewise, it does rational and reasonable atheists no good always to be having to compensate for muddle and absurdity. Finally, it does theists no good to have to waste time on the confused or perverse that could be spent more fruitfully for everyone in discussion with the reasonable and rational.

So it seems late Friday night. I can't guarantee even that I'll see it in the same light tomorrow morning. But I thought it was worth a bit of blogging.

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