Thursday, October 6, 2011

What Kind of Atheist Are You?

Roman Catholic philosopher Edward Feser asks what attitudes we atheists take toward religion. Usefully, he separates out the theoretical and practical sides of religion.

As far as the theoretical side - that is, the questions of religious beliefs - he sees three types of attitudes the non-religious might take:

1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all.  It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.

2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations.  But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it.  Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.

3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism.  An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible.

And as far as religious practice is concerned: rituals, morality, and (I would add) community, he likewise sees three possibilities:

A. Religious practice is mostly or entirely contemptible and something we would all be well rid of.  The ritual side of religion is just crude and pointless superstition.  Religious morality, where it differs from secular morality, is sheer bigotry.  Even where certain moral principles associated with a particular religion have value, their association with the religion is merely an accident of history.  Moreover, such principles tend to be distorted by the religious context.  They certainly do not in any way depend on religion for their justification.

B. Religious practice has a certain admirable gravitas and it is possible that its ritual and moral aspects fulfill a real human need for some people.  We can treat it respectfully, the way an anthropologist might treat the practices of a culture he is studying.  But it does not fulfill any universal human need, and the most intelligent, well educated, and morally sophisticated human beings certainly have no need for it.  

C. Religious practice fulfills a truly universal or nearly universal human need, but unfortunately it has no rational foundation and its metaphysical presuppositions are probably false.  This is a tragedy, for the loss of religious belief will make human life shallower and in other ways leave a gaping void in our lives which cannot plausibly be filled by anything else.  It may even have grave social consequences.  But it is something we must find a way to live with, for atheism is intellectually unavoidable.

Feser plausibly sees P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne as A1 type atheists. But, he says, to hold this position, one must
...think it plausible that the greatest minds of entire civilizations -- Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, et al. -- had for millennia been defending theoretical and practical positions that were not merely mistaken but were in fact nothing more than sheer bigotry and superstition...

 On the theoretical side, I would put myself solidly in category 2. I can't imagine how intelligent, educated people today still cling to religion. Actually, I can imagine it, because I used to be one of them. But I find it hard to believe that after looking at all the arguments and evaluating them honestly, someone would conclude that, yes, an invisible person in the sky is more plausible than not.

On the practical question, I place myself somewhere between B and C. I think religion does address fundamental human needs, but I think it does it very imperfectly, and I don't see why we need to introduce supernatural entities to address those needs. (Some of the "greatest minds" Feser mentions didn't see a need for supernatural entities, either: Lao Tze and Buddha, for instance.)

Also, I don't think it's a tragedy that religion is false - I think we can get along fine without it. Maybe even better - but we will have to work on replacing religious institutions with non-religious institutions that address those same needs. We don't have those structures yet.

(Cross posted on Think Atheist.) 


  1. For theory, my attitude is most like (3) when it comes to anything close to Deism...mostly because I take arguments from cosmological fine-tuning seriously. But my attitude is closest to (2) for any sort of religion in which a Deity is supposed to have an interest in human behavior or beliefs...because I expect such a Deity would be less terrible at communicating.

    For practice, (2) is closest, though I would leave off the part after "universal human need." Religion's effects are a mixed bag. Ditto on your last paragraph.

  2. Categorizing people is always tricky, and even categorizing one's self is an imperfect exercise. In this context, I find myself not fitting neatly into any of these boxes. For theory, I would place myself into a blending of 1 and 2. I do see a lot of religious belief as myth and superstition, but that doesn't mean there isn't serious intellectual thought behind it, or worth in those ideas. The first category is stated in a way that is far too extreme and dismissive, at least for me.

    As for practice, I find myself blending all three categories. There is much superstition (the "bells and smells" of a Catholic funeral I attended, for instance), but that doesn't mean there are no aspects of religious practice of value to the human condition (meditation comes to mind, whether of athiestic or religious intent).

  3. Garren, I think the fine-tuning issues are interesting from the scientific and philosophical points of view, but I don't think the God hypothesis helps at all. After all, an omnipotent God could sustain life even in a universe that wasn't fine-tuned for life, right?

  4. Let me try to explain what I meant a little better.

    Fine tuning arguments go something like this:

    1. Seeing parameter X in range (x1, x2) is unlikely on the naturalistic hypothesis.

    2. Seeing parameter X in range (x1, x2) is likely on the God hypothesis (because God has reason to want intelligent life to exist).

    3. Therefore, seeing parameter X in range (x1, x2) supports the God hypothesis.

    Now, what I'm saying is that 2 only works IF you assume that God is restricted to creating universes which run according to naturalistic laws that include parameter X. If we take the theists seriously, and suppose that God is omnipotent, then there's no reason that X must be in the given range, because God could always cause intelligent life to arise in spite of the physical law.

    For instance, it is said that the cosmological constant can't be too large or the universe would expand so fast that galaxies would never form. But God could create a universe with a large cosmological constant, and then create a galaxy within that universe capable of supporting life.

    So it seems to me that the omnipotence completely destroys any kind of fine-tuning argument.

    But maybe you see a flaw in this, or can formulate fine tuning in such a way to avoid it?

    (On free will - I wrote that many years ago, before I started reading the philosophical literature on free will. I'm now doubtful about what I wrote in the book, as well as some of those earlier blog posts. But I'd be happy to hear your reactions.)

  5. (2) isn't necessary for fine-tuning arguments. They can still work so long as theism is more likely given fine tuning, even if fine tuning isn't likely given theism.

    Let me know if my amazing diagram skills make sense:

  6. I don't get it - How does one argue that "theism is more likely given fine tuning," without introducing something like (2) (and without begging the question)?

  7. I'm thinking something like this:

    I. The probability of fine tuning on the naturalistic hypothesis is many orders of magnitude smaller than 1%.

    II. The probability of fine tuning on the theistic hypothesis is, say, 0.1%.

    III. Therefore, fine tuning is evidence for the theistic hypothesis.

    The focused point I was trying to make earlier is that my (II) can work without your (2). It's not necessary to argue a God would be more likely to fine tune physical reality than go with other options for supporting life.

    As for the estimate that a God interested in creating life would be at least 0.1% likely to go with fine tuning, is this just making stuff up to fit a problem? Well, I already view all of theology that way.

  8. Yes, I see how your (II) would be sufficient. (I thought I had an argument to rule out (II) as well as (2), but I found a flaw in it.) I hoped you had some insight into how to get P as large as 0.1%, since you said you "take cosmological fine tuning arguments seriously." But if it's just "making stuff up", why take it seriously?

    Your diagrams inspired me to write a post about how fine tuning supports naturalism, which I'll post as soon as I can figure out how to convert Word diagrams into JIF.