“Just Leave Us Our Fictions”

Patrick Appel objected to Dan Dennett’s recent piece in The Guardian countering those faitheists who do not actually have religious beliefs themselves but believe in the necessity of religious beliefs for others to achieve various social goods.  In reply, a reader wrote the following to him:

Ironically, I don’t see any support in the quote you cite for the certainty with which you state your own opinions, i.e., that Dennett is disturbed by tolerance, or that some atheists have certainty about some things.

On the first point, Dennett is not calling for intolerance but responding to intolerance from those who do not want him to state his opinions and argue for them. I would think anyone who writes for a blog would be in favor of allowing opinions to be expressed and argued. If you think he is wrong or uncivil about it, you should provide some evidence, which the quote does not.

Dennett states that he is confident that the belief in belief is wrong (i.e., the argument some make that religion provides an invisible “Big Brother” to keep humanity in check, and that this function is essential to civilized society). Confidence is not the same as certainty. If it grates you that some atheists are confident about some things, please don’t let that annoyance cause you to twist their words.

I am quite confident that there is no Santa Claus, although I too retain a slight nostalgia for the days when I believed in magic.

To which he replied:

I take the point about confidence vs. certainty. And I’ve absolutely no problem with Dennett stating his opinions or arguing forcefully for what he believes. But telling fellow non-believers they ought to be less courteous to the faithful strikes me as intolerant of other forms of atheism, perhaps more so than of belief itself. Overconfident atheism and fundamentalism both make the question of God appear effortless.

As I said in my post  on the alleged intolerance of the New Atheists towards “Faitheists”, Dennett is not calling for a lack of courtesy by calling for people to speak out for their atheism.  But I also conceded that if Appel’s real concern was that we calibrate more carefully to our degree of justification, that I could respect that objection.  But is that what he says in this reply about unduly making “the question of God appear effortless?”  All Dennett is arguing is that those who do not believe stand up for that position and give the reasons for it rather than to actively encourage believers in their beliefs out of confidence in the pragmatic benefits of belief itself.  That’s not treating the question as “effortless” but treating it as one requiring a truthful response from those who argue that we should lie to or patronize others because we think there will be bad consequences for them if they do not have a certain belief that we think is actually false.

The fact that Appel reads an argument against lying to others and encouraging false beliefs in them for pragmatic reasons as a call for (a) discourtesy or (b) the creation of an illusion that the question of God is “effortless” means that he is not really seriously tolerant of atheists who argue forcefully for what we think. We cannot have a firm conclusion without belittling the struggle of others to find one?  Why not?  We can recognize that it’s a hard question for many, one which took some of us (like me) years to resolve satisfactorily (if we or I even have yet), while nonetheless having a firm position.

The problem seems to be that he wants the presence of widespread disagreement itself to count as evidence against the strength of the justifications of our arguments and our correlative degrees of confidence.  If we argue as though we are extremely confident and highly justified, somehow we are making a mistake because other people find the question far harder to solve confidently and therefore only a very limited amount of justification is present and correlated confidence is warranted.  But that’s not at all clear to me to be a sound inference at all.

Appel continues by citing a reader who he says gets closer to what he was trying to say:

I think you hit the nail on the head in your comments about the certainty of atheists.  I grew up Methodist (currently not practicing) and while my relationship with Church and church-goers has always been complex, even when I tried atheism/agnosticsm on in my college years I couldn’t see the point in being overly heavy-handed about it.

Why not be “overtly heavy-handed about it”?  Because you were not that sure of your atheism/agnosticism because you were only “trying” them out?  Well in that would be fine in that case, no one should insist on something more than they are convinced of it.  But why begrudge atheists and agnostics who are far more convinced and have reasons to offer for their confidence their being “heavier handed” about it?
Or, rather, were you convinced at the time but couldn’t see the practical import of the content of beliefs for the world?  Do you take that same attitude about the rest of your beliefs—that they just have no relevance to choices in life of yourself, others, and your influence on others?  If your friends do not get your opinions on what to think but do get the opinions of their religious friends eager to proselytize, isn’t it your fault when your friends adopt false beliefs because you didn’t bother to offer them reasons or support for truer ones?  If truth and falsity and actions flowing from them are at stake, why should atheists and agnostics blow off the relevance of what they think more than the religious do?
So you’re “certain” beyond doubt that something isn’t real.  Fine, religion has been used against people since the dawn of religion, but what is real is that a personal relationship with a spiritual being also works for a lot of people for a lot of different meaningful and constructive purposes.  So you think or know or you think you know God isn’t real and we should approach all our emotional and intellectual needs with the known and certain — do you approach all manner of fiction this way?  I realize that Santa Claus and similar childhood constructs aren’t real, but I’ll let my son figure those out on his own, and they have a value to me.  I don’t sit him down for story time every night and preface it with “Son, you should know the talking dogs in this book are bullshit.”
You can re-read Dennett’s article in The Guardian and see if he actually denounces enjoyment of The Empire Strikes Back for yourself but I don’t see where he does that.  No one is against literature or any other form of fictitious art for the sake of enjoyment, insight, or distinctly aesthetic pleasures.

Opposing religious belief is not the same thing as opposing art.  The writer of this argument I just quoted conflates fictions universally accepted as fictions with religious fictions for which their are powerful institutions and billions of people doing their best to confuse people about the difference between fact and fiction.  If no one believed the myths of the Old or New Testament were literally (or even figuratively) the Word of God Himself, there would be no opposition.  The issue is not enjoyment in the aesthetic delights of the Bible as literature, it’s not even an issue of nostalgia for the rituals, music, prayers, or any other admirable feature of any religious tradition distinguishable from its beliefs.

Religious traditions are filled with valuable metaphors and stories which have been and will remain with us for centuries.  By all means, use them as you would any other fictitious story.  But do not treat it as a matter of indifference whether your children understand the difference between such fictions and reality.  Those are two different things.

The argument here is that people who do not believe, who think religious beliefs are patently false, should have the courage of their intellectual conscience.  No one is demanding incivility or an arbitrary end to debates.  What those us of atheists who advocate for non-appeasement want is for the faitheists to stop condescending to their religious neighbors by treating them like children who cannot handle the truth.  What those of us atheists who advocate for non-accommodation want is a public discourse which demands as much honesty and rationalism in its discussions of ethics as it does in its treatment of scientific phenomena and economics, etc.  Conceding that what people believe about the meaning of life, human nature, ethics, and metaphysics, etc. are complete irrelevancies is unnecessary and irresponsible.  Whether or not people hold 1st Century views on sexuality, on the nature of the universe, on the sources of morality, is a big deal.

The matters about which religion presumes to speak are serious ones.  They concern who we are, what our good is, and what kind of a world we live in.  People may feel however they like in a liberal society and they may indulge fantasies of “curses” and “ancestors watching them from above” all they like as long as it does not influence any choices of consequence.  But religions do influence in irrational ways and if you do not believe that religions really have the authority they claim they do then you should not encourage others to submit to religious institutions which will hold power over their minds.  You should not encourage your children to submit to these self-procliamed authorities who demand submission of your mind and your life.

And, while no one is likely to effectively convince your children to believe that talking dogs are real, they are likely to tell them all sorts of false things said in the Bible are true, and, so, would it kill you to take a few minutes to straighten out for them that the stuff in that book is “bullshit”?

Finally, another reader on The Daily Dish, did make a similar objection already:

Excuse me, but religion is not the same as one’s ability to suspend disbelief when watching Star Wars or reading books with talking dogs. And the idea that atheists should treat the two the same is ridiculous. While both religion and “suspension of disbelief” both require you turn off or relax the factual part of your thinking, there is an important difference.

Religion, unlike space explosions in Star Wars or the Lochness monster, states that it is the unalterable truth of the creator and usually stipulates that disbelief will lead you to a lifetime of torture in hell. A very big difference, and one with huge consequences. People who believe in Santa Claus are not going to kill others who do not believe in Ol’ Saint Nick. People who may wish to think that maybe, just maybe, there is something special in Lochness are not going to go on crusades, ban books, and fight against equal rights for gays. Religion is dangerous precisely because of its certainty on how people should live their lives. To compare religion to what is usually called “suspension of disbelief” or child-like wonder is missing the point entirely of what religion is and its effect in our world.

Your Thoughts?

I grew up Methodist (currently not practicing) and while my relationship with Church and church-goers has always been complex, even when I tried atheism/agnosticsm on in my college years I couldn’t see the point in being overly heavy-handed about it.
So you’re “certain” beyond doubt that something isn’t real.  Fine, religion has been used against people since the dawn of religion, but what is real is that a personal relationship with a spiritual being also works for a lot of people for a lot of different meaningful and constructive purposes.  So you think or know or you think you know God isn’t real and we should approach all our emotional and intellectual needs with the known and certain — do you approach all manner of fiction this way?  I realize that Santa Claus and similar childhood constructs aren’t real, but I’ll let my son figure those out on his own, and they have a value to me.  I don’t sit him down for story time every night and preface it with “Son, you should know the talking dogs in this book are bullshit.”
I suspend disbelief every time The Empire Strikes Back shows up on my channel guide.  Please don’t tell me that explosions in space would lack the oxygen conducive to either produce fire or transmit sound. I like the idea that perhaps there is something at the bottom of Loch Ness. I’ve had my life or worldview influenced and altered by literature and theatre, most of which never actually happened. And if I find appealing the notion that my ancestors are watching down on me or over me as I navigate myself through life’s tests, just let me be. I’ll do the same for you

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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