On The Alleged Intolerance Of The New Atheists Towards “Faitheists”

In reply to Daniel Dennett’s attack on “belief in belief”, Patrick Appel wrote the following:

I consider myself an agnostic or pantheist depending upon how you define such labels but still have an acute nostalgia for my Catholic upbringing. I find the certainty of some atheists and most fundamentalists deeply grating.

In reply, one of his readers wrote back:

I take issue with the “certainty of some atheists and most fundamentalists deeply grating” business. Equating atheists and fundamentalists is absurd (almost comically so), I can’t believe this nonsense so often substitutes for an argument (including, most prominently perhaps, by Robert Wright). What is the certainty of atheists? That the God of Abraham is no more likely than Zeus? That a personal God has no more force in the world than astrology? Come on man. Enough with the straw men. This fundamentalist atheist stuff isn’t clever or insightful. Please take on a real argument and not this nonsense.

And in reply, Appel came back with the following:

I’m not arguing that atheism and fundamentalism are the same. I wrote that the certainty of some atheists and most fundamentalists irks me. What bothered me about Dennett’s article was his policing the acceptable atheist discourse, shoving non-belief in a personal God onto a narrow ideological foothold and saying that atheists must not allow others their illusions.

What Appel does here is really slippery.  Is his concern with “certainty” or with “allowing others their illusions?”  These are distinct points.  The most certain atheist in the world may nonetheless have a “belief in belief” and allow others their illusions for pragmatic reasons completely independent of truth about reality.  The two positions have nothing to do with one another.

Implicit in Appel’s critique of Dennett is more than a simple demand that he “allow others their illusions” but a connection between Dennett as “certain” and as being closed to “allowing others their illusions.”  But certain about what?  The point seems to be that Dennett is too certain that it is wrong to allow others to believe in illusory things.  It seems then that the contention is that just as fundamentalists think they know the best way to live or the right things to think and want to “shove” this on other people, so Dennett is certain about the best way to live and the right things to think and wants to “shove” this on other people.

Let’s unpack this.  There are two levels at which Dennett might be being criticized here.  There is the idea that he wants to shove unbelief on believers and the idea that he wants to shove his view that unbelief is unnecessary on the atheists who think it is necessary.  In this post, let’s deal with the inter-atheist conflict.  Is Dennett unreasonably shoving a certain ethic on people who do not share it when he insists that non-believers not support faith in others?  Here are some reasons Dennett gives for his fellow atheists to chew on:

I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong. That is, we no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we’ve outgrown it. Denmark, according to a recent study, is the sanest, healthiest, happiest, most crime-free nation in the world, and by and large the Danes simply ignore the God issue. We should certainly hope that those who believe in belief are wrong, because belief is waning fast, and the props are beginning to buckle.

There is not much meat here but the appeals are to analogy (we got over the gold standard, we can get over the god standard), to evidence of a nation that is happy without belief, and an implicit argument that the choice to rely on belief to serve various social goods is going to fail anyway since belief is faltering anyway.  An upshot of this last point, which Dennett does not make is that even if we want to be pragmatists about belief, then we should find other tools besides it because it is weakening as an available tool.  If belief is not maintaining then we have to work on other means of fulfilling the functions that it served in the past.

So where is the “shoving” in these arguments?  These arguments all appeal to people who believe that religious belief is false to begin with, so it is not “shoving” on them the idea that religion is false and an illusion when it takes that for granted.  These are all also arguments against the belief in belief crowd’s own criteria for judging the worth of belief—its pragmatic value.  He points to an analogous loss of belief in a confidence rallying point (gold) and shows how it didn’t decimate the economy to argue the same can happen for the moral/meaning dimension of life without its confidence rallying point (God).  He points to an empirical case of pragmatic success in achieving happiness without religious belief, which he argues shows that we don’t need to believe religious belief is necessary.  And he points out that going forward belief will not be a satisfactory tool for the belief-believers’ own purposes.

Those are all appeals made either to the assumptions that Dennett shares with the belief-believers (or “faitheists”) or to their own priorities in ways that challenge their essential reasons for believing in belief.  How does that make Dennett too unduly “certain” or a “policeman”?  Why can’t an atheist argue to other atheists that their atheism entails different things than they assume or that their other assumptions are wrong on one or another point?  Why is that automatically “shoving” something on other people?  Can’t we make rational arguments in matters related to morality and intellectual assent without them being lumped in with people who shove on us demands for complete religious submission to the authorities of their religious traditions?  Can’t we recognize a clear difference between attempts to persuade and attempts to get others to submit to the authoritative claims of divine seers, sacred texts, et al.?

Finally, let’s address this other issue of whether Dennett is demanding his fellow atheists have a “narrow ideological foothold” that does not “allow others their illusions.”  Is this narrowly ideological?  The question I have is in what sense should atheists “allow others their illusions?”  I have not seen Dennett or any other “new atheists” call for others to have their illusions outlawed. So in what way do “new atheists” like Dennett prohibit people their illusions?  Well, they insist that atheists treat their views on atheism like they treat all their other views—as matters of truths which they are willing to stand up for rather than hide.

Is it narrowly ideological to ask evolutionists to treat evolution as a matter of truth and not allow creationist illusions to flourish insofar as they can have any influence in the matter?  Are people “ideologically narrow” who think that a particular health care reform policy will be economically or medicinally detrimental or beneficial and promote those truths rather than “leave others their illusions” to the contrary?  If two economists are both convinced of the truth that a policy will harm the economy but one does not want to disturb those who disagree from their illusions, is it “ideologically narrow” for the other economist to insist that his peer stand up and help him dispel the illusions of those in error?  What is ideologically narrow about asking people to say what they really think about the truth?  Ideological openness requires permitting lying on the part of those who agree with you?  Atheists can only get along if we accept that some atheists advocate lying or silence?

It would be ridiculous if people treated it as fine that those who agreed with them about politics, economics, pscyhology, medicine, etc. lied to others about their agreement or actively promoted others to disagree with them.  An ideologically wide-spectrumed Democrat allows a range of views to count as possible for the Democratic Party, he does not allow for other Democrats to advocate that other people just be Republicans—not if he believes in the truth of the Democrats’ outlook on the world.  Maybe there is some Democrat who thinks like a Democrat but thinks that the congress should legislate like Republicans, but that’s an awfully strange position and one that a Democrat is in full rights to oppose vocally without being labeled a “narrow ideologue.”

Now, maybe political partisans and religious partisans should know the boundaries of when it is fitting or civil to actively try to disabuse people of their illusions.  Richards Dawkins has said explicitly that he is not advocating bothering to dispute dying people’s desire to rest on their religious beliefs in the privacy of their death beds.  Both PZ Myers and Sam Harris have talked about how there are numerous contexts in which it is unnecessary, inappropriate, or uncivil to bother getting into an argument about religion. There are plenty of times where it is simply gauche or outright rude or cruel to raise or persist in a debate about religion, politics, or money.  The conventions of politeness which oppose these discussions are sometimes rather justified.

But this is not about the niceties of daily life, it’s about the positions we claim when we speak up, when we are asked to give a viewpoint on important matters of morality, policy, and thought.  It is about which institutions we prop up, how we raise our children, how we conduct our politics, how we give serious advice.  We can allow people their illusions where civility or politeness are at stake.  We must allow people many of their illusions where their rights are at stake.  We should allow them the privacy of their illusions as well.  But wherever truth and policy are at stake, we should stand up for what we really think and not condescend to our neighbors out of our lack of trust in their abilities to handle reality.

Finally, maybe Appel’s concern with Dennett’s “certainty” really is the view that we should only proportion our activism to our degree of confidence in our claims.  Maybe he thinks that unlike other atheists, those who oppose belief in belief must be overly confident in their conclusions given the remaining possibility that any of us are wrong in matters of belief.  Maybe he thinks that given human uncertainty, they should not be as adamant about promulgating this particular viewpoint as they would about other truths of which they have a greater right to feel convinced.  Maybe his real concern is they are too disproportionately confident given the degree of available justification. 

That’s a challenge I could respect, even as I disagree with the claims that there is not sufficient justification for the new atheists’ activism-inspiring confidence (about most things).  But in that case it would not be a matter of tolerating others’ illusions at all but about holding ourselves to adequate epistemic standards before deciding on courses of action.  And I would love it if Appel and other faitheists held the religious to that same standard of proportioning actions only to degree of justification of their beliefs—but then that would make them New Atheists anyway since that’s all the New Atheists are really arguing at the core of their arguments. Or at least it’s all I am.

This is not the only e-mail Appel got or his only reply, so go here for more on his views, but in the meantime, I have said more than enough for one post and want Your Thoughts.

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment