Atheists Have Affirmative Positions On The Status Of Evidence And On The Standards Of Belief

In reply to my defense of what is sometimes called “Evangelical Atheism” on my personal Facebook page, Greg Teed thinks my account comes “so close” to correct but argues that I missed something crucial:

All good points, but there is a radical difference *in kind* between what atheists/skeptics promote and what the religious evangelical proselytizes. Sometimes the content matters. Given that atheism is skepticism with regards to a particular claim, what is the content of skepticism…?

There is a difference between teaching what to think and how to think. Analogously, and on a philosophical level, there is a radical difference between teaching affirmations and teaching critical skills, and that difference is not only in the teaching itself – it is in the content.

Evangelism implies (possibly even entails) an “affirmation” to teach. Skepticism is the only philosophy that is critique-based rather than affirmation-based. It is the only philosophy that advocate thinking critically about everything, even itself. No other philosophy does that.

Evangelizing doubt (a critique-based way of thinking) is self-contrary, if not downright self-contradictory.

What do we teach children? To courageously question everything. What exactly are we evangelizing there?

There are a few issues raised by this thought-provoking remark.

For me, my activist “evangelical” atheism is indeed personally an extension of my life’s work as a philosophy teacher and academic philosopher.  I do feel a strong urgency to attack not so much wrong opinions but fallacious and authoritative forms of reasoning themselves which have tremendous, unwarranted, and potentially deleterious cultural, political, psychological, moral, and epistemic power over people’s lives.  And I do feel like it is a philosopher’s duty to get involved on the side of reason itself in the broader culture.  I see it as an extension of my responsibilities as an educator, and, more specifically, as an extension of my responsibilities as a philosophy teacher.

But, advocating atheism itself is not the same thing as simply teaching critical thinking.  And, in fact, in my actual philosophy classroom, which is devoted to teaching people critical thinking rather than advancing positions, I do not advocate atheism.  I focus on guiding my students through major arguments so that they understand them and I help my students dialectically sort out their own views on issues.  On some issues on which my students’ thinking is particularly complacent, I push them harder than others.  Sometimes I help them develop one of their ideas’ implications and sometimes I help them find an idea’s flaws.  But I am rarely interested in my students’ ultimate conclusions themselves.

Now, they are often more resistant to atheistic ideas, so those conversations definitely are more lively and consequently I sometimes play a harder devil’s advocate to them in those debates than when I am giving them arguments in favor of belief in God. But I still give equal time to both sides of the question in total and keep my gloves on in a way that I do not here at Camels With Hammers or in debates with friends and colleagues.

Now it is true that to an extent atheists are often in the unbelievable position of simply advocating critical thinking itself against those who insist that it is not necessary in all matters of beliefs and ethics.  To this extent, we atheists may find ourselves not just defending atheism but skepticism, scientific rigor, statistical reasoning, etc., themselves.  Can one be “evangelical” about these things?


A position like “people should be skeptical of all propositions and only accept them when they are supported by sufficient evidence and are consistent with with scientific knowledge” is itself a hotly contested epistemological, ethical, and philosophy of religion position—at least as far as the broader world is concerned, if not necessarily among philosophers or other academics.  If this point were not controversial, there would be hardly any theists (let alone an overwhelming preponderance of them, as we find).

We atheists are not merely teaching trying to teach people how to think critically, we are actually more fundamentally and more usually in the position of trying to convince them that they should think critically.  This is an ethical position and one that we often get really zealous about advancing.  Sometimes we get so excited and adamant about it that we are plausibly called “evangelical” with respect to our views on it.

And we are not only advancing the affirmative epistmological and ethical position that everyone should proportion his or her beliefs to evidence in general, but all stripes of outspoken activist atheists—from the agnostic atheists who merely lack belief in all deities to the gnostic atheists (like me!) who think they know (though without absolute certainty of course) that there are no personal deities—have an affirmative position on whether one should believe in God or not.

So, not only do we have specific beliefs about the rectitude or illicitness of believing on faith (belief without or against sufficient evidence), we have specific beliefs about the status of the evidence for God.  Some of us believe there is not enough evidence either for or against God and combined with the belief that it is immoral or illogical to believe anything without sufficient evidence, they advance the position that neither they nor anyone else should have a belief in God.  Even if they do not want to go so far as to affirmatively say there is no God, since they think there is not enough evidence for that position either, they at least think they can say that people should not believe in God based on the present state of evidence and the ethics and/or epistemology of proper beliefs.

So, they have affirmative positions, both about the status of belief on both sides of the God question (that it is insufficient) and on the epistemological and/or ethical requirements that all should abstain from beliefs on issues where evidence is insufficient on all sides.

And gnostic atheists who think that all (or at least some) God propositions are knowably false (even though without absolute certainty) have a pretty clear, well-known, and oft-heard proposition to affirm and advance:  “There is no God.”

And beyond just these bare rudiment positions that all reflective, advocative atheists have, there are also numerous other beliefs grounded in scientific, philosophical, ethical or political reasoning which matter enough to different atheists that they advance them alongside (and sometimes inextricably intermixed with) with their own particular atheism.  Not even all atheists agree with the myriad possible positions that any given atheist may “evangelically” raise as legitimate topics for confrontational debate, whether in public or in private.

And what do we teach our kids?  I do not have them, but were I to I would teach them how to think for themselves.  I would teach them about all sorts of philosophical complexities and plausible possibilities with respect to metaphysics and ethics.

But I would not pretend neutrality on the question of whether or not the myths of the Bible are myths.  I would not police their thought, force them to assent to my own views, or shield them from all exposure to religion.  But whereas I find the many atheists who want to treat the issue of religion neutrally with their kids admirable, I would have no compunction about telling my kids that obvious, demonstrable falsehoods are false.  And I would not hesitate to instill important values in my kids–in a way that teaches and encourages them to reason carefully.

In short: I would not just teach my kids critical thinking skills, I would teach them at least a few critical thoughts.

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • shane wilkins

    Hi Dan,

    I find myself a little confused here. So let me state baldly two very controversial theses. The first is epistemological; the second a pedagogical conclusion I draw from the epistemology.

    The epistemological thesis is that nobody in the history of humanity has ever believed anything* on the basis of sufficient evidence.

    *except perhaps the trivial conclusions of logic or mathematics.

    Call the notion that we should adequate our belief to the evidence Locke’s Thesis. Now obviously, Locke’s thesis presupposes a certain view about what evidence is and how it’s supposed to work. Evidence is third-personal, objective, in principle open to the criticism and scrutiny of everyone and so forth. Further, consider how Locke’s thesis would be actually applied. Suppose I’m considering some question and I know there are three possible positions x, y, z, but I don’t have enough evidence to eliminate all but one of the possibilities. Locke would say that I should simply suspend my judgment until I do get such evidence. That’s how Locke’s thesis is meant to be applied. But notice that this paints us a picture where the acquisition of data simply and straightforwardly determines which position we are to endorse.

    But of course Locke is wrong about this. In the first place, at least as far as I can see, evidence always underdetermines theory even in the natural sciences. This is to say that any given set of experimental data is always compatible with more than one possible theoretical explanation. Take a particular historical case: Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system predicts that there should be phases of Venus, just like there are phases of the moon. So Galileo built a telescope and Lo and Behold! he found that Venus does have phases, just like the theory said. Now one is tempted to say that the evidence then proved Galileo’s theory correct and the Ptolemaic theory false. But the problem is that you actually can explain the phases of Venus in Ptolemaic astronomy by elaborating the orbits of the planets with epicycles, etc. However, the same evidence is much more clearly and simply explained by Galileo’s theory. So, the evidence does push us towards Galileo and away from Ptolemy, but only in conjunction with a bunch of background assumptions that guide theory choice like, “All other things being equal, prefer the simpler theory.” I think those assumptions are both good and necessary, but quite clearly there’s more to how evidence and belief work together than the simplistic model Locke’s thesis presents.

    And Locke’s thesis has already run into problems in the natural sciences, how much more so will the thesis fail in the case of our moral, political, aesthetic, or religious beliefs. If you press me to explain why I made a certain moral judgment, there are reasons that I could advert to. Suppose I’ve seen someone kick an old man down the stairs. I judge that this is reprehensible and when you ask me why I say that it is cruel, that it is unjust and whatever harm the old man did to the kicker, the retribution was all out of proportion. But note that I *haven ‘t* given you “evidence” in the Lockean sense, precisely because the kind of evidence I advert to is not third-personal and objective in the appropriate sense. If you already agree with me about the general claims that cruelty and injustice are bad, you’ll likely agree with my evaluation of this particular situation. But suppose you don’t agree that what I call `cruelty’ is bad. You agree, in other words, that kicking the man down the stairs is the kind of action many people are apt to call cruel, but you don’t see why it follows from describing an act as cruel that you shouldn’t do it. Well, there’s really not any evidence I could present to such a moral skeptic that would force him or her to recognize why cruelty is bad, for quite obviously we agree about all of the facts in the case, such that the kicker kicked an old man down the stairs. But we differ in the background beliefs we use to interpret those facts. So what I need to change aren’t the facts he’s aware of, but the theory that he holds At the best, it seems like all I can hope to do is to trip the moral skeptic up by looking for some inconsistency among the moral beliefs he has got. (But then of course, the skeptic can always respond: “To hell with being consistent. . . ”) But if I can’t persuade a moral skeptic of the truth of my moral beliefs as opposed to his by pointing out some relevant piece of evidence, then obviously my moral beliefs aren’t derived from the evidence. Or, more weakly, my moral beliefs are not derived from evidence in the straightforward way that Locke’s thesis would have it.

    Whatever might be wrong with religion it isn’t that religious people fail to proportion their belief to evidence. Nobody ever proportions their belief to evidence. Nor have I ever seen anyone who is persuaded of atheism because of these evidentialist epistemological arguments tell me how it is ok to have moral or aesthetic or political beliefs without sufficient evidence, but it isn’t ok to have religious beliefs because there isn’t evidence for them.

    My pedagogical thesis is this: I think part of the job of a teacher is to endow his or her students with an appropriate set of prejudices to evaluate the subject-matter at hand appropriately.

    This thesis derives from the epistemological considerations I’ve givne above. I think the problem with the Lockean view noted above is in the notion of evidence as third-personal. I think we should allow that there is a kind of evidence that you have to be in the right place to be able to appreciate. There are background beliefs and theories and prejudices that you have to have in order to be able to competently assess the truth of some given claims. Consider for instance the fundamental theorem of arithmetic. The fundamental theorem of arithmetic says that every integer greater than 1 can be expressed as a unique product of prime numbers. In an important sense this theorem lays behind all of the rest of the truths of arithmetic. But in another, obvious sense, nobody would ever begin teaching their children arithmetic here. You start with the plus sign, then the minus sign, then multiplication, division, exponentiation, fractions, the idea of variables, and the like. By the time the students are mathematically prepared to learn the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, they have already been doing arithmetic for years.

    There’s something absurd about the notion that we ought to teach students to question everything. (Gadamer would call this “the prejudice against prejudices.”) Can you imagine a kindergartener standing up in class and demanding a rigorous proof from set-theoretical principles in the style of Russell’s Principia Mathematica of “1+1=2”? Of course not. You have to have a tremendous amount of background knowledge to understand or appreciate such a proof. This gives mathematical knowledge an appearance of circularity–you have to already believe that math works in order to be able to prove that math works. But this appearance is misleading, for what we get in these very recherche investigations into the foundations of mathematics is a clarification of fundamental concepts such as number, addition, etc. we have been using all along.

    Something similar happens in the case of morality I think. If someone is a genuine moral skeptic (i.e. a sociopath) there is nothing I can say to make him think it is a good idea not to murder. But if you already have some basic human sympathy and some willingness to generalize from how you would like to be treated to how you would like others to treat you, then there is a lot I can tell you about how to clarify the concepts that already underly your moral thinking. I can help you sort those out, craft a theory and apply it to hard cases, but only so long as you already start with a certain sensitivity to the kinds of considerations I’ll offer.

    So, I agree with Dan that teaching is not just passing on a kind of skeptical mode of questioning but must involve some content. (How could you question something without any content? Miniminally if I want to have some *intelligent* question to ask about y, then I must already know some x, such that I can question y in the light of x, no? And indeed, isn’t it the case that the people who know the most content are the ones most capable of criticizing the assumptions and starting points of the discipline?) But I think the point extends past just conveying content. I think good teaching also involves passing along prejudices like certain intellectual habits. So, when I’m teaching philosophy I do convey quite a lot of content, in the form of arguments for and against various positions, but I’m more interested in transmitting certain intellectual habits to my students. I say explicitly that they should always try to present the argument in such a way that it is valid; that they should try to come up with a counterexample to each premise; etc. However, as just bald commands the students have no idea how to do this. Nobody learns philosophy by memorizing arguments. You have to teach them philosophy by *having the argument*, or at least so it seems to me. I have positions on most of the philosophical questions I talk about in class. But what I’m really trying to get across in the teaching isn’t just the content of the arguments for and against, but the much more difficult and elusive sense of how to arrive at a reasonable position of one’s own in the light of those arguments. But it is a fact about human life that reasonable people may disagree, so I would still count it a great success to hear a student endorse atheism or Kant’s ethics or some other position I disagree with, just so long as it’s clear to me that this student has gone through a reasonable reflective process in arriving at these conclusions.